Cloud9 was one game away from relegation and potentially falling out of the biggest competition in League of Legends. But after one of the most improbable Cinderella runs in the game’s history, they are now going to their third straight World Championships.
On Monday the team challenged Team Liquid in the last series of the Regional Finals, a gauntlet where Cloud9—the last seeded team thanks to earning zero circuit points in a Summer Split of the League Championship Series (LCS) where they didn’t even make the playoffs—needed to win three straight best-of-five series against some of the region’s best to survive.
Winning one of those series would be an achievement for the embattled Cloud9. But they took all three, winning the first two in ridiculous reverse sweep comebacks before closing out one of the most ridiculous Cinderella stories in esports history by beating Team Liquid 3-1.
“There are a lot of times where a lot of teams would have panicked but we never hit that button,” Cloud9 owner Jack Etienne said in a postgame interview. “We just kept focusing on what we had to do the following week. We borrowed some faith from other folks. We just kept pressing on and here we are.”
Etienne practices what he preaches. He’s already ready for the following week of this impressive result. Last week he rented a place in Korea for a bootcamp in preparation for Worlds. The team will be on flights across the Pacific tonight.
Korea is the next stop before the Riot World Championship itself, a month-long event in Europe in October. But those are just two destinations on a crazy journey in the second half of 2015 for one of North America’s greatest League of Legends teams.
Cloud9 made a gamble heading into the summer season after falling to Team SoloMid in the League Championship Series (LCS) Finals for the second time in as many meetings. They brought in a talented, if inexperienced, Danish mid laner, Nicolaj “Incarnati0n” Jensen, to replace their legendary leader and shot caller Hai Lam.
The results were dismal. Cloud9 was on their way to relegation midway through the season with a 3-7 record after five weeks, prompting the then-retired Lam to return to the lineup as jungler and shot caller, replacing former superstar William “Meteos” Hartman on July 3.
At the time the team was seventh in the standings, just above relegation but outside the playoffs. With Lam in the lineup, the team looked more active in-game but wasn’t much better, posting a 3-5 record to barely edge out Team 8 in the last week of the season and avoid relegation.
Perhaps more importantly—at least for the other teams in the Regional Finals—avoiding relegation meant Cloud9 would not forfeit their hard-earned circuit points. The 70 points accrued from their second-place finish in spring placed them into the Regional Final gauntlet as the last seed, giving them a snowball’s chance in hell of reaching Worlds.
To do it, they’d need to win three best-of-five series in a row, first against Gravity Gaming, followed by Team Impulse, and finally Team Liquid. For Cloud9, a team that sputtered into the last week of the season, those were brutal marching orders.
When they were down 0-2 against Gravity Gaming Saturday night, it looked impossible. But Cloud9 pulled through and swept the next three games—leaving Gravity Gaming shocked and looking for answers.
Next was Team Impulse backed by the regular-season MVP, aggressive jungler Lee “Rush” Yoon-jae. Again Cloud9’s foe jumped out to a 2-0 lead, leaving them one game away from ending the season in disappointment. But Cloud9 recovered with another ridiculous reverse sweep.
Pulling that kind of comeback off not once, but twice in two best-of-five series against LCS playoff-caliber teams is amazing and improbable and worth of note and praise. But a loss to Team Liquid, a team that looked poised to challenge for the LCS title entering the playoff, would make those wins essentially meaningless.
But against Team Liquid, Cloud9 didn’t live on a razor’s edge, one game away from elimination. They didn’t need to. They won the first game of the series before eventually closing it out with a 3-1 score.
On Sunday, Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi exploded in the final three matches against Team Impulse, leading Cloud9 to the win. Today he continued his exemplary play.
The team identified Draven as a solid counter to Vayne in practice with Team Liquid during the leadup to the gauntlet, and it worked in the actual series. In game one, Scuderi cashed in with Draven midway through the match, leading to a snowball that crushed Team Liquid. In games two and three, he picked Team Liquid’s Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin’s favored Vayne away from him and showed Chae some outstanding Vayne play, including a sweet outplay against Chae himself in the middle of a team fight in game three. Then, in the final game, Scuderi pulled out Draven again to shut down Chae’s Vayne.
Scuderi took the series MVP award, but he wasn’t the only standout player.
The team survived the gauntlet in large part due to Lam’s leadership but also thanks to some of his jungle play. In game three and four his playmaking on Ekko and Nidalee set his team up for success. Jensen, the embattled mid laner who felt crushed by his own hype early in the season, continued to show he’s capable of carrying games at an elite level on champions like Azir earlier in the gauntlet and Viktor today.
Lam accomplished something that should shut up his critics, at least for a while. He may not have the best mechanics, or the biggest champion pool (though he’s sure threw out a lot of picks in the jungle). But his team struggled without him, and his return to the lineup’s exceeded every expectation. He’s got a special and perhaps indescribable quality that allows him to will his team to win games of League of Legends. And for everything he’s accomplished through his career, multiple LCS championships, Intel Extreme Masters titles, and attending Worlds, this run may be his crowning achievement, one that secures his legacy.
The win completes one of the greatest stories in League of Legends, but it’s also the start of a new chapter. Cloud9 will head to Worlds as America’s third seed. Instead of attending the event as one of America’s top seeds and one of the West’s hopes for challenging Asian dominance, they’ll go as the underdog who wasn’t supposed to be there. Even if their lineup has world-class pedigree. And that makes them dangerous.
“I can’t really complete my six step domination plan unless we dominate [at Worlds],” Lam said on the analyst desk afterward, referring to a statement he made after his last regular-season match. “I’m going to Worlds, and I’m going to kick some ass.”
Photo via Riot Games/Flickr