Fitting the Pieces to the Puzzle
The end of season 5 found Cloud9 finishing 9th-11th at the World Championship, wavering, and in need of major change. After a rough Summer split in which Meteos, long time jungler of the team, had to be replaced by Hai due to lack of leadership and shot calling in-game, Cloud9 would finish 7th and barely scrape by to get into the gauntlet qualifier for Worlds. Although they would run through the gauntlet and eventually make it to Worlds it was obvious the team had its problems and would not make much noise. Coming into season 6 the team would make serious moves in free agency adding former Team Impulse jungler Rush and former Gravity support Bunny FuFuu. With both of these players being towards the top of their positions the previous year in NA LCS there was much hype built around Cloud9, with many believing that a return to dominance was possible. Although the moves made by the team are positive changes on the surface, there are still several questions left that will have to be answered before I am willing to claim that they will be able to return to their seat at the top of North America.
Top Lane – Balls
It is no secret that Balls had a terrible 2015. Beginning with his play at IEM Season IX San Jose and continuing on throughout the entire year, it was obvious that he was just not the same player. Even his play on Rumble, a champion for which he was highly touted and considered to be the best on in LCS, was extremely underwhelming. His team fighting was a consistent problem and he was no longer the carry force he once was. For whatever reason it seemed that the days of Balls being arguably the best top laner in North America were long gone. I find it quite shocking that there was no news of him being replaced or even looking into possible substitutes for the position. Although he has looked better through the first two weeks of the Spring split, it seems quite unlikely that he will be a major carry force for the team going forward. Last season we saw other North American players such as Quas and ZionSpartan surpass Balls in terms of impact. We also saw more imports come into the North American scene, including Impact and Gamsu, which raised the skill level at the position drastically. One could argue that Balls went from being the best top laner in the region in 2014 to one of the worst in 2015. And the skill level at the position is only increasing with more imports this season including the arrival of Huni, the best LCS top laner last year in either North America or Europe. While I don’t believe that Balls needs to be the best top laner in North America for Cloud9 to be successful, and has looked better through the early stages of this Spring split, he must remain consistent and improve his stability and team fighting for the team to remain competitive.
Jungle – Rush
Rush was absolutely the best jungler in North America during 2015. He won the MVP award for the Summer split of NA LCS and I find it hard to argue for any other jungler being even on par with him during 2015 in North America. Rush was a very gank-heavy player focusing on getting his lanes and himself ahead, sometimes taking kills and lane farm for himself in order to carry the whole game. He shined on champions like Lee Sin and Elise that allow him to make a large impact on lanes through ganks. He showed great prowess on his Nidalee, which he went undefeated on during the Summer split. Despite that fact Team Impulse had consistent problems, especially in the playoffs, and Rush was unable to carry his team to any significant success. His insertion into a team would seem like a great move and an obvious improvement. I, however, still feel that there are certain things that need to be addressed regarding his inclusion. Hai was able to help lead Cloud9 through the gauntlet and into Worlds, but no one would mistake him for a great jungler. In fact, many experts would argue that some of Cloud 9’s victories during the qualifier were due to the incompetence or ineffectiveness of the other teams of North America. In terms of mechanics and skill at the position, Rush far and away exceeds the capabilities of Hai as a jungler. Rush is known for repeatedly showing up at the top of the Korean Challenger ladder in solo queue among players like Faker. However, whenever a new player is inserted into a lineup there is always the question of synergy. How will Rush be able to work with Balls and Jensen as solo laners? There was a marked improvement in the play of the team and especially in Jensen in 2015 once Hai came back into the lineup. Even through the first couple of weeks this current split, it is obvious that Jensen just performs better with Hai in the lineup. Rush’s style of jungling contrasts greatly to that of Hai. Hai’s style at times was a call back to season 4 Meteos, where he would just farm in the jungle for most of the game until he could come out into a team fight on an extremely farmed tank. How will the team adjust to Rush’s aggressive and proactive style? Will the team be able to utilize Rush’s skill set properly or will he be forced to adjust his style of play to the team and possibly become a more vision-centric and controlled player? Time will provide the answers to these questions but Rush’s style may be successful for bolstering Jensen in the mid lane and helping Balls chug along in the top lane.
Mid – Jensen
Jensen showed gradual improvement throughout 2015. He was off to a slow and tentative start playing more control and poke champions despite being lauded as a highly mechanical solo queue star on assassins. His rocky start matched that of the team as a whole in the Summer split, but he did have a couple of standout games. Hai usurping the jungle role did turn the tides somewhat as there was a noticeable improvement in Jensen’s play, especially during the gauntlet qualifier. The difference can still be seen now in the Spring split, with Jensen playing much better with Hai in the lineup. While Jensen was never the best mid laner in 2015 he was above average, bested in my opinion by only Bjergsen and Fenix. I would place him in the pack of midlaners behind those two, among players like Pobelter and XiaoWeiXiao. In order for Cloud9 to have a chance at a title his progression will have to continue and he will need to develop into a consistent carry for the team. This may be made more difficult however with the midlane imports entering North America, which include the new NRG mid GBM, formerly of Jin Air, as well as two-thirds of the old trinity of European mids, Froggen and Alex Ich. He will now have to compete against an elite Korean and two legends from his old region, as well as Fenix and the reigning mid-king of NA, Bjergsen. Perhaps with Rush ganking for him and Hai’s continuing leadership he will be able to become the carry they need him to be but the competition has risen and will only continue to rise.
ADC – Sneaky
While Sneaky has never been a problem for Cloud 9, he has never really been a solution. Early on in Cloud9 Sneaky was a role player while Hai and Meteos carried the team to success. Then Balls rose and became their carry as Hai’s effectiveness in the mid lane diminished. All the while Sneaky was a solid North American ad carry, but never the best. He hit his peak and became a major threat for the team at the end of 2014 going into 2015. Unfortunately his rise coincided with the decline of Hai and Balls, and although he had Meteos, Sneaky was not enough to carry the team. In the Summer of 2015 Sneaky was still a very good ad carry but again the team did not provide him with much help. With Jensen still acclimating himself, Balls’ regression, and the problems at the jungle position, Sneaky was left as the sole performer on the team. Throughout his tenure with Cloud9 Sneaky has been consistently near the top of his position but has never been the clear cut best. Doublelift has long been considered by many to be the best ad carry in North America. Early on it could be argued that players like WildTurtle or Vasilii may have been better. This past season with the resurgence of Doublelift, the arrival of Piglet, and the development of Altec one could argue that Sneaky was not even top three in the region. While he has remained a good player throughout his career he has never been a world-beater or a player that can carry his team alone. With the arrival of star ad carry Freeze on Renegades and WildTurtle seemingly regaining his form on Immortals, the level of competition at the ad carry position may be at its highest yet. We know what we are going to get from Sneaky, he is a known quantity. However, this brings forth two questions: Will Sneaky be enough? If not, who is going to rise up and help him?
Support – Hai/Bunny FuFuu
With LemonNation stepping down and moving into a coaching role, the support position is probably the biggest question mark for Cloud 9. In LemonNation the team always had a consisitent and intelligent player to give them stability in the bottom lane alongside Sneaky. To address this, Cloud9 stated coming out of the offseason that Hai would start at support with Bunny FuFuu coming off the bench. Regardless of which player starts, there will be some growing pains. While Hai did retain his shot-calling and leadership when coming into the jungle role last year, his champion pool and play style were major issues for the team. Hai found himself having to play champions like Khazix, Shyvana, and Amumu, which have not been in the meta for quite some time. Even in his latter days in the mid lane Hai had diversity issues as he could only play champions like Zed and Fizz where he could dive into an enemy team and die as the initiator. While it is not necessarily certain that his champion pool issues will spill over into the support role, it is hard to see him learning a third role and being spectacular. As a jungler Hai’s play was problematic and although it did work for their gauntlet run, Cloud9 had to reverse sweep their first two series putting themselves in a dangerous position. His performance at Worlds was also nothing to write home about. Through the first two weeks of the Spring split he has only played Alistar. While he has been good on it, it is only one champion and he plays it much like he played mid assassins, diving into the enemy team and initiating. Whether or not he will be able to play more peel oriented champions or supportive champions is still an unknown. His vision control and lane synergy with Sneaky are also major concerns. Previously Hai’s shot calling has been just enough to keep him in the lineup and keep Cloud9 competitive. One has to wonder when this trend will let up.
In contrast, Bunny FuFuu is a much more experienced support player. He has a much greater skill ceiling and has already shown great mechanical prowess on champions like Thresh throughout his career. He also took up the mantle of shot caller on Gravity last year to some success. While Gravity had an underwhelming Spring split last year, they did hold first place for a couple of weeks in the Summer. Although he was the shot caller, some analysts attributed their success to the gimmicky play style of their mid laner Keane, as well as the poor play of North America in general. Gravity’s success would not last as they fell out of first place in the final weeks and lost immediately in the playoffs as well as making an early exit in the gauntlet qualifier. It would seem that his shot calling did not hold up well in playoff series. Although his support play is solid, Bunny has shown some shortcomings as a shot caller, and Cloud9 has faltered with him in the lineup early on this split. Bunny will have to be the long term answer for Cloud9 because of Hai’s inability to practice due to injuries and he will need to develop into a better and more stable leader for the team. If this doesn’t happen and Hai has to another leave of absence because of injury, who will lead the team? This leaves Cloud9 in a very tough position regarding who to start between the two. Hai will not be able to play forever so Bunny FuFuu will have to be the answer moving forward. Otherwise we may have to expect the same issues from last Summer to continue.
Coaching – LemonNation
With Charlie’s departure from the team, even the coaching position is a question mark for Cloud9. The position is being filled by their former support LemonNation. The move seems like the most obvious one with him being a longstanding member and already handling the picks and bans for the team. However, the infrastructure and the decision to go with LemonNation must be called into question. LemonNation has never coached before and because he has played with these players for years there is the question of how much control he will have. Will the other players respect him and give him the attention needed for his coaching to be applicable? Or will he be too close and lack this respect because he is seen as a peer and not a superior? Also, Hai has been the leader of Cloud9 for a longtime and is often credited with being very micro-intensive with his in-game calls. Players and analysts have stated that he controls the other players much like his pawns and has always had the final say. As a player LemonNation used to be one of these pawns, so it will be a very jarring transition from him being controlled by Hai to having to have control over Hai, and his other former teammates. While not all coaches need dictatorial control over all of their players, Cloud9 seems to have suffered in the past from having too close a relationship with Charlie. While other teams were building their infrastructure and bolstering their coaching staffs with analysts, Cloud9 was content with having just Charlie at the helm and it seems to have been to their detriment last year. While his knowledge of champions and his pick-ban prowess should transfer well into his position as the coach, one has to wonder whether or not LemonNation will be an effective coach or be too close to have an impact.
With the roster moves that Cloud9 has made I feel that their skill ceiling and potential has risen drastically from that of last season. Hai as a jungler was never going to make them competitive at the international level and the additions of Rush and BunnyFuFuu do seem like net positives. But the hype that has already been generated around this team seems unwarranted considering the many questions that we have yet to be seen answered by their play. Looking at Cloud9 in isolation would lead one to believe that would rise in the standings and finish better than they did last year. But the rest of the region, in general, has gotten much better with teams like NRG and Immortals coming in with very good lineups, as well as all the all-star additions Team Solomid has made to their roster. My expectations going into the season were for Cloud9 to be a top four team in North America with the potential to make Worlds. But they have a lot to show me before I am willing to say that they can win the region or be competitive on the international stage. At the moment Cloud9 have some very good pieces but they will need to find a way to fit those pieces together and complete the puzzle before I am able to reasonably say what they can be.
Stats and figures from http://lol.esportspedia.com
Image from http://esports.guru