Cloud9's path back to Worlds starts with fixing their early game issues
This was supposed to be their year. Cloud9, North America's lone representative in the bracket stage of last year's World Championships, was supposed to reassert themselves as North America's great hope. The team's confidence was evidenced by the way they doubled down in the offseason.
They brought back nearly their entire Worlds roster, including heralded mid-season pickup Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong. Rookie support Andy "Smoothie" Ta would be in his second professional split, devoid of any stage jitters he may have experienced last summer. And coach Bok "Reapered" Han-gyu would have a full offseason to mold the team to his image—a ruthless Korean-style killing machine.
From a standings perspective, they've lived up to expectations. TSM still leads in matches won, but they've also been inconsistent and have actually lost three more games than C9. But TSM also made a big downgrade at the AD carry position, bringing back Jason "WildTurtle" Tran in the place of Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng. Shouldn't C9 have run away with this while TSM reloaded and the rest of the LCS struggled to find its footing? Instead, as NA slowly leveled up its gameplay, C9 looked stagnant, like they're mired in the mud. They can't find clean victories, keep juggling players in the top lane, and have looked far from the dominant side that many expected coming into the split.
What exactly is going wrong?
Early game woes
Many pundits and fans have targeted Cloud9's early game as the problem. The team's early-game numbers place them on the bottom half of the table, despite having perhaps the strongest trio of laners in the entire region. The same laners that, for the most part, held their own at Worlds.
Part of the blame has gone on rookie jungler Juan "Contractz" Garcia, the only new member of the team. It was clear why C9 made the switch from William "Meteos" Hartman to Contractz—Meteos was one of the worst junglers at Worlds last year and the skill gap at jungler and support was the biggest for all three North American teams.
Contractz has provided monster games, some in clutch situations, but his early game has been problematic. Sometimes, he looks indecisive, like he doesn't know which lane to pressure. That's the burden of three pushing lanes—all three will typically require jungle help or be at risk of being overextended and ganked by the enemy.
That happened in the first game against Team Dignitas last week. Dignitas is not a team C9 should struggle with, especially early. They are one of the few teams with worse early game numbers than Cloud9. But they also understood their matchups. With only one strong lane, jungler Lee "Chaser" Sang-hyun focused that side, picking up a double kill for himself and Kim "Ssumday" Chan-ho in the top lane.
Forget that Contractz is on a ward. That's not the problem. The issue is he shouldn't be there in the first place. Sure, Ssumday is pushed up, and they'd like to get Jeon "Ray" Ji-won, a split-pushing top laner, ahead. But Dignitas knows that too. Instead, his bot side jungle is up, and ADC Zachary "Sneak" Scuderi is dominating that lane. It's the best matchup for Cloud9, and there is an infernal drake up for the team that gets there first.
Chaser beating Contractz to the spot would be a theme of the series. An especially creative path from Chaser on Elise in game two netted him a kill in the bot lane, where Contractz was a hair late. What happened next though was a team-wide failure.
Cloud9 should have known that, as a mana user, Elise would have gone to her top side jungle. They should have known that Impact—playing the squishy Rumble—would be a prime target, especially after expending teleport to get back to lane. Impact does show Chaser some deference by trying to freeze the wave, but is only able to get it to the river. Critically, he does not ward either the river bush or his tribush, while Contractz is finishing his krugs.
What happens next is one of the easiest ganks you'll ever see.
Contractz is a young jungler, but rather than trying to make his job easier, Cloud9 have pulled him in different directions. Meanwhile, Chaser sacrificed a lot of farm on Elise to get to spots before Contractz, knowing that Elise needs to gank early. Contractz looks uncomfortable ganking the bot lane, at least without help. First blood percentages for Cloud9 members has dropped across the board as their jungler has dropped off in effectiveness. Some blame can be put on Contractz, but this looks like a team-wide failure to not read the map.
To be fair, this isn't a problem from just the Dignitas series. All split Cloud9 has made strange macro decisions in the early game, like the mini map doesn't exist. They've passed up easy drake opportunities, swapped their duo lane into strange situations, and overall just don't look comfortable.
What it should look like
What happened after the disastrous early game against Dignitas is a perfect indication of how the game should have been played. Cloud9 played with a "screw it" mentality, throwing all of their resources in the bot lane. And it worked! Dignitas dove Impact again and again and it didn't matter—Cloud9 started trading objectives, including drake, which has been a huge stumbling block. They built huge advantages in the mid and bot lane that allowed them to take control of the map.
In their next series, against a much more talented Phoenix1 side, Cloud9 did more of the same. P1 helped by picking into some bad lane matchups, but C9 correctly identified where their advantages were and prioritized them. Just as critically, players without priority played respectfully of where the opposing jungler could be. In both games, they used mid pressure to unlock the bottom side, with Sneaky and Smoothie winning some 2v3s for extra measure.
In that clip, Contractz ganked the top laner, but the bot lane was playing with respect. With three winning lanes, P1 had no options. That's what this is supposed to look like.
In order for C9 to live up to their potential, they need to be more clear about where to send the young jungler. They need to read the map and set up plays for dragon—minutes in advance. They need Contractz to work better with star mid laner Nicolaj Jensen—and for Jensen to spread more of his influence to the side lanes. And against the best teams, they need to be comfortable trading sides of the map and making the world smaller for what they want to do.
C9 has the talent to win it all in the LCS. They just need to make it easier on themselves to do so.