21 January 2016 - 23:03

Hai on his third role in a year, a six-man lineup, and his future (second) retirement

The last time I talked to Hai Du Lam, he was just three weeks away from retiring from League of Legends
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The last time I talked to Hai Du Lam, he was just three weeks away from retiring from League of Legends. You wouldn't have guessed it at the time. Sure he was struggling with wrist issues that hindered his practice and dealing with fans who wondered if his time was up—and if his mechanical skill was holding Cloud9 back. But he was still having fun as a player.

“I’m a gamer, man. I’m not that badass,” he told me last year. But even then, Lam always had a bit of an edge to him. Some people might mistake it for arrogance, but it’s really the kind of burning confidence that makes him a tough competitor, an edge behind the happy-go-lucky man behind Cloud9. 

And over the last six months, as he retired, returned, and led his team on one of the legendary runs of esports history, that edge seems sharper than ever. He’s always a great interview, never afraid to speak his mind where other players are often worried about ticking off a player, team, or Riot.

But he seems more prickly than ever these days, like he’s slightly annoyed that the same fans who doubted him then showered him with praise when he returned to save the franchise. Just one year after he retired from the team only to be forced back to save them from relegation, Lam now seems as integral a part of Cloud9 as ever.

This weekend, Lam played his first ever LCS game on support, playing Alistair against the newly christened Echo Fox team on Sunday. It was business as usual. He played as if he’s always played support, opening the game by engaging a tower dive that scored Cloud9 a big lead and eventually the win. But in doing so, he joined a select club of League of Legends players: those who have won a game in three different roles in the League Championship Series (LCS).

It was just another feather in the cap of one of America’s most storied players.

“It was pretty easy, honestly,” Lam told me after the match. “The way the game went, it went really well for us. After we got those kills bottom with the tower dive, if you’re a competent team you should be able to pull victory from that, and we did. It was nice.”

For Lam, the toughest thing was that playing support put him on the edge of the stage, with the camera looming right on his left instead of a few seats away on his right. But if any League player is used to being in the spotlight, it's Lam. A veteran of five LCS seasons and three World Championships, Lam founded Cloud9 in 2012 and helped transformed the team one of the greatest dynasties American League of Legends has ever seen.

The entire concept of role swaps are almost a meme for futility, thanks in large part to Counter Logic Gaming, a team infamous for failing with them. But Lam swapped roles midseason, and took his team on one of the greatest runs in League history. It’s a story that was underplayed in the media, a testament to one of League’s great competitors. And now, he’s doing it again in a span of just a few months.

That’s Lam's power. He's a player who seems to have a kind of voodoo magic surrounding him when he steps onto the Rift. No matter his role, no matter the situation, he finds ways to win games for his team.

"Retirement"

This season, Lam is sharing the support role with another player, Michael “Bunny FuFuu” Kurylo. Kurylo emerged as a rising star on Gravity Gaming last season and came to Cloud9 to learn under Lam’s tutelage, trying to divine the secret that makes Lam so successful. Both players played one game this weekend, but Kurylo’s match against Immortals ended with a loss.

The team had one match on red and one on blue this weekend, so they had one support take each side of the map during practice and during matches. Cloud9 plans to split games for the near future, Lam says, if things continue working well.

“It depends on how well things go, right?” Lam says. “If Bunny plays and keeps losing consistently, then I think we’d probably be against that. But if he pulls out victories and wins then I have nothing against that.”

Support is a great fit—but don’t tell Lam it’s because he can’t keep up in the mid lane.

The reverse may go without saying, but it’s hard to tell if Lam really considers that possibility. Even in his second role swap in half a year, playing a position where his team is training a direct replacement for him, he’s very confident in his ability to win games in League of Legends. And he certainly has reason to be.

Lam's retirement came in April, just weeks after Cloud9 finished second in the Spring split. Lam struggled with a wrist injury that prevented him from dedicating as much time practice, and his “support carry” mid lane style seemed to be a relic in an age of highly skilled mid lane carries. Fans thought Lam had taken Cloud9 as far as it could go without an upgrade in mechanical skill.

The team brought in talented European mid laner Nicolaj “Incarnati0n” Jensen, a legendary solo queue player who was potentially the next Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg. Yet Cloud9 still struggled, hovering near the bottom of the standings in danger of relegation. Lam, working as an executive in Cloud9 at the time, stepped in to salvage the season and save them from relegation, a scenario that could have crushed everything he’s built since 2013.

Not only did Lam (just barely) save Cloud9 from relegation while playing the unfamiliar jungle role, he then led the team through a historic miracle run in the regional qualifier, securing them a trip to the World Championship. Cloud9 didn’t advance from their group, but they did win three matches—a huge success for a squad teetering on the brink of potential annihilation months before.

Little brother Bunny

Lam again considered stepping down during the offseason. But the team knew long-time support Daerek “LemonNation” Hart planned on retiring as well, potentially leaving them with two holes in the lineup. Lam, determined to avoid a situation as precarious as last year’s dance with relegation, told team owner Jack Etienne that he was looking to step down, but would play unless the team found competent jungle and support players.

Cloud9 found a stellar jungler in Lee “Rush” Yoon-jae, the Summer LCS MVP last year. But they didn’t have a support in hand as the offseason progressed. “Bunny wasn’t necessarily an option at the time,” Lam said. “I think his contract wasn’t over yet. With the limited options we had we could find a jungler but couldn’t find a support.”

So Lam started learning the role and playing it with the team. Late in the offseason, when Kurylo became available, Cloud9 felt it was a perfect fit. The team gave Lam both an understudy and a teacher, someone he could learn the role from while teaching shot calling. It also gave the veteran time to rest his wrists to keep fresh all season. (Lam noted that the support role isn’t any kinder than mid lane on his wrists, but that playing less helps.)

 "To me they’re a bunch of bronze, silver, gold players who suck at the game.”

“Originally it’s like a buffer in case I suck at support, and on top of that in case I want to retire or my wrist injuries become very prevalent again, I have someone there just in case,” Lam said. “At first it is a backup plan. Then in case he does get better than me and the team plays better with him, then we just have to see how he grows as a player.”

In some ways it seems odd Lam would keep playing. By most standards, Kurylo is a more than competent replacement. He led Gravity Gaming to a 12-6 LCS record last split, after all, one of the top up-and-coming playmakers on support, posting a 4.0 KDA, No. 4 in the position. But Lam is also a buffer, a failsafe in case his team ends up sucking at League of Legends.

“We don’t want to face relegation anymore, right?” Lam explains. “That’s what we did this past split, and that’s scary scary.” If the team gets relegated, they could potentially lose many of their top sponsors. That would put Lam in a precarious position, whether he’s playing for Cloud9 or working in an executive role again.

Plus, he says, his drive is higher than ever. While he still prefers playing the mid lane, he’s enjoying playing support. And playing with new teammates keeps the game fresh.Lam has described Kurylo as a “little brother," and the pair are sure sure to have something of a sibling rivalry. But even if Lam plans to retire he’s not just going to give his bro the spot.

“It’s fun and I like playing with Rush a lot,” Lam explained. “Playing with these guys, the roster we have now, has kind of revitalized my will to play. Of course I want Bunny to work his damn ass off and take my spot, if he’s going to take it. I’m not just going to let him have it, he needs to earn it.”

The “support carry” learns not to carry

In many ways, support seems like the perfect place for Lam and his playstyle. In his retirement interview on Gamespot, Lam described himself as a “support carry” in the mid lane. He served as Cloud9’s primary initiator, starting fights and expecting his team to follow up. Against stronger teams, though, that style seemed to falter: Lam died at a much higher rate than opposing mid laners, and that left Cloud9 without an important damage-dealer and carry.

Now he doesn’t have to worry about the carry part of the equation. One of his innate talents is a knack for engaging fights, and the support role allows him to do that with less repercussions if it leads to his death.

“I think it’s more forgiving for me to play support than it is mid,” Lam said. If you die as a mid lane carry, it’s a much bigger hit relative to your support. “If I initiate a fight as a support and I die it’s not a big deal. If I die as a mid lane, it’s kind of a big deal. So I don’t necessarily think I’m a better support than I am at mid, but I think for my playstyle on the team it is. I’m the best engager on the team by a lot.”

If Cloud9 had another skilled initiator in the support role, Lam says he’d be comfortable playing mid lane again. But that’s not how their roster is constructed, so Lam’s learning his third competitive role. He has experience playing every position in solo queue, but even then it’s still a learning experience.

No matter his role, no matter the situation, he finds ways to win games for his team.

For most players, that’d mean watching lots of film to study how other players approach the role. But Lam has something of a unique approach. As a jungler, he featured awkward and non-standard jungle routes because he simply did what he felt was right, and that was often different than the accepted meta. He also played non-standard champions. Whether that happens on support remains to be seen—his one game so far was on Alistair, a standard meta pick.

“I don’t really watch many other people because it’s hard for me to understand why someone is doing X, Y, or Z,” Lam explained. “You can watch someone play the game, but it’s hard to know why they did that.”

He does take notes on some of the details, like runes, masteries, item builds, and popular champions, but he likes to forge his own way.

“As far as playstyle goes, I don’t think you should ever try and copy someone that much,” Lam said. “Maybe in the beginning as you learn the ropes, but if you copy someone you’ll just be a shittier version of the player you are copying. As far as support goes I just do my own thing and I’ll get advice on runes, masteries. For how I play the game, it’s all on me.”

That’s quite rare. One of Lam’s old teammates, Zach “Nientonsoh” Malhas, for instance, almost spent more time watching others play than playing himself. “That’s how he learned to play the game,” Lam said. “I have nothing against that. People have different ways learning. Some people are visual. Some people are firsthand. And I’m definitely someone who is a firsthand, experience kind of guy.”

So far it’s working well. He’s playing a role that likely fits his personal playstyle, fits well in the team around him, and allows him to showcase his strengths.

The Hai-to-support role swap was a dream scenario for many fans who saw Lam’s mechanical talent in the mid lane as holding Cloud9 back. They wanted his shot calling and initiation ability in the lineup, but in a role where that style works. Support is a great fit—but don’t tell Lam it’s because he can’t keep up in the mid lane.

The legend of Hai Lam

Ever since his team called him out of retirement to save their season, it’s always looked to me like Lam’s was playing with a chip on his shoulder. He almost seems annoyed that the fans who wanted to toss him aside in favor of a shinier toy now worship him more than ever

He almost seems surly as he continues switching roles and continues winning games, like he’s not exactly enjoying it but just doing it to spite anyone who ever doubted he's a great League of Legends player—and not just a shot caller.

When I ask him about that perception, he seems slightly annoyed, like he’s wondering why people are still talking about this.

“It really depends on the person,” Lam said. “I feel like some people would be like… heavily injured, their morale, from reading Twitter and Reddit saying they suck mechanically. But to me they’re a bunch of bronze, silver, gold players who suck at the game.”

Lam’s too confident in himself to get stuck up on social media hate, and sometimes that confidence seems to straddle a border with arrogance. But that kind of edge is one of the things that makes him such a fierce competitor, a player who will keep winning until he gets his due.

“I think the community has the biggest perception where I’m this like, person that controls the other four players on my team," Lam said. "I don’t micro manage all four. I don’t need to. They amp up my shot calling a lot higher than whatever it is, and then they downplay my mechanics.

“While it’s nice they praise me in one way, they’re shitting on me in another way. While I’m a great shot caller, I also think I’m a good mechanical player. I’m not some kind of god-tier mechanical player sure, but like they all say I’m terrible mechanically. That’s not true. If they were bad I wouldn’t be the player I am today.”

You can see that in his track record. Few players as versatile as Lam, and while perhaps that’s more due to his brilliant mind for the game, he’s not lacking in talent. He’s able to climb the solo queue ladder in Korea, for example, where his in-game leadership amounts to nil.

“I think it’s just, Reddit reads something and it sticks with them and they just keep that perception,” Lam said.

“If my teammates started saying that, that’s when my morale would be crushed.”

Right now, his teammates need him. Even with new stars in the lineup, Cloud9 just isn’t the same without Lam. Maybe that’s due to a shot calling ability that borders on magical, so strong it can carry a poor player hidden on support. But it’s more likely because of the full package he brings to the table: leadership and experience second to none, backed by solid mechanical skill, fearless initiation, and a unique understanding of League of Legends.

The future of Hai Lam

For all his talk of retirement, Lam still enjoys playing League of Legends. He says he’s the kind of person who will enjoy whatever challenge he tackles in life, but he also has a competitive nature that makes it difficult to stay away from esports.

“It’s not like I hate playing the game," he said. "I don’t. I enjoy playing the game in another world maybe more, but I still enjoy playing the game a lot. At the same time I’m one of those people who enjoys whatever I do, so whether I’m playing or whether I’m working behind the scenes I’ll enjoy life to the fullest.”

The wrist issues necessitated him stepping down last year, but if he can maintain his level of play while putting less time into the game, he may be able to continue for years to come. That’ll depend on a lot of factors, like whether Cloud9 finds a better a player or develops one, like Kurylo. It’ll also depend on the structure of the LCS itself.

The fact that relegation plays into the thought process of an organization like Cloud9 says a lot: A two-time LCS champion that’s represented America at Worlds for three years straight, is worried about holding its spot in the league. That’s in part because the stakes are getting higher and higher; league spots are worth over seven figures now, after all. Plus there’s talk that the LCS may potentially move to a franchise system similar to the NFL and MLB, locking teams into the league.

The entire concept of role swaps are almost a meme for futility.

In October, journalist Richard Lewis reported that the LCS was considering such a move. Lam believes it’s the future of the league. Setting up teams long-term would, for example, allow Cloud9 to develop Kurylo in their lineup with no fear of relegation. It’d encourage the top teams to invest more in long-term talent versus scrambling to secure a spot in the league every year. The move would also lock in teams, making them a more attractive investment for sponsors and other parties, potentially increasing the money pouring into the league.

That, of course, is another reason why so many investors are throwing money into the LCS and the Challenger Series: they want to be one of those locked in teams.

“Right now our organization’s top priority is staying in the LCS where it might turn into a franchise thing,” Lam said. “If that does happen, then that’s when you have more opportunity to build up the talent.”

Lewis lists Cloud9 as an organization with so much clout they can even bully Riot Games under the current system, yet even Cloud9 is still terrified of the threat of relegation. One misstep could spell doom for an esports empire. Perhaps that’s a bit paranoid for a team with such a pedigree. But Cloud9 themselves show how small the margin can be. Last split, one game separated them from playing for their lives and giving them that fateful shot at making Worlds.

“There’s always going to be a Lakers team or Rams team,” Lam said. “For League of Legends there’s not always going to be a TSM or C9. That’s a thing that can happen, and if that’s something that Riot does, then that’s when you can start to build talent.”

So for now, Cloud9—and likely many other teams in the league—are focused on that goal. Developing a player like Kurylo, or a rookie like Jensen last split, may need to take a back seat towards more practical concerns. That’s in some ways a change from Cloud9’s founding philosophy: that gaming should be fun, even in a competitive environment. But Lam doesn’t believe the two have to be mutually exclusive.

“Even with the more money and everything, I still think playing and having fun while doing it is more important,” Lam said.

There were some rocky moments over the past half a year. But Lam is still having fun. He’s winning games for Cloud9, no matter what role he plays, no matter what position he’s in, no matter what people say about his mechanics. Lam is one of the game’s special players, a competitor who seemingly does magic on the Summoner’s Rift, and you're going to see plenty of that magic this year.

Photo via Riot Games/Flickr (All rights reserved, used with permission) 

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