Cloud9's rotating roster finds its stride in NA LCS

The surprising resurgence of Cloud9 (2:40)

After being written off at the beginning of the Summer Split, Cloud9 enters the final week of the regular season as the NA LCS's hottest team. (2:40)

The 2018 North American League of Legends Championship Series hit its worst doldrums in years midway through the summer split. Parity reigned supreme, yet audiences were disgruntled or tuning out. Some fans said that this was the worst split of League of Legends in NA LCS history, both narratively and on the Rift. The unlocking of bruisers and mages in the bottom lane, the rise of the funnel composition, and high-profile players seated on the bench like Cloud9's Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen, all contributed to the mire that was 2018 NA LCS Summer Split.

This was exacerbated by NA's poor performance against European teams at Rift Rivals, especially after reigning NA LCS champion Team Liquid's loss to Splyce in the bracket stage. Splyce was in seventh place with a 2-4 record in the European League of Legends Championship series at the time.

The NA LCS community clamored for a strong standings leader -- preferably one of NA's more well-known and beloved organizations, like Team SoloMid or Cloud9.

The latter answered the call.

"It's kind of the reverse of what C9 was last split where we started off really strong but we didn't have the right growth pattern and just fell off," C9 mid laner Greyson "Goldenglue" Gilmer said. He gave credit to the team sticking with what worked for them behind the scenes and in practice, despite initially poor stage results at the start of the summer split. "We basically put ourselves at a slow start so we'd have a good growth rate. We went through some growing pains but at this point now I think it's really paid off."

A late-season rise of Cloud9 through the standings won't solve any meta burnout from this split. It cannot fully restore hope in North American teams for the upcoming World Championship. Yet, if any team is going to make the attempt, C9 is a fitting organization, with narrative history around being the only NA team -- through strong Week 1 results and a dash of luck -- to consistently make Worlds quarterfinals. In the past four weeks of the split, C9 is 7-1, and winners of six straight. With an important 2-0 record against what is perceived to be NA's strongest team in Team Liquid, C9 is challenging TL for current best team in the league. C9's meteoric rise has given NA something to talk about while making a strong case for a rotating roster rather than viewing one side of every roster move as a "benching."

"We've definitely been using a seven-man roster for quite some time," Goldenglue said. We've been splitting scrims for the past two to three weeks. We've definitely been preparing for this, it's not something that just came out of nowhere. It also wasn't because of any performance by Blaber or Jensen, they've been playing really well. We've just been wanting to prepare the seven-man roster before playoffs."

C9's approach this summer has been a departure from what NA teams and audiences are used to, forcing teams to reassess how rosters can be constructed. Echo Fox tried to do this with some success at the start of the split and Rift Rivals, but for the most part, substitutions in NA this split (as well as historically) have either been performance or team-synergy based. Once the team finds its best lineup, it sticks with that group of five players. This summer is filled with teams that have made mid-season roster moves and stuck with them, like the trade between FlyQuest and 100Thieves, or tested different players before quickly switching back to the default starting lineup, like OpTic Gaming in Weeks 2 and 3, and Clutch Gaming in Week 6.

Although C9 is a fan favorite in NA LCS, the team's opening weeks this summer were nearly universally panned by its fanbase because of roster changes. More specifically, veteran bot laner Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi, then-support Andy "Smoothie" Ta, and top-tier mid laner Jensen did not start due to internal issues. Fandom ire rose when the initial lineup with "substitutes" Goldenglue, Yuri "Keith" Jew, and support Tristan "Zeyzal" Stidam was 1-3, tied for last place after the first two weeks. Smoothie returned to the starting lineup and quickly left. Jensen returned (first as a bot laner), and finally Sneaky returned. C9 traded Smoothie to Echo Fox and called up Academy jungler Robert "Blaber" Huang.

"There have been two basic iterations of the roster, either Jensen or Goldenglue and then the two junglers," Zeyzal said. "The main difference is when we have Goldenglue in, he's a lot more proactive in his shotcalling. He'll be the one calling a lot of the shots. But when we have Jensen in, it's more that you have a reliable, always-winning lane, he will play more for himself and ask for things but won't call things as much. Communicating around that difference is the main thing we have to learn."

Communication is where former eUnited and C9 Academy support Zeyzal has shone. Despite his rookie status, Zeyzal has brought a good amount of leadership to the team and a level head, not unlike what teammates said that Smoothie initially brought to C9 during his first split with the team in 2016.

"I think as a player I'm a lot more oriented around making the correct play or the straight macro best play because the coaches I've been with have also taught a more macro sense of the game and I think that's how I've been raised as a player," Zeyzal said. "I try to use my strengths in macro, knowing where to be, where I'm safe, and I try to abuse the enemy's positioning when they shouldn't be where they are - either we outnumber or we have the fight, things like that. I think I'm just a macro-oriented player. It's better now because I have a lot of aggressive players on my team like Licorice and Blaber."

This is no small task when C9 has been dedicated to swapping players in different positions and roles in scrims and onstage. Yet, with more practice, C9's stage performances started to improve to the point where it doesn't seem to matter which iteration of the roster will start for the team. C9 will have a game plan, and execute it to the best of the players' abilities, forcing opponents and the NA community as a whole to re-evaluate the way substitutions are made in NA.

"At Cloud9 we're trying to win every game," Goldenglue said. "Every player we bring onstage, we're not going to troll, it's not that we don't care because there's no relegations, we're just doing what we think is best and there's no reason to doubt that."