SEOUL, South Korea -- A group of weary young men shuffled through Seoul Station early Monday afternoon. They walked up the stairs to the second level of the Korea Train Express terminal in search of sustenance, coffee, caffeine and food. After a hard-fought play-in stage, North America's Cloud9 League of Legends team was headed to the 2018 World Championship group stage in Busan.
They made their way back down to the first floor with about 20 minutes left until their train departure. Their luggage and equipment had been sent ahead of time, with the exception of a few backpacks and Robert "Blaber" Huang's Maryland Terrapins pillow, currently in the possession of Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen. Jensen sniffled a bit, blinking widely behind red-framed glasses. He was still recovering from a cold.
A large LED screen featuring famous South Korean trot singer Hong Jin-young beamed down at them as they reached the entrance to the KTX platform. The number of their 2 p.m. train from Seoul to Busan flashed red, signaling it was time to board.
At previous events, the team had traveled by bus. "Never again," C9's founder and CEO Jack Etienne said. A few of his players had become motion sick on bus rides. Hopefully, the Gyeongbu high-speed railway would serve his charges better, he said as they began to fill up one of the first-class cars.
While the rest of the team was ushered by general manager Gaylen Malone, their coach, Bok "Reapered" Han-gyu, immediately settled in for the two-and-a-half hour ride. Clad in a London Spitfire sweatshirt, he placed his luggage on the rack above, and claimed the single seat at the front of the car. He neatly tucked his electronics in his suit jacket pocket and hung it on a nearby coat hanger.
"This is my seat," he said. "Goodnight."
Later, his soft snoring would become oddly soothing background noise, combined with the whirr of the train engine and occasional clacking of wheels against the tracks. The rest of the team paired off into twos.
At precisely 2 p.m., the KTX 241 train left Seoul Station bound for Busan with nearly an entire business-class car filled with members of C9, potentially bound for their doom: the worlds quarterfinals.
Hour 1: Cheonan-Asan, Osong, Daejeon
"Oh, I wonder if there will be zombies on this train?"
"I wonder how many times they've heard that? I bet every person who works here is so sick of that joke."
"Good movie though."
Two players in the back of the car were joking about "Train to Busan," a well-known South Korean zombie movie that has become the namesake of this oft-traveled route.
Above the din, someone made a joke that none of the tickets were paid for. Somehow Blaber, rookie jungler and newest member of the squad, was volunteered by team manager Lee "Robin" Seung-hwan to pay for everything, most likely because he piped up first.
"Sure," Blaber said affably. "My card doesn't work but ..."
Finding a global ATM to take a foreign credit card is but one of a myriad of small issues that can crop up as a foreigner traveling in South Korea. Somehow they came up with the money.
On the train, bot laner Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi and mid-laner-turned-coach Greyson "GoldenGlue" Gilmer began one of their toughest battles at worlds thus far: a tug-of-war between the plug adapter and the train electrical outlet. The outlet won. A few of the other business-class passengers began to complain about the noise, and Robin stepped in to quiet the team.
Reapered blissfully slept through it all, a truly seasoned business traveler.
When the groups for the world championship play-ins were drawn, C9 was put in a tough position. The team was bound for Group B, home of defending world champions Gen.G (formerly Samsung Galaxy) and 2018 Mid-Season Invitational champion Royal Never Give Up. The third team drawn into the group was Europe's second seed, Vitality.
Based on play-in performances, C9's chances to get out of Group B were perceived as even lower than they were prior to the start of worlds. C9 had two shaky victories against Japan's DetonatioN FocusMe, and their qualifying series against Gambit Esports had gone to five games. Simply put, in the words of top laner Eric "Licorice" Ritchie, "It didn't feel good." Yet others on C9 talked about the entirety of the play-in stage as necessary practice for the rookie players.
"We have three rookies on the team so them getting the stage experience is really helpful," veteran jungler Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen said. "It doesn't matter too much that the first games are shaky as long as we continue to improve throughout worlds."
Casting a looming shadow behind the train was the dreaded spectres of RNG and Gen.G. The players were relaxed, chill and happy to sit back and chat about solo queue escapades, play "Magic the Gathering" online once the Wi-Fi network had been discovered -- this, more than the battle of the electrical outlet, had been the most important order of business when the team had boarded the train. Yet, the size of the task in front of them was daunting. Each of the C9 players talked about the strengths of RNG and Gen.G, focusing on RNG's AD carry Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao.
"We're going to have to play some of the strongest teams in the tournament in our group," Goldenglue said. "We did hold back some picks from the play-ins that we've been preparing for our groups. We were able to get out of play-ins without showing those picks so we've been preparing specific strategies since it is a [single-game format] so there's a chance we can take some games off of the big teams and have a chance of making it out."
He paused and then laughed.
"[Single-game format] is definitely preferred. God bless."
Unlikely upsets are the only way C9 would make it out of its group, and the team was under no illusions to the contrary. Every bit of experience, whether it was watching these teams' qualifying runs to the world championship, studying drafts, or even facing them in solo queue, could be seen as valuable if the correct information could be gleaned from it.
"Going up against either [Liu "Mlxg" Shi-Yu] or [Hung "Karsa" Hau-Hsuan], I played solo queue and was up against Karsa four games in a row and he was doing the same thing every single game," Svenskeren said, laughing. "I'm not sure if he was trying to get into my head, but he would do red buff to Level 2 gank mid legit four games in a row so I was like, 'Is he trying to make me think this is what he's going to do onstage or something?' It didn't work out very well but he kept doing it. It's going to be exciting either way."
C9 would also have to sweep Vitality, who the team faced earlier in its bootcamp immediately after Vitality had arrived in South Korea.
"We scrimmed them when they first got here," Licorice said. "[Daniele "Jiizuke" di Mauro] is an animal. He'll fight you under tower. He's actually crazy -- that's all of their players actually. They try to fight you and that's how they get advantages. It's always fun playing against them so I'm excited for that."
Hour 2: Dongdaegu, Singyeongju, Ulsan
The train to Busan, the actual train, not the zombie movie, is a winding path through mountains and farmland with occasional cities peppered along the way. It's bright, comfortable and relaxing. By the second hour, the members of C9 had settled down and were quietly talking, or perhaps dozing off. Blaber had reclaimed his Maryland pillow, and Sneaky, running a green and white deck had, in the worlds of Goldenglue, been clapped by his opponent in "Magic the Gathering." Assistant Coach Jung "Rapidstar" Min-seong provided translation whenever necessary as the train attendants, dressed in pale seafoam green uniforms, bowed politely every time they exited or entered the train car.
When faced with insurmountable odds, what is a team to do outside of preparation? Is it better to go into each match playing, as the old adage says, with nothing to lose? The answer for C9 seems to be to play more aggressively, much like how the team transformed when Blaber first joined the starting lineup in the middle of NA LCS Summer Split. Unfortunately for C9, the team has had some difficulty finding that aggression.
"I would like to say our aggression," Sneaky said when listing his team's strengths. "But it's been really hard for us to show it as much during this worlds."
Blaber, who is credited for the team's new in-your-face style, was also realistic.
"This is the first time that I'm going into a tournament where I think my opponent might actually be better than me," Blaber admitted. "Even when we played against Team Liquid in the finals we had 2-0'd them in the regular split. When I first came to LCS I had never played these teams before and I didn't think about that the first time against them. Hopefully I'll still be able to keep my aggression."
As the train screeched to a slow stop coming into Busan Station, Reapered sat up and yawned. If he hadn't slept for the entirety of the train ride, he was a good actor. C9 shuffled as a group, continuing to chatter amongst themselves, as Robin ushered them into the salty ocean breeze, packing them into taxis four at a time, with instructions in rapid-fire Korean to take the team to Haeundae Beach.
On Wednesday at 5 p.m. local time, the worlds group stage began at the Busan Exhibition and Convention Center (BEXCO). A few hours later, C9 was obliterated by RNG in what must have appeared to starting jungler Svenskeren and Blaber watching from the sidelines as a rerun of one of their solo queue games on the South Korean ladder.
"I think Karsa is going to do the same thing [as Mlxg], regardless of who plays," Blaber said, laughing a bit. "I played against Karsa too and he did red to dive my bot lane into dive my bot lane, into dive my bot lane again. I was up in farm by like 30 but he was 4-0 so, I don't know what to think of that."
Interestingly enough, it was also Blaber's words from the train trip that predicted one of the more unlikely Day 1 outcomes: Vitality's upset victory over reigning world champions Gen.G.
"I feel like Vitality might have some chance to upset either of the two teams and us for sure," Blaber said. "They didn't seem that strong when we played against them but I do think that if we want to get out of groups we need to get all the wins we can against Vitality but I think they have a chance to upset the better teams, too."
The Vitality that C9 met on Day 2 was not the Vitality of scrims. Vitality saved initiations for key teamfights, taking advantage of C9's vision gaps. It was still a kill-heavy game with flashy performances from Jiizuke's Leblanc and bot laner Amadeu "Attila" Carvalho. The game was all but lost until C9 turned it around through teamfighting. Still lacking was the early aggression that C9 had hoped for, but it was a start. After an exhausting 40-minute contest, C9 finished the first two days 1-1.
If worlds was a horror movie, perhaps C9 would struggle through groups but, in the final few moments, miraculously manage to survive against all odds. This isn't a movie, and there are no zombies. But the odds are still equally stacked against them.