Adapt or die: How Cloud9 flipped the script at the League of Legends World Championship

North America's Cloud9 wave to the Busan, South Korea, crowd after surprising everyone by winning three straight games to advance to the bracket stage of the League of Legends World Championship. Courtesy of Riot Games

BUSAN, South Korea -- In a single day, the entire world of League of Legends was flipped upside down.

When Group B was set a little over a week ago in Seoul, South Korea, at the 2018 League of Legends World Championship, everything seemed straightforward. The defending world champion, Gen.G, would get through to the bracket stage following their impressive victory in the South Korean regional. The tournament favorite and reigning Mid-Season Invitational winner, Royal Never Give Up of China, who have won every tournament they have entered this year, would join Gen.G. The pair of western teams drawn into the group with them, the scrappy but sloppy Team Vitality of Europe and the inexperienced young core of Cloud9 from North America who narrowly avoided disaster in the play-in qualifiers, were cannon fodder.

Gen.G, formerly under the Samsung Galaxy brand, and RNG had been drawn into the same worlds group the previous two years. Each time, they advanced to the knockout rounds with relatively little resistance from their western counterparts. This year, it was supposed to be the same story with new background characters, as the two teams would battle in groups and then possibly be matched up in the final in Incheon.

While RNG will be making its way to the quarterfinals, Gen.G, the world champion, will not, having succumbed to the worst performance of any South Korean team in worlds history, ending the tournament with a 1-5 record. In their stead, USA's Cloud9 will move on to the knockout rounds for the fifth time in six years, with the organization failing to make it to the quarterfinals only in 2015, when it fell in a tiebreaker to AHQ Esports of Taiwan. Team Vitality, who pressed the gas pedal until the final second, finished third, ahead of the defending world champion.

So how did C9 do it?

They did the opposite of what North America as a region has done throughout its existence at worlds.

For years, the NA LCS has come into worlds and done well in the first half of the double-round-robin group stage. This isn't a coincidence or some kind of magic. Almost every year, NA LCS teams come with a prepared style or single strategy they are good at, deploy that in their first three games, get a few wins and then go into the second half of the group with little motivation to adapt or change. During the days off, the opposing teams analyze that tunnel vision and exploit those weaknesses, and then they dispose of the NA LCS teams when they meet again.

In 2015, the only year of C9's existence in League of Legends in which they didn't make the quarterfinals at worlds, the team got off to by far its best start of any world championship, going 3-0 the first week before crashing back down to earth with four straight losses in Week 2. The past two years, all three NA LCS teams have finished the first week with 2-1 records. Both years, only C9 clawed their way out of the group stages, with the likes of Team SoloMid, Immortals and Counter Logic Gaming unable to evolve their play from the first three games to the last three.

This year, C9 was flat-footed up until their final games of Group B. The play-in stage was a near-disaster. Japan's Detonation FocusMe almost beat them twice. In the knockout match with LCL's Gambit Esports to get into the group stages, the team almost got eliminated before even making it to Busan, surviving 3-2. While they stole a win from Team Vitality in the first set of games in Group B to salvage at least one win, it didn't feel like a complete victory. The win felt more like Vitality losing the game through overeagerness than C9 winning.

On Sunday, the team that failed to make it out of groups, Team Vitality, might be the one that most helped C9 to move into the knockout stage. Through the first half of the group stages, a standard meta had established itself, with champions such as Urgot and Kai'sa becoming staples of nearly every game. Team Vitality, sick and tired of single-damage comps or boring farm fests in the top lane, bucked the trend, falling back to their all-out aggressive style to take out Gen.G in the first set of games and open the eyes of C9, who felt they were too passive in their first few games.

Coming into the final three games, C9 adopted the approach Team Vitality had brought to South Korea: Fight. It doesn't matter if your brain is telling you one thing and your heart is telling you another. Fight.

And fight they did. Instead of playing champions that have been "meta" this event, C9 played to their strengths and quickened their play. Eric "Licorice" Ritchie, the team's burgeoning rookie superstar, played four different champions in four games with Hecarim, Poppy, Shen and Singed. Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen got his hands on his signature Zilean. From top to bottom, the team's mindset was to let everything out on Summoner's Rift, and be it a win or a loss, like Team Vitality, they would not go down without taking a few of the opposing team with them.

The result was the best single-day performance at worlds in North American history. In succession, C9 bested Gen.G, romped tournament-favorite RNG and then, in one of the best worlds matches of the past few years, defeated Team Vitality to qualify for the quarterfinals, with the two innovative western sides both selecting their pocket picks like Zilean and Ekko to see which region's flavor was better on the day. Vitality, opting for an early-game composition, couldn't get a large enough lead around their core Draven, and before too long, C9 were sprinting their way to the top eight, becoming the first NA LCS team to mightily improve from the first half of the group stage to the next.

Gen.G, the world champion, were the perfect standardized team. In the face of mages and other wacky champions becoming meta in the bottom lane in the early part of the summer, Gen.G never flinched. They continued playing their standard ways. It didn't matter if they didn't have the best early game or the best laners. Gen.G knew that in the end, when they got to their sweet spot, no team could defeat them.

That mindset is what killed the king. Vitality set the tone of a new meta at worlds, and C9 followed suit. RNG, who were toppled in their first two games of Sunday's slate, adapted by the final tiebreaker with C9 for the No. 1 seed in the group, besting the NA team in another nail-biter. The only team to not evolve throughout the tournament, Gen.G, finished with only one win.

Adapt or die is the new name of the game in South Korea.

Group B has changed the entire feel of the tournament, and other teams will almost assuredly follow the new meta set. In what has become an arms race to see which team can play the fastest and be the tempo-setter of each game, it will be down to which teams can evolve the fastest to see who will join C9 and RNG for the quarterfinals this weekend.

Team Vitality might have not made it to the quarterfinals, but the tone they set through their swagger and flair in how they approach the game definitely will. C9 will make sure of it.