What makes Cloud 9 different?
What makes Cloud 9 different?
When the players of Cloud 9 tore onto the NA LCS scene in the Summer Promotion series—under the name Quantic Gaming at the time—they shocked the LoL world. After going completely undefeated, 5-0, in the tournament, they proceeded to march straight past established teams like Curse, TSM, and CLG in the Summer Split.
They currently rest comfortably at the top of the NA LCS standings with a 15-2 record. They're four games above their nearest challenger, and have almost double the wins of most teams in the league.
Where did this explosive team come from, and why the heck are they doing so well? We went straight to the source for answers.
The most common thing said about Cloud 9 by shoutcasters, fans, and analysts of their success in the Summer Split is they play like the Korean teams. It's a fairly ambiguous phrase, but it's one of the highest forms of flattery in the LoL pro scene, where Korean teams have consistently performed well in international tournaments.
And there's some truth in the comparison, especially when looking at how Cloud 9 approaches the game on a big-picture level. But the members of Cloud 9 are quick to point out that they're doing more than just mimicking others' strategies.
"I don't think [that comparison] is accurate," Cloud 9's Top Laner Balls said. "We use the same champions as the Koreans do, but we play the lanes differently, and just play reactively from what happens."
"I think the fast-pushing meta and our champion pools are where people are seeing the similarities," chimed in Sneaky, AD Carry. "Other than those two things we have our own style that we created."
Meteos and Hai both told me that they look to the Korean teams for inspiration, but insisted that they've expanded on it as they develop their own, unique style.
Their coach, Alex Penn chorused the players' thoughts. "I feel like the comparison to Korean teams is pretty over-hyped," he said. "The team uses what we believe are the strongest champions in the game for our objective-based team strategy, and those champions may line up with what Korea believe is the strongest as well."
"I think it'll become more apparent that we're influenced by Korean champion choices, but we still look to find what is strongest," he added. "This is especially evident when we move to patches quicker than Korea and have access to newer champions. We can't just sit back and rely on Korea to do that work for us, and we never have."
The Support, Lemonnation, has a theory for why so many people in the community think they're copying Korean tactics.
"I think the reason [people compare Cloud 9 to Korean teams] is because early in our dominance, I started mentioning how we watched all of the OGN games," said Lemonnation. "But at this point, every other American team does the same, and CLG even has Montecristo as their Korean analyst/coach. We learn from Korean teams—as well as American, European, and Chinese teams—but so does everyone else."
"I think I can always learn and my opinion is never 100 percent correct -- the game changes" -Sneaky
The team philosophy
So if it's not a unique Korean twist that's making Cloud 9 stand out, what is it? Meteos and Sneaky both called attention to Cloud 9's focus on objectives, like Dragon and towers, as a primary distinction.
"Most other NA teams struggle to figure out what they want to do," said Balls. "Whether they want to do Dragon or Baron or either pushing turrets or killing."
Lemonnation doesn't hold back. "We make better decisions about objectives and pushing than other teams," he said. "We turn every kill into an objective. We don't waste time."
Being the new kids on the block might be one of the main reasons that Cloud 9 has the ability to focus on what they believe is really important and not get distracted by temporary victories.
According to Balls, the older teams in the league have some lingering bad habits that they need to break as the game's meta changes. But being a new team allows Cloud 9 the ability to jump right into the current meta and just focus on what's good now.
Maybe what makes Cloud 9 great isn't even about the team as a whole -- maybe it's just what the individual players do. I talked with each player about their tactics to see what they thought made them stand out among the crowded LCS player pool.
The most interesting response was from Sneaky, who highlighted his selflessness in the AD Carry role, which is often defined by extreme selfishness as the Carry tries to amass powerful items for teamfights.
An older team like CLG may boast about their "defend the Doublelift" strategy, but Sneaky is proud that he defers farm for the greater good.
"I definitely think my role as an AD Carry is different than others," said Sneaky, "just because of the fact that I give up a lot of my farm for the sake of pushing faster or getting to a lane to defend, rather than farming bot lane all day."
He quickly added: "I didn't intentionally try to give up farm for pushing power. It just kind of came naturally when playing together."
Lemonnation keeps his Support role interesting by being aggressive like Edward, one of the LCS players he really looks up to. "I know how to control the lane better than other Supports," he said, "and because of that we tend to push harder and get turrets faster than other teams.
"My actual playstyle in Support tends to be more aggressive and less peely. I only play Support, so if I want to have fun with it, I need to be aggressive. Playing the peeler every game can be boring."
He's kindred spirits with Hai, the team's Mid Laner, who said, "I like being aggressive and pushing my lane all day even if it's not a lane I would win."
But don't think that believing in their personal strengths makes them pompous. The Cloud 9 guys are still eager to learn from their peers, who they respect, and want to improve their skills however they can.
Sneaky continues to look up other pro's Masteries and Runes to see what they're using and how he can improve his own builds. "I think I can always learn and my opinion is never 100% correct -- the game changes," he said.
"You don't have a huge reason to continue practicing plays that your team is confident in running, you just need to work on innovating and expanding your playbook."
The game is changing faster than ever as professional teams around the world invent new strategies and push the ever-evolving meta. Every new advancement adds a little more work to be done before the match even begins: scouting an opposing team's champion pick trends, predicting bans, and more.
Some top teams like TSM only began taking pre-game preparations seriously in the middle of the Spring Split, and many of them still have players do a lot of the grunt work on it.
Cloud 9 is one of the teams embracing the new coach and analyst roles in the league, hiring Alex Penn to fill that spot on their team. I asked Alex how the team actually prepares, and he was kind enough to walk me through the process.
"Our process includes mainly myself and Lemonnation talking through both who we will ban and who we believe the opposing team will ban," said Penn. "We take these bans to the team and discuss different options. Then we come up with different scenarios of who they first pick, if they are on blue side, or who we first pick and who they take in their one and two spots.
"It's really strategic and is definitely my favorite part of being a part of the Cloud 9 team," he continued. "Lemonnation's notebook of strategies has at least one page on our final game plan for each of the LCS matches written up before they leave San Jose."
While Lemonnation contributes heavily to the preparation for picks and bans, he was quick to give Alex credit for their team’s success, saying, "He is invaluable, and a significant advantage we have over other teams."
Sneaky takes it even further: "If he wasn't here I'd say we may have lost a few more games than we have. Picking phase is extremely important and can be the difference between winning and losing."
The most interesting part of Cloud 9's preparation to me was the fact that they don't just practice their own strategies, or even strategies that they're interested in playing. Cloud 9 players are students of the entire game, eager to learn anything and everything they can to earn a leg up on the competition.
"We try everything," said Penn, "especially successful compositions that other teams have used, allowing us to at least know the purpose of the strategy and rate it ourselves. I love comparing League of Legends practice to something like basketball. You may work on new plays during your week of practice between games, but you always review your old plays at least once a week.
"You don't have a huge reason to continue practicing plays that your team is confident in running, you just need to work on innovating and expanding your playbook," he added.
"The other teams in the LCS don't get along that well, at least as far as I've seen. We tend to have more fun with the game." -Lemonnation
Warm, fuzzy feelings
As we've seen, Cloud 9 has a lot of interesting perspectives and practices surrounding the epic LCS plays that have brought them such success in the NA league. Any number of things discussed so far could be the major contributing factor to their success.
I expected to hear about Korea, analysts, and individual skill. But what caught me most off-guard and impressed me when talking with the Cloud 9 players is how much they value their friendship and having fun together over the criticism and bickering that plagues some other LCS teams.
"The Cloud 9 players take the team situation as a job first, but they're also all friends," Penn explained. "The team hangs out with each other at events and spends a lot of time with each other."
Meteos chimed in to stress the value of their ability to discuss game tactics as friends and equals. He said, plainly, "We don't have as many big egos as other teams, so we adapt faster. And we play to constantly improve, instead of to look good."
"Our relationship is not one of business," Lemonnation added. "The other teams in the LCS don't get along that well, at least as far as I've seen. We tend to have more fun with the game."
Hai explained why he thinks Cloud 9 is able to maintain that friendship and high spirits while so many other LCS teams fall into bickering. The key might be not watching replays of their own games.
"I think many teams watch replays of themselves playing and try to iron out what each player did wrong," he said. "We don't really do that. We allow players to look at their own mistakes and not be called out on making a bad play or decision. It keeps the team atmosphere better and, most of the time, the player will know if they messed up already.
"Our mentality towards the game is very relaxed," Hai continued. "We're always down to try new things and new builds, as all of us like experimenting with random things. We don't really ever call anyone out for a bad play and just move on from it, our improvement is solely based on our own motivation."
Whether it's good vibes, good planning, or good execution that's making the biggest difference on the Fields of Justice, whatever Cloud 9 is doing, it's working. You can see them in action this week, as Cloud 9 takes on TSM and Curse in the NA LCS.
Comments? You can talk with Josh on Twitter.