Written by: Richard Lewis
The ESL Pro Series finals played out in Brazil, and as I’d predicted, the winner was not Brazilian. This was a bold call given the number of high profile teams not in attendance. The SK Gaming slayer, Virtus Pro was absent, as was Na’Vi and fnatic. Many felt an SK Gaming win was inevitable, especially the capacity crowd that showed up en masse and waved the Brazilian flag with pride. As the field was whittled down to just a few teams, I felt glum about my prediction. Team Dignitas, who had conquered all at EPICENTER, brought their star player with chronic food poisoning as an unwanted prize from Moscow and bowed out early. FaZe was still transitioning into the Karrigan era. My pick to win the event, Ninjas In Pyjamas, was beaten by SK Gaming in a solid series and I braced to be wrong. What I, and most people, hadn’t banked on, was Cloud9 defying the odds to come through and do something no North American team has done in about a decade; win a major international CS tournament.
You could be forgiven for not seeing it coming. The team’s problems, many of which will doubtlessly be airbrushed over in victory, explain why they went out in the group stage of ELEAGUE. Under the stewardship of one of the game’s youngest in-game leaders, Cloud9 is still building up its tactical playbook. From that standpoint, what they do have they execute well, but in CS, you will always need a plan B and plan C when things don’t work. Secondly, two of the teams’ big brand players have been cruising on brand status for some time and not producing offline performances that such billing demands. There’s also been questions about their mental resilience, which only seems increasingly valid with sensitive reactions to criticism on social media.
Even in Brazil, where they marched on take their place in esports history, some of those issues were still evident, but what they did right eclipses all of it. While it’s no secret the top level of Counter-Strike is in flux, as evidenced by the now seventh winner from the last seven notable tournaments, this is a genuinely amazing achievement for a team that really needed to shake off their perennial “bridesmaid” status. What makes it even more startling, all the more admirable, is that they did it the way that it’s supposed to be done. While other organizations are out there using venture capital money to take shortcuts to greatness, Cloud9 did this not just on a budget, but by also developing raw talent. It’s the closest thing we’ve seen to “moneyball” in our developing sport.
The development of new talent was something that needed to happen in North America for some time. Along with the global recession of 2008, the collapse of North American esports created a swamp where everything stagnated. As the prize money dried up in the economic downturn, there were fewer tournaments which meant less opportunity for smaller teams to practice competitively. With no sponsor money, there were no small teams period; everything was either tier one or amateur. Those who did want to invest wanted to pay as little as possible to get the biggest names possible, grabbing whatever was available. Meanwhile, the top level veterans received the rude awakening as the exorbitant salaries (courtesy of the Murdoch funded Championship Gaming Series) had gone away. They’ll never admit this, but it’s true regardless, as many acted as bitter gatekeepers of opportunity for years, only giving the young talent they felt could prop them up the chance to play alongside them. For the most part, they recycled the same group of players repeatedly, even when everyone could see that it wasn’t working and that some stars had begun to fade.
That power structure was largely broken apart on the fateful day the iBUYPOWER team was banned for match-fixing, and that, combined with the sudden influx of sizeable esports investment, has actually created an environment where gambling on young talent isn’t going to be immediately punished. Multiple North American players who are now household names were either streaming, playing in amateur teams, or not playing at all just a few years ago. While Team Liquid has spent a sizeable sum to build a team capable of winning trophies, Cloud9 has shown the way forward by developing two players that, on current form, are easily the most effective in North American Counter-Strike: Jake "Stewie2k" Yip and Timothy "autimatic" Ta.
Explaining how that happened is nearly impossible from an outsider perspective, although I can hazard a few guesses. People will be offended if you suggest luck played a part, but with all sports that is true. In an alternate universe we never got to see Yip play for Cloud9. Instead, they paid the $50k transfer fee for Tarik "tarik" Celik, now of OpTic Gaming, and Stewart continued to play high level pickup games. At the time, I was positive about the pickup saying it was a safe long term bet that only had the potential downside of not improving the team, which was to say no change at all. A more likely outcome was that the player was competent but not brilliant, and could be sold on to another organization for a profit when the time came. As Cloud9 fans changed their flair on Reddit, what they couldn’t have foresaw is what actually happened, as he would go on to become the best all-around player in North America. Especially incredible when you consider three years ago he hadn’t played at all.
So yes, luck, but also some quality man management. Cloud9 excels at this and always has in every team they put their name to. It’s also worth noting that the legend Jordan "n0thing" Gilbert is a contributing factor. Easy to get along with, never stressed, and experienced in ways few current players are, there’s no doubt he’s played his part. It’s done him a favor too. He is too scatterbrained to be an in-game leader and some of their sloppiest play came when he had to call for the team. He’s improved in tandem with the new additions and is having something of a renaissance.
If you ever hear anyone say it’s a fluke, it turns out you won’t have to look too far to prove them wrong. When Ta joined the team, replacing Alec "Slemmy" White, it was a move that (certainly to me at least) screamed of cronyism. As a friend of Yip’s from back in the day, it looked like this was a move to placate their star player. Certainly Ta had shown nothing during his time at TSM to suggest what would come next. And understand, that spell in TSM was the high point after he’d spent all of 2015 in the esports wilderness, playing under five organizations in one year. When the conventional wisdom was that Cloud9 needed an in-game leader in a like for like replacement, the move seemed strange indeed, almost as strange when it was revealed that their newly-developed rookie would be doing the calling.
While Yip has certainly been instrumental in making Cloud9 comfortably the best team in North America, it was the addition of Ta that has given them an extra dimension. Since he joined, their worst performance was at ELEAGUE in a group they should have come through. That blip aside, they have won the CyberPowerPC Summer 2016 Pro Series, were runners-up at Northern Arena Toronto, and DreamHack Bucharest, managing an arguably more impressive semi-final finish at the StarLadder StarSeries Season 2 Finals. Obviously, this victory is their crowning glory and the mitigating factors around it don’t matter for the moment.
Ta was awarded the tournament MVP award, and there was little discussion about it. He amassed a +71 kill differential across twelve maps, only failing to hit twenty kills on three occasions, and an 80% success rate in clutch situations. These are the god-like statistics of an elite-level player just hitting peak form. With this showing, it has to be said that if Cloud9 could iron out a few kinks, it’s not hype to say they would be ready for a sustained run as genuine tournament contenders each time they turn out.
Even if that outcome doesn’t happen, one thing bears repeating: there is talent out there if you choose to seek it, know where to look, and actually know what it looks like. The problem with North American Counter-Strike has always been the big names dining out on past glories, always finding seemingly plausible excuses for underperformance. Credit Cloud9 and the dedication of their two new stars for showing a way forward, not just for aspiring players, but also for North American organizations looking for relevance.