Two steps forward, one step back: Can C9 become elite?

Cloud9 can be great, if they can evolve

MAR 08, 2018

Considering the scope of CS:GO as both a game and an esport, winning a large-scale international LAN is a lifelong pursuit. To reign victorious over competition as skilled, well-resourced and practiced as the top teams in the world, a line-up has to be truly exceptional. Cloud9 at the Boston Major manifested the awesome qualities of a world-championship calibre team to claim the first trophy for their domestic scene. The North Americans transcended the boundaries of what analysis and punditry perceived as possible. Cloud9, for one tournament, became legends.

The CS:GO tournament circuit, however is unrelenting. Unlike the structured, league-based operations of other esports, in CS:GO, there is no shortage of stadium stages to prove your greatness. To be in that elusive apex-predator, front-running ‘elite’ category, one needs to not only be dominant, but dominate consistently. No all-time great team prides itself on a handful of isolated victories. To be the best, you have to prove it across continents, eras of play, shifts in meta and in competition. In the immediate post-Major run of LANs, C9, amidst a slew of incredibly closely contested sides, has failed to source this crucial ingredient of consistency. For the large part, they’ve been victims of the ‘blue shell’ effect that tends to occur with top sides and have struggled relatively unsuccessfully against a litany of factors outside their control.

Cloud9 might’ve only played three LANs in the first two months after at the major, but across these LANs they’ve played thirteen best of 3 series losing around half of them. As their two victories against SK show though, C9 aren’t a ‘bad’ team. Not in the least bit. They are however, a far-cry from their Major form, with Liquid and their own run of form looking to contest C9 on a power ranking to be NA’s best.

This shouldn’t be to the dismay of C9 and their fans though. The competition around C9 have figured them out, exploiting a lack of time to adjust styles or strategies between tournaments. A team like C9 winning in the way they did at Boston demands focus, analysis and deconstruction - especially from their peers. We’ve started seeing the weaknesses of C9 shine through the cracks in the form of its stars, and more well-informed anti-stratting of their opponents. Although the next big event is well over a month away in Marseille, this next month of practice and rest could be the month that defines C9’s 2018 season. To stagnate in their current state is to die, C9 knows this and will try to evolve in their time off.

Cloud9’s strengths as a team are fairly linear relative to how we normally view ‘elite’ sides Cloud9 have found most of their success through employing a unique style and fuelling it with immense individual skill, cohesion and enough variance to give them flexibility. They innovated the utilisation of lesser-seen or brand-new executes on key battleground maps like Mirage and Inferno. This gave them not only the ‘shock’ factor but also a foundation of structure to fall back on to grind-out rounds on the T-side. Their fast-paced early map control gains, explosive fragging core paired alongside these strats allowed them to overwhelm and out-pressure sides not used to gauging their pace.

It’s expected that C9 wouldn’t be able to continue their level of form from the Grand Final. Tarik isn’t posting the same game-shifting numbers or impact while his partner in-crime RUSH is also lagging in the fragging department. Both aren’t playing awfully, it’s just in the big series and games it seems autimatic is the only one being able to bring the Major form into the server consistently.

For many teams, playing against C9 was about matching their individual skill and then being able to either beat-down or beat-out their more unique approaches to macro and structure. With much time given to their opponents to pour over the massive bank of C9 demos, certain strats became telegraphed, their pace excepted, and win conditions lacking that ‘shock factor’ that gave them their sting.

Even in their two dominant 2:0 series wins against Heroic we still saw the lower-tiered European side pull out round-wins by virtue of reads and simple counters. The Danes couldn’t match C9 on an individual level, but as we can see in this round here, they had a gauge on C9’s T-side with some solid counters to punish them. When these countering ideas are paired with greater individual performances as we’ve seen with both Liquid, and FaZe, C9 look to bank more and more on individual skill of their own. Liquid’s more structured, default-focussed approach excels at thwarting the pressure and aggression of C9. This is contrasted with a team like FaZe who on their good days of form can actually out-pressure C9. Outside of their practice in tournament play, C9 have largely been deprived of the crucial off-time to change and avoid this as well.

C9 are hit twice as hard by the immediate jump into tournament play as they can’t watch or anti-strat their opponents in as much depth themselves. While all manner of competition has seen the Boston Grand Final twice over, C9 are forced to prepare for a massive array of opposition under constant travel and tournament play. Not only are teams more prepared for them, they are in a spot where they’re forced to be less prepared for everyone else.

Even a team as miraculous as C9 can’t turn their game on a dime to adapt to the incessant pressures of top-tier play. In this sense, Cloud9 bear far more resemblance to an evolved late-2016 OpTic than a Mt. Rushmore-type NA dream-team. In terms of storyline, style, and even personnel, the OpTic parallel is great for understanding the current situation of Cloud9.

OpTic was a flash-in-the-pan success story. They were led by stanislaw who successfully leveraged an explosion in individual form amongst the fiery entrying of RUSH and aggressive play of tarik. They were able to win ELEAGUE S2 in shock-fashion and then place a comfortable second at the ECS S2 finals shortly after. Following these two miraculous results though, OpTic bombed out of the ELEAGUE Major, winning only one game against Flipsid3.

While Cloud9 isn’t exactly ‘bombing out’ of any tournaments following a miraculous result of their own, more broadly speaking, they are following a similar trend. The stanislaw-led OpTic looked to transfer the fragging power of their incredibly skilled players to open up rounds and constantly threaten with fast pushes. Stanislaw proved himself to be a master at managing changes in tempo and catching teams off-guard with the individuals at his disposal. After such a high-profile win at ELEAGUE though, teams quickly realised OpTic’s modus operandi and could more easily read their hits. When this was paired with a slight drop in OpTic’s individual form, they struggled heavily with beating the European sides that they once had run over.

This current Cloud9 roster, while boasting a couple of OpTic’s alumni, is a far better team. Cloud9 are more well-rounded, with a higher quality of firepower and a deeper bucket of win conditions to draw on. They do, however, suffer many of the same problems OpTic did. Cloud9 look to push a similarly fast-paced game but at a higher-level and in a more developed meta. While teams like Na`VI, Astralis, Liquid, and even SK are erring more on the side of structure, Cloud9 was able to burst into the top five with a different, more uniquely ‘American’ approach on this style.

Stanislaw departed OpTic immediately after they bombed at the Major so we never got a chance to see how he would have developed that roster beyond their rushing roots. Cloud9 have the benefit of a cohesive core and actual time to alter their course as a team. Whether that sees them look to fall more in-line with the slowed-down approach of elite sides or further refine their current style remains to be seen. Sure, they won a one-off tournament, and sure, that tournament was a Major, but on the never-expanding timeline of history, that isn’t the foundation of a truly great side.

To transcend their domestic roots and become a truly great team that so many of their fans perceive them to be post-Boston, C9 need to change and become adaptive. They need to move away from the linear roots of their OpTic and NA ancestry and embrace the ebb and flow of truly top-tier CS:GO.

Photo Credit: StarLadder