AUG 16, 2018

Cloud9’s season has been tempestuous, to say the least. A shocking pre-season shakeup left longtime fans in distress as the team’s three veteran players, Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi, Andy “Smoothie” Ta, and Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen, were benched for their Academy counterparts on account of motivation issues. What followed was a series of swaps that saw Cloud9 attempt 5 different team permutations, each as middling as the last – until recently. Only a single lineup has been able to pick up more than one win – in fact, it’s looked positively powerful, posting a five game win streak that’s seen Cloud9 rocket back up the standings to third place, creeping ever closer to a playoff bye when even making the knockout stages seemed all but lost. Even after their recent success, Cloud9 has continued to experiment with roster changes, swapping in longtime NA LCS ringer Greyson “Goldenglue” Gilmer and Danish import Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen to the tune of a landslide win against reigning champions Team Liquid.

Cloud9’s search for a winning solution has seen every single player from their starting lineup benched at some point except for one. The storm that passed by Cloud9 has left only a single player untouched. Eric “Licorice” Ritchie has been Cloud9’s one constant – and at this point, he’s becoming their ace as well.

“When Licorice sits down in front of a computer, a preternatural calm sets in.”

Licorice remembers his first appearance in Cloud9’s sky blue as an anxious affair. “When I first started, I was pretty nervous,” he says. “I felt the pressure, and so before the first LCS game I was definitely nervous.” It’s understandable for any rookie to feel jumpy before their first big match, but Licorice had an additional expectation to live up to – his predecessor was former world champion Jung “Impact” Eon-Young. Cries of “Cloud9 lost the off-season!” filled Reddit as the community preemptively decided that the team’s shuffle would sink their 2018 Spring Split.

Cloud9’s opponents, Counter Logic Gaming, were well aware of the potential to exploit a young player’s jitters; attempting to prey on Licorice’s stage fright, they bombarded him with multi-man ganks, setting his Gangplank back with two early deaths designed to tilt and distract. But Licorice held fast. He weathered CLG’s focus, freeing up space for his team to take control of the bottom half of the map; and by the time late game rolled around, he was playing as if he had been the one to earn early kills, eventually topping the damage charts. The idea that he had gone into the game worried at all was laughable. His nerves of steel allowed Cloud9 to stay even and secure the win, and eventually, garnered Licorice his Rookie of the Split award as he capped the league in kills for top laners.

Licorice, for his part, was unfazed by the award, which was a foregone conclusion in a season featuring surprisingly little rookie talent. Other than his own Cloud9 teammates, who couldn’t vote for him, only two voters cast their ballot in favor of someone else – in this case, Deftly, the swingy AD carry of Golden Guardians. “I don’t think it changed that much,” Licorice says. “I mean, I pretty much knew I was gonna get it, and obviously I’m really happy and honored with the award, but I knew I’d get it. I made some jokes with Deftly, since he was also up for it and we were teammates (on eUnited), but I think overall it didn’t really change much.” Funnily enough, that includes his anxiety. “It’s gotten… better,” he says with a laugh. “What usually happens is that we wake up on a match day and I’m a little nervous, then I get a bit more nervous once I get on stage.” When Licorice sits down in front of a computer, though, a preternatural calm sets in. “Once I’m in game it goes away,” he says. “But it’s something I’ve always felt. When we were in the challenger scene we didn’t play that many stage games, but when we did I felt it then too.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find a hint of those nerves in-game. While Licorice’s stalwart consistency was an important piece of Cloud9’s success last split, it became one of Cloud9’s sole saving graces in their messy early summer. The team’s losses seemed to follow a consistent pattern: Licorice garners an early lead, perhaps even solo-killing his lane opponent, snowballs it hard… and then the team fails to close out (ironically, their sole win in the first three weeks came after Licorice started the game with two deaths). It was a trend made all the more upsetting by the good early game performances by the team – the potential was there, but it remained unfulfilled.

Licorice, for his part, tried to keep his head down and play his game. When asked if the turmoil in the team had changed how he played, he pauses before responding, “Not that much. I guess it’s motivated me to play more consistently because of the change.” He lets out a mischievous laugh. “I try really hard against the academy team when we scrim them. Mostly I just try to keep up practice and play my game.”

“There are two types of aggressive ... One is more forcing the other player to make mistakes, and the other is playing the matchup, waiting for them to make mistakes, and then punishing that. I’d say I aim to be more of the second type, and Huni tries to be the first type where he just… fights you.”

Since then, Licorice has been reunited with two of his veteran teammates, Sneaky and Jensen, along with rising rookie jungler Robert “Blaber” Huang and former academy support Tristan “Zeyzal” Stidam, in what seems to be a stable iteration of the team. But despite Blaber’s explosive entrance and the return of Cloud9’s two former stars, it’s been Licorice who has served as the central pole around which the team operates. Licorice has been putting up impressive numbers no matter which players surround him, but he looks positively premier with a stable roster; in Cloud9’s recent six-game win streak, he’s posted a remarkable 12/4/30 combined KDA.

“I pretty much try to play the same every game and stay consistent. Well, sometimes in scrims I feed a bit,” he says with a chuckle. “Sometimes when I’m playing a matchup I don’t know or something, I can feed a little bit, so I guess I try to change that when we’re on stage.” Consistency is key to Licorice’s success, especially in terms of dealing with his nerves. “I don’t look at the name of the other player,” he says. “I more try to play the matchup and punish them when they make mistakes in the matchup. Ok, maybe against someone like Echo Fox, I know I’m going to get camped by their jungler, but I try to play the same no matter what.”

But consistency does not mean passivity – something Licorice has proved time and time again. In fact, one of his most impressive games this season came against none other than Echo Fox and their explosive top laner, Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon. Licorice leveraged the newly-reworked Aatrox to become an undeniable threat in the top lane, achieving the remarkable “Flame horizon” and ending a full 101 CS up over Huni. Licorice’s overwhelming presence in lane has eclipsed even the namesake of the accomplishment, FlyQuest’s Lee “Flame” Ho-Jong – he boasts a monstrous average gold differential of 354 at ten minutes, more than double that of Flame’s second place 163. In the game against Echo Fox, Licorice held a whopping 20 CS advantage over Huni at ten minutes.

“I pretty much have always been an aggressive player,” says Licorice, “and I try to play the same way every time.” Players like Huni have established an image for the modern aggressive top laner that favors fire over patience, inconsistency baked into its DNA; but Licorice is cut from a different cloth. “There are two types of aggressive,” he says. “One is more forcing the other player to make mistakes, and the other is playing the matchup, waiting for them to make mistakes, and then punishing that. I’d say I aim to be more of the second type, and Huni tries to be the first type where he just… fights you.” He says it with a laugh - no one can deny that watching Huni’s unrelenting aggression is a treat. But Licorice’s measured approach is hard to argue against; while Huni has the potential to take over a game completely, there’s also a looming chance that his overzealous playstyle puts him in a hole that Echo Fox then must dig themselves out of. In just one year, Licorice has established himself as the heir apparent to North America’s top-lane heritage; a lineage rooted in solidity and dependability that stretches back to the days of Marcus “Dyrus” Hill, but with the modern twist of Licorice’s devotion to aggression. He’s not the sole possible inheritor – Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell, Dyrus’s direct replacement, comes to mind as well – but at the moment, Licorice is the model other native talents should be looking to follow.

“I think I had sort of a fortunate career,” Licorice says. “I actually think – two years ago, Cloud9 had open tryouts for challenger team, back when the squad was Hai, Lemon, Balls, Altec, and Contractz. And that challenger squad became me, Grig, Damonte, Deftly, Zeyzal.” He laughs again. “And now all of us are starters in the LCS. So I think sometimes, was it just that we were a bunch of good players playing together… or maybe that we were scrimming together, hanging out together? It’s funny.”

It is unusual that the entire roster of Cloud9’s 2016 challenger squad has seen long-term success – as Licorice said, every member of that team currently starts for an LCS team. North America has long been seen as a region with a dearth of homegrown talent; indeed, only three teams, Golden Guardians, CLG, and Cloud9 themselves, currently field a starting roster with less than the maximum two imports (and two of those on a technicality; Choi “Huhi” Jae-Hyun received his residency only a month ago, while Svenskeren shares time with Blaber). North America’s underperformance at recent international tournaments has whipped up a frenzy of speculation once again as to why the region seems to struggle with cultivating talent. Licorice and his challenger peers, then, are the true hope of North America – for longterm development that might eventually bolster the region to international contention. “Yeah, I think it’s true,” Licorice says of North America’s lack of talent. “Some people just say that because we have less players, we’d have less good players. I don’t know about that, if that’s true. Other people like to say ping… I think it’s a combination of the two.” But he sees a future in Riot’s efforts for talent cultivation made possible by franchising, from Scouting Grounds to the expanded academy system (the latter having already made its impact known on Cloud9, of course).

Despite his auspicious beginnings, Licorice is well-aware that he has room to grow. “In terms of champions played… Last season I was more of a carry player, and this season I’ve been trying to play more tanks and stuff,” he says. “So I guess I’m branching out in that way.” For the record, that experiment has gone off without a hitch; Licorice’s stellar season has played out largely on tanks like Dr. Mundo and Cho’Gath, controlled with the same level of expertise as his traditional Gnar and Vladimir.

But Licorice’s greater focus is on his communication. His motivations as a player have changed; he says “I used to just really want to win my lane, but now I’m trying to be more vocal and help my team. When I first started I was pretty quiet. And you know, [Cloud9], it’s not like we have a dedicated shotcaller, but there are people who are louder than others… so I guess I’ve gotten a bit louder too.” One can only believe that voice is all the more important when those who are louder are constantly switching. Cloud9 has now separated from one of their louder voices in Smoothie. That void could provide a space for Licorice to step up in communication the same way he has in gameplay. “I think top laners can be really helpful to the team as a voice in the mid to late game,” he says. “So I’ve been trying to speak up then and be louder.”

Should Licorice fulfill that goal, he shows the promise of evolving from a role-player – albeit a phenomenal one – to a true franchise superstar. Cloud9’s late resurgence has the possibility of a run to Worlds, whether through playoffs or the gauntlet, written all over it. Other North American contenders for Worlds have ridden on the back of veterans – Doublelift, Aphromoo, Huni. Licorice’s break into the wide blue open of international competition would be a true test of whether his tempered aggression can succeed at the highest level – but perhaps, by forging forward, he can lift up the rest of his region behind him.

Photo Credit: Riot Games