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America’s Top Farmer: Cloud9’s History of Counter-Strike Prospects

In professional baseball, each organization has a farm system where it trains up its draft picks before bringing them up to the big leagues. To make it into MLB play, a young recruit must first prove his chops against lesser opponents, working his way up through A, AA, and AAA, the 3 tiers of the minor leagues. It’s a logical and well-organized practice that trains rising stars, discovers role-players, and weeds out lesser performers.

North American Counter-Strike doesn’t have that system, though it could use it. Instead, it just has FPL, premier, and Cloud9.

The original coL lineup. Photo courtesy coLnews.

The original coL lineup, which would morph into C9 and that team’s many iterations. The only constant? n0thing. Photo courtesy coLnews.

Cloud9 occupies a unique position within the NA CS:GO scene. Since its inception, it has been a prestigious organization. And for just as long, it has been about the only top-level NA team to recruit unproven talents and introduce them to play among the upper echelons of CS:GO.  Starting with shroud and moving through ShahZaM, fREAKAZOID, Stewie2k, and Slemmy, whenever C9’s core needed a roster move, it almost always gambled on newcomers rather than old guard. In comparison, CLG in-bred players from within its clique, iBP took proven stars from compLexity/Cloud9, and Liquid played tap-dance with a string of otherwise-rejected pros.

This role of “elite farm team” has not been by choice for the most part. For such a deep scene, NA CS has been entrenched at its uppermost level for a long time. Veterans were skeptical of rising talents. I’m sure if circumstances permit, C9 would love to be the New York Yankees, letting stars prove themselves stars elsewhere and then buying them up. But such players are hard to come by, buy out, or otherwise persuade to leave a good team, as C9 has discovered time and time again. Instead, as history shows, C9 has foraged through the forests of tier 2 and 3 NA CS:GO and found young guns that are easier to snap up. And their track record in doing so is surprisingly, unwittingly good.

From coL to C9, swag to shroud

Cloud9’s first investment in little-known North American talent actually came from the compLexity lineup that would shortly become C9. CoL–seangares, SEMPHIS, Hiko, n0thing, and swag–was the best NA lineup of early CS:GO. They made it to the semifinals of the first major, Dreamhack Winter 2013, and then the quarterfinals of the second major, ESL One Katowice 2014. With a growing phenom like swag, top player like Hiko, and strat-caller like seangares, this established team seemed both powerful and full of room to grow.

Then swag left for iBuyPower, coL’s rivals in America. It was a spontaneous, strange, and fateful decision on swag’s part. (Imagine if he hadn’t left! At the least, he wouldn’t have had an opportunity to participate in the devestating iBP throw.) And it left coL with anger, an established player but one who wasn’t nearly as good as swag.

CoL struggled through the spring of 2014, and despite an impressive second-place finish at the ESEA finals, they pursued replacing anger. The team they looked at was named Manajuma, a lower-level invite team with promising potential and (to modern eyes) a surprisingly stacked lineup: Irukandji, dboorn, minikerr, desi, and a young Polish Canadian named shroud. At the beginning of July, coL kicked anger and brought in shroud and dboorn, an experienced player from 1.6 and Source, on a trial basis.

At this point in CS:GO history, NA’s scene looked closer to the scene of other countries, with one or two top teams and a sea of semi-pros floating beneath. It was a natural move for coL to cherry-pick the best players from another team not named iBP, even if that lineup was a promising one. Dboorn was a known entity, but it was shroud that was the untasted spice. Shroud was a true rookie, but he had been turning heads with his sick aim. Dustmoret had interviewed him for a show fittingly named The Hype, and famous fragmovie editor aThId had showcased a 1v5 clutch shroud won.

CoL in this instance could have been conservative and stuck with dboorn. But the coL players were impressed with shroud’s agreeable attitude and willingness to learn how to play with the team. They chose the young talent, and it was a good choice. Before the month of July had ended, Cloud9, a League of Legends organization that was branching out to other eSports, had arranged a deal with the lineup, whose contracts with compLexity were ending at the beginning of August.

Immediately, shroud played well (although not incredibly) at the major, ESL One Cologne, and at the FACEIT Season 2 finals. In Cologne, C9 pulled off dual upsets over Titan and dignitas to reach the quarters once again. All seemed on the up-and-up.

Between the lines, though, not all was well. SEMPHIS and seangares butted heads over shot-calling, n0thing regularly showed up late for or skipped practice, and shroud settled into a popular streaming personality that (some say) distracted from his competitive performance. The team began to tank in performance. In December, Hiko left C9 for the ill-fated superteam iBuyPower, criticizing his teammates’ commitment to winning and vowing never to return. Once again, the coL/C9 core would have to replace a star.

Looking back, the shroud pick-up introduced a new and convincing talent into top-level NA CS, and it was certainly a decent roster move. However, unlike similar CS:GO-only talents like device, coldzera, or flamie, shroud would never become the superstar rifler his aim and intelligence would seem to destine him for. The label “pug-star” will hang over shroud as long as he plays incredibly on Twitch and only decently on LAN.

ShahZaM: the move that didn’t work

The most obvious thing the coL/C9 roster lacked was a star sniper. Both SEMPHIS and seangares would take up the AWP as needed, but neither had sick skills with it; they were utilitarian with it at best. This led to perhaps the most logical and least successful of C9’s roster moves: picking up ShahZaM.

ShahZaM looked like he could become a good-to-great player. His AWP was quick, his rifles were decent, and as a part of his Denial lineup, he had put up good performances, including a star performance against C9 itself right before Hiko’s departure. Denial was an up-and-coming team, but once again, at this time in CS:GO, an offer from Cloud9 was too good to refuse. Perfect, right?

As it turned out, ShahZaM was inconsistent at best with Cloud9. He would make questionable decisions at times, and his jitters in big games were palpable, including a groan-inducing TK on SEMPHIS at the major, ESL One Katowice 2015. In part due to ShahZaM’s problems, in part due to the team’s accelerating implosion, the team failed to make it out of groups at that tournament. Steel, now banned and relegated to commentary, released a video that tore apart ShahZaM’s performance round by round. C9 couldn’t have been lower, and soon it would detonate its own lineup, kicking out both ShahZaM and SEMPHIS.

ShahZaM is a failed NA talent, failed in that he hasn’t ever shown us the ability to perform in big games like he does online or against lesser opponents. I think it is telling that ShahZaM left OpTic, his most recent team, and then OpTic (with successful Spanish talent mixwell) went from having the wheels fall off to driving to upsets over Tempo Storm (2 Bo3 wins), NiP (1 map), and Astralis (1 map). But let him prove me wrong with results. In any case, this is, surprisingly, the one roster gamble that never paid off for C9.

fREAKAZOID, Skadoodle, and the Glorious Run

With NA CS:GO at its lowest point ever, fielding no competitive international teams since the iBP ban, C9 rebuilt itself. Without SEMPHIS, seangares took total control of the team, and C9 made what must be considered its most intelligent and successful roster move ever. Picking up Skadoodle–teamless since the iBP ban–was a no-brainer. Skadoodle was clearly the best AWPer in NA, and looked to have the talent to challenge European AWPers if he could sort out his nagging communication issues and inconsistency. Under seangares, Ska would find an IGL who would provide him with some of the structure he had thrived under while playing with DaZeD. It was an obvious A+ acquisition.

The move that came out of left field, and which we now must call brilliant, was picking up fREAKAZOID as a pure entry-fragger.

The famous C9 lineup that went to three strait international finals. Freakazoid is 2nd from right. Photo courtesy fantasy esports.
The famous C9 lineup that went to three strait international finals. fREAKAZOID is 2nd from right. Photo courtesy fantasy esports.

Ska needed no introduction, but fREAKAZOID’s career in CS:GO was meager at best. A CS:Source player of some note, fREAKAZOID had been kicked from Team Dynamic (with adreN and AZK) way back in 2012 to make way for swag. He then played on Frost with moE, ry9n, and autimatic, which ultimately merged with a team called Homeless, with montE, frozt, and steel. When he and steel were kicked in March, steel went on to play with iBP, while freakazoid stepped away from the game. His resume was okay, but not particularly impressive; he as a player faded from our collective consciousness. Near when the C9 roster move was looming, rumors began going around that fREAKAZOID was training to play again; by this point, with all the updates and changes to the metagame, he would basically be a rookie all over again.

Several voices in the scene criticized C9 at first when they did acquire fREAKAZOID, including Thorin and DaZeD. FREAKAZOID was seen, to put it bluntly, as a washed-up nobody who would get swept under the rug by top-level pros. Thorin, though, noted that it would be a boon to seangares to have an entry fragger willing to obey his every command, something seangares had never had before. In a video review of the new roster’s early loss to EnVyUs on cache, DaZeD complimented fREAKAZOID’s timing with flashes while entering a bombsite, saying that he looked for this quality in an entry-fragger. Both were onto something.

During the famous three-tournament run of finals appearances for Cloud9, perhaps the most impressive accomplishment of any NA team, fREAKAZOID was the sole point of aggression on a team of naturally passive players. His entry-fragging for seangares made strategies work, despite the sometimes-atrocious scorelines freak would put up. And while seangares focused on tactics, fREAKAZOID became the spiritual leader of C9. A listen to his voice communications from the ESL ESEA finals, or to his interviews alongside n0thing, will convince anyone of this fact. His competitive smarts and energy motivated his lukewarm teammates to perform at their best level.

As C9’s level fell off, his teammates lost motivation, and seangares eventually left the team, fREAKAZOID continued to improve his play. Him leaving C9 was an inevitable move; with Stewie2k basically an entry-fragger himself, n0thing struggling to call strats, fREAKAZOID’s bullying controversy with s1mple, and the team clearly lacking both results and full dedication, the environment on C9 just wasn’t right for fREAKAZOID anymore. Standing-in for Splyce at DreamHack Austin, fREAKAZOID was the best player on the team by a mile, showing how much his gamesense and aim have developed from his experience on C9. Joining back with seangares in EchoFox, I can only presume he’ll continue to be a solid pro beyond what any observer would have expected a year and a quarter ago.

Freak was the true freaky roster move, the person snatched out of nowhere who was just right for the team. He was not a star, and probably never will be; but he was the perfect role-player for what C9 needed.

Stewie2k, disaster to star (feat. Slemmy on IGL)

Seangares quit C9 after devastating exits in groups at the majors in Cologne and Cluj-Napoca. The search for a replacement was a total mess. At this point, C9 was no longer clearly the team to be on. With CLG, Liquid, and a number of competitive tier 2 NA teams that were getting outsized sponsorship, there was more talent, but even more competition for that talent. And C9 would find the door closed to them wherever they looked for talent. The last person they were looking for was a barely-turned-18 pug-star with almost no pro experience.

As n0thing explained on his stream after Stewie2k joined the team, the team made its rounds almost everywhere. GeT_RiGhT was the first choice, but he turned the offer down; hiko and nitr0 both stuck with Liquid; gob b said no; and tarik and fugly were both considered and then rejected before young Stew. “All the veteran players we wanted to pick up from NA, we couldn’t really pick up,” n0thing complained. “Everyone had huge buyouts.” His exasperation is the quintessence of trying to assemble an internationally elite team in the current NA situation. It’s as frustrating as NA’s current international results.

Stewie2k was one from a laundry list of NA talents on the premier and FPL level that C9 investigated; the only other name n0thing mentioned was ryx. Thus far, the most notoriety Stewie2k had gotten was playing on a very suspect Splyce lineup (with Slemmy, please note) and a one-LAN Torqued mix with steel and moE. The team wanted an entry-fragger who could also throw smokes and be supportive, and Stewie2k’s knowledge of smokes and openness of criticism impressed n0thing. The team saw a foundation for better decision-making to build upon Stewie’s already impressive aim. “If he’s truly not fit for the role, we’ll find out,” n0thing concluded, somewhat defensively. We’ll strip some of the pug habits out of stewie and shroud, he promised.

Yet the idea that Stewie2k was the right man for the job was extremely questionable. Not only was he long down the list of C9’s candidates, and not only was he totally inexperienced, but he was not an in-game leader, leaving the shot-calling to the perpetual scatter-brain we know as n0thing. Many pounced on Stewie2k, whose overconfidence in himself didn’t aid matters.

Results were not good through the beginning of 2016, with C9 again failing to make the major playoffs (this time on home soil at Columbus). Freakazoid’s departure spelled yet another blow to C9; once again, they would have to scour the fallow fields premier to find a replacement for a veteran player. And this time, the name that they would turn up would be even more obscure: Slemmy.

Slemmy seems to have played CS:GO since its inception. He even has the least legit fragmovie ever, published by someone in June 2013! (Honestly: Who is he playing against? Is that a Negev? Is the person posting the video actually accusing him of cheating? But I had forgotten how sketchy early CS:GO spray technique was…and dat sensual jam soundtrack…8/8, no regets, best fragmovie ever! I kid, I kid.) From late 2014, he played on a revolving door of tier 4 and tier 3 NA teams, never staying long with one squad. Finally, he and his ex-Obey.Alliance teammates were beginning to make some waves under the name Without a Roof, when out of the blue, he receives an offer from Cloud9!

Slemmy’s skills hardly fit with an offer for a top NA org; even the generally generous moses was skeptical of the move. What was key to Cloud9’s decision, though, was Stewie2k’s enthusiasm for Slemmy. Stewie2k told his teammates that Slemmy was both a smart player and a good team player, and that he had the know-how to devote himself to the art of in-game leading. With Irukandji now coaching C9, this would make Slemmy’s burden less, and in theory, the firepower of the other four players ought to compensate for Slemmy dragging behind.

C9 once again struggled at first–at DreamHack Austin and at the ESL Pro League finals. And they may still struggle, as Slemmy’s scorelines are almost wholy dependent on his teammates and their performance. But ELEAGUE Group A has taught us that Slemmy’s inclusion has unlocked Stewie2k in the best way possible and allowed for n0thing to focus on fragging once again.

Picking up Slemmy was an investment in IGL development for North American Counter-Strike. But just like the Stewie2k deal, it was a near-unwilling investment, compelled by the circumstances of NA CS. That C9 has come out ahead as perhaps NA’s No. 1 team is a testament both to luck and to good scouting. But put within the history of C9, we see that time and again, C9 has opted to pursue the unproven potential over the known entity, whether by choice or not.

In the future, we may see organizations in NA conglomerate, with big NA orgs buying up smaller orgs and using them as farm teams. Until then, we’ll have to settle for risky acquisitions like those of Cloud9, the elite farm team of NA CS:GO.

The current C9 roster shake hands with Luminosity following their narrow defeat. Screenshot from ELEAGUE stream.
The current C9 roster shake hands with Luminosity following their narrow defeat. Screenshot from ELEAGUE stream.

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