How It’s Made: Cloud9’s dominant League of Legends roster

As Jesper “Zven” Svenningsen sat down to write his Nov. 12 post, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of regret.

Once the hottest young talent in European League of Legends, Zven had taken a risk two years earlier, in 2017, as he and Alfonso “Mithy” Aguirre Rodriguez decided they’d leave their team, G2 Esports, in Berlin and travel to Los Angeles for a new adventure, joining Team SoloMid. It was an exciting time: Zven was joining one of the most prestigious organizations in esports, led on the Rift by cornerstone player Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg. Like Zven and Mithy, Bjergsen had made the transition from Europe to North America, and in doing so had become one of the most successful and popular League of Legends players in the world.

But two years later, in late 2019, Zven typed out a statement to release on Twitter, updating fans on his status as a player, his family and his mental health.

“The disappointment of not meeting expectations is the worst feeling,” Zven wrote.

Throughout 2018 and 2019, Zven and Team SoloMid’s expectations were gutted. The team failed to qualify for the world championship despite appearing in a domestic final. To make matters worse, Zven had become the heel during the rough stretch, with fans saying he was holding the team back, tarnishing the brand’s legacy and failing to come through in moments similar to the ones he had built his name on in Europe.

Following the conclusion of the 2019 season, word got around that team management was looking for a new AD carry, maybe even another European. The team had given Zven permission to start discussions with other teams early but continued to engage with him in the event he would return. Then, he heard TSM had signed Kasper “Kobbe” Kobberup, another Danish AD carry who like Zven had surmounted expectations in Europe and now was one of the hottest free agents on the market.

Confused, Zven messaged TSM general manager Parth Naidu.

“Can you just tell me if he’s signed so I can look for another team?” Zven asked Naidu.

“Yeah,” Naidu said, “we signed him.”

Zven was disappointed, but truthfully, he figured it was the end of his time at TSM. It went about as poorly as it could have. But rather than mope, Zven used the setback as motivation. He knew he was better than his 2018 and 2019 performances; he just needed the right team around him to prove it.

That’s when Jack Etienne, the long-tenured founder and CEO of Cloud9, reached out. After his team failed to make it out of the group stage at the League of Legends World Championship, Etienne returned from Europe to Los Angeles and conducted exit interviews with his entire roster. It became apparent there was some internal turmoil that needed resolving.

For starters, junglers Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen and Robert “Blaber” Huang, who had shared playing time for the latter part of the 2018 season and all of 2019, each wanted to be the full-time starter. Both also, alongside the likes of top laner Eric “Licorice” Ritchie and mid laner Yasin “Nisqy” Dinçer, wanted significant changes to the bottom lane.

“You’re going to have a rough offseason,” Blaber told Etienne when asked for feedback. “I’m willing to say maybe five of six players will be asking to leave or having some sort of changes.”

The majority of the Cloud9 roster that in 2018 had made semifinals at worlds was seemingly falling apart.

“That spawned an evaluation of every single player, deeper into their stats and into the possible replacements,” Etienne said. “After maybe a week or so after worlds, I had a pretty clear picture of what players wanted to continue to build with Cloud9 or which players were honestly more interested in looking at other opportunities.”

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Among the top-line decisions was replacing longtime AD carry Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi, who was a founding member of the team when Etienne left his executive position at TSM and started Cloud9 in early 2013. A fan favorite, Sneaky’s 2019 was a shadow of his previously strong performances, but given his profile, the decision to cut him came at significant risk. Make the wrong move or lose some games, and Etienne would never hear the end of it.

But in going back and forth with Zven, it became clear who’d be Sneaky’s heir apparent. Zven was set out to prove everyone wrong, to make up for his lackluster time on TSM and show he could be one of the most dominant AD carries not just in North America but the world.

Etienne also had to choose between Svenskeren, the reigning MVP and a successful veteran, or Blaber, the player who Etienne and his staff had groomed straight out of high school. Svenskeren wanted a lot of roster changes, Etienne said, while Blaber — with similar but different requests — was more willing to stick around and build something new.

So Etienne sent out some emails, offering teams a plate full of player contract rights, including Svenskeren and support Tristan “Zeyzal” Stidam. One of those emails was to Evil Geniuses, an organization returning to the League of Legends under new management.

As he locked in commitments to retain Blaber, Licorice and Nisqy, Etienne set his eyes on Zven. Etienne has always been drawn to players with a high amount of solo queue games — he views it as dedication and motivation to learn outside of regularly scheduled practice time — and Zven fit that bill. Once the highest-ranked player in Europe, even before being a pro, Zven had maintained that grind in the U.S. and continually put hours into climbing the ladder. Etienne wanted players as hungry as the three he kept. Zven, given his in-game dedication and the desire to prove the haters wrong, seemed like a perfect fit.

The addition of Zven would give Cloud9 four formidable players with one last spot to fill, but that fifth and final piece was the most crucial.

Etienne had a limited player pool, restricted to only North American resident support players. Thankfully, Zven already had one in mind: Phillipe “Vulcan” Laflamme.

“I’m not joining Cloud9 if I don’t have Vulcan on my team,” Zven told Etienne. “I need this guy, or no one.”

Vulcan was also part of a 2019 world championship participant in Clutch Gaming and stood out despite his team going 0-6 in the group stage of the tournament. Many analysts argued he was the best North American player at the tournament. And with Clutch coming under new management — they merged with Dignitas in the summer of 2019 — their roster would be upended, presenting an opportunity for Etienne.

Vulcan wasn’t initially available for buyout, but with Zven’s ultimatum and Etienne’s seasoned determination — and a good amount of money — Dignitas surely couldn’t say no.

Vulcan went on to draw the highest single-player buyout in Western esports history. Etienne bought out AD carry Johnson “Johnsun” Nguyen from TSM and coughed up $1.5 million to build a package for Vulcan. But even then, Dignitas held out, up until the first day of free agency, Nov. 18.

“I had to be ready for whatever the deal was to make sure that Vulcan was coming out here,” Etienne said, “because at the end of the day, I had already made a decision that Vulcan was my guy and I’m going to figure out a way to make that happen.”

On Nov. 18, Zven and Vulcan would sign their new deals. The Cloud9 roster was complete.

All the player shuffling and the big money spent on Vulcan led to mixed reactions from fans. Some said that Cloud9 “lost the offseason” — a familiar refrain that has since become a meme in the esports scene — and accused Etienne of not being loyal to a foundational piece of Cloud9’s legacy in Sneaky. Even worse, he’d replaced Sneaky with a “choker” in Zven.

Etienne did try to help Sneaky with a move to Dignitas, but when Sneaky and his agent weren’t able to come to terms with Dignitas, that deal didn’t go through. Sneaky has focused on streaming and not returned to pro League of Legends since.

“I understand why people were skeptical,” Zven said. “I didn’t have the best year in 2018, or 2019, for that matter.”

Work to put those seasons behind him began well before 2019 ended. Zven and Vulcan traveled to South Korea two weeks before their teammates planned to arrive for bootcamp. Both felt it was valuable to build synergy earlier.

“We were also the two new people into a new team where top, mid and jungle already had played in that team before, so if those two people at least have some synergy and connection, it will help add three plus two, instead of adding three plus one and one,” Zven explained. “We thought that it made sense. That’s mostly the reason.”

When Nisqy, Licorice and Blaber arrived, the team clicked. Nisqy and Zven, both originally from Europe, shared similar personality traits, something the rest of the team immediately noticed, Blaber said. And the bot lane combo of Zven and Vulcan provided strong opinions on how the team should play, which differed from the approach of Sneaky and Zeyzal.

While Cloud9’s scrimmage opponents were limited to teams such as Hanwha Life Esports and Bilibili Gaming, the North American team quickly started winning, and by the time other LCS squads began bootcamps a few weeks later, C9 were already a ways ahead.

The new Cloud9 debuted on Jan. 25 against Team Liquid in a rematch of the 2019 LCS Summer final. Liquid were out a starting jungler, as new addition Mads “Broxah” Brock-Pedersen’s employment visa application hit significant walls. Cloud9 ran their rival over.

But as the spring went on, it became clear Cloud9 weren’t just another top North American team; they were one of the best North American teams of all time.

Zven, under intense scrutiny, performed better than ever. He started the season off with a kill-death-assist ratio hot streak, not recording a single death until the sixth game of Cloud9’s regular season. He’d net an overall KDA of 12.3 in the regular season.

In fairly easy fashion, Cloud9 placed first in the regular season and then made quick work of their playoff opponents. With a 3-0 sweep of FlyQuest in the spring final, Cloud9 earned their first LCS championship since spring 2014.

Zven was vindicated, and Etienne was showered with praise for his decision-making. And Blaber would receive the MVP honors for the split, a title previously held by his predecessor, Svenskeren.

Despite all the changes and offseason shuffling, Cloud9 lost just one game in the regular season and one in the playoffs to put together one of the best splits in LCS history.

“The team environment is super good,” Blaber said. “Obviously, that’s how it is when you’re winning everything. Everyone’s happy — no one is really upset at each other. I think when we have problems or we play poorly … we do a really good job at not getting off track and talking about why we’re just relentlessly [throwing].”

The Mid-Season Invitational, which was canceled by Riot Games because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, might have been a good chance to judge this roster’s chances at international success. However, C9 will need to lean into domestic accolades for now and push for an all-important summer split championship, with a spot at the 2020 world championship in sight.