Taking yet another stab at preparing for life after Hai, the Cloud9 League of Legends organization announced yesterday that it would be starting a new Challenger Series team to compete this summer, seeded with Cloud9 starters.
Hai and Daerek “LemonNation” Hart made their super-equivocal announcement in a video post, explaining that Hai and an as-yet-undetermined group of C9 starters and substitutes may (or may not!) be competing in Challenger later this year.
“Since I’m doing this whole challenger thing,” Hai said, “that means the LCS roster is changing. Obviously I can’t tell you what’s happening… but there are changes coming to the LCS team, obviously since if Balls and me are playing on the Challenger or [are] in charge of that stuff, then we may not be the starter for the LCS team.”
Cloud9's general manager, Danan Flander, told Red Bull eSports that Balls, Rush, Hai, and LemonNation are all going to be involved in the effort, though “their roles are currently undetermined.”
It’s kind of a strange move, and so is Cloud9's altruistic explanation for doing it. Hai explained that he wanted to expand and train the pool of up-and-coming North American players. It’s a bit like if a half dozen regular starters for the Cavaliers announced that they were going to play in the D-League next year “to teach those kids a thing or two.”
Of course, the move makes a bit more sense if you view the Challenger team as a way to find and develop talent for Cloud9 specifically. The team has famously had difficulties moving on from its original captain and in-game leader, Hai, despite the fact that his ability and at times his enthusiasm for pro play seems to have declined. While other teams have been able to field new talent consistently, Cloud9 has kept much of the original roster intact, for better or worse.
There’s a catch here: LCS rules prohibit one organization from owning two LCS teams, so the Cloud9 Challenger team will have to be spun-off or sold should it ever succeed in reaching the big time. It’s an odd feature of the LCS landscape: while the Challenger series can be compared to the minors in baseball, the top teams have a chance to be promoted into the LCS, so Challenger teams are difficult to run as true talent farms. On the other hand, with C9 running an LCS and a Challenger team, that system could prove very game-able as the organization moves talent between the teams as-needed.
On the other hand, those ownership rules have themselves looked misguided at times. The lower tiers of League of Legends and even the LCS at times have been rife with managerial incompetence and abuse of aspiring pro players. Denying established organizations the ability to come in and monopolize pro League may have left the door open to newcomers, but it also means that lots of dubious organizations and owners have been able to get their foot in the door as well. Cloud9 might be taking advantage of the Challenger rules a little bit, but at least it’s unlikely we’ll hear about players getting stiffed on payment, or being threatened with eviction.