It wasn't the easiest or prettiest way Cloud9 could make it through the play-in stage of the League of Legends World Championship, but C9 did it. After a slew of offense-heavy games and a comeback for the ages to upend Japan's Detonation FocusMe in the game of the event thus far, C9 and its youth movement advanced into the best-of-five stage of the play-in round this weekend, where three wins guarantees a spot in the main-event group stages and three losses means a plane ticket back to Los Angeles.
A part of that youth movement on C9, Tristan "Zeyzal" Stidam, is still getting his bearings at his first international League of Legends event. While jet lag hasn't affected him, having already been to South Korea in the past, the added pressure and the different styles from the opposing regions has put a small shock into the North American club's system. Still, a win is a win, and at 4-0, C9 will almost be assured to avoid a tough matchup against China's EDward Gaming in the do-or-die best-of-five this weekend in Seoul.
"I do think wild-card regions as a whole have improved a bit," told ESPN following his team's final victory of the day. "I would like our matches to look more like EDG's, and obviously that's the ideal outcome, I don't think what we showed here is how good we actually are. It's actually a bit nerve-wracking when playing through play-ins, especially at your first worlds, because you're like, imagine I lose to a wild-card region. Atop of that, I don't get to go to worlds [groups] because of it. It's not like we're losing to wild cards at worlds. We're not even at [real] worlds yet."
When speaking of wild-card teams as a whole, Zeyzal stressed a fine line that the team needed to navigate. If C9 plays too loose and disrespectful, similarly to how it looked in its opening game of the tournament against Brazil's KaBuM! e-Sports, then it could be considered playing too cocky and rife for an upset. But if the team swings too far the other way, playing a safe and respectful game, too scared to play fast and with a bit of reckless abandon, they'll be the ones getting punched in the mouth first.
Heading into the best-of-five stage, C9, even though its Nexus hasn't blown up once this tournament, is still searching for that perfect balance.
"We actually think Ziggs is strong now after playing against [DFM's Kyohei "Ceros" Yoshida's] Ziggs," Zeyzal said. "[Ceros] has other interesting picks we banned out like [Heimerdinger], so I guess that was a bit of a surprise. I think overall wild cards have had decent macro [after] going against them."
Although Riot Games has done its best to include all of the regions across the globe at the world championships, Zeyzal's point of it not being a "real" worlds just yet isn't too far off. The play-in stage is happening at the new LCK Arena at the LoL Park in central Seoul, where only a few hundred can watch the games live. All in all, the play-in stage is more of a qualification than anything, and during the time C9 has to make it to the main event in Busan, for which the real contenders for the championship, consisting of South Korea's best along with the top teams from China, NA, Taiwan and Europe are already well underway in preparations.
"I think Fnatic will do well [at worlds] from what I've heard and from what I've seen," he said. "I think they're a good team. Caps is actually so good, their mid laner. And there are a few other teams I've heard from other NA teams talking about them getting smacked. So some of the Chinese teams are going to be really strong, and I think Fnatic is going to be really strong, but I don't know how they'll compare to [teams from South] Korea."
Zeyzal is being realistic with his team's chances at worlds. When asked if his team was capable of competing with the Fnatics and top Chinese teams, he said they could, depending on whether they were allowed to draft well and play around their strengths. "We've shown in scrims we can reliably beat top teams when we try our best and play our best champs. But I'm not sure as a team if our macro or team play is on their level yet."
And though he went on to praise his head coach, Bok "Reapered" Han-gyu's dedication to getting his team to that consistent level of the elite, the question now is if there is even enough time left for it to happen before the group stages begin in less than a week.
Moving into the final day of play-ins, C9 in a precarious position. As the No. 1 seed in its group, it automatically avoids Taiwan's undefeated G-Rex in the best-of-five stage -- and most likely EDG as well -- but could draw the underperforming G2 Esports from Europe if it doesn't make a turnaround on the final.
For C9, a G2 elimination in the play-in stage would give its team a 50/50 shot of avoiding Group B in the group stage, which consists of two of the frontrunners for the Summoner's Cup, reigning Mid-Season Invitational champions Royal Never Give Up and defending world champion Gen. G Esports. If G2, however, can make it through the play-in stage along with the almost shoo-in EDG, C9 will be automatically placed in Group B, a death sentence for even some of the better teams in the tournament.
So I asked Zeyzal, would he rather get the easiest wild-card team in the best-of-five (he said it was Gambit) and take his chances in Group B or draw G2 Esports in the do-or-die match with a chance to avoid Group B if they make it through?
"I would say it wouldn't matter, because either way we're going to have to beat the teams, but I'd probably say play G2 in the best-of-five. The better team will win, and the better team may avoid Group B."