BUSAN, South Korea -- Thrown into the deep waters of the group of death at the 2018 League of Legends World Championship, North America's Cloud9 were in a golden position Friday night from the BEXCO Auditorium.
Sitting at 1-1 in the standings, a victory over winless defending world champion Gen.G Esports of South Korea would have all but eliminated the pre-tournament frontrunners from advancing and put C9 in a position where a single win over Europe's Vitality in the second half of group play would almost certainly send them into the knockout rounds.
That tunnel of light suddenly faded when inexperience from a young team reared its ugly head at the wrong time, the rookie duo of Robert "Blaber" Huang and Tristan "Zeyzal" Stidam forcing a play against the world champions, which tore open the game for Gen.G and resulted in a tidy finish for the South Korean juggernaut.
The other rookie of C9's starting lineup, Eric "Licorice" Ritchie, sat down with ESPN following the hard loss to discuss the team's first-half group performance and what the team's chances are heading into the final three games of what could be the end of their worlds experience.
"We just didn't do anything as a team," he said. "We weren't really making any proactive plays, so the game got to a point where if we stalled out we could win, but that's never a place you want to be when you should be able to make those early-game plays. It just sucked. I didn't play that well either."
Through the first two weeks of the tournament, including the play-in stage in which C9 barely made it out of in a five-game set against Gambit Esports, it has been a constant tug-of-war with the team between being proactive and not playing with too much reckless abandon.
After getting routed in the first groups game with the consensus best team at the event, China's Royal Never Give Up, C9 fought back in their second game with Vitality to give themselves a chance to advance. The game with Gen.G, however, once again brought forth the discussion of playing too fast against not playing fast enough, where C9 had opportunities early to make moves but waited too long to pull the trigger, leading to an unfortunate failed mid-game attempt at a pick that, for all intents and purposes, ended the game for them.
Licorice said he'd give his team a "C" when asked how he would grade his team's performance at worlds thus far.
"I think we've been doing OK," he said. "The game against RNG was really rough. The game against Vitality wasn't even that clean, even though we did win. In the game against Gen.G, we didn't play that well either, though we did have some good plays here and there. [We] just weren't great as a team."
When asked if there was one facet of their game C9 could work on to make it out of the groups, Licorice leaned back in his chair and pondered. After mulling over the question for a few seconds, he answered he didn't know, stating there just wasn't one thing they needed to fix. Overall, C9, outside of the RNG game, hasn't been outmuscled or shown to be inferior when it comes to firepower, even standing next to Gen.G. But the team's lack of cohesion at points, and throughout the tournament, has kept them walking on a flimsy piece of wire, never knowing when they'll fall off completely.
One point that has been brought up throughout the year within North America (and its sister league, the EU LCS in Berlin, Germany) is the lack of games for teams in 2018. While countries like China and South Korea are playing multiple best-of-threes weekly, each team in North America and Europe play only two games the entire weekend. After a slew of teams from NA and EU competed for a quarterfinal spot last year, with three (Misfits, Fnatic, and C9) making it out of the group stage, only one team this year (Fnatic) is expected to make it to the knockout rounds from the western region.
"I definitely say having more games should be better," he said. "It definitely isn't going to help us if we play a ton fewer games than the other regions, so I personally would like to see a return to the best-of-three format or something like that."
Well, a best-of-three is what C9 and Licorice will get on Sunday in Busan, as the NA hopeful will play Gen. G, Royal Never Give Up and Vitality all in one day in single games to see they can maneuver themselves to a third-straight quarterfinal appearance.
If they can win the makeshift series and go 3-0 or even 2-1, then C9 should see themselves through to the top-eight. If they go 1-2, though, or worse, 0-3, then for the first time since 2015, North America could be staring at a knockout stage where none of its teams make it into the best-of-five format.