SEOUL, South Korea -- Cloud9 jungler Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen pathed from red buff to blue buff preparing for something with one of his lanes in Game 3 of the play-in knockout stage of the League of Legends World Championship. At 2 minutes, 20 seconds, Svenskeren cleared his own blue buff, then cleared the scuttle crab and rotated to the top lane, where Eric "Licorice" Ritchie's Singed had already flipped Gambit Esports' Alexander "PvPStejos" Glazkov. A few seconds later, PvPStejos' Sion was dead, giving Svenskeren's Taliyah the first blood of the game.
The predominantly C9-supporting audience roared in the LCK Arena in central Seoul. Throughout the series, their cheers never wavered. Many of the fans who came for popular Chinese team Edward Gaming in the next match of the day yelled loudly at every C9 kill or neutral objective, becoming more and more emotionally invested in the match as it headed to a surprisingly close 3-2 C9 victory.
Svenskeren's Game 3 early top side gank was a somewhat contentious decision, especially with bot laner Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi on Draven and support Tristan "Zeyzal" Stidam on Thresh. Typically, Draven lanes are focused first, because Draven's success relies significantly on snowballing early advantages.
"We prepared the Singed into that in the case they took the Sion," C9 mid laner Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen said. "In that lane, you kind of have to play around the Singed early, because the Singed is pretty weak early on. Although it would be nice to snowball the Draven lane, we can just have Draven play back early and then swap sides later on if it makes sense to. It just made sense."
It worked for a Game 3 C9 victory, but his wasn't the first C9 play of the day to be scrutinized. C9 did not look cohesive in its match against Gambit, frequently making errors -- such as mistracking teleport timings -- or making standard mistakes, like not playing to their composition's win conditions.
According to Jensen, a lot of C9's small miscommunication errors were due to a lack of practice on specific picks. The picks themselves were strong, but C9 hadn't practiced them enough as a team.
"We drafted some champs that we knew we didn't have too great results with," Jensen said. "But at the same time, we're not drafting poor picks by any means. It's champions that should do fine, but we just lacked a bit in some areas with those champions. I wouldn't even say we disrespected them; they just played better than expected, and then we definitely tried out stuff that it might have not been the time for. It should have been, because we didn't think they would perform as well as they did."
Jensen cited Gambit's coordination as its greatest strength. When combined with C9's visible lack of organization on the Rift, it made for a near-deadly combination for C9, almost knocking them out of worlds before the main stage event even began.
"[Gambit] are very synergized. Once they have a goal, they just go for it." Jensen said. "A lot of times, for example, they would often make a play that wasn't good, but they would all be committed and on the same page. In the first gave where they hard dove mid and all died for it. I also think that the way they used Anivia was really smart. They had a lot of good moments, but also, we played pretty bad."
Four major regions entered the play-in stage with third-seed teams: C9, G-Rex, EDG, and G2 Esports. All four earned first seed in their respective groups. The Commonwealth of Independent States region has made some international waves in the past -- primarily from 2016 World Championship quarterfinalist Albus NoX Luna -- yet this Gambit team did not impress in play-in groups and was certainly considered to be outclassed by C9's lineup mechanically. Many expected a C9 to sweep Gambit. Instead, Gambit dug in their heels and stubbornly took C9 to all five games.
When a team from a major region is expected to do well in a situation like this, often the team will look ahead for what may come. C9 was no different, especially since its likely main stage destination is Group B, home of reigning World Champion Gen.G Esports, and reigning Mid-Season Invitational Champion Royal Never Give Up.
"Our picks were not exactly what we've been practicing because we've been preparing different strategies and scenarios for Group B specifically, because it feels like we kind of need to cheese them in a way or catch them off-guard with our picks to beat them," Jensen said. "We recognize that they're going to be better teams than us and it's best of one so we need to take advantage of that."
Yet finding a balance between picking champions that the team may not be as comfortable with to hide picks for the main event stage and ensuring a victory to advance to that stage in the first place is tricky. C9 nearly learned this the hard way in a difficult 3-2 win over Gambit. Going forward, C9 must improve synergy and coordination regardless of what compositions the team chooses to run.