Cloud9 revealed its NA LCS summer split roster Wednesday, and it was missing a few familiar players. Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen, Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi, and Andy "Smoothie" Ta have all been benched for the foreseeable future.
The decision was a shock to many and Cloud9 might have started a trend that will likely benefit not only other League of Legends teams, but teams across all esports. By benching star players, Cloud9 is likely trying to get their acts together and have them get even better by making them fight for their starting spot on the roster.
Either way, it's a massive deal and should shape the scene for the long term. Granted, the circumstances of this decision will decide the effects of this change. It hasn't been made public whether the decision is to punish the players for an infraction, or a strategic maneuver. Let's look at the possibilities.
The farthest fetched reason is that Cloud9 believed that players from the Academy team were playing at a better level and could help push C9 over the top. No offense to Yuri "Keith" Jew, Greyson "Goldenglue" Gilmer, and Tristan "Zeyzal" Stidam, but these players were not on a starting NA LCS roster for a reason. They don't have the necessary skills to play at a high level consistently.
Another feasible reason is internal strife. It's unlikely that Cloud9 fell apart from within as the team has played together for quite some time, or at least the three members have, but it could explain the unusual situation. It's common for fractures in team relationships to cause drastic roster changes and it happens in every esport. The same could have happened in this instance.
Maybe the players had personal issues with Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen or Eric "Licorice" Ritchie? It's unlikely they'd have issues with their skill because Licorice won Rookie of the Splitand Svenskeren had a fantastic split. Cloud9 creates a healthy environment for its players and inner turmoil would seem doubtful from the outside looking in, but things do happen.
The most likely reason has to be either a lack of respect or a lack of effort. It could even be both. You only have to watch an episode of On Cloud9 or TSM: Legends to see that professional esports players have a different attitude when it comes to coaching and analysts.
It's much more of a buddy-buddy relationship than a coach-player one.
That seemed to change for Cloud9 with the hiring of Bok "Reapered" Han-gyu. Once the players had someone who knew what they were talking about and wasn't a former Cloud9 player, you could see the level of respect rise, but that doesn't mean it was perfect or that players were impervious to slipping into old habits. Add to the fact that you're one of the most popular players in the league and egos start becoming an issue. It would be easy to see Sneaky or Jensen refusing to do something because they thought they knew best and were benched for it.
The tone of the video and discussion focused on how the academy team played "really hard" and showed "the passion" that players need. That is an obvious hint the three players were not giving the same amount of effort as the academy players. It's common for coaches to "wake up" their players with some sort of punishment for such infractions. It happens constantly in traditional sports and this could be a startling trend for esports teams.
If a player seems to lack the drive to compete or is coasting through practice, a quick benching and reminder that they are playing for their job are usually all that's needed. We could see the roster change back in a matter of weeks if the players respond appropriately.
Or, this could all end horrendously and the players could still refuse to listen and look for a break in contract.
In all seriousness I feel like there has to be more to the story of the C9 roster change.
Is it punitive? C9 starters are tweeting out #benched like it’s a huge joke.
Is it strategy? There’s a chance the academy guys have prepped some specialized strats for the new meta.
The important takeaway from this unprecedented decision is the shift in power. For an organization to find consistent success, it needs to control the power, not the players. I'm not talking about legal matters and circumstances dependent on player unions; I'm strictly talking about the direction of a team and how it's run.
When you look at the New England Patriots, its known for a strict, hard-working, do your job, culture. Star players are shipped off once they lose their value. It doesn't matter how impactful of a player you are if you don't buy into the culture, you're gone. If you don't put in the work, you're gone. This is something that has been clearly missing in esports.
You only have to look at Counter-Strike to see the power the players have. A major slot is owned by the five players that attended the Major, not the brand. Teams hold on to players longer than they should strictly to keep that spot. It's not healthy.
Players in all esports are known to hold much of the power when it comes to roster changes and if it comes down to a decision between the star player and the coach, the coach is far more likely to hit the road than the player. Maybe Cloud9 doesn't want to play by those rules anymore.
Maybe Cloud9 wants to create an infrastructure where the brand and culture is much more important than any individuals needs and it's about damn time that someone put their foot down. And it's even more impressive that C9 did it, as it's a large brand with Worlds qualification at stake.
It should be noted that Cloud9 has a unique opportunity in League of Legends with the franchising of the NA LCS. Players held that power as if the teams started losing in their absence, the brand could be relegated. It was too big of a risk. Now, the teams in the NA LCS don't have to worry about relegation. That should help shift some of that power.
Again, it hasn't been clarified that this decision was solely made on the work ethics of Sneaky, Jensen, and Smoothie, but if that is a large part of the reason, good on Cloud9.