North America’s fabled “Big 3” lost a couple of members this season in the Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS), as both Cloud9 and G2 Esports went from being perennial powerhouses to an unfamiliar destination: the bottom of the regional standings.
In a shocking turn of events, both teams finished 2-5 in RLCS Season 8 league play, with Cloud9 claiming 7th place and G2 landing in 8th due to a slight difference in games records. Rather than compete in this month’s regional championship for a shot at the NA crown and a trip to (and/or seeding for) the World Championship in Madrid, they’re now preparing to play for their RLCS careers in this weekend’s promotion/relegation tournament.
How did these consistently successful teams, including G2 as last season’s RLCS runner-up and Cloud9 as RLCS Season 6’s champions, fall so far so quickly? We spoke with RLCS analyst Adam “Lawler” Thornton to get his view on what happened, and also got takes from a trio of pro players who are all headed to the RLCS World Championship.
Theory: Cloud9 and G2 got complacent
After being so good for so long, did Cloud9 and G2 both ease off the gas enough to ultimately allow rising rivals to take the lead? That was a common theme in our conversations with Lawler and RLCS pro players in recent weeks, who suggested that coasting on their consistent success might not have been good enough anymore.
“For Cloud9, I think it’s a little bit of complacency. To see them falter, I think a lot of the reasons just have to do with the fact they’ve been able to skate by on just natural talent,” says Lawler. “I’m not saying that Gimmick, Torment, and Squishy don’t play the game, try hard, and give it their all, but it definitely feels like there’s been a lack of effort put in when it comes to their scrims, and what they’re doing outside of the game to make sure they’re successful on the weekends that matter most,” he adds.
Both teams are absolutely stacked with talent, and it’s not like six of the game’s best players all suddenly fell off in a matter of weeks. But in an era of such competitive parity in Rocket League, where each new major LAN brings a fresh champion and top Rival Series teams have the capability of dismantling proven RLCS squads, it may be dangerous to rely only on what’s worked in the past.
— Rocket League Esports (@RLEsports) October 19, 2019
“I feel like after having really good results, G2 kind of was sitting back too much,” says Veloce Esports’ Sandro “FreaKii” Holzwarth. “They thought that their natural skill was enough for that season to be Top 2 or Top 4 again, which backfired massively. I think the same happened to Cloud9.”
“I’m not saying that they don’t put in the hours, it’s just that the teams that came in from the Rival Series, and teams like Ghost and Spacestation—they put in a lot of hours that they actually played for what they want to achieve, while Cloud9 and G2 in the last couple of seasons more had this typical ‘Top 3 aura’ around them,” he continues. “‘They’re a Top 3 team, so they’re gonna make it anyways.’ I think they relaxed on that a bit too much, and the other teams just wanted to really get what nobody did for a while in NA.”
Theory: The meta shifted quickly
Competitive parity helps explain why young, hungry teams like the Pittsburgh Knights, eUnited, and Spacestation Gaming surged near the top of the NA pack—and why all three teams are heading to the RLCS World Championship alongside the still-dominant NRG.
However, Lawler suggests that their embrace of a more aggressive meta also led to their ability to tear through veteran rivals. Teams using bumps and demolitions to disrupt their opponents’ rotations and defensive stands is nothing new at the pro level, however it’s risky, as players may have to pull themselves out of position to put some hurt on an opponent. Lawler suggests that the younger teams have made it more of a cornerstone of their play.
I can’t find myself in these series. ggs @GhostGaming
— G2 Chicago (@Chicago_RL) October 26, 2019
“Teams haven’t taken the risk to do it during RLCS. Like, this is something that teams have been doing notoriously in scrims, but when it comes to the game, people don’t do it because it’s really risky,” Lawler explains. “Pittsburgh Knights are definitely getting credited as the first to implement it… it has been around for a long time, it’s just the level at which we’re seeing it now is unprecedented.”
The Knights seem to be leading the charge on this front, and they’re seeing results. They reverse-swept Cloud9 in Week 2, and then came back in Week 3 to sweep G2. Pittsburgh couldn’t take out NRG in either meeting this season, but they still managed to finish #2 in NA. As Knights player Jirair “ExplosiveGyro” Papazian told Rocketeers last week, their success has come in part to being obnoxious on the pitch.
“I think it’s just our ability to be annoying and know when to go at the same time,” he says. “We all talk a lot in comms and we all have the mechanical ability to solo play other players on our own. We give each other opportunities that open up demos and make the other team panic, and starve them of boost.”
Cloud9 can certainly play aggressively, as can G2—but in a five-week season, a quickly-shifting meta could be difficult to adjust to before it’s too late to really affect your standing.
Theory: G2 spun out after losing to NRG
G2 came out in Week 1 and smoked Birds (now eUnited), with Reed “Chicago” Wilen notching Player of the Week honors thanks in part to an absurd shooting percentage. It made sense for G2 to be in fine form, given that they had placed 2nd at DreamHack Montreal over the summer after also being the runner-up at the previous RLCS World Championship.
But then something happened: they faced NRG. And they got swept. Sure, G2 has lost to NRG in the past, and these NA giants have traded blows over the seasons in both directions. But it was an ugly early-season loss this time around. “NRG just has Turbopolsa demo and deny their offense from the very beginning, and [G2] look abysmal,” says Lawler, who pointed out a particularly spotty performance from Chicago following his hot Week 1 start.
big chokes vs nrg cant play like that the next coming weeks, 1-1
— G2 JKnaps (@JKnaps) October 12, 2019
G2 never seemed to recover, going 1-4 for the rest of the season including losses to Knights, Ghost, Spacestation Gaming, and Cloud9.
“They had a really good Week 1, and then I don’t know, maybe the loss to NRG really hit them hard, because they thought they probably should’ve won that,” says ExplosiveGyro. “Ever since then, at least one, maybe two players from the team were just having off-weeks, week after week. It just didn’t work out.”
Lawler suggests that lingering defensive issues for the team were magnified when they began having trouble scoring, as the missing offensive onslaught couldn’t mask the defensive hitches. “When they can’t even get out of their own half because they’re constantly under siege, under pressure, or under a barrage, what are they going to do? Because their defense is not good,” he says. “Their offense is their defense, and if they can’t get on offense, then you see what happens.”
Theory: The schedule worked against them
Team Reciprocity captain Victor “Ferra” Francal noted that in previous seasons, NA’s “Big 3” showdowns were typically saved until near the end of the season. That was true this time around with NRG vs. Cloud9 in Week 4, and Cloud9 vs. G2 in Week 5. However, NRG vs. G2 in Week 2 delivered one of the biggest showdowns very early in the season, without a chance to build up some wins (and confidence) beforehand.
“They had to deal with the fact that they had to start the season with a 1-1 or 1-2 record, and it’s something they’re not used to,” says Ferra. “It’s like, ‘Oh, well now if we lose one more, we’re in trouble.’ They kept losing and kept losing, and it built up pressure for them that they weren’t really used to, because before that, they were always building confidence off of smaller teams and slowly ramping up, but now they had to face the top competition as soon as league play started. It kind of messed up their thought process, and it became a bit harder for them to play some matches.”
0-2 week moves us to 1-3 in the standings, ggs to birds and ssg
Sorry to everybody we’ve let down, I haven’t been playing like myself and I’m not sure why 😔
— C9 Torment (@Torment) October 19, 2019
Cloud9 doesn’t fit that pattern in terms of being scheduled against proven NA giants, but the team did quickly go from 1-0 to 1-1 with the Knights loss… and then 1-2, 1-3, 1-4, and 1-5. Suddenly, a team that had seemingly glided through past seasons was sinking fast.
“I think it helped all of the other teams in the region, pretty much, that were not expecting to win against [G2 and Cloud9],” Ferra adds. “They were like, ‘I mean, if this team can do it, then we can do it,’ and then it ended up working.”
Widespread sentiment around the competitive Rocket League scene suggests that both Cloud9 and G2 are simply too good to fall to their Rival Series opponents, Charlotte Phoenix and Chaos Esports Club. Both of those RLRS teams have RLCS veterans within their ranks, but don’t have nearly the same kind of sustained success as either Cloud9 or G2 have had prior to this season.
“I’m pretty sure they will stay in the RLCS,” says FreaKii. “Mechanically, individually, and team-wise, they are way too skilled to go down into RLRS, but they definitely have to change the way they work for what they want to achieve. That’s what I think.”
One more game win one less game loss today or the entire season and we would have been top 6 and been safe from having to play the promo/relegation tourney. Terrible feeling, but at the end of the day what’s done is done, gotta move on and learn from it. Sorry to let you down.
— C9 Squishy (@SquishyMuffinz) November 2, 2019
Word from scrims is that Cloud9, at least, seems to have rebounded from whatever funk it was in during the regular season. Last week, Gyro said, “They’re starting to grind a lot more, and they’re really good again.” Lawler, who pointed out that Cloud9’s Jesus “Gimmick” Parra seemed to be back to his high-flying form in Week 5, went a step further in his analysis.
“For Cloud9, it’s been a bit of complacency, but they got a dose of a reality—they got a wake-up call,” he says. “From everyone I’ve been talking to, they’re looking hungrier than ever, they’re re-motivated, they’re scrimming like crazy, and taking scrims seriously. When Cloud9 starts taking things seriously for the first time, in my opinion, in three seasons, watch out. That’s scary.”
It’s tempting to assume that these veterans are going to show up when it matters most and ensure their continued status in the RLCS. But at the beginning of the season, nearly everyone assumed that G2 and Cloud9 would both have great seasons, as they have for a couple years now—and they didn’t.
Us realizing were gonna be in RLRS next season pic.twitter.com/n9blGejiPM
— G2 Chicago (@Chicago_RL) November 2, 2019
Consider the kind of mentality and momentum coming into the weekend, too: those teams are playing for their careers and livelihoods, and to avoid a very bad thing. There’s a lot of pressure on their shoulders. They’ve all handled pressure before, but not in this particular situation. On the other side of the equation, Charlotte Phoenix and Chaos are on more of an upward swing: their lives and careers will undoubtedly change for the better if they vault up to the RLCS.
If, somehow, Cloud9 and/or G2 are relegated, there’s bound to be a domino effect that will ripple out through the entire scene as rosters shuffle and organizations reconsider their plans. Whatever happens, this Saturday’s NA promotion tournament is sure to draw more eyes than any before it—and with such fan-favorite teams and stars in the mix, each match is sure to be incredibly tense and thrilling.
“If any upsets happen, expect major conversations,” says Lawler. “I would like to be confident in Cloud9 and G2… but then again, the last eight majors we’ve had eight different winners, so who the hell knows?”