Fourteen is the magic number of the League Championship Series final at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
To Cloud9, the number represents the last time the franchise won a domestic championship. Through of all their international success and consistency at the League of Legends World Championship, Cloud9 have failed to see the same success in North America since 2014, when the team won its last North American title.
After winning back-to-back championships in their first two seasons in the LCS, Cloud9 have been shut out from the winner’s circle, having lost their past five appearances in the league final.
In a way, C9’s knockout-round finishes at worlds and their role as North America’s go-to at international competitions have been a mask for their failures in domestic play. If C9 didn’t rebound from their constant losing in the final by going far at the world championship to end each year on a high note, they would be the bridesmaids of the LCS, always performing well enough to get to the final match of the playoffs but not having the special something to get themselves over the line.
For Team Liquid, the three-peating defending champions of the LCS, it always comes back to Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng, whose 14-series winning streak in best-of-five postseason matches in the LCS is on the line in Detroit.
The superstar AD carry has been the polar opposite of C9’s follies in the final, currently on a run of five straight domestic titles between his runs on Team SoloMid and Liquid. He has not walked off an LCS playoff stage in defeat since the spring of 2016.
That night in Las Vegas, Doublelift lost to another one of his former clubs, Counter Logic Gaming, by a razor-thin 3-2 margin. Since then, it’s been nothing but hardware and plane rides to international competitions.
Now on Team Liquid, the franchise with the deepest pockets and a willingness to make bold moves to improve the roster, there is no end in sight to how many championships he can win.
One of those moves will be one of the major underlying plot points in Sunday’s final. While making the semifinals at last year’s world championship in South Korea was enough for most to overlook C9’s futility at home, it wasn’t enough for their ace player, Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen.
After coming only two matches away from winning the Summoner’s Cup, he asked for a transfer from Cloud9 when free agency began. His ideal destination? Team Liquid.
Jensen repeatedly has said he wants to win hardware. During his time on C9, coming in following the golden era of the team’s success domestically with legendary American mid laner Hai “Hai” Lam, Jensen never once lifted a trophy. The team did well enough at the world championships, like clockwork making it into the knockout rounds and giving the best teams in the world a run for their money, yet it wasn’t enough to satisfy Jensen’s hunger.
Every time he looked at social media was a reminder of what he lacked. Team Liquid could help him get what he wanted.
Jensen accomplished in a single season what he couldn’t do in four years on C9 by winning the league title over TSM in a reverse sweep. It was all the validation he needed for his decision.
In the same way Liquid have created a culture of winning and doing everything under the sun to make their team the best it can be, C9 have built a culture of adaptability. Jensen leaving C9 wasn’t the first time they lost a star player to Liquid, as Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong signed a multiyear deal with Liquid following the 2017 season; the team improved its results only by replacing the established veteran with a then-relatively unknown rookie, Eric “Licorice” Ritchie.
At the time, the move was seen a massive downgrade alongside the signing of TSM castoff Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen to be the team’s starting jungler. Fans of the team went to Twitter and other social media to call out C9 management for a botched transition after the team narrowly missed out on the world semifinals weeks prior.
How has it worked out since C9 doubled down on their decision to stand behind Svenskeren, Licorice and usher in a youth movement across the franchise? They’re in their second final in four seasons and did one better than the Impact-C9 roster at worlds, sweeping the Afreeca Freecs of South Korea to make the final four at the worlds.
The alterations that led to Licorice’s ascent and made Svenskeren a front-runner for this year’s MVP played out in similar fashion with Jensen’s replacement, Yasin “Nisqy” Diner of Belgium.
The move, like Licorice, at first was seen as a downgrade; however, through his first year on C9, the partnership between Svenskeren and Nisqy has been the backbone of the team, with Licorice needing to take time off during the summer split to deal with wrist issues. Nisqy’s unabashed risky way of playing the game has been aided by Svenskeren’s willingness to fight right next to him at a moment’s notice.
Sunday’s final is all about two franchises that differ completely in ideologies.
Team Liquid are fixated on winning above everything else. They’ll drop players if needed and spend the money necessary to get the best replacement out on the market. They don’t make superstars; they buy them and put them on the biggest stages.
Cloud9 often unofficially lose each offseason; unlike Liquid, they rely on most stars they help shine. Even the team’s one-two European punch of Svenskeren and Nisqy weren’t considered stars when C9 brought them into the fold. Svenskeren was coming off a year of being the scapegoat on TSM when C9 signed him, and Nisqy, despite doing well in Europe on Splyce, wasn’t the flashiest name that could have been chosen to be the successor of Jensen.
The franchise’s minor league squad is littered with talent who would find starting jobs on lower-end teams if bought out of their contracts. C9 are a pipeline of talent and have continually produced high-level players across the LCS since they first got into the League of Legends scene in 2013. They are the kingmakers. If Team Liquid or another franchise ransack their starting five in the offseason, they regroup and fall back to the mindset of no one player being bigger than the team itself. C9’s longest-tenured player, Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi, knows this all too well, playing at every single world championship since he became a pro but still not invulnerable to being benched in favor of younger talent on occasion.
The number 14 will fade away for at least one team in Detroit. Doublelift will either move his LCS postseason win streak to 15 in a row, or Cloud9 will change its last championship banner won from 2014 to 2019.
That’s not the only magical part of this series, though. The battle of philosophies, between a franchise made up of superstars and a franchise that knows how to make them, has a mystique of its own too.