Five combined North American titles. Four Grand Finals matchups. Since its inception in 2013, the NA League of Legends Championship Series has been home of two kings -- Team SoloMid and Cloud9.
The first, TSM, might arguably be the biggest brand in all of esports. Chants of "TSM! TSM" TSM!" ring out across the globe, even during games where the team isn't present. The inaugural champions of North America, TSM has never missed a domestic final, appearing in all six up to this point. As the name suggests, the team has been headlined by its mid lane stars -- originally team owner Andy "Reginald" Dinh, and now the two-time MVP, Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg.
Cloud9 came into the league one season following TSM's initial title. Rookie monsters of the NA LCS, C9 rampaged through its debut season with a record of 30-3 en route to the franchise's first title. The team was built on slick communication and early-game dominance, winning matches through the laning phase and then closing them out with smooth teamfighting. Instead of being led by a hard carry in the mid lane like TSM, C9 was captained by its selfless leader in the center, Hai "Hai" Lam, who guided the team to back-to-back champions in the summer of 2013 and spring of 2014.
Nowadays, the league has been taken over by a bit more parity. The Immortals have assumed the role that C9 once held as rookies in the LCS, undefeated in the first five games of the second and doing it with a swagger you wouldn't expect from a new organization. Counter Logic Gaming is the defending champion, surpassing both Cloud9 and TSM last summer to take home its first title. NRG Esports, Team Liquid, and others are climbing as well, hoping to be the lone survivor when it's all said and done this spring.
Still, the rivalry burns strong between the two squads. Today was their first meeting of 2016, and it was, well, interesting to say the least. After a stalemate through the first 20 minutes of the game that saw both sides take towers by dividing the map into two, it all came to a head in a matter of minutes, the action going from a snail's pace to everything happening all at once. Only eight minutes after the first blood, the game had come to an end, TSM taking the first win of the campaign against C9 in wild fashion.
"[The game] didn't go how we expected," TSM top laner Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell told ESPN after the victory. He highlighted that C9 held the tempo for a majority of the game up until the fateful last seconds where the fortunes turned in the favor of TSM. "In the end, they tried to start Baron on us and try to force it, and we won the teamfight [in the Baron pit] -- and won off that."
"Our team composition as a bit awkward," C9's Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen said about the loss. "We really didn't have much [crowd control], so it was really [difficult] to force fights. They kept running away from us and [we] couldn't catch them."
As the two dynasties of the NA LCS have grown over the years, their respective styles have become synonymous with their brands. TSM with a more grinder personality -- inching slowly into the late game where ace carries can win one teamfight and end the game in an instant. Cloud9 is the more aggressive side, asserting an in-your-face approach that opposing teams couldn't hold up against.
Jensen and Hauntzer can describe it best.
"I think we're better when we play aggressive," Jensen said. "When we play with Hai, I play more aggressively. Our composition today wasn't quite [that style], so it was a bit different. But, usually, I don't think we have problems playing [any type] of composition. With Bunny, we play more passive."
"I think the style we're aiming for is to push every advantage we have and snowball as hard as we can," Hauntzer said. "Instead of waiting to scale or [play for] the late game.
"They still have Balls and Sneaky on the team, and they're pretty solid players. Jensen's a very lane-focused mid, and he really tries to focus on winning lane. Rush is really random, and you can't expect what he does. And for supports, I think both of them are pretty good, but Hai just has the shot-calling edge and the confidence to lead his team."
"I feel like the current TSM roster has a lot of potential," Jensen said. "I still don't think they're playing as good as [they can]. By towards the end of the split, I think they'll be a lot better. They're a team that can become really good, and they're starting to show it -- so we'll see."
Rivals on the Rift, but respectful peers outside the game, both players spoke highly of their opponents. Through the first five games of the season, TSM sits at a record of 3-2 while Cloud9 is one game behind them at 2-3. Regardless of the fact that the NA LCS is changing at a rapid pace, the story remains the same: TSM needs to get by Cloud9 to gain the championship, and Cloud9 need to get past TSM to gain the championship.
Different lineups. Different year. It doesn't matter. TSM wear the black and white. Cloud9 wear the blue and white. The rivalry continues on.