Andy "Smoothie" Ta spent two fruitful years propelling Cloud9 to new heights. Together, they reached a pair of world championship quarterfinals, escaping difficult groups with international heavyweights such as EDward Gaming, Flash Wolves and SK Telcom T1 (twice).
In 2017, the same year Smoothie was voted North America's best support, Cloud9 nearly made the world semifinals, narrowly losing a five-game set to China's Team WE. The highs of their relationship portended years of domestic relevancy and international success.
And then, one summer day in 2018, it was over.
"I never saw myself leaving Cloud9 until it actually happened," Smoothie said. "It's like breaking up with your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend. You still want the best for them, but there's not that connection, you know?"
The first signs of their oncoming breakup surfaced when Cloud9 benched Smoothie in favor of promising Academy support Tristan "Zeyzal" Stidam. The team eventually reincorporated AD carry Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi and mid laner Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen, but Smoothie never returned. Reading the writing on the wall, Smoothie left for a rental stint on Echo Fox, before joining longtime Cloud9 rival Team SoloMid this year.
"[Leaving Cloud9] was a really hard choice to make," Smoothie said. "I could have stayed on C9 and played on Academy that split, but for me, that didn't sit well in my head. I wanted to prove to myself and to the fans that I was still a really good player.
"C9 was my home for a long time, and I owe them a lot. But now that we're separated, it always feels like there's a bit of a rivalry there."
That multilayered rivalry reached its apex Saturday afternoon, when Smoothie and TSM eliminated Cloud9 with a dramatic 3-2 reverse-sweep in the League Championship Series semifinals. That it was Smoothie's first win over his old team made the marathon victory even sweeter, tinged with the satisfaction of a scorned partner.
"The best feeling is still getting to worlds the first time [in 2016]," Smoothie said, referencing Cloud9's upset of Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon's Immortals in the regional gauntlet. "But this comes pretty close. Definitely top two in a 'good feeling' tier list. ... It's just breathtaking, you know?"
Despite the acquisition of offseason upgrades such as Smoothie and top laner Sergen "Broken Blade" Çelik, it took time for TSM to regain the championship form that deserted them last year. For Smoothie, it was learning to balance his vocal playstyle with the existing experience of mid laner Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg and AD carry Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen. Both of those veterans had won domestic titles; Smoothie hadn't, and the newcomer learned to trust his teammate's opinions. It was a refreshing change, sharing the shotcalling burden in a way he hadn't since playing with top laner Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong on Cloud9.
"I've always been the person who sets the mood, where we're going to fight, where we're going to set up," Smoothie said. "Bjergsen helps a lot with that. He and Zven have pretty big voices, which is really not a common thing for me. If I'm lost in game, I can always trust that they have my back.
"This feeling, I didn't have it for a very long time ... Relieving the burden off me, trusting in my teammates, knowing what they want and what's good for them is really helpful. They cover really well for my weaknesses and I help cover their weaknesses too."
TSM's trust in each other was put to the test after Cloud9 nearly swept them out of spring playoffs. Through the first two games, former TSM jungler Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen played like a man possessed for C9, outclassing Matthew "Akaadian" Higginbotham in every aspect. Backstage before Game 3, Smoothie worried for his jungler's mental state, wondering if Akaadian would crack at this level of competition.
"Not gonna lie, I was sweating a bit when we were [down] 0-2," Smoothie admitted, "but thankfully, we recovered. I would have expected Akaadian and Broken Blade to be pressured, but they really stepped up and thrived under the pressure instead of being affected by it."
Buoyed by a deathless, MVP performance from Bjergsen over the final three games, TSM clawed their way back to force and win a climactic Game 5. Smoothie played Braum for the rubber match, assigned the difficult duty of holding Unbreakable to block Orrn's Call of the Forge God while counter-engaging Zeyzal's playmaking Alistar. Zeyzal rushed a pair of crucial initiations in the mid-game, while Smoothie stayed patient, the former Cloud9 support outmaneuvering his one-time understudy when it mattered most.
Smoothie was diplomatic in victory.
"There was never any animosity between me and Zeyzal," he said after the match. "If the team felt he was better at the time, that's fine with me. Some players just don't fit as well on teams as other players. That's the reality of it. If you're not good enough, you're going to be replaced. He's a good player, and I'm still a good player. I always wish him the best."
After defeating his two former teams, Smoothie and TSM will face Team Liquid in St. Louis. North America's top seed looked sharp for most of their 3-0 semifinal demolition of FlyQuest, but Liquid never beat TSM during the regular season. Still, regular-season victories matter only so much; just ask Cloud9. The Chaifetz Arena's final stage is shaping to be an entirely different proposition.
The storylines write themselves. Will Bjergsen extend his dominance over Jensen and deny TL the LCS three-peat only TSM ever managed? Can Akaadian and Broken Blade maintain their composure against veteran opposites on the biggest stage either have reached?
Is an LCS championship finally on the cards for Smoothie? The last time he made a domestic final was two years ago in Vancouver, British Columbia. Back then, Bjergsen and TSM denied Smoothie the trophy; now, they're here to help him lift it. All Cloud9 can do is watch.
"I think Team Liquid is pretty one-dimensional in how they play," Smoothie said. "Teams with [Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng], they've always been, 'Play around Doublelift and he carries.' That hasn't changed on this iteration of TL. Put resources in him, and he shows you that he can carry.
"I think that's been working for them. But maybe, teams have been getting a lot better."