Imagine a night sky in which the blobs of the green, Flubber-esque League of Legends champion Zac are tumbling to the ground as the stars blink in awe. Of course, Zac bursting into blobs is rarely a good thing.
Such is the career of Cloud9's now dormant jungler, William "Meteos" Hartman. A year ago, Cloud9 entered the 2015 spring split off the backs of a wild run at the League of Legends World Championship that saw, perhaps, the signature international win for North America in League of Legends. Cloud9's stunning victory over NaJin White Shield was the biggest mark against South Korea that an American squad had ever made. Those who had followed the StarCraft scene prior to League of Legends had grown accustomed to the "Korean overlords."
Although this says more about North America's lack of success on the international stage, it's still the type of win that invigorates a region. Once you learn gods can bleed, you start to believe they can be slain. C9 carried the hopes of the region on its back, bolstered by being the only successful team comprised solely of North American talent. At the center of that storm was their star jungler: a tall, white, faux-blonde-haired American kid with an unorthodox, capitalistic-like playing style.
Meteos reigned supreme over his counterparts for the bulk of his time as a pro. Buoyed initially by dominant lanes, he was allowed to power farm the jungle to gain significant gold advantages over enemy junglers. His lack of presence in the early game was rarely punished properly by opposing teams because they simply didn't have a counter strategy. But maybe it didn't exist at the time. Maybe the strategies C9 employed were the premier way to play the game. At least in North America, that was hard to argue against. Even at the international level, pundits rarely pointed to Meteos as being at fault for struggles.
By the numbers, it was hard to argue against. He sported a 12.7 KDA over his first split in the LCS. Meteos "the immortal" carried this reputation for the bulk of his career. In some ways, though, perhaps that contributed to his faults. Take, for example, the item Mejai's Soulstealer. You accumulate stacks (which give you benefits) with each kill and lose a significant chunk each time you die. Anyone who has played a substantive amount of League of Legends has played with the Lux player who buys this item and sits half-a-screen away missing lasers, the very same player who collects absurd KDAs but sports a mediocre if not poor win ratio, especially relative to KDA. What happens, then, when the stat machine is supposed to die?
Obviously, Meteos isn't that Lux player. That Lux player lurks in the recesses of your worst solo queue anxieties, waiting to ruin your promotion series. Meteos, at his best, was a player who knew exactly how far to drop before launching the parachute. He was king of the game of chicken. Aside from farming, I will always associate him with being able to skip out of a fight with a sliver of health. On the other end of that spectrum was the yin to Meteos' yang in midlaner Hai "Hai" Lam. If Meteos was the hardworking farmer, Hai was the city-dreaming brother who'd skip away to the local forest and gank the enemy bot lane. One of C9's hallmarks, which stands true to this day, is their ability to team fight. What Hai excelled at was killing his target at the cost of his own life. If Hai went in, you could be fairly certain he wasn't coming back out.
This contrast in styles balanced itself to allow Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi to wreak havoc from the backline. It also gave Meteos freedom to orient himself to more of a carry role. There are two schools of thought when it comes to properly positioning a carry. The first says dead heroes don't do damage. The second says the primary function of a carry is to deal damage. The two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but they do inform players' playing styles. Given the choice, would you rather do 3000 damage and die or 2000 and live? Answering this depends on the context of the situation, of course, but certain players gravitate one way or the other.
Consider for a second what it means to skip out from the front line. That's an auto-attack, an ability or a step that's now freely granted to the opposition carry. How many fights are won by just a sliver? Meteos excelled at timing when to shift in and out of the fight, but I wonder if there are times when you should engage with the full expectation of dying. Regardless, fans believed in Cloud9's ability to win a team fight, no matter how far behind in gold they were.
That both Hai and Meteos excelled at initiating is what gave Cloud9 a massive edge in team fights. Meteos could go in comfortably knowing someone else would be there to soak the attention. What C9 lost with their first roster shift was more than Hai's shot-calling. What led to that moment was a slow collapse of the C9 hierarchy. They had enjoyed unprecedented dominance in their first two splits. Even a rougher summer split was salvaged by a strong performance at the 2014 world championship. Despite their momentum, C9 struggled to a second-place finish in the 2015 spring split, which sounds ridiculous by most standards, but it's a testament to the team's desire to win. Fueled by the community's perception of Hai being the weak link, the team replaced him heading into the summer. C9, without a doubt, became Meteos' team.
Meteos had a sort of cult following even before stepping down, thanks in part to popular memes and a parody account of his supposed ego. This has only ballooned since his retirement. He regularly draws in 20,000-plus viewers to his livestreams and can often be found playing with the C9 players. It has been more than six months since he played competitively. He has insisted he is content with what he's currently doing, even as North America's roster carousel achieved maximum speed over the winter. Fans and pundits alike are perplexed as to why he continues to remain away from the scene.
yeah if Leo can win an Oscar then I believe NA can win worlds
- C9 Meteos' Ego (@c9meteosego) February 29, 2016
If you look at his history, though, it shouldn't be entirely surprising. Meteos found his bearings playing normal games; his first competitive team was called "Team Normal Stars." There's nothing wrong with normal games, but the aura around them is undeniably different from ranked games. There isn't a number that tracks your performance. People are far less likely to be upset at you for making a mistake, and it seems to be an environment that favors learning and experimenting. For all intents and purposes, it's a healthy realm for players. Avoiding ranked games doesn't mean you lack a competitive drive. It doesn't mean you're bad.
But there's something to be said for aiming to place yourself in the most competitive environment possible. Shying away from the limelight and the unrelenting pressure from fans to perform has its perks. After the All-Star matches last year, Meteos sat down with Travis Gafford to shed some light on his situation. He claimed he wanted to be with "a bunch of friends who just want to mess around." Additionally, he said he "doesn't like competitive where everyone gets pissed off and blames not having enough jungle pressure, and I'm just sitting there running around trying to figure out where to go so I don't get yelled at." At the very least, it is evident the pressure had gotten to him.
It would be unfortunate if his spectacular career flamed out on such a sour note. There are a lot of documented cases of players slowly fading off, but Meteos' abrupt departure would tower above them all as the biggest and quickest collapse in the west. It took just 10 games for him to decide to step down. As the story goes, he voluntarily stepped down because he felt Hai added more immediate presence to the team. He felt that gave C9 the best shot to win. But at the end of the day, what's the difference between quitting and voluntarily stepping down?
No, he didn't leave C9 scrambling for a replacement. But in what other capacity does the supposed captain and face of the team decide to step down -- and in the middle of the season at that? There are cases when they might take a more reserved role (see the twilight of professional basketball players such as Vince Carter or even xPeke stepping aside for PowerOfEvil). It's not that he weathered a particularly long period of failure, either. The 10 games amounted to little more than a month. It's not like he experienced a sharp decline in mechanical talent either; to this day, he maintains a high challenger account. Mechanics were never the thing that kept him relevant. He dominated, thanks to precise jungle pathing and efficient play.
Meteos experienced a mental collapse that shattered his confidence. Hai's presence extended beyond the game. He served as a funnel for criticism against the team. People rarely pointed to Meteos as the problem for the team's struggles. All it took was a month of fingers lobbed at him for him to step down, though. Was the criticism warranted? It's hard to say. If you look at the 10 games he played during the summer split (in which Cloud9 limped to a 3-7 start), you'd find he dominated in victories and was almost invisible in losses.
He held a 5/3/41 score line in victories -- good for a 15.3 KDA -- and a 6/22/23 tagline in losses for a 1.3 KDA. Despite the number of losses being more than twice the victories, he barely managed to generate half the assists as the three victories. Compare the stat line against Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen's in their losses (11/23/21), and you'll find Jensen's kill participation was higher. It's clear C9 didn't just lose those games. They were dominated. They rolled over and did nothing. Watching those games was a dark time for C9 fans. The do nothing defeats stood in stark contrast to the high-flying, punch-them-back style they'd built a strong following on. Gone were the sneaky, Frogger-style Zed backdoors. Gone were the all-or-nothing Barons. What you saw was a hapless, indecisive fluff of cotton masquerading as a cloud.
A lot of factors contributed to the failures of the team in that time. An "BalIs" Van Le was no longer the definitive best top-laner in the region. Jensen, despite his hype, was still a rookie being thrown into the beast's mouth. Unlike Hai, he was a dominant carry who demanded resources. But even that narrative is overblown. It's not that Hai didn't have games in which he needed to be fed, and it's not like Jensen couldn't make do with less money. The biggest factor was losing their leader, but that shift happened long before Hai officially retired.
In his retirement, Hai alluded to the fact that the team didn't believe in his calls as much as they used to. Cloud9 acquired some hesitation in their step, which would cause them to trip over themselves again and again. The idea, though, was that Meteos would be able to carry Hai's decisive voice to the new lineup. But if he is lost in the jungle trying to figure out where to go so he doesn't get yelled at, he's certainly not focused on making distinct calls. Perhaps the burden of single-person shot-calling was too much for anybody, but C9 failed to develop an adequate alternative. At the center of that failure was Meteos' inability to be a leader. This is the legacy of his short stint as team captain.
This, however, is less a criticism of Meteos when you consider that the scene as a whole lacks strong in-game leaders and shot-callers. This is a problem that persists across all the major esports, and it's not surprising when you consider both the average age and experience players have in professional settings. Of course, it's not like this type of leadership isn't present in this age bracket. You'll consistently find good leaders across the major sports at both the high school and college levels.
The key difference is they enter an infrastructure designed to support them from the top down. There is a huge umbrella of coaches and staff that is still lacking in esports. We are starting to see teams invest heavily in a proper support staff. What will follow is a proper peer-to-peer mentoring system, the likes of which are core to eastern civilizations such as South Korea and major American sports.
If not for the spectacular no-show by the Chinese squads at worlds and Cloud9's miraculous run through the gauntlet, the initial collapse of C9 in the summer split would have been the biggest surprise of the 2015 season. Meteos remains one of the most recognizable faces in the League of Legends scene. His popularity is a testament to the diverse way the game finds itself on computer screens across the world.
We will reach the one-year anniversary of Meteos' departure from the pro scene soon enough. He insists he isn't retired and would be happy to join a team if the situation suited his needs. Maybe more than ever, the meta allows junglers to carry with the likes of Nidalee, Graves and Kindred serving as contested picks. All three benefit from crisp routes to generate small advantages for their teams not through ganking but through stealing or denying the opposition from a camp.
If the return doesn't happen soon, then when? Or is it that he isn't as good as we perceive and remember him to be? His final 10 games showed a black and white picture of what kind of player he could be. On a successful team, he was a stalwart. On one which struggled, he was nonexistent. Is it even possible, though, for him to slip into a team and not have the spotlight on him? A low-pressure environment would allow him to succeed, but perhaps that no longer exists with his level of fame.
This, to me, is one of the main reasons he won't succeed on a challenger team. Cloud9 already tried to build a team around him, and that ship spent more time unloading water from its hulls than sailing anywhere. There are players who overshadow him -- Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng and Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg come to mind -- but it seems he missed the window to join TSM. The pressures of that brand would likely be even more daunting than serving as the figurehead of Cloud9. Meteos is only a month of games removed from being the undisputed best jungler in the region. He's the superstar jungler, with a near 13.0 KDA and Super Saiyan hair. He is clearly still relevant.
His legacy is a confusing one. At his peak, he was one of the most dominant players the west had ever seen. But the last images of him as a professional will be the stunning collapse of a much-hyped -- perhaps over-hyped -- Cloud9 team. He could have ridden that sinking ship to the bottom of the sea. Maybe Cloud9 gets relegated. They were very close to being put into that position, but as in his vintage performances on Zac, Meteos bounced out before death. Like before, Hai stepped in to finish the job. The synergy between the two still unmatched by any mid-jungler pairing in the west. But Meteos is young and still playing the game.
Maybe it's all just a long con. He's accustomed to growing in the jungle, and perhaps when he decides to step out, he will be as strong as we've ever seen him.