Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi came to his semifinal postmatch interview holding a pink-colored bag from one of his fans, given to him during the fan signings following the series. He smiled as he stared at the assortment of gifts inside: a few snacks, candy, a handwritten note, and pictures of previous autograph sessions with the rest of his Cloud9 teammates. It was a reminder that, regardless of how long it took to get back to the North American League of Legends Championship Series (NA LCS) finals, C9 and Sneaky always had a loyal fanbase behind them.
With the team's narrow victory over the regular season's second-place squad, Immortals, the two-time champions have made it back to their fifth finals after a yearlong hiatus. Gone is esteemed captain Hai "Hai" Lam and his sharp shotcalling, but in his place is a team of five that have come together as one to work toward the ultimate goal: the world championship. They might have gone about it differently than they had in the old days, but C9 are just one step away from reaching that goal and a shot at the Summoner's Cup.
"We've improved an insane amount over the last three weeks," Sneaky told me, sitting down after putting away his gift. "[We just improved on] everything: playing together as a team, making sure we can get vision control, not be in the wrong places, figuring out matchups so we can get ideal pick/bans."
No one really knew what to expect from C9 at the beginning of the summer split. Although the team finished third in the spring split regular season, everything unraveled in the quarterfinals when the team failed to upend sixth-place Team SoloMid. The team decided to pull the trigger on acquiring former world champion Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong from NRG Esports while also bringing back William "Meteos" Hartman to fulfill the starting jungle duties.
"We're definitely getting closer," said Sneaky on his and the team's relationship with Impact. "We have a translator named Robin that translates everything we say so he can really understand what we're trying to talk to him about. I think if we didn't have a translator, it would be really hard, and we probably wouldn't be where we are now, just because we couldn't have the same conversations."
Saturday's semifinal was a return of the top laner that once lifted the Summoner's Cup in 2013 on SK Telecom T1. A selfless player since his early days as a support, Impact has been primarily in the background for large parts of the season while Sneaky and mid laner Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen have been the core carries.
Against Immortals, however, Impact proved why he was once considered to be possibly the greatest top laner on the planet, completely shutting down Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon en route to a series victory. His calm demeanor and intelligent pressure against the offensively gifted but sometimes brazen Huni was the key to neutralizing Immortals' greatest strength: its top and jungle combination between Huni and reigning MVP Kim "Reignover" Yeu-jin.
The other major switch in the offseason was bringing back Meteos, and the old superstar jungler of North America rediscovered his swagger over the course of the series. While he was hit-or-miss in the first four games of the set, Meteos came through as the hero in the final climactic game where he outplayed Reignover to push his team to another finals.
"[Meteos] just really helped push the team forward," said Sneaky. "He came back from the break, and I think he realized he really wanted to win. So he's been pushing the team as far as he can. He questions a lot of stuff to make sure that we know matchups. ... He pushed us a lot harder than we did in spring split. [In] spring split, I don't think we were complacent, but I didn't feel any push. It just felt like going into any normal split game versus [Team SoloMid] or something, but this time we practiced really hard, and I think it showed."
Meteos has made it to the finals each time he has fully completed a season (this is his fifth). The only two seasons C9 failed to make the NA LCS finals were when they either replaced Meteos in the middle of the season (summer '15) or when he didn't play at all (last split). If TSM can outduel rivals Counter Logic Gaming in the other semifinal later on Sunday, Meteos will face TSM in the finals for the fifth straight time. The current record between the clubs is 2-2.
If Sneaky's prediction is any indication, Meteos and the rest of C9 will have the opportunity to break the deadlock.
"I think TSM is going to win," he answered when asked which team he favored in the second semifinal. "Pretty sure, I'd give it like an 80%. But CLG has pulled through a bunch of random times, like every single time during the finals as of recent. I think the biggest one was last year in summer. I was like, 'Oh, this is obvious, TSM wins,' but CLG 3-0'ed and I was like, 'Huh, that's weird.' So I could see them winning, but TSM has been looking stronger for sure across the whole split, and even in scrims CLG's doing a pretty good amount worse than TSM is."
CLG, TSM, whoever it is, for Sneaky and Cloud9, it doesn't matter. Regardless of which team meets C9 in the NA LCS Finals in Toronto, the Saturday semifinal confirmed one thing:
Cloud9 is back.