Hai Lam, A Great Player, but…

Cloud 9 announced this week the departure of longtime midlaner Hai “Hai” Lam from their active roster, ending weeks of speculation about the status of the Cloud 9 mid lane. Teammates, opponents, and personalities rushed to laud him on Twitter, while rampant speculation about his replacement abounded on Reddit. A number of outstanding analytic retrospectives are also making the rounds, highlighting his brilliance as a tactician, yet full of the implicit “…but” that will likely always be a large part of Hai’s legacy.

“Hai was a great leader, but…”

“Hai captained the most dominant team in NA history, but…”

“Hai’s elite shotcalling won C9 nearly unwinnable games against the top teams in the world, but…”

After the “but…” comes “he wasn’t that great of a player,” or “he couldn’t match up with the best mid laners.” Inevitably, studies on Hai’s legacy highlight his value as leader and especially shotcaller of Cloud 9, and they leave out his actual play. Perhaps this is a bit unfair; for most of his career Hai at least went even with the titans of his day, first Reginald and mandatorycloud, then later Bjergsen, Shiphtur, and XiaoWeiXiao. Though lacking, by intentional design, in the kinds of unbelievable solo plays that have come to synonymize great midlane play, Hai executed a different kind of dominance. He used the pressure generated by the threat of his superlative jungler to fuel his aggressive play in lane, which in turn allowed that jungler the space to impose Cloud 9’s map-wide stranglehold. Early in Cloud 9’s LCS run, this often manifested in a subtle advantage; Hai maintained lane parity against his opposing laner despite rarely getting blue buff or significant early game jungle help. Occasionally though, Hai was able to turn this small advantage into spectacular results — for example in Hai’s brilliant performance during 2013’s Battle of the Atlantic. In a rematch of C9’s 2-1 World Championship defeat at the hands of Fnatic, Hai leveraged Cloud 9’s early midlane pressure into a surgical evisceration of the European titleholder with brutally efficient assassin play. In the process, he stymied superstar midlaner xPeke’s attempts to counterpick him with Renekton against Kassadin and to outcarry him with Orianna against Kha’Zix. It was a terrifying look at what could happen when the entire Cloud 9 apparatus focused on their selfless midlaner.

As Hai and Cloud 9 evolved, Hai took his unique brand of carrying by deferral to an extreme. While his rival mids consistently led their teams in gold and kills, Hai took a different path, rarely pressuring nor permitting pressure in lane, picking Soraka and Lulu while his opponents chose Ahri and Nidalee. Although his team enjoyed nearly the same level of success, weaknesses showed in Hai’s individual game, continuing into subsequent splits. Despite his shift to more supportive champions, Hai’s KDA suffered, beginning a string of consecutive splits in which he was last on his team by that metric. Hai also occasionally struggled in lane, losing farm and dying to ganks at a much higher rate than ever before. Crucially, it was becoming no longer safe to leave Hai completely alone in the midlane, nor to funnel his resources to teammates. And, though his signature Zed remained strong, it eventually became a crutch, without which he sometimes imploded. In Cloud 9’s 2014 Summer Split final against TSM, Hai infamously recorded a 10 KDA ratio in his two Zed games, and a combined KDA ratio of less than 1 in the other three, drawing a game 5 Zed ban which may have decided the series. And though his meteoric climb up the Korean ladder before Season 4 worlds gave fans hope, his questionable performance at the actual event led to even more questions about his role on the team.

Yet despite his individual struggles, this was paradoxically the most brilliant and influential period of Hai’s career. Partly because of Hai’s diminished condition, Cloud 9 could no longer simply brute force their way to victory on the back of superior teamplay aided by a world-class jungler and AD Carry. In their early splits, in the rare case when Cloud 9 fell behind, they could usually expect to capitalize on missteps from their opponent to turn the game around. Certainly this reflects an outstanding grasp of strategy and decision-making from their leader, and their opponents were almost totally unable to cope with their forward-thinking approach to objective control, but in the early days Cloud 9 never had to make difficult compromises. Rarely did Cloud 9 ever have to trade away objectives or map control, because they usually had an ironclad grip on the map. As their opponents began to catch Cloud 9 strategically, and surpassed some of them in individual skill, Hai’s tactical mastery showed brightest. Cloud 9 became a team of unstoppable split pushing, opportunistic barons, favorable objective trades, and nearly perfect map-wide coordination of resources. In Summer 2013, Cloud 9 came back to beat Vulcun from a huge gold deficit by brute force; they punished positioning errors and outplayed their opponent in lategame teamfights. One year later, in Summer Split 2014, Cloud 9 came back from a similar deficit to defeat Counter Logic Gaming, but this time they won based on manipulating their enemy into dubious objective trades, avoiding or disengaging teamfights altogether. Although CLG won most fights and outperformed Cloud 9’s players individually, Cloud 9 never let CLG exchange their resource lead for an objective lead, and C9 eventually won based on superior lategame movement throughout the map. That split, as Hai’s skill level diminished and their opponents improved, Cloud 9 lost more games than in both their previous splits combined, but their mastery of League of Legends grew substantially, catalyzed by the need to find new ways to stay ahead of their rivals.

Cloud 9’s performance in their two World Championship appearances reflected their change in style. In 2013, a regionally dominant Cloud 9 failed to advance past quarterfinals, victim to Fnatic’s strong individual players and concerted commitment to jungle control. Cloud 9 came into the matchup expecting to simply outclass Fnatic as they had done to all of their North American opponents, only to fall embarrassingly, with Hai in particular ominously failing to make an impact. By 2014, a diminished Cloud 9 advanced from group stages against more difficult opponents by finding their opponents’ pressure points and exploiting weaknesses with coordinated precision. It was a testament to Hai’s prodigious skill as a leader, just as it was an indictment of Hai’s skill as a player. Cloud 9’s breathtaking comeback attempt against Najin White Shield was a masterpiece of coordinated pressure, and there cannot be a more quintessentially “Hai” game than Game 2 of the quarterfinals between Cloud 9 and Samsung Blue. Cloud 9 lost in kills 5 to 29 and was utterly outclassed every time they fought. Yet against a team considered at the time perhaps the strongest in the world, Hai repeatedly pulled the Samsung team out of position, bringing his team back into striking distance in a hopeless game, despite his horrific 1/10/1 score. The commentary, crowd, and clash of styles in this game combine symphonically into an amazing exhibition of League of Legends. In the middle of it all stands Hai, outplayed and outclassed, yet still nearly managing to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, only a few pixels away from stealing an inhibitor and keeping his team’s resuscitated hope alive.

In Spring 2015, Cloud 9 failed to finish in at least a tie for first place for the first time since they joined the LCS. In the first match of the year, Hai was astonishingly solo killed in lane by TSM’s Bjergsen. This is perhaps fitting, as Hai probably suffers more than anyone else by comparison to TSM’s superstar midlaner. The centerpiece of their respective teams, Hai and Bjergsen have squared off in the midlane of every LCS final since Bjergsen joined TSM in Spring 2014, and Cloud 9’s diminishing results have mirrored Hai’s loss of midlane control. In Spring 2014, Hai did not die a single time in the finals, as his team annihilated TSM 3-0. By Spring 2015, merely two splits later, Hai only managed an execrable 1.13 KDA ratio, worst on his team, as Cloud 9 barely managed to win a single game against the TSM juggernaut. His decaying wrists and deteriorating team environment surely played a part, but whatever the reason, Hai could clearly no longer compete with the Summer MVP, and the mid lane mismatch helped decide the split in favor of Cloud 9’s ascendent rivals.

In the end, Hai should not be remembered as the deficient midlaner he became, wracked by injury and lack of confidence, nor as the virtuoso conductor of unchallenged LCS champion, fifth best player on both his team and in his region. Rather Hai’s legacy is to be the inevitable victim of his own stratospheric success. Hai rarely overcame his opponents with dazzling individual mastery, but instead he wielded his team like a scalpel, carving at his opponent’s weak points until they collapsed under their own weight. Once his opponents discovered they could not beat him with skill alone, they too began to search for weak points to exploit. Cloud 9, Hai at the head, birthed the evolutionary process that allowed the best North American teams and players to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps, eventually leaving Hai behind. So yes, Hai was a bit deficient, and his underwhelming individual play became Cloud 9’s biggest weakness, but…

No North American LCS player has ever been more central to his team and region’s stupendous strategic growth, and Hai can absolutely retire as one of the greatest ever.

 

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