After their win over Team SoloMid on Saturday, I spoke with Cloud9’s owner Jack Etienne about improving team communication, the changes he’s already seeing with NA LCS franchising, and the highlight of his esports career.
Miles Yim: Congratulations on the win over TSM. I know this rivalry goes a bit deeper for you personally, as you began your esports career with TSM.
Jack: There is a long history with TSM and Cloud9. When I first made Cloud9, it was really hard leaving TSM because I had so much history there. And we came out really strong. For two splits in a row, TSM didn’t really have that many happy endings; we beat them both in the regular season and the postseason. Since then, they’ve knocked me out of playoffs at least five times, so it definitely feels good to get wins against them. Although this is regular season, not postseason. It’s not real until we actually do it in the postseason. It feels good, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Let’s talk about that work. What needs to be done, to be improved on, to reach the kind of postseason success against TSM you used to have?
Right now, we need to still improve on our communication. That’s kind of a meme, because everyone says, “I gotta communicate better.” But in a team game like this, one of the hardest aspects of the game is making sure you can communicate effectively with your teammates, and there’s always a lot of room to improve. We’ve spent a lot of time at international events, more than any other North American team—not hating on TSM, but four out of five times we’ve got out of groups—and it really feels like the biggest differentiation between the international teams that are succeeding and North American teams. Mechanically, player for player, we feel like we’re on the same level, but it’s the way they communicate and work effectively as a team that allows them to get the wins year after year, and causes North America not to get any farther than quarterfinals.
This year in particular, we’re really focused on taking the hard work we’ve had and gained at Worlds and applying it to the regular season, so we don’t just wait until Worlds to really start working hard fixing these communication issues. We want continue to level up and make the level of communication at the last Worlds our base for thus year. And be ready to come to Worlds this year with a level of communication that we’ve never actually been at. That’s really our goal.
It requires constant vigilance within our players and our staff and myself that we come in every day to remind ourselves that we can’t be lazy. We need to approach each day with energy and passion to get better. It’s so easy to take it easy and have a little bit of edge on North America—and still maybe win the split—but we need to do better than that if we actually want to compete on an international level. We have a staff meeting every morning before we have our first team meeting, and a lot of that time is spent making sure we come to the meeting with the proper energy, and that we make sure our players have the proper focus before scrims start and are ready to take on new challenges each day.
I think you’re right that communication is something that a lot of teams need to improve on if they want to advance past the NA LCS and in international play. But there are a lot of ways to work on communication, and different teams have different approaches. How exactly does Cloud9 improve their communication?
You have to look at it in several different ways. There’s not only taking criticism with a positive attitude, there’s giving criticism in ways that are productive. If you just get in there and you’re literally talking about everything that’s going on, overcommunicating, giving a stream of worthless information, that’s not good communication. Because part of good communication is being efficient about what you say, to make sure there’s a clear space to talk about what’s important and that it’s actually heard. Half of communication is speaking; the other half is listening.
Cloud9 is 8-1 through the first round robin, and whatever issues you seem to have with communication, it hasn’t stopped you from getting out to a great start. Is there anything else, in your mind, that’s holding Cloud9 back from lifting the championship trophy in Miami?
Honestly, when I think about NA LCS, all I think about is making sure I qualify for Worlds. Sure, it’s great to have a flag hanging in the studio, but I want to go to Worlds, I want to perform well there. My goal is always get to [domestic] semifinals at this point. I just need to make sure we can show up to playoffs in a really good state to get enough Circuit Points to qualify for Worlds. And this split is all about getting as many Circuit Points as possible, and you get the most from winning. So obviously winning is great, but I am completely focused on Worlds. That’s what matters to me.
As a team owner, you were closer than most to the process of applying for inclusion into the new NA LCS franchise system. What was that like? Was there ever any doubt that you’d be accepted?
I tend to have a very conservative way of thinking. I assumed that there was a good chance I wasn’t going to get in. So I wanted to make sure that I put the best application in as possible. I really wanted to make sure that Riot knew how important this game is to me, and how hard Cloud9 is going to work so that we’re a viable member of the franchise system, the permanent partnership. I took nothing for granted. I assumed that anyone reading my application knew nothing about Cloud9, and that when they’re going to compare me against any other team that was going to be applying, that my application had to stand for itself outside the history that Cloud9 has.
You’ve been in the scene for years, but for a lot of these new NBA-backed teams, this is their first serious foray into esports. I’m curious: What have your interactions with the new owners been like?
The interactions have been very positive. I really respect those guys for what they’ve built. They have plenty to teach me, and if I can help them have stable esports business, that helps me in turn. It’s been really fantastic to have those guys involved. It’s a rising tide situation, we’re all benefiting. You see FlyQuest bring on Snickers, that’s really cool. That’s a brand that’s never been in esports before at a team level. I think they may have sponsored E-League at some time, but never a team before. That was really exciting to see them bring on a new sponsor like that. 100 Thieves, I’m really impressed by the work they’ve done. They’ve got a fantastic team house, great ownership, they’re making fantastic videos. I love seeing these guys involved. These are my long-term partners now, and I’m proud to be able to sit at a table with guys I really respect to be building this league together.
You sat down with Ryan Edens for an interview with Blitz Esports last year and talked about how your relationship with the new owners would be sort of a two-way street: You would help them in the unfamiliar esports scene, and they would help you get access to bigger sponsors. How has that relationship worked for Cloud9 so far?
I wouldn’t say that they would walk me into any sponsors [Laughs]. They’re not going to give me those contacts. But the very fact that I’m competing with them makes me a viable option for, if not their sponsors, their sponsor’s competitors. That’s how they’re helping my business’s bottom line, by just being there and bringing in their relationships. They’re going to see hey, when I’m beating FlyQuest, they’d be like, “Woah, I’m really happy with my investment with FlyQuest, maybe I should check out these guys that just beat ‘em.” Ryan Edens is awesome, Wes Edens is great. I’m really happy that the team I sold them—my Challenger team—worked out for them. I told them when they bought it that it was going to be a fantastic investment, and it’s worked out well for them. It feels good that I was part of that, and that they’ve taken that opportunity, that team, and really built something cool with it.
What has changed for you since franchising was implemented? What effects of that choice can you already see inside Cloud9?
For me, I’ve been able to hire some really good people to help me grow Cloud9. I’ve got people who are focused on sales, people who are focused on business development, operations. It used to just me and my co-founder, my wife Paullie, the two of us doing too much every single day, and maybe a couple other staff members that have been with us [Danan Flander, Elizabeth Patterson, Eunice Chen]. It was the five of us against the world for way too long. Now we’re making great hires, great folks to support us, and that allows me personally to spend more time on what I think is really important to the business. I spend even more time with my players, even more time in scouting. I’m able to spend more time on what I think is most valuable for the company, and let go of some things that other folks can pick up and run with.
Let’s talk about those busy days, because Cloud9 casts a wide net in the number of esports it’s involved in. For instance, your CS:GO team just won the Boston E-League Major, and you were there in Boston celebrating with your team on stage. What was that like for a League of Legends guy to watch your CS:GO team’s incredible run?
We’ve got 11 teams in nine different games right now, which is pretty nutty. I think the Counter-Strike team in particular is really special. I originally hired a full five members from compLexity years ago, and over time I’ve replaced those members with the people I wanted to hire. And that team that won the major was the first all-five Counter-Strike players that I personally hired to Cloud9. There’s nothing in it left from compLexity, and that was the first one that won a major (the last two were [Will “RUSH“ Wierzba] and [Tarik “tarik“ Celik]). And that’s pretty cool. It felt really good to have my players…they knew I’m really busy, and they’re like, “Hey, can you make it to this Major?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll be there, you got it.” I dropped everything I was doing to be out there, and to see them gel as a team and take it to new heights was fantastic. I would say that’s the highlight of my career at this point, and we’ve had some really amazing stuff, miracle gauntlet runs. But this was a team I completely built from the ground up, and they did something amazing with it. To win an international event of that caliber, that’s it, right now that’s the best career moment.
One esport Cloud9 is not involved in is Dota 2, which seems odd to me since it’s so popular and similar to League of Legends. You had a team for years and it disbanded. You recently acquired Team NP with [Jacky “EternaLEnVy” Mao] and it disbanded too. From an ownership perspective, what makes League of Legends a safer investment than Dota 2? Put a different way: You’re clearly heavily invested in League of Legends, but not Dota 2. Why?
I love [Dota 2], obviously. I tried to build my own North American team, and due to various reasons, I had to step away from the team. If I see the opportunity to go back to that game, I am. I really enjoy it. I love the community, and they love Cloud9. It’s really just an opportunity thing. Building teams in Dota 2 I would say is probably the most difficult game to build a team in because of the way the ecosystem works and the size of [The International]’s prize pool. It makes the way I like to build teams, which is a longer-term…I don’t like to sign players unless it’s for three years minimum, which allows me to build a culture with that team. And that’s really incongruous with the way that Dota 2’s ecosystem works. After each TI, the team just wants to break apart and re-form. And the Major system causes even more instability. So for me, if I can find maybe three, four guys that are going to stick together as a core and do a three-year deal, I would be down. When [Peter “ppd” Dager] left EG, I was thinking maybe we could build something there, but it just didn’t happen. So it’s not for a lack of trying, it’s just a lack of opportunity so far.
Bringing it back to League of Legends, you have Echo Fox tomorrow in a battle for sole possession of first place. What’s it going to take to beat them?
So, not even throwing shade on them at all: I wasn’t really thinking about Echo Fox. I was all about TSM this weekend. Even if I was to lose to Echo Fox, I wouldn’t even care, because I’d be so happy about beating TSM and all the history there. It is just regular season. I need to show up for playoffs and put the team in a good state, so win or lose I don’t really care. I want my players to take away something from the games, some good insight and experience. [Echo Fox] are a really good team. I’m not saying they’re bad at all, I actually think they’re fantastic. Their players are amazing; I like them a lot personally and professionally. I want to get out there and have a really good game, learn some stuff. Win or lose, I don’t really care. I want to go into playoffs feeling good.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.