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Hai Standards: How Cloud9's Captain Took Control

It's hard to oversell Hai Lam's contributions to Cloud 9's League of Legends team. His re-introduction to the starting roster, after a summer-long retirement, was the stuff of high drama: saving his team from relegations, reverse-sweeping rivals back-to-back-to-back to secure North America's third Worlds seed, then taking a shocking 3-0 group stage lead into the first week of the biggest tournament of the year. Though the rest of the world's best eventually dissected the team, preventing them from progressing farther, just being there on the world stage was something of a miracle.

That would make Hai a miracle-worker. And the loudly reverent terms in which his fans speak of him help bolster that impression. But the man himself feels that the attention cast upon him is at least a little overblown. "I think a few things the community says about me is a little much," said Hai. "I don't micromanage the team as much as people would like to think, and they do a lot to bring out the best of me."

But while being self-effacing is expected, the sheer disparity of a Hai-less C9 and an enabled one is too obvious to pretend otherwise. "I would say the reason it's like day and night is just because of who I am. It's not to mean I'm a better player than the people who play when I'm not there—rather, it's more like I am the most dominant personality in the scene or team by a good margin."

Authority

During his absence in summer 2015, the team attempted to fill the void by having jungler William "Meteos" Hartman call the shots, as well as bringing in European mid laner Nicolaj Jensen in Hai's old position—and at least in Jensen, there was a clear mechanical upgrade. But still the team struggled with hesitation and coordination issues. When asked what the biggest difference was during the team's slump and his re-introduction, Hai pegged it as a matter of authority.

"I feel as if they were a bit lost on how to execute playing the game, and handling the game—review, atmosphere, attitude," said Hai. Such problems didn't really exist under Hai's previous tenure on the team—mostly because of sheer force of personality.

"In the case that someone else in North America has more 'control' over a team than me, I'd be genuinely surprised," explained Hai. "I'm not necessarily a dictator, but I am very commanding in what I want to do, and usually the things I want to do are good. So people listen because I'm authoritative and it's a good call. This applies heavily in-game, and outside of the game a bit as well, considering I'm the most responsible or independent one on the team."

So far, so good. At the end of the last summer split, they were in a precarious seventh place in the NA LCS—they've since jumped four places, just behind Counter Logic Gaming and Immortals and safely within the margins for playoffs this time, where the team's historic tenacity in multi-game sets have served them well. Naturally, the team's morale's returned to a high point as well.

"It's going well, I'd say," said Hai of the team's internal atmosphere. "Just because everyone on the team is easy to work with and light-spirited. It makes fixing issues or problems much easier when people don't get defensive about everything. I would say we've returned to 'normal' for Cloud 9."

Absence

Of course, the fact that the team's returned to its title-winning "normal" still leaves its fans worried about dark clouds on the horizon: what if he leaves again? Hai's initial retirement was due to health concerns—wrist problems, as is increasingly common for pro gamers, that notably affected his performance as a mechanics-intensive mid laner during the spring split of 2015. In Cloud 9's April 22 announcement of his initial retirement, Hai explained the fallout of that issue: "I am NOT stepping down due to community criticism for my play or myself. I would be lying if I said I didn’t care about it, but I was able to brush it off thanks to my teammates’ confidence in me. Over time, my teammates started to lose confidence in my abilities as a player and shotcaller. That's what really hit me hard."

Hai transitioned to the role of Cloud 9's "Chief Gaming Officer" that April, working with the tryouts for his replacement as well as developing C9's brand in other games. But with the League of Legends team as the organization's main focus, his new job was effectively curtailed by his absence in his old role.

According to Hai, "It's hard to grow a brand when your team is doing poorly. Granted, we had teams in other games as well, but League was the main priority at the time, due to viewership numbers." Initially, his re-involvement was limited to an advisory and analysis role during scrims, though that ultimately didn't pan out or address the team's root issues. "The atmosphere got pretty bad in the team, and they felt like some new air was needed, so I stepped in a game, and it felt great to them and wanted me to stick around."

There was an unexpected benefit too: the months off had absolved Hai of the physical difficulties he faced, and the jungle and support positions were comparatively less taxing. "The few months of time off I had were great to me, both physically and mentally," said Hai. "Any burnout I felt before was now gone, and my wrists felt better than they did when I was grinding out game after game. They still aren't the best, but I'm working on it."

For now, Hai has no plans to quit—nor does he have any specific plans for what happens after his pro career. "Obviously, I can't play this game forever! Just really depends on how long this body of mine allows me to play, and for as long as I'm necessary and willing to play!"

For now, Cloud 9's 23-year-old de facto leader isn't going anywhere but up.

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