Vainglory may be streamlined for touch devices, but this on-the-go MOBA still packs a big competitive punch—and the game's eSports community has steadily grown in size and attention over the last two years.
It all culminated in last month's first-ever World Championship event in Los Angeles, with Korea's Phoenix Armada pushing back against seeming North American dominance to win and claim half of the $120,000 total pot. We're in the offseason right now, but with the Spring 2017 competitive season just weeks away, teams are starting to make big moves to ensure a better showing and a bigger spotlight as Vainglory's eSports ambitions expand.
Today, Cloud9 showed its hand, unveiling a revamped squad that ought to startle their NA competition, offering up a starting trio with some of the top talent in the game. Coming off of inconsistent results last fall, Cloud9 recruited longtime player Gabe "gabevizzle" Villarin as team captain and picked up Gabriel "Oldskool" Villamariona, as well, while keeping Joseph "iLoveJoseph" Samano in the starting lineup. Furthermore, analyst Ian Huston will also now serve as manager to help the squad refine and focus their game as the season approaches and unfolds.
The shakeup comes only a few months after Cloud9 made its first moves into Vainglory, but the new starting lineup brings together three top specialists and should make it one of the top teams to watch. Alongside the announcement, Cloud9 explained the moves and why they feel so confident about this big shift.
Cloud9 made a big splash into the Vainglory scene last September—only days before the Summer Live Championships—by acquiring Nemesis Hydra, a team that had seen great success in the previous seasonal championships. And the squad did pretty well at that event, finishing 3rd-4th; Team SoloMid won the event, while gabevizzle's Hammers Velocity took 2nd and Oldskool's Phoenix Reign tied at 3rd-4th.
With Rommel "Hardek" Soriano, Jr. as team captain and Carry, alongside iLoveJoseph as Jungler and Christopher "LostBoyToph" Basco in the in-game Captain role, Cloud9 seemed primed to hold its own in the NA region. However, the team proved inconsistent as the Vainglory Evil Eight season unfolded, finishing last (8th place) in the first NA split before bouncing back and taking 3rd in the second NA split. The squad failed to qualify for the World Championship, and Cloud9 general manager Danan Flander admits that they started considering other options at that point in November.
"While we were proud of the team for their valiant efforts in qualifying, we knew that there would only be so much time before the next season would kick off," he explains. "The team had already had a tumultuous month or two in regards to stabilizing the roster, so we felt it was appropriate to take advantage of the offseason in order to get a deeper look. In doing so, we found that the divide amongst the current members was going to lead to an inevitable overhaul of the roster."
Huston, who had been an analyst for Cloud9's Vainglory team since September and previously helped Hammers Esports win the Spring 2016 NA championship, took point in trying to shape a new squad. He also suggests that there were conflicts with the past lineup, admitting that "there was difficulty for the previous roster to consistently find their identity," and that "a stalemate arose" when they couldn't forge a mutual path ahead towards improvement.
As a result of this week's moves, Hardek and LostBoyToph are no longer starters, but will remain with Cloud9. Gabevizzle, who served as an unofficial stand-in last fall as Jungler, takes the role of new team captain, while Oldskool—who finished 3rd at the World Championship with GankStars Sirius—joins anew. Teamed with iLoveJoseph, the new Cloud9 starters have each only ever finished 4th or better respectively in live competition, making this a group of proven players who can thrive under pressure.
The talented trio
Each player is also among the best in the world at his position. Vainglory's three-on-three battles provide a key role for each player: the Captain (or roamer/support), who must direct the team and soak up enemy damage; the Carry, who drives opponent kills in the lane and generates ample gold; and the Jungler, who wanders outside the lane to surprise the enemy carry, stymie threats, and help drive the team's momentum.
Gabevizzle is an old hand at Vainglory, having played since its launch in late 2014 and winning the first International Premier League season with GankStars Sirius in 2015. As an in-game Captain, he's known for his incredible timing and ability to block enemy attacks via Crucible, particularly against opposing crowd control abilities, giving his teammates an upper hand during team-fights. He has also pioneered uncommon item builds at the pro level, and used Captain-oriented heroes in Jungle, helping to reshape the meta in the past.
"He always stays cognizant of the long game, and remains flexible with his play to close out a game when ahead, or to persevere to come from behind," explains Huston. For his part, gabevizzle plans to use his ample knowledge to anchor this squad, especially with less-experienced (yet highly talented) players at his side. "What I plan to do for this young team is to become a positive role model they can look up to," he explains, "and make sure to balance out the seriousness of being a part of a professional organization, while at the same time making the game fun for us all."
As the Carry, Gabriel "Oldskool" Villamariona's objective is pushing through turrets and farming gold—and his particular skill at the latter has earned him the nickname "Goldskool" from fans. "His gold generation provides his team a unique advantage in the way that he can accelerate his itemization, or force other teams to change their strategies in order to give farming the same priority," says Huston.
Jungler iLoveJoseph is the lone Cloud9 starter to stick around in the role—and according to gabevizzle, he is "the best at what he does. He's able to disrupt the enemy jungle whenever he wants, initiate and peel for the team when needed, and overall does a very good job at syncing with Oldskool." Huston adds that iLoveJoseph's sometimes "unconventional methods" always fit well with his team's strategy, and that his unparalleled focus on certain heroes means that he can thrive even if they're not favored in the current meta… and especially if they are.
Huston personally recommended and helped recruit both gabevizzle and Oldskool to the team, and believes this lineup will thrive as all three players are not only serious individual talents, but also work well together as a supportive, singular unit. As both his and Flander's previous comments hint, that may not have been the case with the earlier lineup.
"I believe that what sets them apart is their synergy and communication, and willingness to improve," affirms Huston. "Whether it be intensely discussing the game or just talking as friends, the amount of daily communication has generated an organic synergy that's really difficult to find between three people. Outside of standard practice times, I can still see them regularly playing and trying out new things to report back to the team. Everyone is genuinely interested in keeping it constructive, and it's very refreshing."
Gunning for NA's best
With the next official championship season just over a month out, Cloud9's new lineup has some time to start honing that synergy against more established squads. They'll actually get to work this week, as independent league VISPro begins its Winter 2017 season. It'll be a chance for Cloud9 to devise tactics and try out fresh builds ahead of more important battles ahead.
Even thus far untested as a unit, Cloud9 already seems like a powerhouse on paper. Evan Denbaum, Vainglory maker Super Evil Megacorp's Senior Director of Content Strategy & Esports, certainly believes as much: "Cloud9's new team is likely the most dangerous collection of talent ever assembled in North America. Their mechanical skill is off the charts, and I can't wait to see how they perform when Vainglory's Spring eSports season begins in early March."
Of course, Team SoloMid might have something to say about that. The perennial Cloud9 rival in other eSports is surely the top current Vainglory team in NA, finishing 2nd at Worlds and winning two seasonal championships before that. According to gabevizzle, Cloud9 will need to get inventive to counter TSM's persistent threat.
"They have always performed very well in tournaments and always seem to have a counter to every team composition," he says. "Since TSM comes up with meta, I think our best chance at beating them is by creating our own unique meta, and using that as a way to throw them off."
Vainglory is still growing as an eSport and doesn't yet have the widespread allure of PC-based MOBAs like League of Legends or Dota 2, but Cloud9's greater investment in the sport shows that they see its future potential. And crafting a splashy, potentially dominant team can only help drive its popularity, and perhaps even catch the attention of Cloud9 fans from other games. "Ideally, we'll catch our stride in 2017," says Flander, "which will make introducing our fans to the scene all the more rewarding, while simultaneously making any event we participate in more entertaining."
With these new pieces in place, both within the Halcyon Fold and behind the scenes, the team seems confident that it can live up to the hype as the new season begins, and establish Cloud9 as a leader in yet another competitive game. "With this much talent on one team, we have the potential of becoming one of the best Vainglory teams in the world," asserts gabevizzle. We'll just have to see if that potential truly pans out in the season ahead.