Jack Etienne is on Cloud Nine.
The Cloud9 owner is in the midst of a banner year for his organization. His esports teams and their affiliate organization, the London Spitfire, are some of the most recognizable brands in the community and in the middle of arguably the best year for any professional team in the history of esports.
For Etienne, three highlights transcend the rest: C9's Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team's victory at ELEAGUE Boston, the London Spitfire's championship season in the Overwatch League, and the League of Legends squad's up-and-down split in the North American League Championship Series.
The CS:GO was historic, not just for Cloud9 but for North America. It was the first time a team from the United States took a major championship in CS:GO, and Etienne said that title is the highlight of his career. But despite that result, the team stagnated, and Etienne made the surprising move to reshape the roster and prematurely ended some player contracts.
"Sometimes you need to recognize that the moment passed and that the best thing to do was to step away gracefully -- let the players follow their careers," Etienne said. "It was about managing stars to keep their focus, and we didn't achieve that after the major. They weren't ready to recommit to Cloud9 even though they were still contractually with us, but I chose to let them pursue other goals."
In Overwatch, Cloud9 targeted some of the biggest names in the game and brought them together for the inaugural season for Blizzard Entertainment's popular title. It would prove to be too difficult to mesh 12 egos on one roster, and the talent-heavy team was inconsistent throughout early playoff runs in Stage 1 and Stage 2 as well as the latter half of the season.
It took several transfers of players like Baek "Fissure" Chan-hyung and Kim "Rascal" Dong-jun to find a lineup that could gel. Etienne noted that the lineup reconstruction and makeup resembled the struggles of the LCS team and made the team's title-clinching victory at the Barclays Center in July that much more memorable.
"It was a struggle to get to the championship. We barely scraped our way into the playoffs, but that whole rough patch and rebuilding of our team forged us into the amazing lineup," Etienne said. "We identified our issues and fixed them, and we were ready to peak at the right time."
C9's League of Legends team is by far its poster child and perhaps faced the most adversity of the three. The team's success might not be align with the above two, but it is the struggle and rebuild and recent success that Etienne is most proud of. Through conversations with coach Bok "Reapeared" Han-gyu, the team decided to incorporate Academy players into its LCS lineup. It was a startling decision for one of the most storied teams in the LCS.
The risk to start newcomers to the league over established stars seemed like a knee-jerk reaction, but the logic behind it was agreed upon by both coach and owner. It would create a team that could rely on different looks and a roster of 10 developed players instead of just five. Despite poor results early in the split, the decision paid off. C9 went from an NA LCS team in rebuild mode to a contender over the rest of the split.
"We took a lot of backlash from the fans, and it was very hard, but we stuck to our guns and what we knew was right," Etienne said. "We wanted to build a stronger team for the long term, and we went from the last-place ranking to a top team. If the players did not embrace it, it would not work, but they took on the challenge. We ended up with 10 amazing players, and we developed something truly special."
Etienne's formula for success started with the organization's resources: physical therapists, sports psychologists, team managers and team general managers. Next, his pride and joy, the Academy program and its rotation of able-bodied players. C9's Academy teams were the key to keeping focus during a rough summer split that's led to the team being in playoff contention because rosters were increased to fit more players that wanted the stage time as well as harnessing new talent.
"A lot of it is identifying passionate players that can communicate effectively with each other and after that, it's how they express their feeling without tearing down teammates," Etienne said. "You need to stoke that passion and push them to continue to play harder. One of the scariest things is when you win a lot and players start to become complacent."
The organization had a busy year outside of those marquee games, too. Cloud9 added teams for titles like Clash Royale, Fortnite and Rainbow Six: Siege.
The year isn't over just yet, but Etienne is still savoring Cloud9's on- and off-screen accomplishments.
"We definitely lead the charge on changes," he said. "I have general managers and team owners that thank me on pushing forward. A lot of other teams will follow suit in investing into a very strong Academy team. We set our own path."