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Friendly Fire: TL vs C9

Jensen and Sneaky reflect on the past as teammates and their new relationship as rivals.

“What can your chef make?” asks Sneaky.

“Literally anything,” says Jensen.

“What have you requested?”

“Mom’s spaghetti.”

The former teammates laugh as we seat ourselves at Seoul Tofu, a restaurant in Santa Monica’s Sawtelle neighborhood. It’s an area full of good food and hangout spots that attract a lot of League of Legends people — pros, personalities, and Rioters alike. It is very difficult to go there without running into someone you know. Next to us sits a couple on their first date — a more optimistic juxtaposition to Sneaky and Jensen who are more akin to a couple coming off a fresh breakup.

The duo lived together in the Cloud9 house from the summer of 2015 until the end of last year, when Jensen left C9 for Team Liquid in one of the most surprising and monumental moves of the offseason (maybe ever). They were fresh off a historic run to the Worlds Semifinals stage, a first for North America in seven years, and even though it seemed like a bright future was ahead of the roster, Jensen suddenly left.

“This is actually our first time [hanging out this year],” says Sneaky. This is a bit of a strange thing considering all 10 LCS teams live within a few miles of each other and operate under similar practice schedules, and the two of them seemed rather close on C9. At least to me, the first day of the Spring Split feels a lot like coming back from summer vacation — it is odd that you wouldn’t hang out with your old friend just because you’re on different teams now.

The two joke about how they were recently asked in interviews whether they missed each other or not (they both answered yes). Before the season began, I remember asking Jensen if he’d seen any of the C9 guys since returning from Denmark, and he was very bashful about not having done it yet — it kind of felt like a bit of shame or guilt was involved, which I think many of us can relate to with old lovers or family members or sometimes even coworkers. And leaving C9, at least, probably did feel like leaving a family behind.

C9’s brand has long been interwoven with being a “meme team” — they joke around and have fun and seem like they’re all friends. I’ve been to the house several times, and always someone will remember me and greet me whether it’s Jack looking up from a laptop on the couch or a team manager wrestling the boys together. It is, I imagine, a very different feel than Team Liquid’s Alienware facility.

Sneaky has become the face of that very franchise now. His eccentric interests range from cosplaying the likes of Lux and Sivir and maids to memeing about crude stuff with viewers on his stream. He is one of the most accessible pro players in that sense. Jensen on the other hand is more reserved — despite being a perennial MVP-caliber player, he doesn’t have the same type of social clout in terms of popularity as other top players in NA.

That stream persona sometimes makes people think Sneaky doesn’t take things seriously or that he’s immature, but it’s very much the opposite in many ways. His voice is respected as a calming and veteran presence on the team — this is a sentiment you will hear echoed among many of this teammates new and old. And as we sit in the restaurant, he’s the one who pours water into all of the glasses, which I guess is not a huge deal, but it’s a thing I don’t think a lot of younger people in esports don’t even think to do. He’s come a long way from sleeping in the bathroom closet of their first house.

He also distributes the utensils when we get our food — he asks Jensen if chopsticks are fine, and while Jensen takes them, he also asks for a spoon.

“Actually my chopsticks have improved a bit,” says Jensen. “I try to do it more now.”

“When no one’s watching?” I ask.

He says, “No, no, no. People are watching, and I’m getting judged… but it’s fine. It’s okay. I’ve actually had a lot of dinners with Reapered lately, but that’s because I get hungry late night and then he’s also hungry late night, so I go out with him, Impact, and sometimes CoreJJ.” You might notice in the photo below that he stabs his chopsticks into his rice and that Sneaky places them together over the bowl.

The last year or so has been a period of transition for a lot of pro players in the LCS — many teams are now shifting towards a model that separates players’ living arrangements from their training facility and gaming houses. Jensen lives in an apartment with Doublelift and CoreJJ, and Sneaky just moved out of the Cloud9 house to live with his girlfriend. This is a change they both speak very highly of, though Jensen admits it’s hard to be too critical of anything on Team Liquid at the moment because they keep winning.

Jensen placed a huge magnifying glass on himself by making the change — no matter how you slice it, switching from arguably the most beloved team in the LCS to their main rival will garner scrutiny. Expectations are sky high — the floor for TL is winning both LCS splits, a feat that Jensen has never personally accomplished even once, and on an international stage, it is going to be very difficult to replicate let alone surpass a Semifinals run. This pressure weighed on him in the first match.

He says, “I think the first game [against C9]  was kind of important just because I think if we were to lose, I’d get shit on a lot by Reddit. That was the biggest thing. Beating C9 was nice, but it wasn’t really something I was thinking about too much. I know Reapered always makes a speech when you play against former teammates, like, ‘Oh yeah, we have to shit on him, guys! Let’s not let them beat us!”

I look at Sneaky and ask, “Did he do it?”

Sneaky nods, “Yep.”

Jensen continues, “That was in the back of my head the whole time before the game started. I think next time I’ll feel a bit less incentive. It’ll be less pressure because the first game was mostly because a lot of people would shit on me if we were to lose, but now that’s out of the way, I don’t think it will be big to me at all whether we win or lose. It won’t be personal or anything.”

“Was the handshake afterwards awkward?” I ask him.

“Yeah, it was actually a little uncomfortable at first because I didn’t really talk to many of them yet.”

“Jensen didn’t want to hug me,” chides Sneaky.

At 11-1 for TL and 10-2 for C9, the coming matchup between the two teams is set to be one of the most explosive matches of the 2019 season. It features a pair of teams that are dominating NA in a way that we haven’t really seen since TSM and Immortals in 2016. A win for TL will give them a three game lead over Cloud9 (thanks to tiebreakers), and for C9 it’d be a critical victory over a TL squad that has mostly dominated them when it matters in the last year.

This time around, though, Cloud9 is actually coming in as the hotter team — on the back of eight straight wins, new mid laner Nisqy has integrated into the team much better than in their first matchup. I ask Jensen if he has any sort of relationship with Nisqy, and he says no. “Nothing against him, I just don’t know him at all. [I just knew that] we played against him [when he was on Envy] and I solo killed him two times in one game.”

“There was a time in gauntlet too — didn’t you get like 20 kills on Leblanc?” asks Sneaky.

“Yeah, but that was against… what’s his name… Ninja or some shit, right?” says Jensen.

“[Oh, right], now he’s just a big Fortnite streamer. My god.”

“Yeah he really turned around his career.” They are, of course, different Ninjas. The two are like hyenas feeding off each other’s antics.

Jensen continues, ““Reapered was just telling me [Nisqy is] the dumbest player he’s had or some shit. But Reapered talks shit about all of his players. He says all mid laners are dumb as fuck.” He laughs thinking back on his own time as a player for Reapered — Jensen was famously the recipient of “brain checks” from Reapered, which confirmed whether or not Jensen still had his brain before every match.

Sneaky adds, “[They’re] not that different. A mid laner is a mid laner. They kind of do the same thing. They roam bot sometimes. They TP. They try to carry. Some are more talkative, some are less. I think Nisqy’s a bit more talkative sometimes, but it’s not necessarily in a shotcalling kind of way. He just says his conditions pretty often. Besides that it’s not too different. Just differences in personality. Jensen’s pretty reserved and I would call Nisqy more… I don’t even know how to describe it, but more outgoing. He’s got a lot of energy.”

I wonder how often players keep tabs on their former teammates or on the person who replaced them — and how do they really feel about them? They both ask me how Hai’s doing, for example — they’ve seen him on the desk but don’t really interact with him at the studio. Maybe it’s just the ebb and flow of this sport — people come and go like roommates and classmates do in college. A friend you have one semester might be wholly a stranger when you’re removed from the specific context of that classroom. The leaves change colors. The snow piles up. And then poof. Everything is new again come spring.

I am definitely a petty person, but I feel like it’d be a pretty normal emotion to find a kind of joy in seeing my replacement struggle. Like, if C9 struggled with Nisqy, then maybe that’s a sign that Jensen was irreplaceable. And maybe if they don’t — like right now — then perhaps he was. I guess in Jensen’s case, though, he left of his own volition, and his worth to the team wasn’t really ever in doubt. It’s just that Cloud9 was the only team he’s ever known — they’re the ones who integrated him fully into Los Angeles and American culture. And Sneaky was the only teammate that was with him that whole time.

I ask Jensen what the differences are between Sneaky and Doublelift.

“Well… Doublelift likes playing around Doublelift a lot. You can put it that way,” he laughs. “But he’s a nice guy actually, like I thought he would be more of a problematic person but he’s been nice so far.”

One thing I heard Zeyzal say in an interview is that Jensen demanded a lot more attention and resources than Nisqy, so it’s interesting to hear that Jensen feels similarly about Doublelift. It’s clearly been an effective roster swap for both teams so far — C9 and TL are easily the top two teams in the league. They seem even better than they were last year. But try as I might to drum this up as some sort of clash between enemies, that’s just not really part of the stakes in this fight.

Their kinship is kind of antithetical to how a lot of sports rivalries are built up — there is a lot of real animosity between teams and subsequently fan bases. Even at its best, those rivalries are a kind of loathing you feel very deeply when watching the teams play — probably the closest thing we have is NA vs. EU. In the LCS, though, the proximity between players can make it a little more difficult. There’s no “bad blood” if the players themselves don’t feel it or feel like they need to prove something to the opposition.

Jensen says, of their rivalry, “I think it’s just a regular storyline. Former teammates at the top of the standings — it’s more generic.”

“What kind of storyline are you looking for?” asks Sneaky.

“Some bloody storyline like this guy… wait let me think of something cool,” laughs Jensen. “I was going to say something related to exes but that’s too personal.”

“That’s pretty juicy.”

What is at stake is a little more under the current. Ultimately, Jensen’s decision to leave signaled that he thought something out there was better, and it’s diametrically opposed to Sneaky’s steady six-year tenure with Cloud9. What I’m interested in isn’t whether or not they hate each other (they don’t) or if this will have huge implications on the standings (it will), but in how their approaches to the game differ. Team Liquid is a very serious team — they banned all other games during Playoffs last year and they forced all of their players to play 40 games of Solo Queue after their sole loss to TSM this split. Cloud9 is synonymous with being the meme team at this point — they dive fountains for kills. They bench their stars and then joke about it. They revel in being aloof, and they’re able to do so because above all of that they win.

What’s neat about this rivalry is that they’re very different teams who should attract very different fan bases. So even if their fans don’t necessarily hate each other, I think you could say they might not really understand each other — there just isn’t as much expected overlap in how the two teams brand themselves. And at its core, now, is Jensen — he has voiced regret over how he hasn’t won the LCS yet, and even though he understands Team Liquid’s goals are larger than that, it’s something he hopes to accomplish. Maybe shifting to the more serious Liquid squad was to help fulfill that goal. It would be terribly ironic if C9 were to win their first LCS Championship in five years right after he left — that, I imagine, would be like tying an anchor to Jensen and submerging him in, well, Liquid.

One of their final memories together was getting benched last year — the two of them spent a lot of time talking about it. Whether it was fair or unfair or reasonable or unreasonable. It ended up being one of the catalysts for Jensen finally deciding to leave, but in talking about it now they just laugh and joke about it.

“We were just trying to cope,” says Sneaky. Beyond being a venting buddy, though, he says the biggest thing he misses about having Jensen around is losing a gaming friend. “I don’t have anyone to play other games with now,” he says. “I used to play a lot of random shit with Jensen.” They reminisce on H1Z1 and PUBG among a whole slew of games — C9 has been one of the most vocal teams about letting their players enjoy their free time more.

Jensen says the thing he misses the most about Sneaky is that he acted as a bit of a mentor for him. Stepping out from the C9 house is in many ways a coming-of-age moment for Jensen, who’s had League of Legends dominate his entire transition from awkward teenage years into adulthood, now living in an apartment for the first time. I ask if they spend much time thinking about the past or old teammates.

Sneaky says there isn’t really time to do that because you’re too busy trying to adjust to new teammates and prepare for games throughout the season.

Jensen agrees, but adds, “Sometimes you think of the good moments that happened. I remember when Bunny left C9 for example… I used to always talk to him and hang out for fun and always go [chill] in his room, so that felt a lot more quiet and empty in the house after he left. That was the biggest one for me.”

I ask Sneaky if he had anyone like that, and he says, “Meteos would be the obvious one. Like how Jensen used to hang out with Bunny, I used to hang out with Meteos all the time. We would get food like every lunch and go out to dinner a lot — just chilling a lot of times. And then… he was gone.”

If you’re keeping tabs, both those guys left C9 years ago. I’m not sure if those absences are necessarily voids in their lives, but it kind of made me sad to realize that it’d been years in both cases. Part of my imagined understanding of esports is that all the teammates who live under the same house are best friends and do everything together. But part of me also sees myself walking straight into my room when I get home from class and barely talking to my own roommates otherwise. Maybe it is just the natural order of growing up. Or maybe its a defense mechanism against inevitable partings.  

I ask what why they haven’t talked since Jensen left, especially considering Jensen viewed Sneaky as a bit of a mentor. Jensen becomes a little pensive and says, “So what happened was I talked to Jack about it and then he told me Sneaky wanted to talk to me before I made my decision and then I was like, okay, I’ll just wait for Sneaky to reach out to me, and then Sneaky never reached out to me.” He laughs in a way that’s like when you add “lol” to something you text but it’s not really funny.

Sneaky interjects, “No, no — I was streaming in the C9 house, and then Jack was telling me, ‘Do you got time to talk?’ and I’m like I’m streaming right now — is it important? And he’s like, ‘Jensen’s trying to leave,’ so I’m like, ‘Huh!? Tell him I’ll talk to him after I stream!’ And then I go back downstairs after I finish and it’s like… yep, he’s gone.”

Jensen bursts out laughing again. He says, “I had already talked to Jack about it prior, but it was never finalized. And then he was like Sneaky will talk to you. I waited for him to reach out [because] I didn’t really want to reach out to Sneaky because I know that in the past Impact almost joined TSM, actually, and I had to talk him out of it. So basically if I didn’t talk to Impact, he would have probably joined TSM. And I was like… oh shit, if Sneaky talks to me, then he might influence my decision. I was pretty sure I wanted to try something new and I was kind of scared my decision would get swayed by him, so I was like, fuck, I should probably reach out to him… but also if he really wanted to he would reach out to me!”

No one ever really teaches you how to talk about your feelings. Rather, most of the times, I think we (men especially) are taught to repress it and not do it at all. It’s just kind of a thing you learn through trial and error — eventually you realize it’s actually a good thing to talk out things. It’s never particularly easy to initiate, but once it begins, I find that all the things you’ve kept buried just start to sprout out of you.

I ask Sneaky what he would have said to Jensen then.

“I would have just asked him why he wanted to change teams,” he says. “I wouldn’t like… I mean I would probably push him towards staying, but I would try to see it from his side and see how he felt. It makes sense why he left — he didn’t want to be a part of the situation. It was just really stressful for sure.”

This was the first moment of clarity over what actually happened for the both of them — probably things had built up to a point where it felt too awkward to dig back up. They’d already played on stage and hugged — what more could really be said. After dinner, as we were standing up to leave, Jensen suggested we go grab some milk tea. I will tell you that players very rarely volunteer to do more than they’re required — this was just something they wanted to do.

It wasn’t a far walk, and after ordering our drinks, we split anyway, but there was a lingering moment outside the tea store where Jensen said, “Well, I guess I’ll order my Uber here.” And maybe there was no hidden meaning behind it, but I felt like no one was sure if we were going to sit down for a bit longer to at least finish our drinks together. There is no protocol for this kind of thing, but it was a bittersweet moment where the two would part in separate directions, again, as they will likely do for the rest of their lives now. Perhaps this was the denouement that they were denied at the end of last year.

I am reminded then of a fun moment over dinner where Sneaky describes his new duties in his apartment.

“Lynn [his girlfriend] likes to keep it clean, so she ends up doing [all of the chores],” he says. “I take out the trash in the house, though.”

“Oh, tough work!” snides Jensen.

“I also clean the shower panes. You have to wipe it down or it becomes really gross looking. I do it when I shower. I’m pretty insane.”

To which Jensen jokes, “Oh, holy shit… An independent strong man over here. Holy shit.”

And just like that, what they’ll know about each other’s lives will be partitioned into little stories. And, maybe, they’ll be a little more encouraged now to share those bits with each other. Both of them a little more independent and a little stronger.

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