Almost a decade after its creation, Cloud9 remains a staple in the esports industry. The team climbed back to the top of North American League of Legends, winning the 2022 LCS Summer Split. In April, Cloud9 announced its reinvestment into the Counter-Strike scene and acquired the full roster of Gambit Esports. It paid dividends quickly: Cloud9 won IEM Dallas just a few weeks later. Jack Etienne, CEO and co-founder of Cloud9, added another victory to his book recently. His organization was accepted to the Valorant Championship Tour program for 2023.

Though the successes paint a rose-tinted image, the year has been far from easy for Etienne and Cloud9. For both personal and professional reasons, 2022 was the most difficult year for Etienne, as the frontman explained in an interview with Em Dash.

A year full of challenges

“There has been so much difficulty with my team, with my company, and with my personal life, that it’s hard to say where to start,” Etienne said. After reflecting for a moment, he talked about his father’s battle with leukemia. “Going through a situation where someone is dying of cancer, him being in a hospice, that was very difficult,” Etienne recalled.

While the situation itself was demanding, it allowed Etienne to help his father through his final days in an intimate father-son relationship. “It was amazing to be there for him and take him through that,” Etienne concluded. “My wonderful father passed away in February. I was very close to him.”

At the same time Etienne tended to his personal life, Cloud9’s League of Legends team started to crumble. The team built its roster around the philosophies of Nick “LS” De Cesare, who had been hired as head coach for the 2022 season. It was one of the largest roster moves of the year and, in the first few weeks of the LCS, the results spoke for themselves. But after barely three weeks into the Spring Split, Cloud9 announced that LS was no longer part of the organization for undisclosed reasons. The sudden departure astonished the esports community.

Etienne didn’t go in-depth about the situation, only clarifying how the circumstances within Cloud9’s League of Legends team put a larger strain on the already difficult time he was having. “My head coach wasn’t working out in the team, so we had to reboot there,” he said.

To top off the chaos, Dan Fiden, president of Cloud9, left the company. “As you can imagine, all three of those things happening at the same time was pretty wild. Trying to balance those things was really difficult,” Etienne said.

“I’m really proud of the people around me that stuck with me and made it happen.”

However, Etienne pointed out that all the adversity resulted in a stronger Cloud9. “Through that fire, we forged an amazing team that’s very stable. We’ve ended up being stronger than ever before,” he proclaimed. Etienne referred to the LCS-winning League of Legends roster, Cloud9’s newly acquired CS:GO lineup, and the obtained Valorant Championship Tour slot as indicators of the team’s upwards momentum.

At the end of a hectic year, the CEO is grateful, “I’m really proud of the people around me that stuck with me and made it happen.”

The future of Cloud9

There is no time to stand still in esports, though, and Etienne has a clear vision for Cloud9’s future. “As a company, we’re going in a great direction,” he said. 

A key navigator helping map out Cloud9’s direction is Tricia Sugita, also known as “megumixbear”, the former CEO of FlyQuest. Cloud9 brought Sugita on board in April as the company’s new Chief Marketing Officer. Etienne says Cloud9 would not have weathered the storm of 2022 as well as it did without Sugita’s help.

“She came in right when I needed her,” he laughed. “I’ve known her for over a decade and I wouldn’t be here with the company still together without her. I’m super happy she came along. She’s helping me transform this company.”

When asked what Cloud9 would be transforming into, Etienne laid out his views on competing esports brands and what would set Cloud9 apart from them. “I’ve seen other teams that are cutting their budgets in top esports programs. Maybe they’re trying to diversify with other things,” he explained.

“You’re going to see us focus more on League, focus more on Valorant, focus more on CS:GO.”

“I’m doing the opposite. We’re honing ourselves to be really involved in the top esports that are out there. You’re going to see us focus more on League, focus more on Valorant, focus more on CS:GO,” Etienne continued. Although there are whispers of many LCS teams cutting their budget significantly, Etienne said that Cloud9 would remain faithful to the program. “We’ll double down on our investments in those games. I really want to tighten up these programs because I think those are the games to be involved with.”

As to what this means for the future of Cloud9’s other esports divisions, Etienne didn’t give a concrete answer, “That will remain to be seen.”

Keeping esports “clean”

Etienne may have a clear vision for Cloud9’s future, but the esports landscape has become increasingly perilous to steer through. From players to sponsors to event locations, everything can fall under the scrutiny of esports fans at a moment’s notice. It is a delicate balancing act. If you fail to live up to the audience’s expectations, things can escalate quickly.

An example of such escalation is G2 Esports co-founder and former CEO Carlos Rodríguez, who associated himself and G2 with controversial personality Andrew Tate. When faced with criticism, the G2 frontman doubled down on being acquainted with Tate. Rodríguez parted ways with G2 Esports a few days later, after Riot Games dropped G2 from its VCT 2023 circuit. Etienne has mixed feelings about the ordeal.

“It’s a huge loss to esports to lose Carlos. He brought so much to esports and he really left his mark. I want to give a shoutout to his achievements,” Etienne said. “Obviously, there were mistakes there at the end. It’s super unfortunate, the way things went.”

Jack Etienne Cloud9
Jack Etienne says that it comes naturally to Cloud9 to be a clean brand. (Source: Cloud9)

But the esports industry faces ethical dilemmas far bigger than that. Esports has drawn the attention of rich governments from countries with pitch-black human rights records. For them, investing in esports is a means to appear modern. They try to dilute the criticism they face for their crimes by injecting themselves into popular cultural events—a phenomenon now called “esportswashing”, derived from “sportswashing” in traditional sports like football.

In 2020, Riot Games’ LEC and tournament organizer BLAST partnered with NEOM—a modern city project developed by the Saudi Arabian state, for which a group of indigenous people was forcibly removed from their land. Saudi Arabia also strictly limits the freedom of women, and members of the LGTBQ community can face the death penalty for openly expressing their identity. Both Riot Games and BLAST walked back their partnerships after public backlash. 

“As these things come up, we’ll have to make judgment calls on our involvement. But it’s really difficult.”

More recently, a multi-esports event “Gamers8” was held in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh. Though Cloud9 didn’t attend the event, many competitors did. To Etienne, the increased influence of Saudi Arabia and other rich countries with oppressive governments creates a complex situation.

“Sometimes as a team, we have no bearing on where the events are being played,” he said. “As these things come up, we’ll have to make judgment calls on our involvement. But it’s really difficult. In some of these situations, we’re very much just along for the ride and cannot make much of an impact besides complaining about it.”

Whichever direction the esports industry goes, Etienne feels confident that Cloud9 will stay safe as a brand. “We’ve always prided ourselves on being a clean brand and doing things the right way,” Etienne concluded. “We definitely want to be a place that people are comfortable working at. A place that they can be proud to be a part of. We don’t have to put any additional effort into that. I think it just comes naturally to Cloud9.”