Counter-Strike: How eSports Goes Mainstream

Shocker: video games are part of the foreseeable future. Here’s another: even if CS: GO, DOTA2, LoL, Overwatch, and SC2 all bomb out by next year — a highly unlikely possibility in itself — eSports are also a part of the foreseeable future.

This may seem like a pointlessly obvious statement, but you can count with one hand the number of years for which such a statement would have seemed obvious. When Counter-Strike 1.6 was first acquired by Valve, in 2000, competitive Starcraft: Brood War was still in its infancy; BoxeR, the first SC superstar, had yet to begin his championship run. And even then it was one of the better known eSports titles: the grandfather, perhaps, to the modern eSports ecosystem.

It was really not until this last decade, with SC2, DOTA2, LoL, and CS:GO coming to prominence, and the spectatorship revolution that was Twitch, that eSports have even begun to be acknowledged.

And how have they grown. The last TI, the biggest tournament in eSports by prize pool, had over $20 million in total prize. At its peak, League of Legends drew 67 million players a month. These are figures that start rivaling, if not surpassing, established sports.

But established sports have one final obstacle they can lord over even the biggest eSports titles: mainstream acceptance, the great barrier that eSports still cannot break.

Counter-Strike’s Potential

A few months back ESPN wrote an article titled “The 2016 Top 10 eSports Draft”, which, despite its name, had little to do with picking the ultimate eSports fantasy team. Instead, ESPN was hoping to pick the most promising eSports titles; the ones which, like Starcraft did for this generation of games, would carry eSports to the next generation, and maybe pave the way for an even bigger title. They topped the list with neither LoL nor DOTA2, despite them holding most of the money and even more of the players, but rather, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a game whose first million dollar tournament was just this year.

And despite the relatively smaller size of CS:GO compared to those titans, CS has managed to find itself a respectable 3rd in community size and competitive money. But while the two MOBAs currently reign supreme at the top, CS represents all the potential of eSports: the best hope for eSports to finally break the mainstream barrier. It is at once fantastically simple, and deeply complex; a game of pure individual skill and perfect teamwork. And it is these seeming contradictions that make CS — perhaps not in its current iteration, but in its core mechanics — the best hope for mass viewership.

Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master

A well-known eSports writer/figure Thorin frequently covers CS in his articles and podcast series, and, in his coverage, frequently draws comparisons to players or ideas from basketball to illustrate his point. Whether or not this is coincidental, basketball — conveniently one of the most popular spectator sports on Earth — is perhaps the best mainstream parallel for Counter-Strike. Superficially, of course, you’re looking at two teams of five players go head to head. But this is a rather useless comparison.

The core principle of basketball is so simple I can state it in a single sentence: you score points by putting the ball in the hoop, and whoever scores the most points wins. Even with the crucial additional details — possessions alternate, you can’t run with the ball, and hard contact isn’t allowed — you can fit the whole introduction into a few seconds. And once you’ve got it, you can go watch a game.

Without knowing anything else about basketball, you could enjoy an NBA game, because even casually, it’s easy to imagine that putting a ball into a basket that high up and far away can’t be that easy, doubly if you’ve ever tried it yourself. There’s appreciation for the skill involved to make it look easier than it is. You can watch people do things normal humans couldn’t, and appreciate how amazing they are.

After all, CS is just a game where you buy guns and shoot the other team to kill them and win.

And CS shares this convenient feature. After all, CS is just a game where you buy guns and shoot the other team to kill them and win. Sure there are additional details, and there might be a few more than basketball; headshots deal more damage, you can plant a bomb or defuse it to win too, terrorists want to plant, and counter-terrorists have to defend or defuse, and you get more money when you win a round, but even after that, there’s nothing a reasonably well-informed person wouldn’t understand. And that’s all that’s required. If you’ve played a shooting game ever (or even sometimes if you haven’t) you know how difficult it is to aim the way the professionals do. You can watch people do things normal humans couldn’t, and appreciate how amazing they are.

This is the first critical distinction between CS and other popular eSports titles. DOTA2 and LoL have each over a hundred champions — characters you can play as — and each of them has a different set of skills you can use. Good luck explaining to a first time viewer which champion was chosen and why, and what the benefits and drawbacks of that champion are. Or try to explain laning and jungling and timings; after all, if I’m not clued in on why the opposing teams aren’t actively trying to hunt each other down and kill each other at any given moment, I’d simply be wondering why, not appreciating what they are doing. It takes more, sometimes much more, to understand and appreciate what unfolds before our eyes. You can still watch people do things normal humans couldn’t, but it’s a shade more difficult to understand why normal humans couldn’t.

Of course, this hardly means that CS is lacking for depth. Rather, like basketball, the subtleties of the game can take a lifetime to master. There are difficult techniques that require extensive practice (even map memory, the likes of which players like Snax and stewie2k can abuse to flow through smokes, can be thought of as a skill), and complex strategies and tactics. Decisions on where to move, and when to move, and how to move to best counter the opponent are decisions of deep intelligence from studying the game and great instinct from the hours spent. And once you begin to understand all the intricacies, you can appreciate the game a little bit more. The smooth offensive sets with double baseline screens that sees Steph Curry shooting an uncontested three are incredible to watch if you don’t understand anything about basketball, just to watch that smooth shot, but perhaps more incredible to watch if you do, to appreciate the ability to put together all these disparate elements with perfect execution. A perfectly strung execution, like NiP’s Cache A hit from EPL S3 can be exciting with little understanding of CS, just to watch grenades fly and bullets ring out and bodies hit the floor, but can be even more beautiful with the understanding, to watch how their movements sync so perfectly to clear the site.

It is an important distinction CS here makes, because all the other video games have also depth and complexity in spades. But CS is alone in its simplicity. It is simple enough for anyone who has played a FPS ever to understand and appreciate, much like basketball is simple enough that anyone who has shot some casual hoops can understand and appreciate the NBA. This simplicity sells CS to casual audiences the way few other games can: in 30 seconds, I can explain enough CS that you can marvel at the play you see, but in 30 seconds, I could not explain enough LoL or DOTA or SC for the game to be comprehensible. This layering of complexity makes CS much more suitable to hit the mainstream, because it can actually capture a casual TV audience and be understandable enough to hold that audience to watch a game. And that could be enough to make eSports palatable for someone.

Skill vs. Teamwork

The past summer, LeBron James generated some news when he signed a contract for $100 million with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The size of the contract was hardly surprisingly, being newsworthy only because it surpassed a previous record; LeBron is a generational superstar, and was well worth that price.

There is a tug of war in basketball between two diametrically opposite forces: the game-changing superstar players who can sometimes win the game virtually alone, and the team, whose combined ability and teamwork allow it to prevail. Often one or another is insufficient; LeBron alone could bring the Cavaliers to the NBA finals twice, but could not win them alone. The Spurs won an astounding 67 games in a season, but wilted beneath the monstrous might of superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

In many ways, this dichotomy is a reflection of the simplicity and complexity of the game itself. It is easier, typically, to see the individual talent shine. It does not take much understanding of the game to know that a 30 foot swish is an inhuman shot, or that a thunderous dunk requires unbelievable athleticism. You can appreciate these things without appreciating much of the subtleties of the game; you just know from experience that they are outside the normal human realm of possibility. Of course, you can also appreciate them while understanding the action that led to the easy alley-oop or the cuts that left a sharpshooter wide open; but that is equal parts teamwork and skill, and appreciating the team-play that can be displayed requires more understanding of the game. Basketball is simply 10 guys moving around punctuated by incredible shots; specialized knowledge is required to decipher their movements. But if you’ve learned that knowledge, the teamwork can be in some ways more exciting and appreciable. It takes more not to have one individual make an incredible play, but to have all those individuals work together in concert to make an incredible play.

Basketball is satisfying to watch because of this dichotomy. It simultaneously appeals to the basic desire to witness incredible, and yet also satisfies an intellectual curiosity, to take apart the puzzle of their movement and reconstruct it into a recognizable pattern.

CS has this element to it; the basic battle between incredible individual skill, and seamless teamwork. kennyS alone could crush anyone, and none dared to challenge him for it, but, like LeBron facing Duncan’s Spurs, even the most powerful could not defeat everyone alone (kennyS famously fell to Fnatic at iOS Pantamera despite having 50 kills). Likewise NaVi’s excellent tactical executions could not break the individual power that s1mple possessed at Cologne 2016.

It appeals to the basic desire to watch incredible.

It is important to make the distinction that LoL and DOTA2 (and Blizzard’s latest shooter, Overwatch) do not lack for either individual ability or teamwork, but rather, the balance is oft-tilted too far towards teamwork. Faker, despite being impossibly great at League, famously could not carry SKT T1 for much of 2014 due to his lack of supporting cast. Overwatch draws comparisons to TF2, in that you’re often suddenly and completely overrun if you find yourself down a man.

Why does this matter at all though? There is, after all, nothing wrong with a game being team-based. Teamplay, in many ways, is more incredible than individual play. But we are not entirely interested in what makes a game “good” or “bad”. Rather, CS: GO’s particular balance still punishes teams for relying too much on individual skill, but allows the raw expression of skill to be showcased in game. Much like basketball, it is easy, and requires little understanding, to appreciate when a player has made an individually skilled play. If you kill 5 players in the span of seconds, that’s incredible, and I don’t need to know much about CS besides that its a FPS to understand that. This is part of the simplicity of Counter-Strike, and it is easy to appeal to a casual audience if they can easily appreciate what unfolds before them (it also does not help that most other games have many complex things going on at the same time — LoL’s 5v5 teamfights are infamous for this — which make understanding what plays are good and what plays are bad even more difficult). Equally importantly, it’s much easier to generate and show a CS highlight reel than a LoL or DOTA highlight reel, simply because so much less is happening.

And of course, like basketball, simply collecting extremely skilled players won’t get you all that far *cough FaZe Clan cough*; LeBron’s “super friends” suffered from fit issues for a whole season before they could win a championship — which means there’s real intellectual excitement in watching one team out-think and out-play another.

Towards Mainstream eSports

Like I mentioned at the beginning, the current iteration of CS is unlikely to become the first “mainstream” eSport, for a variety of reasons; its graphics are somewhat outdated (an important point to a more casual audience), and it’s still residing in the era of MOBA titans.

Still, CS stands alone as a game with the potential to appeal to a mass audience: simple enough to draw the most casual viewer and complex enough to require ages to fully understand — like most mass appealing sports.

Where we go from here…is up to Valve.

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