It was just over 2 years ago when North American CS seemed primed to rule the world. Cloud9 has just won the ELEAGUE Boston Major, stunning the stacked FaZe Clan in perhaps the most iconic and tense final in CS:GO History. With Cloud9 and Team Liquid almost guaranteed a good showing in every tournament and new investments coming in, it seemed like the NA scene was finally growing a beard.
A year after Cloud9’s success, everything seemed to be going well. While Cloud9 itself has fallen off, Liquid was the only team that could challenge world-beaters Astralis, while projects like NRG and Complexity seemed like they were reaching new heights. The likes of Renegades, MIBR and FURIA also officially moved to the US, making the scene far more competitive in the process.
With Liquid going on an absolute tear in Mid-2019 and the rapid rise of Evil Geniuses along with 100 Thieves (who acquired the former Renegades roster) also showing a lot of promise. With more and more depth in the region thanks to the likes of FURIA, Gen.G, a reforged Cloud9 and EnvyUS, the NA scene was ready to keep growing.
Since, then, however, North American CS:GO received a double-whammy that tore it apart and left it in the worst state it has been in in years. MIBR fell apart. 100 Thieves dropped their roster Cloud9 is moving on with a primarily European core, as is Complexity.
How did things go so wrong? Let’s explore.
A World Torn Apart
You might be inclined to think that gaming wouldn’t really be affected by the pandemic as much as traditional sports, and you’d generally be right. However, while esports managed to survive, they had to change the way they did business when it came to regionalization, which was a harsh blow for the American scene. For “NA”, the problem was never the quality of top-end teams, but rather the lack of depth in the mid-tier. This made it harder for top-level teams to practice against a diverse set of opponents.
NA teams would often make up for this fact by bootcamping in Europe prior to big tournaments and scrimmaging against local teams to prepare themselves for the relative jump in talent when it came to the mid-tier. While they’d still play a load of games locally, every month or so, a big tournament would see the likes of Liquid, Evil Geniuses and 100 Thieves face off against the European elites and contenders to see how they stack up.
Now, if you don’t really play competitive video games, you might be asking what the problem actually is. The internet exists, and if you can get on a Zoom call with your friend from Australia, playing a game between teams based in Denmark and the US shouldn’t be that big of a deal.
Unfortunately, it is.
While the internet has connected the world, physical barriers still exist when it comes to gaming, where every millisecond matters. You can have the fastest and most stable internet connection, but if you’re physically far away from the server, you will have high ping, meaning the data will take way longer to reach its destination than it would for someone physically closer. Even within a region, variations in ping can lead to certain teams, or playstyles having an advantage over their opponents.
However, above a certain threshold, the game becomes virtually unplayable. If you want to see for yourself, queue up with a friend from another continent and prepare for 40 minutes of suffering. With 80+ ping, the game becomes nearly unplayable, and the difference only gets bigger on higher skill levels. This, coupled with the differences in time zones makes it virtually impossible to play intercontinental CS:GO on a competitive level.
This meant that in a tumultuous week that saw all major sports in North America suspend their seasons after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, North American CS:GO was suddenly separated from Europe.
While Europe transitioned to the “online era” pretty quickly, seeing the rise of “onliners” like BIG and Complexity, NA saw one team benefit from the change, the ever-aggressive FURIA, who have already won 5 tournaments in 2020, with a playstyle that many note may benefit from the online conditions.
However, the pandemic alone couldn’t kill the American scene. In June, a new challenger to CS:GO’s throne appeared, and immediately found a foothold in North America.
We Predict a Riot
Riot’s VALORANT beta launched in April and immediately was heralded as the CS:GO killer. Backed by one of the biggest gaming companies in the world, VALORANT is exactly the kind of game that attracts big American organizations, and money flew in faster than you could say “this game is derivative.”
With popular ex-CS:GO pros, along with some journeymen taking up the mantle of VALORANT superstars, the game started spreading like wildfire in the North American pro scene.
This led to an exodus of sorts from the North American scene, with many mid-tier teams either disbanding completely or losing their top players to VALORANT. Just last month, Gen.G players Damien “daps” Steele and Sam “s0m” Oh left the #4 ranked team in America to pursue opportunities in VALORANT, creating more and more questions about their roster.
The Great Escape
Some teams decided to deal with the regional split in a different way. US-Based Brazilian squad MIBR moved to Europe for a few tournaments, only to get absolutely demolished in them. Complexity moved all their operations to Europe, despite planning on playing in North America, and Cloud9 also decided to drop their US-based squad in favour of an international team that will probably compete in Europe.
However, not every team had the resources to do so. 100 Thieves decided to drop their roster after realizing that they can’t create an environment necessary for their players to thrive in Europe. The only teams in North America that seem like they would be able to challenge the knockout stages in Europe are FURIA, Evil Geniuses and Team Liquid, with Chaos as an unlikely contender to make some noise.
Compare that to Europe, where teams from outside the Top 20(!) routinely upset the “big dogs”, making every game a potential shocker. This quality and competitiveness is what draws European fans to Counter-Strike. In North America, nothing really matters before the semi-final.
What’s worse, a big draw for advertisers and viewers alike has always been the energy displayed by the NA crowd, which was often comparable only to German, Polish and Australian crowds in terms of intensity. Moments like Cloud9 winning the Major Crown in Boston was a great advertisement for the future of North American CS.
Unfortunately, a lack of talent, a pandemic and a deep-pocketed rival have appeared since. Now, even the short-lived “Liquid Era” of 2019 seems like a distant memory. This has happened before, of course, North America has always had trouble with keeping momentum in esports, especially compared to the more organic esports scene, but whenever it happened before, the talent stayed.
Now, with a new game stealing away both established and up-and-coming talent, the question doesn’t become when North American Counter-Strike makes a grand comeback, but if.
What happens if it doesn’t? Well, traditional sports have continental divides too. Soccer is extremely popular in Europe, while in North America it can aspire to the title of 4th most popular sport, and that’s if we ignore Canada’s hockey obsession. Likewise, nearly nobody plays American Football or Baseball in Europe, and they’re also rarely watched given the time zone difference.
Perhaps, that’s the way esports are headed, which isn’t necessarily surprising. People are more likely to play team games if their friends are playing them, and in Europe, Counter-Strike has become a sub-cultural phenomenon of sorts. Even if VALORANT will get some casual players, the hardcore community is all Valve’s.
The pandemic has become a bit of a paradox for Counter-Strike. On the one hand, more people sitting at home, means more active players, and the game definitely benefited from the influx of newbies. On the other, the pandemic divided a scene that had a lot of momentum and promise heading into 2020. The game and esports will surely recover, thanks to its grassroots setup, whether it’ll head there with or without its North American scene.