IEM Sydney 2023 meant more to Australia than just the first Counter-Strike 2 tournament

Jeremy Gan
IEM Sydney karrigan crowd

IEM Sydney 2023 has wrapped up, and in our talks with Australian players and talents, it’s clear it meant more to the scene than just the first Counter-Strike 2 tournament. 

IEM hadn’t come back down to Australia since 2019, and in 2023’s IEM Sydney, ESL marketed the event as “The Big Reunion,” complete with a kangaroo hugging a CT. However, leading up to the event, it was more than just any old IEM tournament. 

IEM Sydney was heralded as the very first Counter-Strike 2 tournament. Leading up to it, CS2 was unexpectedly dropped in the middle of ESL Pro League Season 18, making that the last CSGO tournament, and surprisingly, Australia the host of the first tournament of its kind. 

However, it was more than that for the Australians sitting in the sold-out 10,000 seater arena for the weekend and, by extension, the scene’s players and talents.

IEM Sydney was a chance for local talents to flex their skills at one of Counter-Strike’s biggest events. For local teams and heroes like jks and Dexter, it was a chance to play on home soil, even if they were eliminated early. And for the crowd, it was a chance to live up to the claims of being “the greatest f***ing crowd,” as ESL described the rowdy crowd. 

In light of this, we talked to Australian players, talents, and fans attending to understand how much IEM Sydney means to the local scene. 

Australia’s role in Tier 1 Counter-Strike

Asian, and by extension Australian, Counter-Strike has always struggled, especially in the era of CSGO. No Australian team has ever won a Premier trophy, and it was only in 2022, nearly ten years since CSGO’s release, that a player from the East won a trophy.

That was Justin “jks” Savage with FaZe Clan at IEM Katowice, doing so as a stand-in as well. He would go on to win Katowice again and IEM Cologne with a Blast World Finals under his belt. But he’s the exception, a very exceptionally talented player who was able to break out on the international stage. 

However, it’s rare that an Australian makes waves at the Tier 1 level. But with IEM Sydney, it means a scene that barely sees the top level of play can finally be part of the top level.

As Australian commentator Jordan “Elfishyguy” Mays told Dexerto, “[IEM Sydney] lets us feel like we’re part of the top for a while.” 

The problem if Australian Counter-Strike wants to go up to the Tier 1 level, however, which was outlined by the players and talents we spoke to, is that the quality of teams needs to increase. And if teams want to increase talent, the scene needs to grow. 

Would IEM Sydney help with the local growth? Greyhound’s Joshua “INS” Potter said, “I think it definitely helps. Having teams here to practice against overseas teams they don’t get to practice a lot… But I think the main problem with Aussie CS is the lack of players at the moment.” 

IEM Sydney caches showmatch
IEM Sydney’s showmatch, the Caches, has historically been a way for upcoming and legendary Aussie players to make a name in front of the Aussie crowd.

VERTEX’s coach David “Kingfisher” Kingsford also echoed the sentiment about the small talent pool. “It just feels like there’s fewer competitive teams at the top, and it’s always one or two teams taking the top spots. And it feels like there’s not enough for people to play for, for teams to form and try to make it work.” 

What was made clear in our interviews was that if the Australian scene wanted to elevate, interest in the game, not only in the server but the culture at wide needs more interest and more players. 

“My biggest concern is trying to make local esports a product people are interested in,” Elfish said. “We can fill out an arena of 9,000 people in the arena tonight watching these Tier 1 games, but if you turn on an AUS Counter-Strike stream, you might be lucky to have 2,000 to 3,000 viewers if it’s a Grayhound vs Roster type game.”

“It’s a question of how do you get the fans that are here and translate that to fans that are watching Australian Counter-Strike. Because ultimately, that’s what’s going to keep our industry going domestically.” 

Interest, as Elfish puts it, would put Australian Counter-Strike on the minds of local players, which would cycle into players getting interested in becoming players. And if there are more players and interest, funding increases. And if the cycle becomes large enough, perhaps Australia can be the Tier 1 region fans want. 

“Give us the Major” says Australia 

Interest in a region will obviously be helped by a massive event coming to a home city. The IEM Rio Major in 2022 may have been held well after Brazil’s domination in Counter-Strike, with Fallen leading Luminosity and SK Gaming to back-to-back Major titles in 2016 and 2017.

But it would be remiss to say a Major and a subsequent IEM Rio once again in 2023 didn’t at least help the interest in CS rejuvenate once again in the once great region, especially with Valorant nipping at its heels with the success of LOUD. 

China is reportedly Valve’s next target for a Major. A report by HLTV revealed that Shanghai could be the host of 2024’s second Major and essentially the second Major for CS2. This Major would be organized by Perfect World, the publisher of CS in China, in partnership with PGL, the organizer of the first 2024 Major. 

Australia wants a Major

If these plans were to go forth, it wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say that interest in CS in China, and by extension, the Asia region, would drum up once again. It has been a while since an Asian team performed well in a Major, with a Tyloo led by Kevin “xccurate” Susanto making it into the New Legends at the 2018 Faceit Major. 

However, that era is now long gone, with their star moving off to Valorant, and so have many of the region’s rising stars who have pivoted towards Riot’s premier FPS. You can see the rosters of Paper Rex, DRX, and Zeta Division as examples. 

However, a few talents feel the division between Asian CS and Australia shouldn’t be so wide. As Australian caster and former player Chad “SPUNJ” Burchill said, “We can’t just artificially manufacture a community, right? I think that one of the keys would be having a better relationship with Southeast Asia and China.” 

He explains, “It’s kind of trying to merge Oceania and Southeast Asia into one bigger playing group. We obviously can’t play online a lot, but to have more events where we can fly people from Southeast Asia to Australia or vice versa or China which will be more accessible, that would be the best way. With our powers combined, we’re not Captain Planet, but we’re definitely a bigger group.”

He says this merger between regions would help not only players improve by getting more LAN experience and better overall scrims with overseas teams, but it could also give more exposure to Aussie casters and talents to broadcast their skills to a wider audience. 

And Elfish too echoed the same opinions, pointing out Australia’s geographical proximity to the Asian region would make things generally easier.

the CSGO PGL Major in 2021
PGL and Perfect World are reportedly organizing an upcoming Major in Shanghai

“Seeing things like IEMs in China is a positive future because our flights to Asia is the same costs as to Europe, but we don’t have the disadvantage of coming from a region that is on a completely different timezone, and our flights become shorter.”

He continues, “I would like to see Asia and ANZ flourishing. I think if Asia and ANZ are flourishing, they’re tied in together as well, and you can kind of combine those audiences, again because we’re in the same timezone.”

But Australia still holds a unique love for Counter-Strike unlike any other, and it’s unknown how such a radical shift in combining ecosystems would go with the Aussie crowd. And as the weekend went on at IEM Sydney, it was clear what the rambunctious Aussie crowd wanted, in between all the shoeys and belly rubs.

“Give us the Major,” was constantly chanted by the crowd, demanding a Major to finally be brought down under. “A Major would be a dream for us,” a fan told me as I went around talking to members of the audience. “Whoever is in charge of Majors in Valve, I’ll kiss you if you give it to us,” his mate sitting next to him said jokingly.

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