CSGO’s most-hyped Major held hostage by the Gaules show

IEM Rio Major with GaulesESL

Dexerto’s Editor-at-Large Richard Lewis reflects on the IEM Rio Major 2022, which has been marred by shots of empty seats in the stadium, and a heavy focus on Brazilian influencer Gaules.

The dust has settled on another CS:GO Major, the pinnacle of the game’s competitive scene. Rio was the host city this time around, a setting that promised so much with the nation of Brazil having contributed so much to the history of the game. Sadly there has been little talk about the matches themselves and more focus has fallen on what should be secondary concerns. Crucially the legacy of this event will be one of a missed opportunity for greatness and a warning about what prices we should be willing to pay for an event to be “successful” in the loosest sense of the term. Here I will explain why, in my view, things came off the rails and we ended up shortchanged.

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For those not familiar with the business side of CS:GO, let’s establish a few things for your benefit. Many of the teams in attendance at this ESL major are in fact business partners of ESL as they are stakeholders in the company’s flagship league, the ESL Pro Series. This ultimately boils down to a revenue share for the teams contractually tied to the league but it comes at the cost of the obligation to not just meet media obligations but to also “promote and market” the league and other ESL circuit events. This contract was called the Louvre Agreement and was hailed as being historic by ESL when it also proved to be catastrophic for a number of smaller organisations who had their pro league slots taken away from them and turned over to those viewed as better commercial partners. This in part accelerated the demise of grassroots CS:GO in North America.

Valve currently agree to facilitate the existence of two “Majors” a year at select dates in the calendar. Tournament operators are invited to essentially bid for the right to host one and Valve will make a determination as to who receives them after reviewing each pitch. From that point on they operate largely with a light touch, interfering minimally and increasingly empowering tournament operators in ways that improve their potential profit margins. However, be under no illusion, whatever the branding on the tournament itself, whoever is running it, it is Valve that has final veto approval over every aspect of the tournament. They can demand unsuitable sponsors are removed or prevent an exclusive broadcasting rights deal if they don’t think it works in their interests.

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The Gaules influence

It’s important to be mindful of these facts before we even talk about the behaviour of Gaules at this event but let’s start with the root of the problem. Gaules is one of the world’s biggest streamers, to say he is immensely popular in Brazil would be understating his prominence. He is a national celebrity who mixes with sports stars and media icons. He has achieved this via a combination of factors which include a focus on his humble beginnings, financial support for several charities and community members, as well as pumping out hundreds of broadcast hours every month.

By the same token, he has also been somewhat ruthless in ensuring he is the biggest show in town with many of the original Brazilian esports commentators complaining behind the scenes that they have been pressured out of CS:GO by him. His constant focus on Brazilian nationalism and an insistence that the rest of the world somehow look down on Brazil makes him worshiped as a man of the people but it also leads to incredible amounts of mob-driven abuse should he ever speak out against you. He knows he wields this power now and he is more than willing to use it to suit his own goals.

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gaules at iem rioESL
Gaules co-streamed in front of the stage during the Legends stage, before moving to the fan fast for the arena portion of the Major.

I have written about this phenomenon before back in 2020 when he publicly accused a team that beat an MiBR roster of cheating. The predominant focus of his ire was a 16-year-old, Nathan ‘leaf’ Orf, who at his tender age didn’t have a lot of competitive experience. Of course, the MiBR roster was comprised of legendary veterans in the game but it just so happened they were more washed than an incontinent person’s underwear. Anybody could beat them and indeed it shouldn’t have surprised anybody that a form team in world counterstrike at the time were able to pick up a win.

Now, by that time, Gaules was the de facto Portuguese language stream for almost every major official CS:GO broadcast. That he chose to make these allegations, even though he was operating simply in his downtime and not during an official broadcast, would be enough of a problem. For sure, he is entitled to an opinion and indeed I myself have looked critically at claims about the legitimacy of certain players on my own podcasts. However, I imagine I would have the sense to understand how inappropriate it would be if I was making these claims one day and was then an official broadcaster the next. Also, if I had a massive, easily inflamed fanbase that hung on my every word I might be careful about what I said and certainly where a teenager was involved.

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And just to refresh everybody’s memory, it wasn’t some throwaway allegation made in the heat of the moment. After the game he brought on a procession of players to talk about it, encouraging people who would be widely considered experts by the listeners to review the evidence and make the same allegation. He also brought on Vito ‘kNgV-’ Giuseppe to give an emotive interview where he said “Speaking for myself, I love Brazil, and I’m here in [the United States] playing the major’s qualifier without knowing if I’m going to see my daughter’s birth. I’m here doing my best for my mother’s dream, for my wife’s dream, so we don’t want to be the victim of injustice.” The implication being that Orf had essentially not just cheated against MiBR but had also personally wronged Giuseppe’s entire family.

Well, you could see the reaction coming a mile off. Orf, his family and friends were inundated with threats of violence, bad in itself but for a teenage competitor potentially attending an event in Rio De Janeiro utterly terrifying. His team didn’t qualify in the end but it is still a commonly held belief today among many Brazilian fans that Orf did indeed cheat and was caught only by the vigilance of Borba and his community. Orf has since carved out a career for himself in Valorant playing for Cloud9, an esport that is indeed also coming to Brazil. One wonders whether Orf will want to risk joining it.

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That incident, along with all the other documented instances of him leveraging his fanbase to harass anyone he puts in his crosshairs, should have prompted some pause for thought about where this all might lead. However, this is esports, an industry that only cares about popularity and profits and so only a month later ESL entered into a three-year media rights deal with Borba’s company. “A partnership with ESL and DreamHack is great, since it allows us to expand the kind of content we offer to the gaming community” he said in the press release. “Let’s root together and have fun as fans.” Fun indeed.

A Major on the side

On to the major itself. For me, the majors have always been a celebration of Counter-Strike, a truly global game and one of the foundational titles on which all of esports is built. I’ve had the privilege to work a few down the years and I’ve always viewed the part I played as being part narrator and part custodian. I believe the broadcast is sacred as it is both shared history unfolding in real-time and permanent record of those occurrences. The focus, more than crowd size or decibel level, should always be on those players, their sacrifices and stories, their achievements and shortcomings. That is what it is all about.

Historically the majors have done this as well as anyone in the space. Documentaries about legendary players, tournament operators featuring sit-down interviews, analysts focusing not just on stats but storylines. These days, for it’s not just ESL guilty of this, you get no additional content whatsoever. There’s more value placed on pandering to fans, influencer clout and quick throwaway live content that no one remembers by the end of the tournament. Still though, you can usually rely on ESL to put the attending teams front and centre for their tournaments.

I knew we were heading to something else entirely as soon as the first announcement video dropped, a short trailer bookended by a close-up of Gaules grinning face like something out of an Aphex Twin video. Later it would be revealed that running concurrently to the event there would be a “Fan Fest with Gaules” which even featured a map like it was a theme park. Remember, this is Valve’s World Championships for CS:GO we’re talking about.

I have never seen an influencer placed front and centre at any esports event like this before and I go back to the days when Stracraft 2 tournaments at DreamHack were played on the “Day9 Stage.” It was very clear who the star was here in Brazil and it certainly wasn’t the traveling teams. As we would later find out, not even the greatest player of all time Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev, a title codified at a pathetically empty ceremony where ESL even spelled his name incorrectly, could usurp Gaules from his throne.

One has to believe this “Fan Fest” had to be part of some previous commitment because as an idea it’s beyond stupid. You put Brazil’s largest esports influencer outside in the glorious Brazilian sunshine next to a beer tent and then you have him in front of a massive screen showing the game with a better view than you could get in parts of the stadium. Oh, and the tickets to attend this were cheaper too. What did ESL think would happen? Empty seats were guaranteed and the terrible optics that came along with them. The Jeunesse Arena seats 12,000 which would be a staggering crowd to sustain for an entire tournament but to create a more appealing option to local fans and place it outside? Incredible.

Empty seats at IEM RioTwitch: ESL
Mouz were flanked by empty seats as they walked out for a semi-final match vs Outsiders.

I initially thought it was just profiteering from ESL, that they were happily double-dipping on the tickets and didn’t care whether people were in the stadium or not. Incompetence seems much more likely though as once they realised what was happening they walked it back and announced that Gaules would be inside for the remainder of the playoffs. Spare a thought then for the other commentators now deprived of the opportunity to cast a stadium match of CS:GO, another victim of the Gaules First policy ran by ESL. As it would turn out that would only partially help and while the event did achieve a few iconic shots of a full stadium and an uproarious crowd the reality was it will be largely remembered as disappointing. This was mostly an event for Brazilians to meet and interact with Gaules. What event it was didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that it was the CS:GO Major. It could have been any game with Brazilian teams competing in it and you’d have pretty much the same outcome. Our world championships were now a sideshow event at the Gaules Fan Fest and the fact they had to tell people where he was at any given time only underlines the point.

IEM Gaules

It must be hard to stay humble with such adoration and influence so I’ll try and have that in mind as I detail the multiple incidents that spoiled the major for many. It had become apparent after the first few days that the local fans were going to be somewhat over-exuberant in their support, their desire for their team to win translating into actual assistance for canny players who know how to use crowd noise to their advantage. Certainly not the first time it has happened and certainly won’t be the last, the previously most egregious example being Astralis fans in Denmark. It was clear though that ESL were going to have to do something about it to preserve the integrity of the tournament and so they made the decision to turn off x-ray for that game. This seems a reasonable compromise but unfortunately, it meant that temporarily Gaules was also without x-ray.

Now, usually, the industry rule for broadcast talent is that you cover for production because production covers for you. I’ve known commentators continue with their monitors being turned off. I’ve known hosts muddle through to the break while only being able to hear a floor manager in their ear. You trust whatever it is will get fixed and you do your best for the viewers. Here’s how Gaules handled this inconvenience. He told the assembled crowd the following:

“It’s a shame that the biggest CS broadcast in the world doesn’t have x-ray and that the ESL doesn’t have the structure to put X-ray for internet and without X-ray for the arena. If they think we’re calling but they don’t understand any Portuguese, it’s time for them to learn Portuguese… They’ll never understand what it’s like to be Brazilian.”

He then proudly demanded that someone translate it and make sure ESL knew that he said it. This is when I realised who was actually in charge of the event. It may well be a valid criticism but it isn’t one you publicly announce to the audience, especially to go so far as to imply the person running the event is somehow serving up an inferior experience due to their incompetence. To then follow that up with a defence of the crowd cheating that absolutely did take place and to undermine ESL’s integrity measures is equally unforgivable. The implication that it is somehow linked to nationalistic grievances is the cherry on top. Classic Gaules.

In this business, maybe in any entertainment business, that would absolutely get you pulled off air. There’s plenty of examples but you can have two involving one of the hosting greats James “2GD” Harding to whom it happened twice. The first back in 2011 for making a joke about how much better DreamHack were while on an MLG broadcast and the second and much more infamous time in 2016 when he made a series of jokes about Chinese censorship and pornography at the Shanghai Major.

But of course, you can’t fire Gaules in Brazil at an event that includes a stage dedicated to him that people have paid tickets for. You can’t even verbally sanction him because if he gets on the mic and says so then you’re really going to have problems. This is the downside of the Faustian pact ESL have made. They literally have no control over an influencer that, in the eyes of the average Brazilian fan, is more important than ESL, Valve and anyone else in the esports ecosystem. Worst of all, he absolutely knows this and that there will be zero consequences for anything he does or says on stream. Making someone like that the face and voice of your product is insanity but it’s seen as the way to the hearts and minds of Brazilian fans and their huge viewing numbers so it wouldn’t surprise me if the ESL executives actually apologised to him for their transgressions.

Another first for a major was that periodically Borba would deliver speeches to his legion of fans. One in particular had all the hallmarks of a political rally with him animatedly waving his arms around while his colleagues either side clapped in sycophantic synchronicity. “You had to save money, came from other regions of Brazil. They will never understand our country is bigger than their whole continent” he said to applause from the crowd. “Some people are in college, are working, we came here to do a party for everyone, that’s our visit card, they have already shown they are desperate [to be here]. Tomorrow, inside is going to be full, outside is going to be full, all in the same vibe to make this the biggest party in the world and the party is for Brazil. This is not CS, this is not a major, this is fucking Brazil! Tomorrow is ours!”

Gaules fan fest at IEM RioESL
The Gaules fan fest area outdoors was often overflowing with fans, while the arena was awash with empty seats.

Now, I’m happy to ignore the claim that everyone else in the world cannot grasp basic geography and the implication that every non-Brazilian fan lives in a life of extravagant decadence simply choosing which event they wish to order their chauffeur to take them to. Let us instead dial in on two parts. You will of course notice the return of the “they will never understand,” a phrase that might seem harmless enough on the surface but one that is clearly intended to not only alienate fans from one another but to encourage Brazilian fans to embrace that alienation. Sentiment such as “they are not like us” would be considered a “mask off” moment if it were spoken by a right-wing politician and yet at this major it became a mantra that served its sad purpose. Fans attacked one another on social media divided not by the team they support but by where they were born. I don’t know how anyone in good conscience can excuse that.

From a business perspective though the sign-off would be the cause for concern. The party is only for Brazil? I thought everyone was invited. This is not CS? It surely is. This is not a major? I thought that’s what Brazilian fans had wanted for so long. This here is pretty much an encapsulation of all the issues, that Valve gave ESL permission to run their world championship event for them and ESL, terrified at the prospect of low metrics, essentially handed over control to someone who has absolutely no interest in anything outside of Brazil and his position within it. In this moment he made it absolutely clear what this event was about. It wasn’t a celebration of global Counter-Strike. It was just another platform for him and anyone else he deemed worthy of sharing it with him.

Prior to the quarter-final match-up, he would post a video of the speech from another angle with the words “They will never understand! This here is Brazil! Tomorrow this is going to become hell!” By now it should be clear how keen he was to use this event to stoke tensions by presenting CS:GO’s world championships as Brazil against the world. The phrase “they will never understand” has been repeated tens of thousands of times and segments of his strange speeches have been repeated almost verbatim by the fans. Why, after promising a party, he would want the tournament to become “hell” is beyond me. For me that has too many echoes of the “welcome to hell” slogan synonymous with Galatasaray’s dark past association with football violence, not something we should ever want near our competitions.

During the quarter-final match Na’Vi, a Ukrainian-based organisation who are facing their own problems following the Russian invasion, were spat at between maps. These were the scenes as they exited the arena and behind the scenes some are even saying fans tried to grab players and had to be stopped by security. I’ll let you decide how much the rhetoric of Gaules played a part in the hostility that continued even after Na’Vi lost to the home team but I’ll also pose a question. If I’m one of ESL’s partnered teams how should I be feeling about ESL allowing an official partnered broadcaster to encourage this behaviour towards my players?

Attending teams had gone out of their way to ingratiate themselves to Brazilian fans, especially the smaller market brands that could use the additions to their fanbase. Several teams for example had special edition jerseys using Brazil’s national colours and their social media channels were abrim with examples of fan meetups, autograph signings and praise for the Brazilian fans. One such team was Mouz who, despite having one of the most inexperienced teams at the tournament, managed to defy the odds and make it to the semi-finals. This match was played in a mostly empty stadium with the Furia game some hours away and the crowd that was there seemed only mildly interested in the proceedings. Borba of course knows what fans want and so he decided to help get them animated with some chanting.

“FURRRRRIIIIAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA”

I want you to comprehend what it must be like for Mouz and Outsiders players, to be playing in the biggest match of their careers at that time and to have the fans in the stadium chanting for a team not even in the room, to know ultimately their presence didn’t really matter at all. I’m sure they had more important things to think about at the time but it does beg the question – why wouldn’t Gaules start a chant for one of the teams playing, or interact with the crowd in a way that got them engaged with the game? Well the answer is simple, remember? For Gaules this wasn’t a major. It was his party. Sign on the door – Brazilians only.

The optics of this are terrible and I imagine the owners of the organisations aren’t too pleased at their crowning achievements being presented to the world as barely being of interest. Ridiculous enough that one of them was playing under an assumed name anyway but that’s for another time. Just know that ESL was content to allow some of their Louvre agreement partners at a global Valve event to be presented as the warm-up act no one wanted to see.

Understand, I don’t blame the fans. They were presented with a choice of supporting the game they love or the influencer they love and they made the choices they wanted to. ESL certainly holds much of the blame for the construction of the event and what it prioritised. But yeah, I of course lay a lot of the blame at the feet of Borba. He had the largest platform in CS:GO and he used it to stoke division between fanbases, parrot nationalistic points and steadfastly refused, with one exception when prompted, to promote the other teams attending. His voice undoubtedly influenced some of the unsavoury moments at a tournament that could have been the best. He has shown that if given anything other than the responsibility of a co-stream he will not rise to the occasion. If he had taken the lead, his fans would have followed but he wanted to put himself and his views first. Instead of IEM Rio we got IEM Gaules.

This could be every other event in Brazil for me and I’d not bat an eyelid. If Gaules is so influential to Brazilian esports that every event held there must pander to his whims and essentially be constructed as a temple to his greatness then fine. If that’s the price to make inroads to the market then at least we all know that. But never again can this be the model for a major which, no matter what Gaules says, IS for everyone.