missharvey column: Valve, wake up before it's too late for CSGO (Part 1) - Dexerto
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missharvey column: Valve, wake up before it’s too late for CSGO (Part 1)

Published: 19/Aug/2020 16:11 Updated: 8/Sep/2020 15:08

by missharvey

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Stephanie ‘missharvey’ Harvey is a Counter-Strike legend. In her first Dexerto column, the five-time world champion explores some of the inherent issues embedded in CS:GO and exactly what Valve needs to do to tackle them head-on.

Before delving into the nitty gritty, I want to preface this by saying that Counter-Strike from a developer standpoint is prospering. In April 2020, CS:GO hit an all-time high of over 1.3 million concurrent players — averaging over 850,000 for that month alone. However, from a community point of view, you wouldn’t know it. I often worry for the future of CS:GO and get pretty upset from the lack of freshness coming out of the game; its gameplay might be as good as any CS game ever was, but the boredom and the burnout is growing day by day.

Undoubtedly, Counter-Strike has gone from strength-to-strength since its humble beginnings as a Half-Life mod. But we’re now approaching the eighth year of CS:GO’s life — the majority of which has been spent setting the example for what a competitive first-person shooter should look like — and CS is falling off the wagon.

Who’s at fault, you ask? The game developers. Yep, I strongly believe it is the game dev’s responsibility to cherish its product and its community, renew their experience, bring in new players and strive to make the scene better. Evolve or fall behind. Fortunately for Valve, there hasn’t been an S-tier shooter to compete with CS:GO during its tenure at the top. But the landscape of competitive gaming is changing, and other game companies are learning fast. On top of it, since its peak earlier in 2020, CS:GO’s player base is on a steady decline, and this should be a wake up call for Valve to take swift action. They should nurture CS if it wants to stay competitive in the field of new and shiny FPS esports titles.

Comparison of Dota 2 and CSGO player numbers.
Steamcharts
(CSGO: Green / Dota 2: Blue) In 2020, CS:GO topped the peak players of Valve’s other acclaimed title, Dota 2, for the first time.

CSGO is still the greatest FPS esport

Despite all of its inherent flaws (which we’ll go into later), CS:GO is the gold standard for what a first-person competitive shooter should strive to be. At its core, the mechanics are sharp and precise, and every other feature in the game complements it to make this perfectly balanced cocktail. But aside from doing the basics to an unrivaled standard, there’s something else which helps CS:GO shine where others often fail… the game’s tension curves.

Scaling both the difficulty of the game and the emotional input and wrapping into one neat package is something CS:GO does almost effortlessly. At the start of the round, you and your team make a tactical decision on what to buy based on a number of variables (economy status, the enemy team etc.), after which, the round plays out until a critical point. This is where the difficulty of the game is ramped up (enemy applies pressure) and you either overcome the stimulus or fail.

It’s at this critical point where you’re most invested in the game from an emotional standpoint, and the outcome will determine the emotive response. “Yay, we made the right decision and won” = euphoria… Or “Damn, Purple, you lost us the round” = disappointment. Either way, you’re hooked because the game’s difficulty is relative to your response and is scaled according to your input.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows

But while there’s no doubt that Valve have mastered the art of enthralling gameplay, CS:GO is at a stage where it simply needs more. For decades, that ‘more’ came from us, the community. We invested the money, hosted the tournaments, made the mods, improved the websites, played in our leagues, created our launchers, provided the content, just name it. We made sure WE nourished our favorite game by investing in OUR community. Valve didn’t support us? It’s ok, we had the best game in the world back!

However, with how rapidly competitive gaming is changing and how massive it is becoming, this is no longer something that is sustainable. This push also has to come from the developers as well. And in this case, to be quite frank, Valve seems about as passionate about CS:GO as I am about carrots. I like carrots, they are good, but I can’t recall a time I was actually excited to eat a carrot. What we need is a Valve that cares. In comparison, take Riot Games for example… While yes, Valorant is still in its infancy, the developers have been extremely transparent about their plans, and have taken community feedback on board in a bid to improve the game.

And I don’t think this is just the honeymoon phase of having a ‘new game’ — it’s deeper than that. This micro-level passion reflects in what is an extremely well-thought-out game. In fact, Valorant is the first game that has made me feel the way I did when I first played Counter-Strike. Riot have taken a leaf out of Valve’s book — when it comes to replicating those tension curves — with their flagship Spike Defuse game mode. Adding Agent abilities and well-balanced gunplay to this just adds another layer of excitement.

So with all that said, isn’t it time that Valve looked at how Riot has approached Valorant’s community for answers and, most importantly, listened to their feedback? I actually feel as if Valorant’s dev team is listening more to Counter-Strike players than Valve itself. There have been a lot of times in my career where I wish Valve showed us more, and once again we seem to be at a crossroads. They have everything they need to stay on top, but seem to be happy to just sit back and let other games play catch-up. I mean, c’mon, 64-tick competitive servers in 2020?

Valorant players shooting their weapons.
Riot Games
Valorant has vowed to put competitive integrity at the forefront of their priorities, and 128-tick servers are a big part of that.

Is Valve countering Counter-Strike?

From an esports perspective, I’d argue that there isn’t another game out there that can offer the level of spectator intensity that CS:GO does; the millions of people tuning into Majors and the sold-out arenas attest to that. So with that said, why aren’t Valve investing in that scene? Sure, we have our majors, and they offer in-game cosmetics or Pick ‘Ems to ramp-up interaction… but those are getting tiring and there’s so much more that can be done.

Away from the bright lights of the Major-tournament stage, there’s a thriving, organic scene that goes unrecognized to the masses. What’s keeping that alive? At the moment, it is tournament and league organizers. Outside of our 2 majors a year, the likes of ESL, DreamHack, BLAST, etc. are responsible for everything when it comes to running pro events (from the prize pool to player travel) and FACEit, ESEA, etc. are making sure the amateur scene doesn’t starve to death.

I’ve never been in favor of a franchised model, but more developer input and in-game integration would place the existing community up on a pedestal. We need up and coming players to feel supported, while enticing casuals to engage more with the esports aspect. Imagine a world where Valve embedded a ‘Path to Pro’ system into the game, which rewarded the grind. Awww, dreaming.

Clash tournament bracket in League of Legends.
Riot Games
League of Legends offers players in-game tournaments, which gives the community something to work towards each month

Quite frankly, Valve is so lucky to have CS:GO — there’s a reason why other titles in the space attempt to replicate everything that Counter-Strike does well, and often fail at doing so. It is really unique and its ever-faithful community is so hungry for support that as soon as we get the smallest gifts, like hats on chickens, we go crazy. Our community is not asking for much, but rarely gets anything given back. I think we should be asking for a lot, and get a lot more in return.

In the next part, I’ll be outlining an in-depth view of exactly what Valve can do to take CS:GO to new heights, given the topics we briefly touched on above. Even after all this, I have not lost hope in Valve and believe they can still wake up, before it’s too late.

Stay tuned for the second part of missharvey’s debut column, where Stephanie will outline some potential solutions for the issues detailed above.

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Adam Fitch: LoL, Call of Duty are rightfully the most marketable esports properties

Published: 21/Oct/2020 19:30 Updated: 21/Oct/2020 16:30

by Adam Fitch

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Last week, sports industry media company SportsPro released their list of the “World’s 50 Most Marketable Properties” in sports and, perhaps surprisingly, both League of Legends and Call of Duty made the cut — coming in at 12th and 41st, respectively.

This may sound extreme to some, with just football housing numerous world-renowned properties; from the Premier League, to the UEFA Champions League, to the FIFA World Cup itself. Add in that teams themselves are very much properties in their own rights and the listing of both League of Legends & Call of Duty may be pungent sources of contention for some.

The first thing that must be considered when judging whether esports titles can stand tall against well-established, decades-spanning sports properties is the set of criteria used to base judgements and estimates on. By now, almost everybody who’s a sports fan has been exposed to esports in one shape or form — whether through an ESPN broadcast or F1 wholly embracing its gaming counterpart during the global health crisis — but there’s still a lot of convincing to do as to esports being a sport (operating on the belief that it’s necessary at all).

SportsPro used a “universal currency,” devised by SponsorPulse, to identify the opportunity score of over 185 global sports properties, made up of seven key metrics that were tested on over 30,000 people each month.

Engagement, excitement, favorability, intensity, momentum, passion, and purchase consideration are the metrics used to develop the overall score that properties were compared upon. These metrics provide what I believe to be a somewhat fair foundation to judge the overall hype, attraction, and commercial viability of a sports property — it satisfactorily serves its purpose.

With any sort of list or power ranking it’s important to take into account bias and subjectivity, and scoring properties still offers the opportunity for those things to creep in, but at least we know the boundaries in which we’re operating.

Finally, let’s get into the infiltration of this list from two interestingly-contrasting titles.

The League of Extraordinary Growth

Riot Games may have finally warranted the “s” in its name with the expansion of its offering through Valorant, Wild Rift, Teamfight Tactics, and Legends of Runeterra, but League of Legends is still the developer’s golden child.

Released in 2009, it’s not taken long for household brands — the likes of Spotify, Mercedes-Benz, and Louis Vuitton — to get involved on the esports side of the equation, and it’s impressive when compared to the commercial interest and scale of other upstart sporting efforts like the XFL.

G2 Mikyx at League of Legends Worlds 2020
David Lee/Riot Games
G2 Mikyx’s wearing a Bose headset and sitting on a Secretlab chair at Worlds 2020.

For this year’s League of Legends World Championship, Riot Games has put together its most impressive roster of partners to date by mixing endemic and household names together in a variety of activations. From Cisco providing network infrastructure to Red Bull sponsoring in-game happenings, not to mention in-game banners for Mastercard and Alienware, there’s a lot of value to be obtained by putting a brand in front of an average of almost 1,000,000 avid gamers (according to Esports Charts.)

This level of pull for Riot Games isn’t commonplace in esports by any degree of the imagination. It’s a testament to the attractive, successful property that the developer has built over the course of a decade and the hard work of employees such as Naz Aletaha, who serves as the head of global esports partnerships. It’s not possible for every game to secure a breadth of mainstream and endemic brands like this.

Now, the list doesn’t state whether it’s the League of Legends esports ecosystem as a whole or simply its global efforts that found its way to 12th place, which could change things significantly. If it indeed includes the entire game’s competitive efforts, then you also have to consider LEC’s KitKat, Kia, and Shell, and LCS’ Buffalo Wild Wings, Samsung, and Verizon, for example. This possibility alone speaks volumes about the depth of commercial opportunities that the MOBA yields.

The League of Legends competitive scene has undergone impressive growth with the formation of its regional approach — its Belgian League alone is sponsored by Audi and Burger King — and it creates an almighty commercial offering for prospective partners on a global, regional, and national level. This infrastructure can’t be found to this degree in other major titles, whether it’s Dota 2 or Fortnite.

It’s worth considering that Chinese live streaming company Bilibili reportedly paid around $115M to acquire the Chinese broadcast rights to just the League of Legends World Championship for three-years. Media rights may be the main revenue stream for sports properties but that’s not the case in esports, though Riot Games’ flagship game is showing that it’s possible.

League of Legends on a casual basis is huge across Asia and Europe and popular in North America, so it has an amazing viewer base, a whole host of competitive offerings, and the hype of non-savvy spectators of esports as a whole. With all of this in mind, it’s entirely possible that Riot Games’ MOBA could be a more enticing marketing option for companies looking to advertise to a legion of young, technology-adept potential customers.

All-in-all, it’s fair for League of Legends to be highly-regarded through a commercial lens and I feel it indeed deserves to be high in the list.

Call of Duty League leapfrogs Overwatch League

Sneaking onto the list in 41st place, ahead of the New England Patriots, Paris Saint-Germain, and tennis’ French Open, is the Call of Duty League.

A repackaged and reformatted version of the Call of Duty World League that had been chugging along at modest viewership numbers for years, the Call of Duty League is the second geolocated franchised league to come from Activision Blizzard following the Overwatch League.

Despite having to readjust its plans of having franchises hosting events in their home cities due to unfortunate circumstance, the competition had no problem in attracting commercial partners — nor more viewers.

Long written off as a “dead” esport that will only ever entertain hardcore Call of Duty fans, Call of Duty League and its 12 shiny new franchises drummed up a lot of interest and secured a lot of deals. The likes of Sony, PepsiCo, YouTube, the U.S. Army, and T-Mobile all chose to get in on the action despite a pivot to online play.

London Royal Ravens hosting their home series event
Call of Duty League
London Royal Ravens hosted their home series event in February.

Despite a lack of transparency in the financial terms of most deals in the esports industry, we know such partnerships aren’t being sold for pennies. The narrative of a new league, which is capitalizing on the titanic player base of the Call of Duty franchise, growing in viewership and looking to drum up location-based fandoms like in traditional sports, is compelling for marketing managers at technology and consumer-good companies.

Let’s be real. The viewership for Call of Duty esports is dwarfed by a plethora of other games so it simply doesn’t pack as much of a punch when it comes to putting eyeballs on a brand’s logo. What it does have in its back pocket, though, is that a high percentile of the existing viewers are avid players of the franchise and have likely supported competitive Call of Duty for years. Consider the legion of fans that a Scump or FormaL has, never mind an OpTic Gaming (which was spiritually succeeded by NRG’s Chicago Huntsmen and is the fastest-growing franchise in the league) or FaZe Clan.

So while it may not be the biggest league in the industry, Call of Duty League has a lot of merits — viewership is growing, new players are climbing through the ranks and building followings, the city-based approach has freshened things up, it has a lot of capital behind it (which allows for experimentation) and, importantly, new and existing companies alike are flocking to advertise through it.

What may be surprising here is how Call of Duty League has managed to make the Top 50 following its inaugural season, while its predecessor and sister competition, the Overwatch League, is nowhere to be seen.

This could be down to dwindling passion and viewership in the league, a degrading interest in the game’s casual player base, or simply that brands such as State Farm, T-Mobile, and Coca-Cola are much less plentiful in terms of commercial interest when compared to the exciting, industry-rattling launch of the competition.

Turning a casual fan base into a viable esports market

Looking at the two titles in comparison, they’re both hermetically-sealed and entirely governed by their wealthy and well-connected developers. They each have rabid casual fan bases spanning multiple regions, and both are garnering more eyeballs than ever on platforms such as Twitch and YouTube.

When it comes to the CDL, the LCS, the LEC, and similar League of Legends endeavors, you know which team brands are going to be involved for the long-term. There’s no risk of smaller, less attractive organisations with less resources or popularity being promoted into the league. Other major titles you may think of, such as Valve’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or Dota 2, are structured differently when it comes to esports.

CS:GO has tournament organizers battling each other with no means of commercially acquiring a package deal across them all. Valve isn’t particularly interested in getting involved with that, nor controlling the ecosystem itself, unlike what Activision Blizzard and Riot Games have done themselves.

This results in a more fragmented and less reliable means of advertisement and marketing for brands, and that’s why you see the same faces — Intel, Betway, and DHL, for example — and rarely any additions when it comes to Valve’s iconic FPS.

Whether it’s believed that esports is a sport or not, it’s clear that some titles are proving to be a hit when it comes to sales, and that’s a promising sign for the future of esports should others follow suit before long.