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: New fan engagement schemes are promising but not light tasks

Published: 20/Nov/2020 17:26

by Adam Fitch

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Esports organizations are finally exploring ways to create deeper, more meaningful connections with their fans, but are they prepared for what a huge undertaking this can be?

While teams are amassing millions of followers across social media platforms, with fanatical supporters even getting tattoos of their logos, it’s easy to be mistaken in thinking that they’re the stars of the show that is esports. However, players and personalities are the real stars.

This is demonstrated frequently when esports athletes change teams and their dedicated fan base follow suit, now switching their team colors and overall allegiance. It’s not brands that are pulling off incredible plays on the server, nor brands signing autographs and taking selfies at events; again, it’s the players. They command most of the audience and, in a majority of cases, the diehard support of thousands.

In traditional sports, you may find your lifelong team depending on where you’re born or the colors that are placed on you by your family. Manchester United, Dallas Cowboys, Gloucester Rugby — the list goes on, and across numerous sports as just demonstrated. This is different in most cases when it comes to esports.

Team Liquid+ Beta
Team Liquid
Team Liquid announced the beta for their fan engagement initiative in August 2020.

What are organizations doing to combat this trend, or at least attempt to build up a bigger fan base that is in it for the long haul no matter the result or roster? In the last few months, they’ve turned to fan membership schemes.

These programs typically take the form of subscription-based perks, in which fans can buy into a program that awards them with increased engagement, insight into behind-the-scenes happenings, and perhaps even helping to influence upcoming decisions.

Of course, there are perhaps other reasons for these programs to be popping up. The global health situation has cancelled almost every in-person event or at least forced an online substitution to take place since March 2020. Revenue may be down for many, if not all, organizations that don’t have other streams in place to work around the lack of merchandise sales and fan initiatives.

Regardless, experimenting with new revenue streams is important in an industry that’s notoriously difficult to make a profit in — at least on the team brand front — can’t hurt, right?

Subscription services

Kicking off with what is starting to become a trend, one of the most popular organizations in the space, Team Liquid, launched the beta for Liquid+ on August 11. The initiative provides an environment where “regular fan interactions earn opportunities for elite rewards, fan experiences, and access to players.”

North America organization Envy were next, announcing EnvyUS on November 9 with premium memberships costing $29.95 per year. Fellow North American org Cloud9 followed Envy just a day later, announcing Stratus. Starting on January 1, and costing $500 per year, they are taking a similar approach to their predecessors — providing an “exclusive annual membership experience” for “superfans.”

Cloud9 Stratus
Cloud9
Cloud9 are offering the most expensive subscription service to date.

The eye-watering disparity in price between EnvyUS and Cloud9 Stratus is somewhat off-set by the welcome package that the latter offers. It includes a mouse pad, custom keycaps, a keychain, and limited edition t-shirts & jersey. This may not make up for the $500 price tag, but C9 will likely offer more ‘free’ physical items throughout the course of the subscription.

Now, this has been done before. SK Gaming had their own subscription service, SK Insider, over a year ago; accounting for 50% of the organization’s revenue at one point according to their co-founder. This may sound promising for the more recent initiatives but revenue was much harder to come by back then, especially in scale, so it’d be irrational to think that level of contribution to an org’s income is likely in 2020 and beyond.

It is indeed encouraging to see such initiatives from major organizations though, and if they prove to be a success in the future then no doubt this type of offering will become commonplace in the industry.

Third-party platforms

There are third-party attempts to increase and deepen engagement already in play, too. Socios.com have partnered with the likes of OG, Team Heretics, and Natus Vincere to encourage participation from fans. They offer ‘fan tokens,’ which are effectively platform-exclusive currency that supporters buy with their own money and then use to engage in fan polls and other methods of garnering engagement.

Alliance Partnership with Socios
Alliance/Socios
Former TI champions Alliance are the latest to join Socios.com.

While it’s hard to say whether Socios.com are proving to be successful for teams on an engagement front, the involvement of longstanding and prominent orgs add a bit of credence to the concept.

Fnatic’s sneaky attempt

On November 11, around the time of Cloud9 and Envy’s announcements, London-based Fnatic revealed that they were to launch a crowdfunding attempt. Aimed at giving small pieces of the business to fans, they were hoping to reach a total of £1m in exchange.

The announcement coincided with the news that they had just raised an additional $10m, taking their investment to a total of around $35m to date, and proving that they weren’t simply turning to fans in a moment of desperation.

I see this as similar in motive to what the aforementioned organizations are doing. With a small sub-section of fans eventually owning a piece of the pie, they’re essentially buying into the future success of the team and are financially incentivized to support them for the foreseeable future.

hylissang inks new one year contract fnatic rekkles question marks remain
Riot Games
Fnatic have raised over their £1m target, reaching $1.2m on November 20.

If the goal of all of these efforts is to make fans stick around longer and be more emotionally (and financially, in some cases) invested, then Fnatic’s approach may be different but it has the same motive. You’re securing long-term fans that want to see you grow and succeed more than ever before.

Engagement isn’t easy

Now, keeping fans engaged with membership programs isn’t a light undertaking. Liquid, C9, and Envy are offering access to exclusive content that’s not available to the public — personnel is needed to make that happen. They also need to speak with their ‘superfans’ more often, and personnel is needed for that also. Hosting events, whether online and offline, requires plenty of hands in most cases too.

These teams can’t afford to now only focus on their paying fans, they need to keep their wider fan base happy with content, merchandise, experiences, and engagement that they’ve grown accustomed to. It’d also be advisable for them to try and obtain new fans also, and that’s not going to come easy.

These initiatives could well be a new, necessary stream of income for even the biggest of organizations, but it won’t be easy. This is just the start of things to come but I hope everything promised is fulfilled and such programs become a mainstay in the industry.