Richard Lewis: Valve, now is the time to show CS:GO the love - Dexerto
CS:GO

Richard Lewis: Valve, now is the time to show CS:GO the love

Published: 4/Mar/2020 18:04 Updated: 8/Sep/2020 15:09

by Richard Lewis

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Another week of re-adjusting my sleep schedule, turning up to meetings with eyes like pissholes in the snow. Yes, whatever the timezone the big Counter-Strike tournament is in, I’m there, whether it means early mornings, late nights or foggy limbos.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by Dexerto.


It’d be hard to think of one I’ve missed these past fifteen years. That’s what this game does. Since moving to the US I barely set an alarm to catch the football and when it’s time for the NFL I know I can watch the games on catch-up with all the commercials stripped out. Who would have thought that for most of my adult life it’d be a video game that would be my sporting consistent?

When the original designers created the Counter-Strike Half-Life mod they probably didn’t realize just what they’d created. Ignore all the imbalanced and inaccurate weapons that were there at the start and instead focus on the game’s core. An idea so perfect in its simplicity. Two teams of five shooting each other, one team planting a bomb, one team stopping them. Win, and you get more money, potentially snowballing your advantage. Lose and suddenly you’re relying on skill and tactics to dig you out of the hole. This would be enough for a memorable game, a classic in the genre, but one that would fade as new fads came in.

Why Counter-Strike endures is the layers, that while it can be boiled down to the visceral thrill of shooting someone before they shoot you, the game gives you so much agency and freedom that it is never as easy as the best player wins. You can flank them, you can blind them, you can evade them with smoke, you can use teamwork and communication, you can fool them and if all of that fails the mechanics of the game even allow for a little bit of luck. Different guns, different maps, infinite possibilities. And all this is happening under the surface, there if you want to learn about it but not even necessary to appreciate the adrenaline rush that Counter-Strike delivers.

ESL
IEM Katowice 2020 set a viewership record for a non-major CS:GO event, despite the lack of a crowd.

This is why CS is unique among esports. Its format has endured for two decades. It has survived everything from a community split across different versions to global financial crashes. It has outlasted every competitor and killer that has come for its crown. Even now, in the Global Offensive era, it has yet to peak eight years after the game was released. This past week saw it become the number one game on Steam by a huge distance, with over 931,000 players online at once. IEM Katowice, the first real-world championship of 2020, attracted over a million simultaneous viewers, the kind of numbers we usually see reserved for the Valve approved majors. Top streamers and influencers are continuing to pick up and learn the game, admitting what we all know, that it is the greatest competitive FPS game ever created and its not even close. A new contender was revealed this week too and not only is that game a Counter-Strike clone, but their marketing is also a laundry list of long-time CS player complaints. Just know, we will come and dabble, we will grace your counterfeit with our presence but whatever we say we will not leave this game behind. It simply does not happen.

Safe to say Counter-Strike is my first love in this weird world of esports. It’s in the best place it has been for a long time and signs are that 2020 will only see it improve. I’ve been one of its biggest advocates at every level of esports I’ve operated at, from community meet-ups to corporate boardrooms. Yet, it’s got to be said, the one entity that seems to be decidedly unimpressed with all our achievements is Valve. This piece is really aimed at them. I’d just be preaching to the choir otherwise.

Riot Games
Valorant’s marketing crosshairs are unquestionably aimed at Counter-Strike players.

Now, don’t get me wrong, finally we’ve seen a shift in Valve’s thought process when it comes to leaving the Counter-Strike fields fallow. The free-to-play, Danger Zone patch came in at the end of 2018 and since then updates have been more frequent. We even got the Shattered Web Operation after two years without one. But let’s be honest here Valve, because I know at least one of you will read this, it’s nowhere near enough content or attention for the game that is now inarguably the flagship title of your company. The latest patches to Dota 2 saw player numbers drop dramatically. One year ago it had over a million peak players, now it is just over 650,000. I appreciate the balancing act for that game, for any MOBA, is insanely difficult. You have to try and create systems that don’t punish experienced players and newcomers, who will often be rubbing shoulders, in a game that takes 1000 hours to even comprehend the broad spread of the basics. If you simplify and streamline you lose the hardcore, if you add complexity you lose players to one of the more accessible replacements on the market. Dota is a gaming proposition like no other and it is a product you can be immensely proud of.

Yet the fact you try so hard to do this, having employees glued to subreddits to roll out hotfixes and implement patches, while Counter-Strike waits a year or longer between content, isn’t going unnoticed. I’m sure Dota is a more lucrative game. It’s clearly the one you all prefer playing. We know that Gabe Newell is probably running around as Weaver right now. But the Dota IP is giving you diminishing returns and will continue to do so. Artifact was a disaster, Underlords was a quick way to monetise a flavour of the month genre that is designed for the new generation of people who game on their mobile phones. I doubt it’s going to be anything other than a footnote in your portfolio. I will also say I have a suspicion this will be the first year that the crowdfunded prize pool of The International doesn’t go up.

Valve
The International set another record prize pool in 2019 – but can it keep the streak?

None of these things are probably considered metrics of success for a company that has always been known for their unique approach but just in case they are you do have a solution. There’s an audience full of people that would love to just give you their money. They would love to pay you for a Dota plus style match-making system with unlockable cosmetics and stat-tracking. They would love to part with their money for 128 tick server access and ranking up away from the free-to-play cheater accounts. We are all willing to fork out for new cosmetics and ways to support our favourite esports teams and players with in-game merchandise. And if those things don’t really sound all too interesting to the team, an operation every 3-6 months, like the old days, is definitely something that we’re all just itching to open our wallets for.

Now is definitely the time to start just giving us a little bit more attention at least. Not just because we’re number one right now, but because Valorant is round the corner and Riot Games are willing to do more pandering to the CS community than you, the game’s creators. You can’t just keep relying on the fact the game is great to keep people sticking around, even if it probably will work and has worked for twenty years. A commitment to content and development is not just what we want, it’s also what we deserve. And we’ll pay you for it. Our position as black sheep of the family remains baffling given the unwavering loyalty. You won’t see us lobbying the president because we didn’t get a seasonal mod. Hell, we’re grateful when the Twitter account says something.

It doesn’t need to be a cavalcade of corporate crossovers like Fortnite. You know what we want and you know how to monetize it. You’ve done it with your other games and now it’s our turn. It surely cannot be the case that we love your game more than you do. Maybe it is. We’ll be here playing whatever version exists in ten years. We’ll be watching a new generation of stars earn cheers from stadium crowds. It says something profound about the game that there’s no bitterness that it is transparently obvious you know that too and have used that as a justification for years of indifference.

CS:GO has something no other game you make does. I can show it to someone who has never seen it before and make them a fan in two minutes. I know I can do that because I have done that. I spoke to those people when we were taping ELEAGUE on US television, saw the people who brought their kids and expected to be bored in week one, and then saw them rocking a Cloud 9 jersey and screaming their lungs out by week four. I saw fans of other games who had never played an FPS title pick up Counter-Strike and uninstall whatever game they came from. It’s time to reward that loyalty before someone else comes along and does it instead.

Columns

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.