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Opinion • Sep 24, 2019

Why Valve’s response to CS:GO media rights controversy is so depressing - Opinion by Richard Lewis

Why Valve’s response to CS:GO media rights controversy is so depressing - Opinion by Richard Lewis
StarLadder

Richard, scrap that draft of the article you’d nearly finished. Try and forget the bridge-burning rant you went on during your podcast. So here it goes, right from the gut and on little sleep… This may not be the right take or the best take but it’s my first one and they usually tend to be roughly where I stand on an issue, barring new information changing the picture.

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Anyway, almost four weeks after it should have been made, Valve finally issued a statement about the media rights controversy at the StarLadder Berlin Major, during which Twitch streamers were banned for broadcasting the CS:GO tournament on their channels. Not much of one mind you, and one that actually raises more questions. It’s so quintessentially Valve. 

The statement reads: “Throughout the year, tournament operators use their events to build relationships with sponsors and media partners. When it’s time for the Majors, we think it’s important that they don’t disrupt those existing relationships. For this reason, the Major tournament operator has always been the only party that has had a license to broadcast the Major.

“However, we do expect our Major partners to be as inclusive as possible. Major tournament operators are expected to work with streamers in order to provide viewers with access to valuable alternative content and underserved languages, whether through official streams or otherwise”.

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StarLadder
Valve released their statement on September 18, ten days after Astralis lifted the major trophy in Berlin.

If you missed why we’ve been waiting for this, here’s everything you need to know in abridged form. During the CS:GO Major, which is hosted by a tournament organizer of Valve’s choosing, the matches are simultaneously shown in the game client viewable with spectator tools via something called GOTV. This has created some friction because the company hosting the Major is told that they have exclusive rights to broadcast the game, but it has been Valve’s position in the past that in-game client footage belongs to them and can be streamed/broadcast by anyone.

To muddy the waters further, when ESL signed an exclusivity deal with Facebook in January 2018 for the ESL One CS:GO and Dota 2 tournaments – something the community loathed for a variety of reasons – they issued Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notices (DMCAs) to force popular streamers engaged in English-speaking broadcasts of the matches shown via the Dota in-game client to cease such streams.

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Valve swiftly released a statement saying, “This one is very simple: No one besides Valve is allowed to send DMCA notices for games streamed off of DotaTV that aren’t using the broadcasters’ unique content.

“We designed the DotaTV guidelines to be flexible in order to allow for up and coming casters, or community figures like BSJ or Bulldog that occasionally watch tournament games on their channel, to be able to stream off of DotaTV. It is not to allow commercial organizations like BTS to compete with the primary stream.”

ESL
Facebook and ESL signed an exclusivity deal for both CS:GO and Dota 2 broadcasts in January 2018.

So, same company, same rules for their other games, right? Turns out, wrong... At the Berlin Major in August 2019, StarLadder aggressively issued DMCA takedowns towards multiple people broadcasting the CS:GO Major matches from the GOTV client, something no tournament organizer has done before. In the DMCAs they state, under penalty of perjury, that they own the copyright to what is being shown on the stream. 

They tried it with me and I told them plainly I’d lawyer up and fight it because I don’t believe that is true at all. I still don’t even after Valve’s statement made just an hour before I sat down to start typing this. I do so with a nasty taste in my mouth and a twinge in my brainstem that is telling me that the CS:GO community just got given absolute confirmation that it really doesn’t matter as much as Dota 2 despite the higher esports viewership figures.

You can use this paragraph for future claims of bias but I make no bones about saying it anyway… Out of all the video games developers I write about in my line of work Valve are not just unquestionably the most reasonable but they are also generally the most down to earth. As down to earth as a billion-dollar company can be.

Valve have never been embroiled in incidents like at Riot Games, where ex-employees have described the company as a cult, and their executives have allegedly harassed women and farted in their employee’s faces. While Activision Blizzard employs seemingly nefarious tactics to maximize profits, simultaneously destroying beloved games titles in the process, Valve have struck as close to a middle ground as I think you can get between profits and fan service. I’ve never seen a Valve executive publicly say that content creators, streamers and professional players should kiss their feet for creating the game that gave them all a living. They simply aren’t high on their own hubris like the other two big players.

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Also, as someone who hates hyperbolic fandoms as much as he does games developers with god complexes, I’ve been someone who has always made a point of trying to correct the community when they start to peddle myths as fact. Like the people who say that Valve don’t care about cheaters despite the huge strides made in machine learning to turn VAC into a better, automated anti-cheat, something they prioritised when making the game free-to-play. Or trying to explain to people that Valve’s corporate structure means people work on the projects they want to, sharing resources by the process of making the best business argument for having them. 

The Counter-Strike development team has always been made up of a small hardcore group of devs who love the game. Not that fake bullshit ‘we love the game because it makes us money’ executives say. No, actual genuine love of the game and the scene because they’ve generally been around it as long as most of us have.

This though, coming so late, long after good people in the scene got bullied and treated like shit by one of Valve’s business partners, has realigned my perceptions on where the CS scene is situated on the company priority list. Then I look back at some of the decisions I have previously defended and realise that not only was I played for a fool, I actually didn’t serve the community I’ve given 15 years of my life over to in doing so. 

The discrepancy in match-fixing punishments, the lack of new content, the quiet shelving of features that celebrated CS:GO’s great competitors, the lack of in-game acknowledgement of broadcast talent, the quiet and uncredited utilization of ideas given over by community figureheads, the difference in basic matchmaking features, the lack of any engagement from company executives, the now completely different approach to community-created content, the lack of allowing CS:GO fans the ability to crowdfund… I get it. For once the community histrionics were accurate and I can say in all earnestness I feel like an idiot for arguing with them.

Valve
CS:GO's most recent 'operation' was 2017's Hydra.

Let me explain why I believe the right to stream alternative broadcasts from GOTV is important for the community. First and foremost, if the Major truly is a celebration of Counter-Strike (this is less true now than it has been for years) then Valve should want it showcased to as many people as possible. As someone who appears on lots of political/debate podcasts, as well as has a group of people in my own community who do not follow esports, I can say that during my alternative community broadcast I saw multiple people say that they were watching simply because they liked my work. These people would not have watched the main broadcast, nor would my stream ever gain significant numbers enough to be a legitimate threat to the viewership of the tournament organizer. 

As I’ve always said, if people would rather watch a man in his 30s broadcasting from his office over your official broadcast with a studio, top tier talent, on-site interviews and features… Well, you fucked up, not me. If your product is good then alternative streams shouldn’t eat into your viewership.

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Who knows how many people watching along with me went and downloaded the game and started their journey from Silver shithouse to Global skins-freak? And if that applies to me, then it definitely applies to people with bigger platforms. And yeah, we get a little something along the way too… For total transparency, my 120+ hours of broadcast made me about $10,000, less than I would have made working the event, or doing on-site coverage of the event, and for longer hours too. 

During the stream, I follow Valve’s stipulation and don’t reference my sponsors or use any logos on my overlay. I don’t do it for the money. It is to offer an experience to the community, something nice for new and old fans. I do it because I love the game and always have. I do it because I will watch every game anyway so why not bring my friends on air and try and share what we love about the game with others.

I am also somewhat confused as to what “exclusive” means in the context of how it is used. The Major was shown on Steam TV as well as the in-game client. It’s not clear what this does to sponsor agreements and things like Twitch ad deliverables because there is no transparency around such deals.

StarLadder

The argument for shutting down ‘rival’ broadcasts are about the value of broadcast rights but then you have to ask: does some Finnish streamer with 400 people watching a game with him pose a financial threat to your million dollar broadcast? If he does, again, the fuck up is really at your end. Easily fixed of course – unlike Dota every other CS:GO tournament apart from the two Majors a year are not shown in the game client. Just make that the case for the Majors too and this all goes away in an instance. Obviously the point of having it shown via GOTV is so it can be showcased to as many people as possible. 

My mindset on this issue is: a rising tide raises all ships. Partner up with these alternative streams, share metrics, maybe even sponsors… There’s untapped potential here in co-streaming events, something Twitch are certainly starting to realise and is being engaged in by clients such as the NFL.

Growing the game collectively has to be a priority over turning a profit for one event in a year-long calendar because doing so leads to sustained financial success for all involved parties. You may lose money on a Major but you have a whole year without GOTV being an alternative for your events. The people crying about the value of broadcasting rights are talking like every tournament can be shown this way.

We also know community streams are also important for the development of talent that may very well one day go on to be the unofficial voice of the game. Community casters have very few opportunities to commentate on any official match, let alone the ones involving the biggest teams in the world. Having a publicly available GOTV relay allows these new voices the opportunity to hone their craft and maybe one day get the opportunity to be at one of these events for real.

Speaking as a fan, new voices and new approaches to commentary keep the game vibrant and exciting and it is something we must allow to flourish. What’s strange is that Valve acknowledged that in their statement about Dota, so what a wonderful ‘fuck you’ it is to be told that they don’t care so much about finding the next Anders Blume or Jason O’Toole, but they’ll go to war with one of the biggest names in the space to ensure we find the next Owen Davies. Still, maybe that’s something to do with using great moments like the “CEEEEEEEEEEEEEEB” call to sell in-game items.

Let’s not get into money talk. Let’s instead look at the things completely omitted from this two-paragraph statement.

The first and most important is the claim that tournament organizers own the demo files. This seems like a massive overreach to me and wasn't addressed at all. This has been claimed multiple times by other parties such as ESL/ESEA as well as StarLadder. It was this "rule" that basically made Warowl too afraid to even create YouTube content because he would need to use demo footage to do it. Keep in mind that Warowl not just represents one of the biggest CS YouTubers we have but also one of the most principled. No skins sites or case openings on his videos, which certainly can’t be said for the official business partners Valve handed the loaded gun to with their statement. 

His situation is even more convoluted because even though StarLadder effectively said to him ‘we will ignore the demo rule for you and won't DMCA your YouTube,’ they obviously can do a DMCA at any time. This basically empowers them and other tournament organizers to attack content creators they have disagreements with, maybe even use it as a weapon when it comes to accepting lower rates, or discouraging them from speaking out about delayed pay, or even just to silence criticism. So if, for example, Sean Gares makes a series of YouTube videos on the Major using demo files from an ESL-hosted tournament, then demands a higher rate from ESL to be on the desk, they could decide to insinuate they would DMCA his YouTube in order to make him accept less money.

YouTube: WarOwl
WarOwl called the DMCA takedown requests a "massive issue".

‘Oh Richard, you are so crazy and negative,’ says the average esports fan. Sadly guys, shit like this goes on all the time. Tournament organizers make so little money from the big events these days they squeeze talent like a boa constrictor, the pressure to take less money and do more being a regular occurrence. Hell, even if you get the rate you agree, do you think you’re getting it in 30 days? Oh you beautiful, naive children… sometimes I could kiss you but only if it was before I put you on a train to boarding school. You are so, so pure… But yes, so unbelievably dumb.

What about a stream that watches the demos from matches as soon as they have finished, essentially operating the same broadcast a livestream would, but with an hour delay? If people are willing to watch that and not watch live would a DMCA stand? Apparently so, according to the weird gibberish we’ve been fed in regards to the holy rights of the tournament organizer when it comes to a major. 

With all this in mind, it seems, to me at least, DMCA filings are not an appropriate avenue to remedy the issue. If a tournament organizer makes such a claim for a restreamed broadcast it is fine because the broadcast is their copyright. Making a DMCA claim for something shown via the in-game client doesn't seem to be the right way to handle it because in doing so they are claiming that they own the copyright for the game. They don't. I personally think the DMCA takedowns issued by ESL and StarLadder are not only disgraceful but potentially legally unsound, which definitely becomes an issue when people's livelihoods are on the line. Guess we’ll find out next Major and what a joy that will be.

There’s a lot that is going on beneath something that seems straightforward. The platforms that host the offending content have safe harbor privileges that essentially agree that they are immune to any penalties and legal responsibility provided they conform to the DMCA takedown request when issued. This is why DMCAs are issued under penalty of perjury and must include details of the offending material and how you are the copyright holder.

For what it's worth, the ones I saw contained no such information. DMCAs takedowns on almost every platform are permanent and cumulative, usually working on a ‘three strikes and you are permanently banned’ rule. These being thrown around incorrectly represents not just irresponsible negligence because people’s livelihoods are on the line it is also against the law. Someone really needs to clarify how tournament organizers can make a copyright claim for GOTV but not DotaTV. The legal explanation should not be as simple as ‘because Valve say so’.

Twitter: @fl0mtv
fl0m was the most high profile streamer affected by the DMCA takedown requests.

Also absent from the statement was StarLadder literally gouging streamers financially to be ‘allowed’ to stream GOTV. Yes, that is right, for the price of a few thousand dollars you too could be made an official partner and StarLadder wouldn’t DMCA you… If this kind of sounds like the scam that affects YouTubers where malicious parties try and extort money by making malicious DMCA claims, that’s because it kind of is. 

I have never heard of anyone having to pay to stream GOTV before and by ignoring this Valve have opened up the sewer gates for a deluge of shit. Where does that money go? What does an official broadcasting license look like? What protections and rights do you get for your purchase? Are you entitled to your money back if they decide to pull the plug on your alternative broadcast? Questions no one can or will answer because no one has a fucking clue what the answers are.

Finally, I’m at the point now where I think we’d all benefit from some clarification on why alternative streams for Dota and CS:GO are considered so vastly different. Maybe even an answer of broader scope than that would be appropriate; why are the esports scenes wholly treated in different fashions? It's something I and the community at large do not understand. 

There are glaring contradictions in this statement that do not hold up to any scrutiny at all. Valve say: “Throughout the year, tournament operators use their events to build relationships with sponsors and media partners. When it’s time for the Majors, we think it’s important that they don’t disrupt those existing relationships.” OK. This was of zero concern when ESL's Facebook streaming deal was basically killed by the ruling they made in regards to Dota. If a TO fucks with the one esports title Valve have treated with delicate consideration, they can be out of pocket for millions. Want to fuck with CS:GO talent and personalities? Have at it, they’ll back you.

I personally couldn’t give a fuck if a tournament organizer wants to try and bully me. They’ll be the ones crying ‘uncle’ when I expose the next time they fuck someone over. It’s all in the game. However, I also know that guys like fl0m and Warowl don’t deserve to be hung out to dry and that is mostly who I am pissed off for. No one genuinely trying to grow and support our game does. It doesn’t just apply to the big names, but I happen to know those guys so forgive me for using them as examples. Whoever you are, the stress this situation put them under is unforgivable and, as is always the case with Valve, was completely avoidable if someone could have just paid a little bit of attention to what was going on in the event.

Like everything negative that has affected CS:GO we get a reaction from Valve, rather than a proactive plan. I suppose I can at least be grateful that they are nailing down the problems exclusivity leagues would have brought. Ah yes, the annual attempt of a company to monopolize the scene… How many are we on now? 

Oh, but it is too late to go down memory lane and this is about the community anyway. Now at least it’s clear where we all stand, and while it’s not particularly pleasant to look down at what is collecting around my shoes, it is more pleasant than looking up just in time for the next slap in the face.


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

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