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Apr 14 2015

Exclusivity Seems Logical (for ESL): ESL’s Pursuit of a CS:GO Monopoly

ESL Pro League. Photo credit: ESL.

ESL Pro League. Photo credit: ESL.

As Na’Vi and Titan meet in the finals of the Winter ESL Pro League, I can’t help but notice the 100,000+ people watching at this moment. But part of me wonders how many are watching the action, but are preoccupied by the bold direction ESL appears to be going in. According to an article hosted on the Daily Dot and HLTV, ESL is in talks with Twitch, Vulcun (an eSports betting site), and several representatives of premier CS:GO teams, regarding the creation of an exclusive tournament circuit that’s drawn many comparisons to the LCS system used by League of Legends. According to the Daily Dot’s source, “the proposed exclusivity deal would prevent teams from entering any tournament that wasn’t run by ESL,” but an ESL representative tweeted that “ESL is not interested in locking out any tournament organizers from running CS events, nor teams from attending them.”

While talks are still in progress and nothing that’s been reported so far is concrete, here are the details that have been made apparent to the community so far. The combined proposed package from ESL and Vulcan is near the $18 million mark, most of which would go to the participating organizations. The organizations that are supposedly present at the talks are Team SoloMid, Ninjas in Pyjamas, Virtus.Pro, Fnatic, Team Liquid, EnVyUs, Counter Logic Gaming, Cloud 9, and Na’Vi. Reportedly, the new tournament circuit would most likely start in September after ESL Cologne. It’s said that Valve has not been involved in the discussions with ESL and the other organizations, as ESL seems content on distancing themselves from the developer.

With no official statement from ESL or Valve or Twitch or any organization, we’re left unsure as to what ESL’s definition of exclusivity is. And with the Daily Dot reporting one thing, and an ESL representative claiming another, the community can only speculate. The proposed deal has drawn many comparisons to League’s LCS system. The only non-LCS events that LCS teams participate in now is the IEM events, but an LCS team could only participate in the IEM World Championships if they won a previous IEM event that season, or were placed first in the NA or EU LCS prior to the event.

ESL One Katowice. Photo credit: ESL.

ESL One Katowice. Photo credit: ESL.

So let’s just assume that the ESL rep is wrong, and the deal is for complete exclusivity. Is this good? Well, many who compare the proposed deal to the LCS think it’s good, because League as an eSport has grown in America and Europe since the LCS system was implemented. But “correlation doesn’t imply causation” is the theme of Thorin, the eSports historian’s latest Thorin’s Thoughts” video, and he makes some good points on this issue. The first is that League was growing as an eSport before LCS was even implemented. Keep in mind the LCS has only been around since 2013, and the scene demonstrated considerable growth starting in 2011, and back then League was using the same open circuit system that CS:GO uses now.

Obviously, this system would prove to be very bad for other tournament organizers. In fact, bad is probably an understatement, this could be lethal for other tournaments like DreamHack, Star Series, Gfinity, and a slew of others. The best case scenario for these tournaments is that they turn into showcases for players on amateur teams to boost their stats and try and impress the pro teams. The worst case is that they simply cease to exist, like League’s MLG presence, or the IGN Pro League, or any of the other American LoL leagues and tournaments that have folded due to the LCS.

Aside from tournament organizers, this exclusive league could prove detrimental to the scene itself. The rise of Dota 2 in recent years is in large part due to the locking down of the premier League of Legends talent in the LCS. With less opportunities to host LoL tournaments and create LoL leagues, tournament organizers turned to Dota 2, whose open circuit system makes it the eSports powerhouse that it is today. It’s worth noting that the transition from LoL to Dota 2 is relatively easy given how alike the games are, but if a similar thing happens with CS:GO, we may see resources that could be put towards Counter Strike going to other sports. Call of Duty has made great strides in the past year or so, and with CS:GO potentially locked down, it could grow even further. Opportunities for new eSports pop up all the time. Hell, I just saw an announcement on r/esports about competitive Minecraft. I didn’t even know that existed! By locking down talent and premier organizations, ESL unintentionally invites investors and organizers to take their time, and their resources, to other platforms.

CoD world champions Denial eSports. Photo credit: Activision.

CoD world champions Denial eSports. Photo credit: Activision.

This deal also has the potential to spell death for the NA CS:GO scene. North American Counter-Strike is in a shaky spot as it is, with the iBUYPOWER betting scandal still in recent memory, and more and more players abandoning competitive play for greener pastures streaming on Twitch. But hear me out on why this deal is bad for NA CS:GO. Sure, CLG and Cloud 9 and Liquid get to play in this exclusive league, but they are incredibly outclassed in terms of talent. Teams like NiP, Fnatic, Virtus.Pro, EnVyUs, and TSM will stomp them. Not only will NA CS:GO look weak because of this, but with these teams locked up in the ESL exclusive league, there’s now a monstrous gap in the amount of talent contained in the North American scene where these teams used to be. With far less incentive to pursue competitive careers in a dwindling, globally unappreciated North American scene, there will be more players flocking to personal livestreaming, and the NA CS:GO scene will shrivel and potentially die. Keep in mind this is a worst case scenario, but it’s definitely plausible.

Maybe this is all an overreaction. Well, considering that everything is still being discussed behind closed doors and that no one has announced anything yet, then it is, by definition, an overreaction, because nothing has actually happened. But with the current system in place, fans of CS:GO get a wide variety of tournaments featuring a wide variety of teams and formats, and the players and all the different tournament organizers are doing well because of that. ESL is already one of the leading organizers, it’s their majors that are shattering the viewership records for CS:GO. But with this new potential exclusive circuit, the variety that made CS:GO, and to the same degree Dota 2, as popular as they are today, disappears. It’s a good deal for ESL and for the professional teams it wants, but it’s ultimately not a good deal for the sport of Counter-Strike itself.

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