ESL ESEA Finals : Good LAN, Bad LAN
To continue a traditional article series which began on the website cadred.org (now defunct, HLTV.org fans rejoice!) I will be breaking down the recent ESL ESEA LAN finals and looking at some highlights and lowlights.
When combined with their Online phase's prize pool, which paid out $250,000 equally split between the North American and European division, ESL and ESEA have truly blown the competition out of the water as they have become without a doubt the biggest league in Counter Strike. This is a major signal to Valve to step up their game if the "Major" events are truly to be the biggest events of the year. Many have called for a Compendium Dota2 style of Major event where fans could directly contribute through purchases through the Steam Store. While this already exists to an extent, with teams receiving a significant amount of money through the Stickers available in the game, it simply does not have that same feel good factor as seeing a community driven prize pool break all records.
America (F**K YEAH)
After a long string of destitute events North American fans were hoping for a few group upsets. After their impressive run at the ESL One Katowice Keyd Stars (at the time known as Kabum) have had a downward trend as they were expected to run over the American competition in the Online section of the ESL ESEA ProLeague. However, they would "only" take second seed with five losses during the regular season and were looking in poor form with losses to Luminosity in the FaceIt online league just prior to the event. With Cloud9 having a poor run at the recent Gfinity LAN event, in London, America's hopes looked bleak and, in a Fragbite article, Robin 'flusha' Ronnquist was quoted saying that the top four placings at the LAN would be obvious things were looking dire for the American sides.
However, this arrogance/confidence would turn against the Swedes as CLG would bring out the first huge upset as they took down Fnatic in a big win where they would manage to take a win on de_mirage for one of the first games during the group stage of the LAN. They would continue to take down Keyd stars for their next match in order to advance to the Semi finals and guarantee a 3/4th place victory at least. Cloud9 would also come out very strong as they upset EnvyUs early on before losing to VirtusPro. However, the single victory was enough to place them in the quarter finals where they managed to best Envy in a best of three to advance to the semi finals to meet their American rivals CLG. They would breeze past the regional matchup to face Fnatic in the final and they would put up a valiant effort in a series that was much closer than the 3-1 scoreline shows. The American sides certainly showed they can compete with the very best in Europe and they truly earned the four places that were assigned to them at the start of the season. However, with upsets like this happening it truly begs the question why such a massive tournament has no type of international qualification phase for teams in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Oceania. As Renegades (ex-Vox Eminor) proved at the Gfinity event, with a victory over Fnatic and several close matches, teams from these regions can compete with the best and are just waiting for the opportunity.
Although the group stage left much to be desired as a tournament spanning multiple days allowed fan favourites like Team Solo Mid to be eliminated after only two matches I personally think the overall idea was there. By allowing teams to qualify directly from the group stage to the semi finals there was a huge motivation for teams to try their absolute hardest on every groupstage match. This is much better than seeing a full map of neither team truly giving it their all such as in the recent StarLadder event where neither EnvyUs or Na'Vi had any advantage by winning their final match against each other during the group stage. Since they were both already qualified and neither wanted to particularly display any significant level of strategy the game just devolves into a pug like match of top talent which no one really wants to see. However, that is still definitely preferable to any kind of system which takes rounds won into consideration. With a game like Counter Strike a 16-10 game can actually be a very one sided affair meanwhile a bigger difference in scoreline doesn't always tell the story depending on map picks, vetos and the all important knife round. The best of five format definitely brings an interesting new idea for the finals and once that I think we will be seeing much more of in the coming future as it creates a much bigger stage for the teams that are good on all maps to really shine. Gone will be the style made popular by teams like Astana Dragons (now HellRaisers) who notably completely ignored de_nuke in practice and were then destroyed on the map for the final map of a best of five series in an early edition of the SLTV finals.
ESL and ESEA also did a good job of creating some interesting content outside of the main games themselves with Moses, Devilwalk, Anders are more taking part in some duels of their own. These were pretty entertaining and did a good job of killing time in a long and drawn out schedule. However, I can't really see them being continued across many events as it will quickly get boring to see the usual cast that present CS:GO events battle against each other.
A small groan went out around the fan base who have now been spoiled by high quality events when it was announced that the ESL studios in Cologne would be the home to the league finals. With stadiums and arenas like those in Katowice and Stockholm the audience at home has grown accustomed to cheers for every big play and round won in what is becoming a popular ingredient in top level counter strike. With the step like seats in the studio providing a small backdrop to the games and a handful of claps or cheers from the German audience I couldn't help feel a little disappointed that this was the pinnacle of Counter Strike and yet it felt strangely anti climactic. It certainly didn't feel like the biggest event in CS:GO history, yet the prize pool said it was.
As temperatures across Europe were at an all time high Cologne suffered brutal +40 degrees Centigrade heat. The Air Conditioning was unable to cope and several teams complained of the heat as the combination of stage lights and poor ventilation in the studio created some sweltering conditions. Could this have been the key advantage that North American teams had since they are typically used to a warmer climate than in Scandinavia? I look forward to reading salty French fans reciting this excuse until their team is winning again. Although this was not really something the organisers might have taken into consideration it definitely detracted from the event hearing teams complain of the heat via the POV communications that were on stream. Which brings me nicely onto..
I'm a huge fan of these streams at the tournaments but it appears we will be seeing less of them as complaints from players that they are "invasive". However, they do offer a truly unique insight into the top level communication of the best teams. I was a little surprised at the language used by members of Cloud9 although not in a negative manner. However, I did think it a little unfair that players such as Jordan 'n0thing' Gilbert are granted a BYE when it comes to taunting opponents or trash talking between rounds. I would find it hard to imagine less popular players getting this kind of treatment by the community if they were to start foul mouthing their opponents over their communication software. I have nothing against this and if anything I'd like to see more of this in Counter Strike as I don't believe there are enough real rivalries or fans in the game as all teams are extremely well mannered and friendly towards each other. There is no Rangers/Celtic (Soccer) or 90's Chicago Bull / Piston rivalries in CS:GO at the moment and it would certainly be an interesting addition as we begin to see too many Counter Strike matches begin to dull the scene as night after night of online play begins to wear down the casual viewer.
To conclude I think the event was an overall success with some strong viewer numbers and some good games but given that ESL had just been sold for a very cool sum of over $80,000,000 I don't think this was the event that everyone had hoped for. We have been spoiled in recent years by eSports production, and although this may have been a highlight event a year or two ago, this wasn't quite the event I was hoping for.