The appropriate feeling that one should experience when faced with the stage setup of the ELeague Grand Final is awe. A massive screen dominates the high center of the stage where some complex amalgamated symbolic structure would be present if this were a ballet instead of simulated deathsport. The stage itself has two flanks, each representing a team, and the long desks that seat the players have their own screens in front and back to make sure that you never forget who the competitors are and what the ELeague is. The whole thing resonates with the visual design of the altar, or the shrine, and the fans who filed into the darkened room at the Cobb Energy Centre outside Atlanta to watch Counterstrike: Global Offensive played at the highest level slipped into the role of the mass of adherents.
The ELeague Championships are the culmination of a competitive CS:GO league and an industrial strategy to make e-sports something that you’re interested in seeing on your television. It was impossible to ignore that core tension while I was watching the games, and I do mean watching because it was impossible to hear the shoutcasters’ commentary in any meaningful way from where I was sitting. I was mostly left to make out what was happening with another journalist who was much more conversant in Counterstrike than I am.
CS: GO is played as a best-of-30 game, and that makes for a lot of sitting and watching teams kill each other. CS:GO is also brutally complicated to watch; there are questions of weapon economy, strategy, and tactics that are all quite deep and require either a heavily enfranchised viewer or a very patient set of commentators to guide you through it in a meaningful way. However, in the same way that everyone can understand a brutal tackle or a half-court shot or a baseball knocked into the stands, everyone can also understand a headshot.
So the process of watching Counterstrike in a theater full of people is listening to “oohs” and outrageous outbursts of cheering when someone shoots one, two, or even three opponents in the head. And on one hand it’s this profoundly skilled play event where you’re literally watching someone play this game at an apex level. On the other hand, it’s the most crass and strange experience of true dissonance between competitive concept and the reality of the content that we’re watching onscreen. I don’t feel the same weird emotions when an orc shaman whacks a Zerg queen with a hammer or when Greek gods vie for power on a battleground.
The ELeague Championships is ultimately a lesson in how one can create in-roads to e-sports. How do you make an in-road for the regular people who’ll turn on a sports game in the background? One way is to put your weight behind a game with semi-realistic aesthetics with familiar guns and an ideological conflict of terrorists vs counter-terrorists that we’re all intimately familiar with since the dawn of this millennium. Another: how do you make an in-road for advertisers in a game that cannot be interrupted at regular intervals? I got to experience a break between matches sponsored by Sausage Party. I was able to witness the Dominoes Countdown before the game began.
I write all of this in a critical tone, but I want to stress how profoundly respectful I am about every single part of this process. There’s something close to solemnity around the entire operation, and it has to do with legitimacy. These in-roads are both a bet on e-sports by Turner and a barometer for how well e-sports can transition to a broad audience in a general sense. I’m deeply invested in the legitimacy project of e-sports and making watching those streamed, competitive sports (whether it’s Magic: The Gathering, CS:GO, or Heroes of the Storm) a thing that literally anyone would want to do. I want to share the things I love with the world, and these particular kinds of games are definitely a part of that.
When you watch Counterstrike it’s very apparent that it’s a game about managing visibility. Teams flashbang each other and blindfire into fields of smoke created by grenades, and after about ten seconds it’s very apparent why: if someone sees you, you’re dead. So controlling how many people can see you, and when, and under what conditions is the most important thing that you can do in the game. Teams that excel at that win; teams that don’t do not.
ELeague is a strategy of visibility management for e-sports. It’s tactically revealing itself, pushing into the limelight, and trying to be your friendly neighborhood pickup kind of game. It is making the avenues of advertising and coverage regularized and clear. From an industrial standpoint, it is making all of these moves to create a future for Counterstrike and other e-sports that isn’t just sponsored by desktop computer supply companies.
Being physically present in the room makes all of it an open question. The camera cuts to fans who gesticulate like they’re on the jumbotron at a baseball game. One fan yells “whooo” enough that they cut to him later and put a Ric Flair meme onscreen. Many of the people in the audience are tweens and teens with parents. They fit the mould of the adherent in front of the shrine, but it doesn’t seem like they’re doing it on purpose. Intentional fandom felt light on the ground. Instead, there were people who were turned into fans, giving low chants of team names when it seemed appropriate, while the screen showed tweets from pros watching on Twitch.
The ELeague Championships managed visibility, but I was never sure who it was for. Who was consuming who? And for what purpose? Did some dad hunting for a sport find this strange gun game while flipping through the channels and decide to stick around? Did the Twitch viewership dip during the Dominoes break? Virtus Pro won the trophy in the end, but the long chain of strategic visibility keeps clipping in and out of existence. We’ll see what Season 2 looks like.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.