What we learned from ESL ESEA
With the dust having settled at the ESL ESEA Pro League Season 1 Finals in Cologne, we take a look at what we learned from the $250,000 event.
Last night fnatic won the ESL ESEA Pro League Season 1 Finals, and $100,000 in prize money, after taking down Cloud9 3-1 in the grand finals - in a series they legitimately could have lost.
In this article we take a look at some of the key takeaways from the event as we continue an incredibly busy season in CS:GO, including five international tournaments in the next six weeks.
What are the key takeaways from the ESL ESEA Finals?
There has been some talk about this on our forums and on social media, so it's probably a good idea to clear it up. ESL ESEA Pro League Season 1 Finals was not a major. It should be obvious from the event name - a finals event can never be a true major, at least in the sense of what's been called a finals event in CS:GO so far - which clearly suggests it is a continuation of a previous phase, more than likely played online.
As such, there were only eight teams - or four teams from the world's top ten, per Duncan "Thorin" Shields. In addition, there were teams from other regions - Renegades, the former Vox Eminor side come to mind - who never had a chance to even qualify for this tournament. A major event cannot be one with few teams having a chance to attend, and even fewer attending in the event. I don't think a tournament with under twelve teams taking part could ever be considered a major.
Naturally prize money is a big part of it. In the old days of Counter-Strike, somewhere around the $50,000 mark - for first place - was the rough line drawn for an event to be considered a major. Arguably that has increased in CS:GO - there are now three or more events a year with a $100,000 first place prize, and as this weekend proved, even all of these are not majors. As the competition increases, we must also adjust our expectations and definitions accordingly.
Some will also want a large crowd present - something the likes of ESL One Katowice and ESL One Cologne's upcoming stadium this year - but it cannot be considered a must. Would you say last year's ESL One Cologne was not a major due to there being little room for a crowd then in Cologne? Of course not. A crowd is a bonus - along with top tier competition and large stakes, including both prestige and money - but it is not a must, at least not yet.
Finally, we need to address the suggestion that only Valve events are majors. That is also completely false. Valve-sponsored $250,000 tournaments wound up getting the major nod because they were the first tournaments in CS:GO to have large enough prize purses to be called a major. In the coming years that will change, and we might have to toughen up our criteria even further to not see the amount of majors inflated too much.
A crowd doesn't define an event
North America trending up
Despite Robin "flusha" Rönnquist's pre-event interview with fragbite suggesting North Americans stood no chance, and his coach Viktor "vuggo" Jendeby's tweet implying his team were not worried about them at all, on Sunday night the fnatic team admitted the grand final - against a North American team no less - could have gone either way. Safe to say that was a surprise to everyone involved. There simply wasn't any data to suggest this was going to happen.
For one thing, experience matters. In our interview, Ryan "freakazoid" Abadir said that his team studying EnVy prior to Gfinity the week before helped Cloud9 be ready for the Frenchmen in their two battles, where they emerged victorious. In a post-match interview on ESL TV, CLG also stated that the fact they'd played fnatic four times now on de_mirage helped them gain a better undertanding of the team and played a big role in them being able to score the upset win.
The more North American teams get to play against Europeans, the better they will get. It's that simple. We already saw Liquid take maps from fnatic and Natus Vincere at Gfinity Spring Masters II, and now both CLG and Cloud9 here. That's three teams from the near-forgotten continent, in CS:GO, who have scored wins over tier one teams in recent months. There is no way in hell anyone could have expected that a few short months ago.
Another factor playing into this is the Keyd Stars effect. In an interview conducted at the ESL ESEA Pro League Finals, CLG's James "hazed" Cobb stated that the entire region sparked up in terms of both quantity and quality of practice when the Brazilians arrived. This will only get better in the future as Renegades will start spending time in North America as well. It's also getting to that point where it would make perfect sense for a team to relocate to Europe for an extended period of time.
North American fans have a lot to be happy about. Their region has finally had a meaningful result, after a dry spell of nearly nine months since FACEIT's Season 2 Finals last October. Not only that, more than one team did well - though CLG's wins were in best-of-one format - suggesting there may be more depth in North America than many realized. Counter-Strike will become more and more global in the future, and that's a good thing.
North America outdid all expectations in Cologne
Issues with tournament format, setup, and...
Safe to say there were a number of issues at the ESL ESEA Finals. From tables far too narrow for the players to a lack of booths for the teams leading to players being able to use tricks to spot areas with flashbangs to hearing other teams' communications to the heat in Cologne to a format no one seemed to like, there have been few tournaments in the past with as many complaints. In fact, that's exactly what Duncan "Thorin" Shields tweeted.
Let's tackle them one at a time. The tables are undeniably too narrow. Players cannot fit their mousepads and keyboards normally on the tables without affecting their teammates - far from an ideal setup. This has been an issue at the ESL studios for years, and should have been taken care of by now. At the very least, one of the company's managing directors has said it will get taken care of soon. Hopefully in time for the ESL One Cologne qualifiers in a few weeks' time.
Addressing the second complaint is more complicated. Player booths obviously limit what the production crew can do with cameras, and therefore are a harder - and more expensive - fix to implement. Still, for a tournament's integrity to stay in tact, it may be necessary to make such booths standard protocol for big tournaments. The flashbang trick probably shouldn't be used - but should be expected as long as it is not forbidden - and teams should never be able to hear others' communications.
Watching the stream and seeing all the players sweating like, well, the pig that Jesper "JW" Wecksell tweeted standing on top of a large pile of money after their win, was brutal. It's obvious the temperature was incredibly hot in Cologne - record heat - and you cannot blame ESL for that. It's an unfortunate event, and in an ideal world the air conditioning could have solved the issue, but it is what it is. To me, this is the thing you can least blame the organizers for.
Finally the most important issue was the tournament format. Though I argued for best-of-one and generally think its issues are overrated, it's obvious players want to play best-of-threes - even as underdogs, as Tarik "tarik" Celik's tweet proved. It also gives everyone more Counter-Strike to watch, and gives underdogs more experience. ESL ESEA had enough time - four days for eight teams - to make it happen if they wanted to, but it would have required some compromise on their part. Well, with the amount of attention this got, it seems that it's another issue that will be solved in the future.
The good thing about the lax format was players genuinely seemed to like it and it probably does make for better games due to improved preparation. In addition, it allowed for us to do much better in-depth coverage for each round of games than we normally do. I don't think it was in ESL's best interest to play one-on-one or three-on-three showmatches with casters though, as it sent a bad message to followers who wanted the world's best playing at those times too.
One last note was the abrupt change of the map veto system for the grand final. As I tweeted, I thought that was a mistake on the organizers' part, changing the rules before the most important match of the event. It essentially allowed the best teams under one ruleset to make the grand final, where they may not be the best teams anymore. It's hard enough to be a good team on six maps. Why push it with seven, dragging the level of play down with it? Consistency is key.
Table space was a scarce commodity in Cologne
Cloud9 are a top team
It's too early to rank Cloud9 properly. They could finish this six week stretch of tournaments with a placing in the top five, or merely rounding up the top ten - or, possibly, even finish outside of it, as unlikely as that seems. However, it's not too early to call them a legitimate top team - a fair title for anyone who can take fnatic to their very limits in a best-of-five series, and win a series against EnVyUs during the same tournament.
In my opinion the most valuable player in Cloud9 was Sean "seang@res" Gares. Take away the fragging of Mike "shroud" Grzesiek or the AWPing of Tyler "Skadoodle" Latham and it's clear the team doesn't make it this far. But if we were to look for replacements in North America, or anywhere in the world, with an attempt to replicate what Cloud9 did in Cologne during the past week, there's no question - in my mind - that the hardest player to replace was their in-game leader, whose calls were on-point all event long.
Following one of the all-time horrible series in London, freakazoid bounced back in Cologne with some impactful rounds - including giving C9 their best shot at closing de_dust2 in the grand final with the 385 damage spray at map point - and did a solid job calming the team down in their voice communications while giving input in calls. He was also arguably the team's second best communicator, which probably shouldn't be overlooked in a team with two fairly quiet players.
Jordan "n0thing" Gilbert seemed to struggle with the adjusting playing style of the team, but had a pretty good event aside from the grand final. Realistically he is the swing player in this team - with a higher upside than others from their average level of play - whose strong performances could put Cloud9 over the top, if he can get comfortable enough in their new style of play to play at a star level consistently. Skadoodle proved again that he is a world-class AWPer, and can hold his own against just about - if not - everyone.
Finally - and perhaps most importantly - this was shroud's breakthrough event. Though he's been a fan favorite for a long time due to streaming and a number of highlights on the internet, never before has he put together such a strong showing at a tournament - likely partly due to his team's struggles - as here. Plus, he was the best player in the best-of-five grand final versus fnatic, hitting thirty kills on two separate maps. A player to watch in the future, for sure.
Cloud9 were a few minor breaks both from losing 0-3 and from winning 3-1. It goes both ways and fans' logic suggesting they should have won obviously doesn't hold up. If they can build on this result - which the POV stream VODs will help with - they can, and should, put up more good results. There's so many international tournaments coming up in the next six weeks that they are bound to get more good wins. It'd take a miracle for them to fail at each. And each will give them a chance to improve.
Critics may remember last year's ESL One Cologne, where Cloud9 bested both dignitas - now TSM - and Titan in the group stage, after neat comebacks. There they took NiP to their limit in the quarter-finals, only to be not heard of again, basically, for ten months. That's definitely a worry for fans now too, but one major difference is that this time there's a lot of tournaments coming up where they can get better. Last year, they had a break for 10 weeks. Let's see if they can make them count.
Cloud9 are a top team
POV streams' effect
Perhaps the single most controversial subject of this past week has been the POV streams ESL provided for each team in all of their matches. From players recognizing the disadvantage of English speaking teams to fans getting outraged from hearing their favorite players making fun of their opponents during the heat of the battle, there has been a lot of talk about whether these streams are something that should continue being provided in the future.
ESL's Ulrich Schulze stated they may discontinue the streams. As hard as that is to hear for someone for whom the streams made the event twice as fun to watch, it's probably the right call. In no other sport do fans get the same kind of access to a team's communication at all times, and frankly it's extremely invasive. Players do not like it - and it's not a game-changer for fans - so it probably should not come back next time. The cons outweigh the pros in this one.
Still, how fun was this tournament precisely because of the POV streams? During the ESL ESEA Pro League Season 1 Finals - and I would argue it's all thanks to the POV streams - in-game leaders got more appreciation than they probably have in nearly the past three years CS:GO has been played. seang@res's reads and calls in those EnVy and fnatic series are already legendary, and will completely transform his image in the eyes of the fans who are used to looking at the scoreboard alone.
POV streams helped fans understand in-game leaders' effect on games
EnVyUs - last in, first out
The topic is not a reference to a common accounting method where the last arriving item to an inventory is the first to leave. Instead, it refers to the Frenchmen reportedly being the last ones to come in prior to their matches, and then the first ones to go out - of the tournament - on the following day. This may wind up being a controversial topic, but it probably wouldn't be fair to ignore given its impact. Plus, it's up to a team of professionals to do what's best, or most important, for them.
Multiple sources on-site in Cologne confirmed to HLTV.org that EnVy were drinking late the night prior to their quarter-final against Cloud9 - which took place in the afternoon the next day. It wouldn't surprise anyone who saw Richard "shox" Papillon warming up before the match. To further add insult to injury, this is apparently a common trend for the Frenchmen, who have now lost a staggering six out of their eight first maps of the day at their three most recent tournaments. It would be easy to suggest a correlation there, but obviously there are no guarantees.
Those six losses came in against GPlay, FlipSid3, dignitas, and Cloud9 - three times. In other words, they were clear favorites in each of them. We'll never know if the two are connected, but for a team who have been so consistent for nearly a year and have been considered a top three side for the entirety of its existence, that's a troubling sign. Players have made similar mistakes in the past, but with the level of professionalism in the game increasing, they should slowly start disappearing. We'll see.
EnVy's morning struggles continued at ESL ESEA
Are fnatic the GOATs of CS:GO?
I think now is the time we pose the question so we can let it sink in during the following weeks, because we may have to hand over the crown no one ever thought NiP would have to give up after the 87-0 run, in less than two months. How incredible is that? This fnatic squad may, very well in my opinion, be the greatest team of all time in CS:GO. Their results speak for themselves.
In a much more competitive era, fnatic have won nearly everything for close to a year since the pair of Freddy "KRIMZ" Johansson and Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer joined. They have racked up over $600,000 in prize money alone, winning one major, placing second at another, and going out in the controversial boostmeister-game in the third - where they'd have been clear favorites to win it all had they gone through that round. I don't think this would even be a discussion if they had two major titles, and they may get that second one soon.
fnatic has a very good in-game leader in Markus "pronax" Wallsten and four of the world's best players. Their stars seemingly go back and forth in dominance, with KRIMZ emerging as the world's best in late 2014, with JW playing great as well, and with olofmeister taking his former LGB teammate's title this year. Last night, it was flusha who was their best player across a best-of-five final, where the pairing who joined last summer struggled.
The Black and Orange are an incredibly deep team. Their trophy cabinet makes any other team envious, they have lost few series across this team's existence, and what's more, they are favored to win the next major too. And the tournaments before that. Though it doesn't apply for this case, we also shouldn't forget this team's core won another major in 2013. So I ask, do we really think NiP dominating a weak scene in 2012-2013 was more impressive?
fnatic - the greatest CS:GO team of all-time?
The summer season in Counter-Strike continues this week with ESWC in Montreal, QC, Canada, followed up by the FACEIT Stage 2 Finals the week after in Valencia, Spain.
After Valencia the top of the scene will head to Columbus, OH, USA for the CEVO Season 7 Finals, followed by - or overlapping - ESL One Cologne's regional qualifiers.
In August we will still get Gfinity Summer Masters II as a final prelude to ESL One Cologne, the next CS:GO major. Fans are certainly getting spoiled with action this summer.
Follow HLTV.org's @lurppis_ on Twitter.