ESL about streaming platforms: "We are definitely evaluating what to do for 2019"
In a sit-down with Ulrich "theflyingdj" Schulze, ESL's Senior Vice President of Product, we heard about building up ESL One Cologne, the company's partnership with Facebook and the Major rumors.
Earlier in the week, we conducted an interview with Ulrich "theflyingdj" Schulze of ESL, who admitted that he expected more from Facebook as a streaming platform and that they are evaluating their options for 2019.
You sold out the event, so let's start with that. Cologne has been a Major in the past but isn't one anymore, yet it continues to sell out. What do you think that is the key to making it such a big event? Because we have a lot of big events in the CS:GO scene, but I feel like Cologne has a special place.
I think that one of the reasons was that it was the first real stand-alone event for Counter-Strike in an arena. I think that at that time, in 2015, it was still a bit risky, to be honest. We didn't know how it was going to work. And it worked great, it was really full in year one, the atmosphere... You hear people talking about what they remember and a lot of them remember Cologne 2015, the first event, a lot of great plays that they remember, that just helps build a legacy.
I'm not going to lie about it, having two Colognes [at the LANXESS Arena] that were Majors also helped to just cement it, as well as the fact that people kept having a great experience, and because all the teams really wanted to be here. I think last year Astralis skipped because of the Major, but, other than that, every team wants to be here. Disregarding prizemoney, disregarding everything else, this is an event they want to win, and where they know the arena is going to be full, it's going to be loud, there is going to be a great crowd no matter which team plays, and that has really helped build Cologne up. And that's why, even as it moved beyond the Major, it stayed successful or became more successful, because it never sold out as a Major, but after it wasn't one anymore, it did. I think that just because people have such a great experience every time, both on stream and on-site, and because the teams like it so much, it has become such an important event in the year.
I obviously have to ask you about the Facebook deal as well, because it is being brought up all the time, for the average viewer I guess it's a topic they like to discuss. Talking about the numbers themselves, the live counter on Facebook is the first thing the people see and they obviously see that the number not as big as it used to be. Is that number the actual number of viewers, and if it's not, how close is actually to the active live viewers you have for the streams?
Unfortunately, it doesn't count anyone who is not logged in and anyone who is watching on embedded streams, which I think is a significant number. The unfortunate reality is that, for a lot of people, it's more stable to go to HLTV and watch it embedded there than it is to go on the platform itself. So the number is bigger than the counter. It's still not as big as we think it can be, and that has to do—which is something we are open about—, with the platform just not being where it should be at this point, technically. It's not as reliable as other platforms, it's not as easy to find the streams, it doesn't have all the functions that it should have, both on mobiles as well as desktop, to provide a really great experience.
Our expectation was that we would be further along since half of the year is over and some of the things just haven't materialized in the way we expected them to. But our contract is for this year and as much as people on different platforms suggest that we should just stream elsewhere, a contract is a contract so we don't just do something else. But we are definitely evaluating what to do for 2019. While we still think that Facebook has potential because of the sheer number of people on the platform, the way it has performed so far certainly hasn't been up to the expectations we had. We can totally understand why there is frustration about the viewing experience, and that is something we have to fix going forward. There is no doubt about. Maybe it can be fixed on the platform, maybe not, that is something we will see, but we understand if people are frustrated after a couple of events and there are still things that don't work right.
Are there specific things which you think are missing at the moment, that are not up to par? The stability of the stream? Do you have some specific things in your mind you can disclose?
Yeah, the stability of the stream is one thing, it seems to vary a lot, even depending on which browser you use or which kind of a computer you use, even on the same connection. And that's not how things should be. The mobile viewing experience is still difficult, you can't select the quality, that's a very core feature that is missing, people on a data plan, for example, wouldn't want the auto selection option. And then how difficult it is to find the stream, if you go to Facebook, even if you know what you are looking for, it's often very, very difficult to find it. And the features haven't been rolled out globally as they should have. So there are a lot of things where the experience breaks and we certainly understand that someone gives it a few tries and then stops after that.
That's not the case on other platforms, when we moved to YouTube with Pro League back in the day, that was a move people criticized, but ultimately they changed the platform and realized everything is the same and some things are even better because you can skip, rewind and all those things. That's great, and it didn't have stability issues other than the typical "my connection isn't good enough" or "my routing isn't good enough", which always happens, also on Twitch and on YouTube. But on Facebook it's more prominent, and you can't clip things, which is a big feature. All of that is what impacts the experience at the moment.
However, one of the side effects is that the alternative language streams have become much bigger because people now tend to go to the German stream or the Russian stream or the Spanish stream... we have a lot of them, I think we have streams in 22 languages for Cologne. Ultimately, our goal is still to make sure that the main English stream is also watchable for everyone without technical issues or without too many things that impact the experience.
Can you give your thoughts on how the Intel Grand Slam has gone so far? The first season is coming to a potential close, maybe here or in Stockholm...
I think it's interesting because at the beginning it wasn't a huge topic, obviously no team had won a significant amount of events and I think when we started last year, around Dallas, there wasn't any dominant team anymore. SK dominated for a bit but then they went into a slump. Then Astralis were good and then device was injured—every team had had its ups and down, no team was a clear favorite. Now, for the first time, we actually had FaZe being really consistent, but we also have Astralis, who on paper and based on results are much better than FaZe and they've shown so far in this tournament that they are really great.
Now it's where it becomes an interesting storyline. We also know FaZe can win this, but if they are defeated in the final then that team also gets $100,000. For Astralis, if they win this one and then Stockholm then that's it. They've closed it in four out of six events or something, which is huge. It's great that it's now becoming a better storyline and that's what we had originally envisioned. With so many different CS tournaments and no real connection between them, this is something that gives a bit more meaning beyond a ranking, which is also valid but the Intel Grand Slam gives more meaning to the tournament performance, for example, when you say that out of the last eight events FaZe have won three and they can now make it the fourth. And Astralis have won two out of the last four, that is just a more graspable storyline where you understand "Yeah, this team is really good now".
If the first season gets closed out at this tournament or the next one, is the second season going to be rolled out, is that already confirmed?
Yeah, it is basically a continuously rolling format that we are using, so we won't wait until someone wins to announce the second season—if somebody wins here everything gets reset and then we start again. I think Astralis can't win two Intel Grand Slams this year, but, theoretically, they could win one and three more events and make it really interesting. However, from our experience, the domination from the early era of CS:GO where NiP dominated, and then fnatic, those days are gone because it's so tough at the top. So we will continue right away with the second season, but it's great that we now have the story for Cologne and then Faze's last chance in Stockholm, which could maybe be Astralis' chance as well. So two teams in the same tournament, able to win it, that would be a really interesting storyline.
Any comments on the recent rumors about ESL getting the first Major of 2019? Obviously, you can't confirm it, but can you at least say if you pitched a plan and if so what did you have in mind?
We pitch for every Major, we used to run a lot of them, obviously. I think we haven't run one from 2016., which interestingly hasn't impacted us a lot, because so many of our events stand on their own feet as we see with Cologne. But we've pitched for every Major that is out there and we've also pitched for the next one. We had some interesting ideas for it, we think that there are a couple of ways that we could give the Majors something that sets them apart from the other events. We will learn about them in case there should be an announcement at some point, but we'd definitely be happy to host another Major because we think that with all the criticism the Major gets for its system it's still a great opportunity to appeal to the everyday CS:GO player, who might not follow an event like Cologne and still follows the Majors. And obviously, for the players, it's still really important, no matter what else exists in the ecosystem. So yeah, we'd be happy to host another Major and I'm assuming there will be an announcement at some point.
Your Majors so far have been Europe-based, is that still the place you find best to hold Majors?
We've also pitched for other regions, I think Europe has some great advantages just by being so close together, so it's easy to gather a crowd. I think in North America, traditionally, Majors have struggled a bit. MLG was really successful with the Major they had. The ones that ELEAGUE had, they had by default smaller venues so they weren't as massive as some of the European events, the PGL Krakow Major, for example, which was huge. I think it's easier to attract a crowd just because of geography at the end of the day. But we certainly see the advantages of North America because the timezone makes it a bit easier to schedule it at a time everybody can watch. But yeah, from an attending point of view, the biggest success for us has been Europe.