Carmac: "Katowice and Cologne are the two special events and we needed to make them stand out from the others"
We sat down with Michal "Carmac" Blicharz, VP of Pro Gaming at ESL, to talk about the ESL Pro Tour and the current state of the scene as seen from the perspective of a tournament organiser.
After the ESL Pro Tour press conference at the Barclays Center during ESL One New York, ESL's VP of Pro Gaming, Michal Blicharz, took some time to sit down with HLTV.org and discuss several topics surrounding ESL's newest competitive circuit, an amalgamation of all DreamHack and ESL events which will start in 2020.
In this lengthy interview, the ESL chief talked about the ESL Pro Tour Ranking, which will decide what teams get invited to the two most important ESL events of the year, ESL One Cologne and IEM Katowice, how all of the DreamHack and ESL events will be intertwined with lower-level tournaments acting as qualifiers for bigger tournaments, the prize pool bump for the two Masters Championships, and the overall health of the scene as different tournament organizers vie for the best dates and teams.
First thing I wanted to talk about was the ESL Pro Tour ranking and point system. There will be points given at all Pro Tour events, but they are only useful for the Masters Championships. How does that work, how are points going to affect invitations in the different tiers?
The only thing that changes is that there's the ESL Pro Tour Ranking, which covers all of the ESL Pro Tour events plus the Majors. The reason for the Majors being included is that we don't want the greatest teams in the world, assuming they choose not to compete in our tournaments, to miss out on qualifying for our Masters Championships. So if you do well in a Major, you sure as hell should be ranked in our ESL Pro Tour Ranking.
The ranking is a race to get top 8 and be invited directly to Cologne and Katowice, then 9-16 will be invited to the LAN qualifier, starting with Cologne 2020. Those 9-16 teams will meet 8 wild cards, teams invited based on their skill, the region they represent, etc., so that we don't miss out on the best teams in the world. Technically, if you didn't compete in any of the tournaments, or even the Majors, but you win every tournament that's not in the ESL Pro Tour and isn't a Major, and everybody recognizes you as a world-class team, you will be invited to the Masters Championship LAN qualifier for one of the eight slots in the main event. The only downside will be that those teams will be expected to pay their own expenses to attend the event.
These wild card invites, do you know how you're going to pick the teams? Will it be region-based or whatever you see fit? How will that work?
Primarily through the ESL World Ranking, based on who is the best. However, what is also important for us is regional representation, so if for whatever reason an Asian team doesn't make it to the top-16 in the Pro Tour Ranking, we'll probably want the top-ranked Asian team there rather than the No.21 from Europe, or that type of thing. It will primarily be based on the world ranking with a hint of regionality thrown in just to have the entire world interested in it. We'll probably have one or two slots for outstanding teams from our Challengers section, but it won't be overwhelming. The eight wild cards will primarily be highly-rated teams from all over the world.
You bring up the Challengers tournaments, how do they play into the one-story narrative? How do you get the Challenger teams and Masters teams and Masters Championship teams to all be linked?
It's been a challenge to link them because there's not the same number of Challengers tournaments as there is of Masters tournaments, for example, they don't line up in terms of calendar, and sometimes you could have three DreamHack Opens in a period of two months but just one Masters tournament, so it's not the easiest thing to align. We've come up with a system, and we'll share more as tournaments get announced, where the ESL National Championship winners will get one slot in a correspondent kind of linked DreamHack Open tournament, and they'll also be playing for MDL spots, so there's a Challenger to Challenger connection there, from regional Challengers to international Challengers, and then DreamHack Open winners will be guaranteed to play a subsequent Masters tournament.
So like OpTic, who went to DreamHack Masters Malmö thanks to winning DreamHack Summer...
Yeah, that's the idea, so if you win a DreamHack Open you'll get to play an IEM, DreamHack Masters, or ESL One event.
Has this been put into place yet?
It's going to work starting with the first DreamHack Open tournaments of 2020, so we'll start with the very first one in January, which will already have a Masters slot assigned. Every Masters tournament will have one or two slots assigned, as I said, because the alignment is not easy since it's not one Challengers then one Masters then one Challengers and so on, but every Masters tournament will have one or two slots given to a DreamHack Open champion. In the end what I feel we're doing is giving teams a very clear road upwards, with every step being really clear, and now you don't have to grind the smaller tournaments praying that you'll get invited, now everything is completely and utterly in your hands, which I think is a benefit.
You're creating this single narrative circuit at a time when several competitors are doing the same, trying to create self-contained circuits. Do you think that everybody creating their own narratives could hurt the overall understanding of what is actually happening in the global circuit?
I think the circuit as it is in 2019 and if you take a step back from the position of someone who is following it every day, you know... this is something I mention in interviews, how can you explain to a random friend that maybe plays League of Legends or DOTA2 or Call of Duty or whatever other game, what it means when someone takes fourth place in IEM Chicago? It's incredibly difficult to explain, we're in this 24/7 and have a good gut feeling of what it means, but it's been difficult. I think it will now be clearer than before and it will be much easier to follow.
We've added meaning behind every tournament, we've added purpose that is now understood... before, if one of our tournaments would disappear, nobody would say anything. Now they're linked and connected in a meaningful way, so I'm of the opinion that it is now much better than before, and if you really think about it, we did three things. We elevated Katowice and Cologne, we added the ESL Pro Tour Ranking, and we added winners getting slots at better tournaments. We haven't changed all that much otherwise, if you're a great team on a global level you're still going to play at ESL One New York, you'll still get invited regardless. From our perspective, we just added a narrative and didn't change all that much otherwise. I don't know if you see it differently...
No, not really, but I think I may have failed to explain what I was thinking properly, which is that if everybody that is creating tournaments is creating their own narrative, and if teams still play through several different TO's events, will the overall narrative be muddled?
No, I don't think so, because the community primarily follows the collection of everything that happens, and they probably follow that through the lens of the HLTV Ranking. From that perspective, through that lens, I don't think it will change. That ranking, or the ESL World Ranking if you prefer to choose that, will still try to objectively describe the reality of Counter-Strike and who is good or who isn't, and it will continue to do so. It's just that if there's a meaningful story that can connect multiple tournaments, and we have around 20 of them, it makes it much more easily understood, so I think it's a positive, and for the people who follow literally everything, I don't think it will change anything or make it confusing to them.
A lot of changes are coming to Counter-Strike now, you're putting out the ESL Pro Tour and there are talks of ECS also doing something and BLAST Pro Series running their circuit, which seemed to be a closed thing before they got some community backlash... At a time when there's more tension than ever with different organizers trying to create their circuits, is this something you're also pushing for, to make your own circuit be the one main one? It seems there's a lot of hostility amongst TOs now and it seems the openness of the circuit may not be as open as it used to be.
Our tournaments, with the exception of Katowice and Cologne where you have to go through either the qualifier or the ESL Pro Tour Ranking, they haven't changed at all. We haven't really introduced a change at that level at all, and there's a bit of a misconception. ESL, if you look at who we partner with and who finances the entertainment we provide to the CS:GO community, it's brands like Vodafone, AT&T, Intel, Pepsi, and they're different to those that sponsor most of the other tournaments. They're a different category of brand and in order for us to keep building what we're building, we have to be talking to the same brands that the big North American esports leagues are talking to from other games entirely. When it comes to business, we're not competing with the rest of the CS:GO ecosystem, we're competing with other game titles, you know?
Because, as I said, we're talking to the Pepsis, the Mercedes, the AT&T's and Vodafones of this world, who sponsor the really, really large things. These are the partnerships we're looking for and these are the partnerships that have traditionally existed in ecosystems outside of Counter-Strike, which means we're actually competing for partners that haven't been involved in Counter-Strike, historically. From that point of view we're competing with Overwatch and League of Legends.
That's in terms of business and partners, but there's also competition when it comes to calendar, teams you can get at events, and that's also at play...
Well, calendar-wise we will take up just as much in 2020 as we have in 2019. We just do our very best in the same manner as we've been doing for the past two or three years and we're just providing the best tournaments we can. If teams choose to attend our tournaments, then great. I'll give you an example, we were inviting teams to the tournament in Beijing and several teams had been invited to other tournaments in China offering a higher prize purse and business class flights and things like that, but they chose us because they know what they get from us. They know the practice conditions, the PCs, the schedules, so teams chose us. We just put out the best product and we're trusting that it's good enough, we're literally not looking at anything else.
Have organizers been playing nice when it comes to scheduling? Are there many conflicts? How does that work?
When it comes to scheduling tournaments, it's not as simple as "I want this week and I'll take it," sometimes there are no grounds to negotiate. We're at the Barclays Center, so there's an NBA team and an NHL team, and we go to arenas like the United Center that have NBA and NHL teams, those guys are busy! You don't get a lot of choice when you're booking a venue like that. So if you want to go to North America, to a top city and a top venue, you only have maybe three dates to choose from between the other events that you do like the Colognes and Katowices, so there are maybe just 2-4 dates available and that makes things difficult. It makes it look like there's no regard for other tournament organizers, but everybody that wants to rent a venue like that runs into those problems, you can't just say "Oh, here's tournament X, so let's move our dates by a week," we can't do it because next week Taylor Swift is throwing a concert in that venue. That's something the community doesn't necessarily understand, so as far as I'm aware, there's the maximum level of cooperation, but you can't always do something about it.
The prize pools now for Katowice and Cologne, starting with Cologne 2020, are going up pretty substantially, but the sum of the prize pool for all events next year is pretty similar to what it is right now...
Give or take, nothing changes other than Katowice and Cologne.
So in 2021, when there will be two $1 million tournaments, will we see an increase in the overall prize pool of the circuit, then?
The typical $250,000 tournament will remain a $250,000 tournament, so there's not going to be a downgrade in prize money across the board in Masters level tournaments. We've raised the prize purse for two tournaments, but we won't decrease it anywhere else.
Valve responded to the rumors of exclusivity, which from what I know is coming from a lot of different organizers pushing a lot of different agendas, including your "soft exclusivity" for Pro League teams. What do you think of their stance?
I would say that they've made it very clear, they don't want to see exclusivity. They want competition and I personally am not the least bit bothered by it. I think the ESL Pro Tour and the way it's structured speak for themselves. That's it. I don't think there's much to add. I'm not bothered at all by it and the product speaks for itself.
So teams in the foreseeable future will be able to play competitors' tournaments and so on?
That's what Valve wants. I have never been shy about saying that I don't like franchise leagues. I see the value, but overall, if there's a choice between a circuit and a franchise league, I will always go with the circuit. I don't think it's cool that in the NBA the Philadelphia 76ers are motivated to lose more games than to win because then they'll get a better draft pick and stuff like that. I don't think it's interesting to watch the bottom of a league that doesn't have a relegation, so I very much have a European view on it. So yeah, ESL Pro Tour all the way.
One last thing, raising the prize pool of your biggest tournaments to $1 million, are you kind of hoping that Valve will push the Major prize pool, or are you happy to be at the same level?
We haven't thought about it, the reason we raised the prize pool is that you can't run 20 world-championship tournaments per year. You have to pick and choose. The community and the players have all voted with their feet, so to speak, and chosen Katowice and Cologne as the two special ones and we obviously needed to make them stand out from the others. Giving them the appropriate prize pool is the correct thing to do. I'm guessing the majority of fans and players would agree that from the ESL calendar if they were to pick two tournaments to win, these would be the ones. Do you agree?
So yeah, it's a no-brainer, right? So it's also a no-brainer to crank the prize money up just to make it official, to make the consensus official and to make it so that they will give the biggest reward not just from recognition by the community, but also the prize check because Stewie needs to make a living, right?