BLAST's Andrew Haworth: "The thought of returning to live arena events is hugely exciting"
The BLAST Commissioner sat down for an interview on a wide range of topics ahead of the start of the Spring Final.
BLAST announced on Monday in a much-anticipated decision that it is planning to host in late November its first arena event since the coronavirus pandemic began. The Royal Arena in Copenhagen, where BLAST's first event was held in 2017, has been chosen as the location for the BLAST Premier Fall Final, which is to be played from November 23 to 28, just weeks after the Major in Stockholm.
It is easy to understand why this is a moment of jubilation for BLAST, whose last large-scale LAN event dates back to December 2019, when its circuit was still called the BLAST Pro Series and the thought of a global health crisis still seemed like something out of a film. "It brings a huge smile to our faces, just being able to start talking about the Fall Final taking place in front of a packed out Royal Arena in Copenhagen," Andrew Haworth, who was named BLAST Commissioner in February, tells HLTV.org.
Like every other tournament organiser, BLAST has had to reinvent itself to adapt to these weird pandemic times. And while it has helped to push the envelope on what can be expected from an esport event in the online era, it has also had to navigate some of the biggest challenges that have emerged in this new Counter-Strike landscape, including stream-sniping incidents and a player protest.
Read on as the BLAST Commissioner touches on a variety of topics, from the announcement of BIG as the 12th partner team to the company's decision to end the controversial partnership with NEOM just two weeks after the deal was announced. He also confirms that BLAST has a direct line of communication with Valve but notes that hosting a Major or an RMR tournament is not a priority for the company at the moment.
What is the feeling to be soon returning to live arena events, especially at the Royal Arena, an important venue in BLAST history?
We've been craving the return of live arena events for a while now so it brings a huge smile to our faces, just being able to start talking about the Fall Final taking place in front of a packed out Royal Arena in Copenhagen. As much as we've enjoyed the challenge of pivoting to online-only tournaments over the last year and half, the biggest and most memorable moments are made on stages in front of packed out arenas at iconic locations around the world, so the thought of getting back to that environment is hugely exciting. The roar from a packed out arena crowd tends to inspire and bring out the very best of players, to be able to share that with an audience and give them the chance to watch their heroes in person is why we do this.
Copenhagen is the perfect city to welcome back live crowds, Denmark is not only BLAST's home but it's also one of the bedrocks of international Counter-Strike and has produced countless leading talents over the years. The improvements we've made to our productions during the online era put us in an even better position to deliver an event that the CS:GO community has been craving over this period. We won't be taking any half measures and will be constantly assessing the ever-developing pandemic to ensure we can keep fans and players safe while looking to give them an event to remember.
BLAST and ESL recently announced a "collaborative approach to future governance". What is your relationship with ESL and other TOs like?
We speak to a lot of TOs on probably a much more regular basis than the public would probably be aware of, although we obviously are competitors. There were lots of things that are non-competitive that we have alignments on and we talk about, and that's with ESL, with Flashpoint and with other TOs. The conversations with ESL were actually around looking at some of the teams and how they move around the world in these COVID times, with the structure of our tournaments and the way groups play into finals and into how Pro League and our groups fit in. So the announcement was actually a reduction in time for players as opposed to the dates that were in the calendar before. We are working very closely on how that movement between events, especially in the kind of the current COVID times, can be as efficient as possible. And there are conversations about things that are not competitively different between us as a product but that we approach differently. For example, we may approach something in a rulebook in one way and ESL in another, and these things really make a difference to the product or the integrity of the tournament. So we're hopefully trying to create an easier playing platform for the players and the teams so that they know the ruling on a topic is broadly going to be the same week to week. So that makes it just an easier, hopefully less stressful experience and gives them the opportunity to perform at their best.
In January, BIG were announced as BLAST's 12th partner team, replacing 100 Thieves. Do you consider the possibility of expanding the league beyond 12 teams?
Conceptually, that's always an option. We were hugely excited by BIG joining. It was a great show of where we've come and what BLAST Premier now stands for that we had a huge amount of interest for that 12th slot. So we were very excited about that. BIG is a great organization that has proved a great partner so far, and we look forward to continuing to work with them and with the other 11 teams as we go forward. We want to focus on delivering that kind of world-class entertainment and a competition with routes for all teams around the world, and then we would keep an idea open for expansion. We are very open to that at the right time, but we equally don't feel the need to push it if we don't think it's the best option at each stage.
What was the bidding process like? How many teams and organisations were involved?
It was a fairly open and hugely competitive process. There were a lot of teams involved once the exit of 100 Thieves was announced. I'd say it was really exciting to see just how far we've come as BLAST Premier that there was that level of interest from teams from across the world. We were very excited by BIG and by what they bring to the partnership. They're a fantastic organization, really, really great, both on the server and outside of the game, as a team and organization.
One big talking point around esports events of late is co-streaming. Why has BLAST allowed co-streaming for its tournaments? What are the upsides, and do you see this becoming the norm for your events?
We want to make sure that we provide everybody with the opportunity, wherever they are in the world, to watch and enjoy BLAST Premier, to immerse themselves in esports and Counter-Strike in particular. That has worked really well for us. We've been able to create this great distribution footprint that gives fans the chance to watch BLAST across a number of platforms, whether that's on terrestrial TV network, ITT player, or their favorite streamer through co-streaming setups. We've allowed it in a couple of regions and languages, which hopefully helps accelerate that development of the region and obviously supports those streamers and community players. I think it's not a kind of a one-size-fits-all strategy. It will work for some territories and not for others, but it kind of goes back to our point of trying to provide access to BLAST Premier to as many people as possible so they can enjoy it and engage with it.
Regarding the controversial partnership with NEOM: When ending a similar partnership, the LEC admitted to making a mistake. BLAST, on the other hand, still hasn't offered a mea culpa, and it has been almost a year. Do you think BLAST should have been more open and upfront about this sensitive topic?
We had to have lots of conversations around this. We spoke to our key partners and stakeholders. We listened, we heard, we adapted plans and we've learned and moved forward from that. What drives us is making sure that everybody, wherever they are in the world, including the Middle East, has access to, and the opportunity to engage with, BLAST Premier. It's about making sure that fans can engage with it and enjoy other esports titles as well. You've seen that in some of our qualifiers for BLAST Premier, we hit a good few regions in the world in the spring, and we'll cover off some of the areas we missed and more regions in the fall. We want to be able to provide pathways into top tier esports for teams from all regions in the world and for fans from all regions in the world to see their favorite teams and to engage with BLAST Premier.
What is BLAST's relationship with the CSPPA at the moment like, after the protest that took place during the Fall Finals?
We have ongoing conversations with the CSPPA. We're not a member, but we have an ongoing dialogue. We have a close relationship with our partner teams and we speak to them and the players on those teams on various different matters as we're designing and evolving our product and our tournament series. We were disappointed by the action in the fall finals. We didn't think that it was probably the most appropriate response, but as we say, we have kind of moved on from that. There are good ongoing conversations. Some of the work that we've got involves trying to align on a couple of rulebook procedures across tournament organizers, working on some of the safeguarding rules and integrity rules in place. We will continue this ongoing dialogue with all parties for creating a better ecosystem that hopefully drives value and entertainment to all parties.
One of the biggest talking points for the Spring season is the introduction of the participation fee that teams coming to the Showdown stage from the qualifiers receive. What has the feedback from teams been like? How does BLAST look at its role and responsibilities in the scene right now?
It's been a hell of a journey since the Pro Series days. We're very excited with what Premier is doing at the moment, it's a year-long event that culminates in that World Final, so we want to give that route to as many teams as possible so that we can hopefully create that kind of crowning pinnacle moment of the BLAST Premier World Final. We created the qualifying structure for both the spring and the fall season, so hopefully, we will cover as many regions as possible. The ambition would be to one day have a clear map and a plan that almost any team in the world can have a chance of winning the BLAST Premier World Final. We're not quite there yet, but that's what we would love to be able to achieve. You want to see those exciting moments, like 9z scoring a victory over Vitality, that's what the fans and the audience want to see, those underdog stories are exciting. That applies to teams developing and moving up the rankings, like Gambit and Heroic have done, and to players that showcase themselves and move up to different rosters and they develop into top teams.
The participation fees were an idea of ours of giving lesser-known or lower-ranked organisations the opportunity to invest into areas of their business where they feel will have the most impact. Those teams are of course still playing for all the prize money that's available in the tournament, they're not precluded from that. We also recognise, with the greatest respect, that the chances of them winning those big money prizes were probably lower than those of some of the bigger teams and our partner teams. We put very few, if any, restrictions on how they spend that money because we don't know how it's best for a tier-two South American or Eastern European Counter-Strike team to develop. They may need a training facility that they want to invest in, they may need a social media person to help them to communicate, or they may need somebody to help on their commercial side. The participation fees are to be used on what their business needs. For the Spring season, we invested a quarter of a million dollars in participation fees for our invited and qualified teams, and we're looking forward to hearing how they have spent that. We've had some conversations with a couple of them in which they've told us what they're planning to do. We don't need to be involved in those, we don't need to sign off on any projects or anything, it's hopefully about us creating a CS:GO scene that thrives for years to come, and we want to be an integral part of creating and driving that forward.
We want to create something that all teams have a route to get into. There are set routes for the partner teams, and we want to be able to create those entry points for teams across all regions and across all tiers, either by going straight to our World Final because they've won the Major or they've won ESL Pro League or another tournament, or they're coming in through our qualifying structures in different parts of the year, and that's their opportunity to enter the ecosystem.
You've hosted two editions of BLAST Rising. What is your take on the impact of this tournament?
We think it's been a really good tournament to provide opportunities for that kind of teams. We saw Endpoint and HAVU perform well in the first version of the tournament last year, and they've both gone on and moved up a level in terms of the kind of competitions that are playing in and the teams they are beating on a regular basis. I'm not trying to claim that it was down to BLAST Rising but saying that this is the goal of the tournament. It is aimed at teams at that level, who can compete to get that match experience and hopefully that winning experience to move up like Endpoint and HAVU have done. We're committed to providing opportunities for BLAST Premier and Counter-Strike fans and players across all regions, so whether it's through qualifiers or Risings, I would expect to see routes into BLAST-related tournaments for pretty much all regions going forward.
Have you held any discussions with Valve regarding hosting a Major or an RMR tournament?
I love it when I hear fans saying that BLAST should have a Major, that we should do that. And we do have conversations with Valve on the RMRs and on understanding the processes for Major hosting, where and when. It's not something that we rule out, but it's not something that we're focused on achieving. I think we've got an incredible structure in BLAST Premier to try and create that open ecosystem where our partner teams are involved and there are routes in for all teams across the ecosystem, all through direct qualification for the World Final. I'm mostly focused on that as the commissioner with BLAST Premier, but we would never rule out opportunities and we are in conversations with Valve on various things, as I'm sure all TOs are. We are keeping a regular dialogue of understanding what the opportunities and implications are. It's a challenge with the timeframes. BLAST Premier will probably never fit as an RMR. We've got a fantastic structure in Premier that we're very proud of and excited about as is. It's just about keeping an eye open to what is possible.