Aiming Higher: How Regional Pride Shackles North American Progress

Written by: Richard Lewis
Twitter: @RLewisReports  

“I don't get the "best NA team" discussion. All NA teams including us are far from winning Major events. Who cares about online matches?”

These words were tweeted by Spanish player Oscar "mixwell" Cañellas after his North American team, OpTic Gaming, had their run in ELeague cut short by European opposition. Those who agreed felt that as a European import he would have a unique perspective on the differences between the two regions. Those who were feeling less charitable stated that if North American teams weren’t scrambling to be the best in their region, non-established players such as him wouldn’t be given the chance to earn a salary playing this game at all. Whichever side of that argument you are on, it’s hard to disagree that he has a point.

It’s an old debate, a fairly boring one if you’ve had it a few times as anyone with more than two years Counter-Strike experience will have; “just what are the differences between Americans and Europeans when it comes to success in the sport?” It ticks all the boxes for a classic sports discussion. No special knowledge is needed to have an opinion. You can throw stereotypes around wildly with little consequence. It stirs up national pride. Crucially, there is no definitive answer in sight, only hunches, gut feelings and other anecdotal driven assessments. Here is mine.

Back when Counter-Strike was spreading its wings, I used to follow the North American scene religiously. With the economic and technological limitations in place, the only time you ever saw Americans and Europeans go at it was at the very biggest events on the calendar. So novelty was undoubtedly a factor, but I remain convinced that the American players had bigger personalities. They were better on camera, better at trash talking, and they played with a certain swagger to their demeanor. Even though they invariably fell short when coming up against the Europeans, their failure always seemed more interesting than my continent’s success.

As my profile increased, so did my time spent with the American players. I’d sit on whichever VoIP software was vogue at strange times of the day and talk for hours, sometimes even get invited to “fill” for a pick-up game and play as if it was pre-broadband, warping round their US server with 120 ping. The topic of conversation was always mostly the same. There’d be blanket statements about how one high-profile player was actually terrible, that they didn’t know how to play. In game, the explanation for a defeat was that the opponents were “too dumb to predict.” Then the next day, those terrible, dumb players would be talking with us and saying the same thing about someone else. No one was immune from criticism, and there were only an elite few the consensus considered competent.

If there was constant debate about who could actually play, there was almost universal agreement on how the game should be played. Aggressive, fast and aim-focused, you had to be able to hold your own in duels. There was a lot of intellectual posturing. “Why has he pushed through THAT smoke” might convince your colleagues that it was the blind luck that got you killed. In reality, everyone is pushing everywhere, so why weren’t you ready? These pick-up games bore no resemblance to that of a team game and yet they became a bigger time-sink for a lot of US players than actual team practice.

The reason for this was fairly straightforward and can be summarized in one word; reputation. This was a currency that got you a lot further stateside than it did on European shores. If you were ever in that competent elite few, you didn’t just get bragging rights. You got the trials when the sponsored teams came looking for new recruits. You got the public endorsements from colleagues. You got offered the flash in the pan sponsorships. You got the opportunity to make video guides. You earned money from giving lessons to wannabes. For the longest time, there was no way to make money by simply being part of a good team. Even the highest salaries were pittances, especially in the aftermath of the 2009 global economic collapse that saw American marketing budgets dry up.  NA players had to fend for self. As a result, it was no surprise they focused on themselves.

Economically a lot has changed. Counter-Strike has seen unprecedented growth, which has seen gaming organizations desperate to pick up teams. This led to financial rewards for the best players and, honestly, salaries for players who twelve months ago would never have believed they could expect one. The floodgates are open and finally the US esports space is putting its money where its mouth is. New investors are desperately signing up the best talent NA has to offer on salaries some, not me, might argue excessive. Now, they are left scratching their heads as to why they can’t create globally competitive teams. “We’ve done our bit,” they mutter “and we’re still losing.” Sadly money doesn’t change mentality.

Remember the 2002 story about Michael Carroll? He was a garbage man in the UK who won over £9 million on the national lottery at just 19. From a troubled background, this should have been the dream out, a way to break the cycle of misery his family had endured. Instead, the tabloids knew him as “the lotto lout”, reveling in the negative attention as he threw constant parties and buying gaudy new toys. By 2006, he was in jail and broke, having wracked up 42 previous criminal offences. He now works the garbage truck again. This is North American Counter-Strike.

Organizations can shoulder some of the blame. I see a lot of mismanagement, no additional staff or resources provided, and players left to their own devices. I know from my days coaching you should never let an athlete dictate his or her own regime for multiple reasons. However, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard NA players boast about being the best in the country, while simultaneously telling me they doubt they’ll ever beat the Europeans because they are too far behind in the arms race. I think if some of them were honest, they’d tell me the bragging rights mean more than trophies in the cabinet, not because they don’t want both, but because they are so far from achieving the latter that it’s too hard to even imagine it as a reality.

Perhaps sensing the detrimental mindset is incurable, we’re seeing the responses across the board. Cañellas is far from the only foreign import being used to bolster the fortunes of flagging US teams. Europeans seem undoubtedly more attuned to the “team” game, far less focused on individual scores and stats than a scene reared on ESEA ratings. Even the inexperienced ones are being used as the glue to hold together the raw talent of NA rosters. Some owners, after years in the chokehold of being limited to NA players, are tapping out. Jason Lake of compLexity is even importing UK talent (something of an oxymoron in CS these days) to try and find a blend that works. If you ask him, he doesn’t believe that you can find five American players with the smarts, lack of ego and work ethic to make a successful team right now.

Whether he’s right or not doesn’t really matter. He’s not alone in thinking it and it’s a belief that is becoming increasingly prevalent. The title of “best in NA” has become even more meaningless as other regions have moved ahead of them with none of the experience, investment or pedigree. South America has produced the newly recruited SK Gaming roster, winners of the last major, and Immortals, who have already won two European tournaments. With TyLoo waiting in the wings, how long before Asia also produces teams that eclipse the US?

Some key things happened in Brazil to produce two tournament-winning teams. First, while enjoying domestic rivalries in smaller tournaments, they pooled resources when it came to making an impact internationally. They trained together, shared sponsors, and supported each other as much as possible. Crucially, they prepared to beat Europeans and not each other, which they did through extensive development of the tactical and teamwork aspects of the game. I have seen Luminosity innovate new tactics on maps, only for US teams to simply replicate them wholesale a few weeks later. No wonder these same innovators find it easy enough to counter tactics they themselves created.

After a tournament defeat, it’s back to the security of comparing individual skills against other individuals in pick up games, in practice matches where no one plays as they would in a competitive match. Insults are traded, egos reinforced, and all is right with the world until the next tournament comes along. It’s been said before but I’ll say it again, US teams need to aim higher. With more and more foreign imports and brands under increasing pressure to succeed in short time spans, “best in NA” is going to become a meaningless accolade inside of a year. Get rid of the “king of the hill” mentality and embrace how global this game has become or… Well, you will all make fine streamers at least.