Written by: Richard Lewis
So, the first season of ELeague is wrapped up. We’re now left to take stock of what we achieved, and where we faltered. With a second season only a few months away, there’s not too long to spend congratulating ourselves, although some congratulations are in order. I can say this feels like the start of the final, hopefully lengthy, chapter in my long relationship with Counter-Strike. The future seems bright. With the game nestled in a good place, mainstream media continues to gain understanding of what makes it the greatest team-based e-sport that we have. Also, Counter-Strike is being stewarded by a TV network that understands the game’s best qualities. That stewardship is built on only tweaking the game’s packaging, not the fundamentals that make it everything it is.
There’ll be press releases with important numbers. Some will look more impressive than others, while some will feel smaller than they ought to be. Other critical figures will be overlooked as the media and the community decides whether the whole exercise was successful or not. Anecdotally, it would be hard for me to find too much to grumble about. We introduced our game to award-winning sports broadcast directors, even to a point where some of them are now actually playing it at home. We utilized the power of TV editing to create a broadcast with more polish than we’ve seen before. Crucially, we were allowed to be ourselves, and the general consensus is that the TV execs liked what they saw.
As someone who spends lots of time talking about the business side of e-sports, it’s never that side that lasts long in the memory. The moments etched into my brain usually come from the games themselves, and this season of ELeague provided plenty of moments to remember. First, there was the reemergence of Virtus Pro as a force capable of winning tournaments. Even if we consider the easily added footnote regarding SK Gaming’s elimination from the tournament - a memory in itself for very different reasons - you have to wonder if this Virtus Pro could have beaten them. Having taken a map off them at the major before running out of steam, the Poles actually made fnatic look very ordinary for large portions of the game. Given that it is increasingly likely that could be the last time we see that specific fnatic line-up, there’s probably no better compliment you can pay a team than “you made the all-conquering fnatic look to change things.”
From tweets to paragraphs, I’ve read many words written in the aftermath of VP’s championship run. I don’t think there’s any great lesson to be learned here. People talking about how important it is for teams to remain together forget the time they spent in the wilderness with this same lineup. People talking about how age isn’t as much of a barrier in Counter-Strike didn’t watch the veteran mTw team in their return to the game. Virtus Pro are just a unique entity, not just forged by their greatness, but also by their limitations (if there were other Polish players of comparable skill levels or higher, they most likely would have tried them by now). It is why they remain such an interesting and enigmatic team, one that enriches the space. It tells you all you need to know that they completely wrecked my prediction for the season, and I don’t care one bit. Even as a neutral, seeing them hold up that trophy was great to see.
A lot of this long season’s memories will be of great failures. G2 Esports, with a roster of ridiculous talent, looked like the second-best team in the world coming into the tournament. Then they fell incredibly flat against Ninjas In Pyjamas; a team that we can now safely say is in a real slump of their own. The fact that one of their players was stricken with health problems means they came to the last chance qualifier as a shadow of themselves. Like many others, it was an incredible flop, and one that raised questions about the future of their roster.
FaZe remains a ridiculously frustrating team to watch, but I’ve always backed them. On paper, they are inarguably a team that should be troubling people making their way to the podium. Yet they don’t, and served up some embarrassing, sub-standard Counter-Strike in the Last-Chance Qualifier week, also known as “Overtime Weekend” in the ELeague studios. Struggling to beat a patched up CLG, then getting put away by a mousesports team notorious for not finishing the job was a real struggle to watch. That stands out to me as the moment I lost faith in FaZe. I’ll probably be joined by a lot of fans too.
By contrast, mousesports didn’t impress as a team, but they did get into uncharted territory, making it to the final four. It’s a great story. Due to Niko’s talents, the idea of them as a one-man army will be massively overplayed, but their AWPer Chris "chrisJ" De Jong was the next best in class, with one other player typically turning up out of the remaining three. It still remains frustrating that they never seem to be in sync, and I’ve been waiting for that to happen all year. Still, watching Nikola "Niko" Kovač cement his now unassailable position as a top-two player in the world has been a blast. His performances in ELeague, aside from that fateful semifinal, have really been something to behold.
It might seem very contrived to pay lip service to the fans, but this season showed me that outside of a few spectacular examples, like Columbus, how underserved the North American fan base has been. Every week, I talked with people who travelled from the farthest reaches of the states like Alaska or Hawaii to come and watch the best teams in the world, none of which were North American. When the American teams were in the building, fans blew the roof off, but they always remained respectful and appreciative of all teams in attendance. That was evidenced by an amazing final day in the Cobb Energy Centre.
It has been a roller coaster three months for everyone involved. I felt that stressful mix of stress and pride that I can only imagine plagues parents on a daily basis. Still, looking forward to starting it all over again in October.