On April 2, more than 10,000 people took their seats in Columbus, Ohio's Nationwide Arena to watch the Major League Gaming Counter-Strike: Global Offensive final match between European powerhouse Natus Vincere and Brazilian upstart Luminosity.
Those fans were soon out of their seats, yelling and cheering at the unfolding drama. The much fancied Na-Vi took a rapid early lead, only to be outfoxed by Luminosity's tactical nouse and brutal skill. In the end, the Brazilians took the title and the $500,000 first-place prize money, providing all the drama this contest had promised.
More than 1.5 million people watched the final online, according to MLG.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive's popularity as an esport is growing fast, fueled by highly entertaining competitive events and intense team fandom. Cash generated by the game's publisher Valve from the sale of in-game items is ploughed back to the teams and competitions in the form of prize money. Although Counter-Strike was first released 17 years ago, a new influx of sponsors, tournament organizers, betting interests and even mainstream TV is boosting the game's visibility as well as its coffers.
"I’m at my house all day, trying to get better."
Valve does not organize the contests, but it puts up some of the prize money in order to generate interest in the game. It recently increased major tournament prize pools from $250K each to $1 million each. Its revenue has been increased by the sale of in-game items and virtual, random boxes that occasionally yield rare items.
CS:GO's boosters position the game as a spectacle that can entertain massive mainstream audiences, that can challenge galactic esports success stories like League of Legends and DOTA 2. TV execs, team managers and sponsors see its simple premise — two teams of five soldiers shooting guns at one another — as more accessible and sellable to esports noobs than the esoteric top-down MOBAs that currently dominate the sector.
But CS:GO's explosive growth also comes with a price. Its players are engaged in an unforgiving regime of training, travelling and competition in order to keep their teams in the top flight.
As rival tournament organizations seek to carve out their piece of ballooning revenues, players find their days filled with the rigorous demands of pro-gaming life. While their lifestyles are seemingly glamorous and their salaries are attractive, their careers are short and their days are long. Unlike mainstream sports, esports players have no union or collective organization.
"When you're traveling to LAN after LAN, it really takes a toll on you," says Jonathan Jablonowski, a player with Team Liquid. Jablonowski says he spends about four hours a day practicing alone, and then another six hours practicing with the team. When he's not on the road, he says, "I’m at my house all day, trying to get better."
The CS:GO professional calendar is crammed with competing events and leagues, which also demand online playing sessions for qualification. Last week, Twitch partnered with FaceIt to launch a new league, the Esports Championship Series
"It consumes your whole night," says Jablonowski. "Especially if you’re playing a Faceit match, a CEVO match and an ESEA match one after another. That’s basically your whole night."
"Sometimes we travel three times a month," says Andreas "Xyp9x" Højslet, a player with Astralis. "It becomes very stressful if you also have to find time to practice, play online matches and [make time for] general life stuff such as families, girlfriends and friends. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices."Photo credit: MLG / Robert Paul
Team owners say they are caught between finding ways to mitigate the grueling schedule, making sure they are competing on a regular basis, staying in the public eye and making money. They generate revenue by winning or placing high in contests, but also through the sale of branded in-game decorations which fans attach to their weapons.
"I do think there are way too many competitions going on in CS:GO right now," says Jason Lake, owner of Complexity. "We’ve seen teams in the past that have traveled to too many events and tried to play in every global LAN. That results in a team not getting enough practice and enough rest at home.
"There’s such a rush for the Counter-Strike gold mine going on right now. Managers need to protect our players. We can’t be asking them to play in every event that comes along just because maybe they’ll make a dollar here or a dollar there. You need to keep your eye on the ball and think of the big picture."
"There are way too many tournaments."
Rod Breslau is a journalist with ESPN who has been covering esports for more than a decade. "The pro players are fatigued," he says. "There are way too many tournaments, way too many leagues. They’re having to go from one event to another event."
Former pro player and now caster Joona "natu" Leppänen says change will need to come to protect players and the sport's integrity. "What we need is structure to this whole industry," he says. "We need to be able to give these teams more room for improvement. We need to give them time to evolve their strategies. I think we need more regulation in leagues to give teams more time to practice.
"We have the majors but besides that you have leagues running all the time and smaller tournaments pretty much every single weekend of the year."
And there's more coming. At the end of 2015, Turner Broadcasting and talent agency WME/IMG announced ELeague. Like most competitions, ELeague will run livestreamed online games, but it will also broadcast televised, Friday night showdowns on TBS.
Esports were born in the streaming, social generation. But Turner believes television will create a bigger viewership and new demographics.Photo credit: MLG / Robert Paul
In March, ELeague announced the first six teams that will compete for the inaugural season's $1.2 million prize pool. When the show premieres on May 24, teams competing will include Astralis, Cloud9, Counter Logic Gaming, Mousesports, Ninjas in Pyjamas and Renegades. Other big names are likely to follow.
For the teams, accrual of fans is a major factor. CS:GO players spend a great deal of money on weapon skins. This cash drives revenue that contributes to prize pools. But fans also spend money on branded tournament skins and team badges. 50 percent of that income goes straight to the teams.
Driving viewers from watching the game to playing the game to spending money on in-game items underscores the entire CS:GO professional scene business model.
Craig Barry is in charge of the TBS project for Turner Sports. When the company decided to get into esports, he says he looked at the whole market.
"Obviously we looked at DOTA 2 and League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm, all the games in the space," says Barry. "We wanted to go with something we thought would have a strong standing in North America, a community and ecosystem that already exists, and a relatively easy point of entry for the casual fan.
"We all agreed that CS:GO was the one that was the easiest to understand, that translated to the casual audience. Quite frankly, because we’re used to a more traditional sports broadcast, it translates better to the screen for us in that regard as well.
"As you watch, you’re playing from the perspective of the quarterback, if you will. And so it lends itself to a broadcast execution. The other top-downs can get confusing when they are at the maximum peak of activity. CS:GO is a lot more controllable for the presentation, for people to be able to digest and understand it."Photo credit: MLG / Robert Paul
Counter-Strike was launched by enthusiasts in 1999 as a mod for Valve's Half-Life. One of its creators, Minh Le, says he just wanted to make a game that combined the best elements of his favorite shooting games.
"It just started out as a simple game I wanted to play with my friends," he says. "I used to play a lot of Quake and a lot of Rainbow Six. Each of those had particular features about them that I didn’t really like. I just wanted to pick and choose what I liked about each game and create my own experience."
The mod was a big success. Valve bought the rights, hired the creative team, published the game and supported it with updates. One such update was called 1.6, the name by which the original game is now known, to distinguish it from later iterations.
"The game is very simple," says Le. "The mechanics of it, the rules, they’re not overly complicated. It’s easy for a new player to get into it and pick it up."
In 2004, Valve and Electronic Arts collaborated to release a remake, based on the Source Engine. Counter-Strike Source was a success, but it had the effect of splitting the audience apart from 1.6 fans. Esports were beginning to take off, and Counter-Strike was a popular game. But some competitors enjoyed one version more than the other.
As the decade came to a close, Valve decided to launch a new Counter-Strike game that could reunite the audience. The company handed the project over to Hidden Path.
"The 1.6 group and the Source group all believed that theirs was the better version. It was like a religion to each group," recalls Hidden Path CEO Jeff Pobst. "The movement, the weapon firing patterns, the way physics worked, jumping, acceleration — they were pretty different in the two games because of the different engines.
"So we created unified systems for movement, for weapons, for jumping and physics. And then we went back in those unified systems, put in all the data to try and make it be just like 1.6. When we got that we said, 'OK, that’s pretty good. Now let’s try and make it just like Source'. We did that."
"Quite frankly, I believe that esports is about the players."
When the game first appeared, reception was muted. The game managed to please neither camp. But Valve and Hidden Path worked on improving and tweaking with a series of weekly updates, informed by test sessions with pro players.
"The Valve folks contacted pro players for Source, and the pro players for 1.6, and brought them in and said, 'Play this and tell us why you hate it'. The pros said, 'This is bad, this is bad, and this is why'. We started learning what the pro players cared about.
"The pros said to us that they were really glad we were trying to figure out a solution between 1.6 and Source. They felt like they had been at the forefront of esports, but it was suffering because of the split. While they loved their version the most, they hated the fact that there were two. They wanted there to be one. I think over time we won them over.
"We went through this really long beta period where we kept tweaking and adjusting the game for the players. I think that interaction with the community helped bring both communities together into one community."
(Valve didn’t reply to our request to comment for this story.)Photo credit: MLG / Robert Paul
In CS:GO, teams depend on individual players commanding extreme skill with their weapons of choice, while working with their teammates to win tactical advantages over opponents. Teams tend to run certain patterns, in which each player has a very specific role. Over time, tactics become predictable and obsolete. They are overtaken by new routines.
"The team dynamic coupled with the fact that it’s easy to understand, but has a very high skill ceiling, makes it the perfect esports game," says Lake.
This, and the individuals who make up the teams is something ELeague views as a significant draw for its TV experiment.
"Broadcast companies have been doing sports in a traditional way for 40 or 50 years," says Barry. "There have been new bells and whistles but for the most part we have cameras at the 50 yard line, moving left to right.
"Now we have an opportunity to create a competitive sporting event where you’re actually in the driver’s seat. That’s the beauty of CS:GO when we’re talking about a translation to broadcast or streaming. For us, when we talk about great innovation around sports broadcasting, we talk about access. We talk about getting the fan closer to the action, closer to the players. Esports, and specifically CS:GO, lends itself to that philosophy."Photo credit: MLG / Robert Paul
CS:GO is also about instant and brutal elimination. Players who get shot are out until the next round. This, the theory goes, plays well to audiences that enjoy reality TV shows, which rely on elimination as a dramatic tool.
"Quite frankly, I believe that esports is about the players, the individual players," says Barry. "Teams are important, don’t get me wrong. Events are important. But the individual player is really important. Who’s going to be the Lebron James, the Michael Jordan? Who stands above everybody else to be the best? That’s an important part of esports, and specifically CS:GO to embrace."
Tobias Sherman is an agent at WME | IMG esports. He says success comes through connecting viewers with competitors via reality-style narrative devices.
"If the biggest teams don’t go, the viewers don’t watch."
"There’s an opportunity to tell the human interest story," he says. "Instead of just focusing on what’s the next tournament, what’s the next event, let's talk about the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. How do we become better as a team? What are the trades? How does that affect people? What are the human stories behind that?"
Steve Arhancet, owner of Team Liquid, believes these stories will drive more people toward playing the game, and placing their allegiance with a team.
"CS:GO has a very deep strategy. It’s extremely complicated. But for the casual viewer, it's accessible. I think more of it has to do with the production, the shout-casting, the on-stage interviews. It’s the production quality of the tournaments, the features, the backstories, the video segments on the players, the star. That makes it really appealing from a spectator standpoint.
"It’s about the whole narrative. It’s about the experience created both digitally and in-person at events. That focus is what’s going to drive stickiness toward the game. It’s more about the production and how it’s executed than it is the actual game."
The players might not be star names now, but companies like TBS want to create big personalities who fit changing demands, who can be role models.
"The whole YouTube generation, they like to learn," says Le. "They see this experience and think, 'Hey, this is kind of interesting'. It sells the game better when they see experienced players playing the game."Photo credit: MLG / Robert Paul
So how do the players fit into this grand scheme?
Top players enjoy six-figure salaries, according to estimates given to Polygon by esports insiders. Some pro players on big teams earn more than $100,000 a year (official figures are not available). They have large social media followings, access to international travel and all the benefits of being part of a team.
But their fame is limited to the people who enjoy their particular esport. They spend a lot of time in airports and hotels. And earnings drop drastically for anyone outside the elite players.
"I get kind of frustrated when we have no time to practice."
Esports are in a constant state of uncertainty and flux. There are none of the safeguards or established organizations that have grown in the world of athletic competitive sports. Optimal training techniques, psychological development and health regimes are still being worked out, and only then, by the most far-sighted owners. In short, life for a pro-gamer is fun, but it's hard and it's precarious.
The most pressing issue for players is finding the time to practice, most especially in between regular online league and qualification matches. According to Jablonowski, competitive play is no substitute for working on techniques and strategies with teammates.
"You can practice defaulting, which is basically working picks and getting control of the map," he says. "That’s good, to work on your team chemistry and on punishing people who do stupid things. But you can’t work on any of your executes, on mistakes that you make habitually because you had no time to address them. You can’t go over new mollys. You can’t go over new smokes. It just kills your time to practice."
In CS:GO, "smokes" are screening moves making use of smoke grenades. "Mollys" are Molotov Cocktails, often used to disrupt enemy movements.Photo credit: MLG / Robert Paul
"I look at it from a team perspective, where we’re all just going to LANs and we can’t improve anything we’ve worked on. I get kind of frustrated when we have no time to practice or work on anything to get better results. It’s so frustrating when you can’t fix any of the reasons why you’re getting smashed."
Leppänen agrees that training is essential to success. CS:GO strategies are constantly being reinvented. "Teams scout each other a lot. You have to try and invent new things," he says. "It’s come to a point where teams recognize what's going on after the first couple of smoke grenades you throw. They know you’re doing this strategy or that strategy. You’re trying to bait that out of them, make them think you’re doing one thing while you’re doing another. It’s a constant battle."
All this takes time and planning, which owners, coaches and players have to fit in between tournaments.
"If our players come to us and say, 'Look, we really just don’t want to play at this event', we’re going to consider that very seriously and have a discussion about it," says Lake. "For the most part I think professional players are in agreement about the events that they would really value and prize higher than others. There are a few smaller events that the organization will discuss with the players, but it’s not wise for an organization to force players to play in events that they simply don’t want to participate in.
"We view the smaller tournaments primarily as great practice to develop the team and team chemistry. But most eyeballs are going to be on the larger tournaments. If you can do any damage and have any success at the larger tournaments, that’s primarily where your direct return on investment is going to come."
Valve's recent decision to increase prize pools in major tournaments, and the big money ELeague will put more distance between the larger and the smaller contests, offering easier choices for players and managers.
"The [team] owners made demands of the league owners," says Breslau. "The league owners have to increase their prize pools across the board for the teams. If their prize pools aren’t high enough, the teams don’t go. If the biggest teams don’t go, the viewers don’t watch. Right now the team owners, I would say, have a little bit more leverage over the leagues than before. Especially with Turner coming in."Photo credit: MLG / Robert Paul
Careers are also short. Few players are able to maintain pre-eminence outside their 20s. The lifestyle is also difficult for players who want to start families and settle down.
According to Lake, the commitment needed to invest in long hours and play many evenings in competition is a big ask. "I like to joke that a team is always one girlfriend away from disaster," he says. (The vast majority of high level pro CS:GO players are young men.) "If a young man falls in love with a young woman, his desire to spend many hours practicing his given gaming trade tends to disappear sometimes. History has proven me right with that one."
Leppänen played for more than a decade but, at 30 and with a family, he decided to move over to casting and commentating. "Generally speaking you could argue that a career at the top is something along the lines of three to five years on the average," says Leppänen. "We have some dinosaurs in the scene that have been professional and lived off gaming for a decade by now. But generally speaking they’re making six figures a year for a few years. It’s not long-term at this point."
"A lot of things could be fixed with a union."
Jablonowski was studying at a state university before he quit to go fulltime as a pro CS:GO player. It's what he wants to do. The pay is very good for a young man (he's not yet 20) and he's seeing the world. But he has no delusions about what comes next.
"I have a solid backup plan," he says, "after I’m done with my career. I think that if I work hard enough and I’m successful enough, I’ll have enough money to pay for university and be able to live comfortably while I’m attending school.
"It could all get a lot bigger in the next couple of years, with the amount of companies getting into it. But I’m not counting on it. I’m not going to bet my future on it."
If other professional sports are any indicator, it's likely that players will figure out a way to protect their interests by forming a union. But it may take time. Many players are nervous about talking openly about working conditions, pay and unionizing. Most of the players Polygon contacted for interview about their lifestyles did not reply.
When asked what he would most like to see change in esports, Højsleth says, "A proper players' union. A lot of things could be fixed with such a union and the players would have the same conditions, the same knowledge. It could fix a lot of problems that the players have with organizations, tournaments."
"I don’t really like the word 'union'," says Lake. "But I do think that players will come together and form some type of association or federation. I think that’s fantastic for them. As the entire space of esports continues to grow, we’re going to see more of that, not only for necessity, but just through the natural evolution of any young sport."
"The players are the most fucked of any people in the ecosystem now," says Breslau. "They’re the least in the know about what’s happening behind the scenes. They don’t get information from their owners. A player union has been talked about for quite a while now. It might actually come to fruition. The players being the most important part of the entire thing, because they’re the ones we all watch."
[Update: When we originally posted this story, we used images provided by Major League Gaming public relations and failed to credit photographer Robert Paul in the process. We regret the oversight.]