This year was meant to be a pivotal transition for the almost five-year-old ESL Pro League. Staff and some 28 teams were preparing to leave for Malta; the broadcast center for the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) competition’s eleventh season. Then, the island closed its borders in response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
For ESL, transitioning to an online production wasn’t difficult. Only in 2019 were players required to be in the same room during the group stage, but now the original unified league concept is no longer viable. “In an online product, you can’t play globally. There’s certain distances that just don’t work from a latency point of view,” ESL Senior VP Product Ulrich Schulze told The Esports Observer.
Every team was in a different scenario. Complexity Gaming had players from both Europe and North America. Chinese team Tyloo had extended its stay in Europe from the Intel Extreme Masters Katowice; one of the last esports arena events to take place this year (albeit with no audience). Some teams, particularly those from South America, had to drop out entirely, but will retain a spot whenever the next LAN season plays out.
“In a few days, we just had to figure out where each team would be, what would be appropriate division size, and where would that not work out,” said Schulze.
While certain tournament operators had to introduce makeshift measures to ensure fair play, ESL has its players use ESEA, a third-party matchmaking service that includes a “fairly intrusive method of checking for cheating, on a different level than what Valve anti-cheat would do against more specialized cheating methods,” said Schulze.
Only time will tell if season 12 will also be online-only, but the pivot in plans certainly hasn’t impacted viewership negatively. Internal reports from ESL cite a new EPL viewership high of 16% compared to the previous record (the S9 finals), and an all-time English stream peak for a season match (+31%). Schulze said all these records were achieved during match-ups featuring CIS team Natus Vincere, currently sitting on the pole in HTLV’s worldwide rankings.
While a captive lockdown audience plays a big part, Schulze felt it was elevated by conversations over which of the major CS:GO leagues would offer the most to fans moving forward, and in which of these leagues teams would compete. “Obviously, it’s helped by the fact that [esports] is the only entertainment that’s going on when it comes to sports.”
ESL commercial partners have also stayed the course. While long-time event partners Mercedes-Benz and DHL had to shelve arena activations, esports is still one of the biggest drivers of engagement for these brands right now.
“From that perspective they’re happy, but the entire industry is challenged right now,” said Schulze. “We do have partners like Mercedes-Benz where production has basically come to a stand still, so that will definitely affect their budgets.”
Mercedes-Benz specifically supports ESL’s Dota 2 events. With a high learning curve even compared to other games in its genre, the strategy title isn’t as poised for gains during this pandemic, though there has been a marked uptick in viewership since publisher Valve reworked the game’s troubled matchmaking system.
In addition, because the ESL One Dota 2 Major (typically a multi-day tournament) also had to break up into multiple regions. This has provided a good testing ground for when the game’s professional circuit moves from roadshow tournaments to geographically divided leagues in 2021. “That will give us a good indicator of how to program things, what time slots work and what doesn’t. Even though it’s not great that we can’t have a live event, it gives us a good opportunity to test run the DPC.”
With the EPL S11 now concluded, next on the agenda is the Road to Rio. Originally, ESL was putting all its efforts into hosting a Major competition in May; one of two annual Valve-sanctioned CS:GO tournaments. COVID-19 meant the Rio De Janeiro spectacle was looking less likely by the day, and even short-term postponement was falling off the table.
“We had very regular calls with [Valve] to sync on what the situation was like, if it is going to develop in one direction or the other,” said Schulze. To his understanding, the publisher was originally looking at a China Major for November, which was becoming increasingly unlikely. It was decided Rio would take the November spot, and Valve ultimately combined the prize pool for both events into a $2M USD purse.
Schulze said it was a collaborative decision to host a new league-style event to determine the qualification order. How a team performs in one Major determines its starting bracket in the following event, but COVID-19 would leave a longer gap than anticipated after last year’s Berlin Major.
“After some discussion, a lot of it based on what they wanted, we created this model where we then check the skill of each of the Legends and Challengers, because it didn’t really seem a great idea to keep a slot for 14 months,” he said.
Swedish media firm Modern Times Group (MTG), the parent company of both ESL and digital events company DreamHack, has projected a 35% to 45% decline in esports revenue in the first half of 2020, owing to a lack of live events. When asked on ESL’s outlook, particularly as it pertains to long-term employee security, Schuze said whether the November Major, or even ESL One Cologne (one of the company’s biggest competitions by consumer-based revenue) will set expectations.
“For us, it’s more a question of how quickly do we get back to the old size that we have,” he said. “The one change about this is that unlike the financial crisis, the dot com bubble, this isn’t a realization that some values aren’t there. This is just a realization that we need to keep people at home so they are safe.
“Right now I don’t see certain partners walking away. But that’s all status quo. Where we are in three months makes a huge difference.”
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