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Earlier this week, ESL and DreamHack—sister companies through parent Modern Times Group—announced a major Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) initiative in the ESL Pro Tour, a formalized structure that provides connective tissue between all of their collective tournaments.
With at least 20 events and more than $5M USD up for grabs when the Pro Tour starts in 2020, the companies see it as their way to better spotlight storylines in the CS:GO scene. It’s also a play to combat fragmentation across such a wide number of events and tournament operators, all fighting for the attention of top teams and fans alike. According to Michal Blicharz, ESL’s vice president of pro gaming, the rampant growth of CS:GO ultimately made this move necessary.
“In the beginning, when we had our first competitions for Counter-Strike, there were not a lot of them in the world—not just by us, but in general. It was quite easy to create an understandable narrative out of them, and the audience, for the most part, was never confused,” Blicharz told The Esports Observer. “Back in 2010, everyone in the world knew that if you won the Intel Extreme Masters finals at CeBIT, you were the number-one team in the world bar none.
“When Counter-Strike grew and became a leading esport on the planet, we obviously came out to meet the demand for Counter-Strike content and tournaments—and we’ve created tournaments and done more of them,” he continued. “They multiplied, and other people’s tournaments also multiplied, and that ultimately created a confusing and muddy narrative overall that wasn’t very friendly to people who are new to the space. That wasn’t very easy and obvious to explain in a business conversation to somebody.”
Earlier this year, ESL rolled out a brand refresh alongside a new slogan, “Where Everybody Can Be Somebody.” It’s a nod to competitive accessibility, and it’s an ethos that also comes through in the ESL Pro Tour approach: a streamlined structure that is intended to help more people understand the stakes, the story threads, and where teams stand across the entire season.
“If you place second at Intel Extreme Masters Chicago, what does that mean? Nobody could tell you except for people who really, intricately understood how the rankings and invitations work,” said Blicharz. “We had an image that was not very easy to read, and we decided to take it apart and put the pieces back together in a way that fits and creates a story and a narrative.”
From Grand Slam to Pro Tour
The Intel Grand Slam was ESL’s first attempt at creating a larger, overarching narrative across its CS:GO events. Announced last year, the promotion offered up a $1M prize to any team that won four out of 10 consecutive qualifying events, which seemed like an incredible feat. But then Astralis did it last year, and Team Liquid did it even faster earlier this year.
Revised rules for the third Intel Grand Slam season made the task more challenging for teams, but also made the whole premise more difficult to succinctly explain. Discussing the recent evolution of the promotion, Blicharz said, “I’ve described it as clearly as I can, and it’s already confusing. We didn’t have the vocabulary to properly tell a story.” The Grand Slam now seems like a stepping stone towards ESL’s more ambitious format approach with the Pro Tour, but it will live on—now with a slightly easier description in tow.
“We recognized more than two years ago that what we have had potential to be larger than the sum of its parts, and the first step of the manifestation of that notion was the Intel Grand Slam,” said Blicharz. “This is inarguably the second step, and hopefully it will work as intended and create a stronger narrative for both fans and business partners who want to be involved in the industry with Counter-Strike. It will make for much clearer and more exciting stories. If you know exactly what’s on the line, then you know exactly how excited you should be.”
Although connected by a parent company, ESL and DreamHack typically function independently and run separate events. The Intel Grand Slam was a first step towards aligning some of their efforts, and this year’s ESL Mobile Open furthered that notion. In building the ESL Pro Tour, the companies made an even stronger effort to maximize their collective resources.
“We are, for all intents and purposes, two autonomous companies that produce events autonomously from each other. We don’t really share resources,” Blicharz said. “We had to learn how to share that simple, yet compelling story of the Intel Grand Slam, and that worked very well. At some point, around six-to-eight months ago, we were in a room to think about how to optimize what we have and make the most of our respective portfolios. We noticed that in order to create a complete ecosystem, a complete pyramid, ideally we would combine the two.”
In addition to the two annual DreamHack Masters tournaments, the company also runs five DreamHack Open events. Blicharz called that a key component of the ecosystem and crucial to the ongoing appeal of competitive CS:GO, as “they are incubators for future superstars.” Ultimately, he said that the pairing of ESL and DreamHack was very complementary in terms of creating a larger structure between them: “It was like two puzzle pieces that fit very neatly together, and the effect is really what I would call a very wholesome story.”
Some questions remain about the ESL Pro Tour, however. ESL will announce further details about the structure at ESL One New York on Sept. 28, but a report from Dexerto this week drew concern within the CS:GO competitive community.
The report claimed that the ESL Pro League within the Pro Tour would have exclusivity rules that would prevent teams from competing in other leagues based on certain criteria—and that such stipulations would, for example, keep teams from competing in both the Pro League and FACEIT’s Esports Championship Series (ECS). Dexerto quoted what it said was an ESL Pro League term sheet that was provided by a source, and also claimed that sources indicated that at least two teams with Pro League spots have yet to agree to the stipulations.
“What was quoted is definitely 100% not a rulebook for the ESL Pro Tour, and not even a rulebook for the Pro League,” said Blicharz, when asked to comment on Dexerto’s report. “It’s an entirely different document that is not forcing restrictions on any teams that don’t choose to abide by those restrictions. None of what was quoted will apply globally to all teams that wish to participate.”
Asked if the Counter-Strike Professional Players’ Association was consulted on the creation of the ESL Pro Tour, Blicharz declined to specify who the company had spoken to about it. “We habitually—especially me with Intel Extreme Masters in the past—communicate with all stakeholders and seek guidance and advice from relevant stakeholders,” he said.
It’s clear that there’s still a fair bit of nuance to be communicated about the various rules and mechanics within the ESL Pro Tour. For example, Blicharz said that there will be additional opportunities for teams to participate in Masters-level Pro Tour events even if they haven’t played at all of the big events. He didn’t go into detail about how that approach works, but suggested that it was designed to allow access for teams that had been off playing other organizers’ events, or for teams that had rapidly risen to an elite level and hadn’t been able to accumulate points all year.
“The door isn’t shut to teams that maybe participate less in it than others. There are mechanics in there specifically designed, first of all, to elevate teams to the Masters level, which is difficult,” he said. “Maybe they just showed up to this world-class level two months ago, so they didn’t have time to accrue as many points as others. Maybe they were playing in an Asian league that took three months to complete, or maybe they were playing someone else’s tournaments that don’t count towards the ESL Pro Tour. Whatever the reason might be, the ESL Pro Tour isn’t locked to you. There are still going to be avenues to enter.
“From that point of view, we didn’t try to create a world where teams feel—pardon my French—’Holy shit, we can’t make it if we don’t go to every single event,’” he continued. “They can, but it will be easier if you collect tour points. That’s how any world tour ranking would work.”
Super-Sized for Sponsors
Blicharz also believes that the ESL Pro Tour is collectively a much more attractive package to potential sponsors. Current sponsors’ deals for individual events will still be honored as-is, he said, but now the Pro Tour presents a much larger opportunity to feature partners on a long-term and recurring basis.
“When it comes to formalizing the portfolio of the collection of what we have, it now represents a very attractive, very significant, interesting, and strong offering for a brand partner,” he said. “It represents around 20 leagues and competitions that are among some of the most prestigious in the world, which is obviously enough content to populate streaming platform airwaves throughout the entire year.
“As the market matures, we are engaging in more and more conversation with new partners that are not endemic in this space and actually have the means to be extremely ambitious,” he added, “This is an offering that meets that demand.”
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