When the NBA and the NHL suspended their seasons in mid-March, sports organizations and fans around the world took notice. In esports -- where top executives often have relationships with current or former sports league team owners -- the pen drop reverberated too and soon the question became how esports would continue in the midst of a growing global pandemic.
For some companies, the answer to that question was easier than others. Riot Games own League of Legends and run the esports leagues in that title, and Activision Blizzard's Overwatch and Call of Duty leagues are also in house. But in Counter-Strike, whose competitive landscape is composed of multiple tournament organizers and very little conjoining factors, each organizer has been presented with finding answers to those questions on their own.
This week marks the third consecutive week of major online Counter-Strike tournaments, starting with DreamHack Masters, which ended the weekend of June 13-14; then BLAST Premier Spring that concluded this past weekend; and now, the cs_summit, an event that normally brings top teams together in a gaming house in Los Angeles, but will now remain completely online.
The first set of online Counter-Strike events were fairly simple -- teams would remain at home, while a skeleton crew of producers, commentators and analysts would broadcast live from a studio to stay within regulations around TV production in COVID-19 hotspots. Observers for the event would be cut down and player cameras were removed all together. This was the case with ESL Pro League and Flashpoint, whose seasons began right before COVID-19 hit a serious uptick in the curve of infections in the Western world.
But now, as time has gone on and the virus has begun to subside in certain parts of the world, organizers are looking to bolster the experience.
This weekend with BLAST, the tournament organizer took in more than 500 video feeds, including player cameras beamed from home or practice facilities in Europe and the U.S., an observer feed from Los Angeles and commentator cameras from various parts of the world. A crew of 40 to 50 people in Copenhagen, Denmark, spread across a studio and a production truck -- something relatively unheard of in the U.S. right now, but plausible due to a lower case rate in Denmark -- managed those feeds and composed them into a single, uniform broadcast.
"What lived in the Copenhagen production, with those two capacities, one analyst, one caster, then full in-game production, we had a television truck, full television production and then we just managed a tsunami of video feeds from all over the world," BLAST head of product Nicolas Estrup told ESPN.
Of the broadcast talent working BLAST, two were able to anchor the studio: Danish caster Anders Blume and Swiss analyst Mathieu "Maniac" Quiquerez. But Anders and Maniac do not cast together frequently; instead, Anders casts with American commentator Jason "moses" O'Toole, who remained home in America. Anders and moses would cast remotely, with the Atlantic Ocean separating the two of them, and use a video feed of one another to try and figure out the timing.
"Anders in the production actually had a side screen next to him just showing moses the entire time, so that he knew, when they were casting when he was about to end a sentence, you do that with your body when you're talking," Estrup said. "That made it somewhat easier to manage. It was more of that actually, figuring out 'how do we create a normal conversation when people can't turn and look at each other?'"
That last question is something all production companies creating remote broadcasts have struggled with, and while hiccups were noticeable in the BLAST production, they were fairly minor.
"All in all, very happy with the output, right," Estrup said. "We had the fortunate situation of not having an event immediately at the beginning of the whole COVID situation, so it bought us some time to see what could be done, see what others did in the space and try to figure out where and how we can try to push some boundaries and raise the bar for what's possible."
One of BLAST's biggest faults -- one that drew ire from the community and many of their industry colleagues -- was a stoppage, followed by a player-voted replay of a round in a match between FURIA and MIBR.
Oftentimes an admin would make a hard call as to how the match should proceed, and given the technical issue laid on the side of MIBR, then they should've lost the round. But the admin called for the opinion of the players and FURIA agreed they'd replay it (they ultimately won the match anyway). Estrup acknowledged that they didn't want to have players take to social media to criticize the tournament, but that he believes that the rule was applied correctly.
"Mihail, an admin we've used many a time -- he works with ESL and others also -- actually did an interesting thread on Twitter about it afterwards, because that rule, especially in an online setting is very difficult to manage," Estrup said. "You're dealing with so many different variables of how that rule can be applied, but what isn't a variable is that it falls back into the integrity of the admin team on that day. I think they made the right decision with the information they had."
With that match, allegations of direct denial-of-service attacks against the MIBR gaming house arose online; Estrup said, to his knowledge, he's not seen any proof of such at this time, but that managing that match and others -- where FURIA played on the East Coast of the U.S. and most other teams live on the West Coast -- certainly presented interesting challenges. Nonetheless, BLAST managed and producers remained in Copenhagen into the late hours of the night to produce the event.
The other conversation around online play centers on integrity. On Monday players and staff from MIBR accused a player on Chaos Esports Club of aimbotting -- using a computer program to correct their aim and view through walls -- during the cs_summit event, in what turned into a nasty episode between staff of both teams and various other community figures. At the core of anti-cheat is ESEA and FACEIT, the two online tournament organizing platforms used in most major Counter-Strike events.
"We feel really, really confident in the technology that we've built up," ESL global chief strategy officer Craig Levine said. Levine is a founder of ESEA, which was acquired by ESL after he departed that company. "This isn't some off-the-shelf stuff. This is stuff we've built up with proprietary expertise on and I think is widely accepted in the Counter-Strike community as the most effective anti-cheat tool."
In many ways, Counter-Strike feels like it has returned to its roots. Before offline events in massive arenas in the U.S., Russia, Germany and other countries took place, Counter-Strike's events took place online. Even Pro League started online once upon a time, too. Estrup said he's curious what the new normal will look like, having successfully run two Counter-Strike events and another in DOTA with BLAST.
"Back to the narrative point, could we be back to a situation where we have more online happening but in a way where we get some of those LAN feelings into it, so it can be taken more seriously in a sense?" he said. "It's not been looked on as truly competitive, truly serious and having too many random outcomes. If we can get to a point where we don't have that, then I think it's both interesting for aspiring TOs, so they don't have to look at huge costs -- having everyone fly in and such and the more it grows, the more expensive it will be because of people on the content side, team side, etc.
"Just for the prosperity of the ecosystem as well, I think it would be good to have more online play. I'm very curious what the new normal [will be]."