Whilst not as unendingly popular as the likes of League of Legends and DOTA 2, Counter Strike: Global Offensive has amassed a dedicated following which is continually gathering steam. There’s something more immediately comprehensible about first-person shooting than the esotericism of hero-based MOBAs. There are terrorists, there are counter-terrorists, there is a bomb, there is gunfire – that’s it.
Existential Gamer tested the waters of CS:GO as a live esport at the ESL Pro League finals, where G2 Esports faced off against Luminosity Gaming in a tense five-set standoff. During one of the brief reprieves we took the time to talk to Lauren ‘Pansy’ Scott, a Counter Strike caster, about the the growth of the scene, corruption, and how she keeps her viewers engaged.
Existential Gamer: CS:GO is fairly unique in esports in that its individual rounds are exceedingly short, sometimes sub-two minutes. How hard is it to provide a consistent narrative arc for your audience?
Pansy: As a commentator it’s about building an overarching story. Counter Strike has such a hard arc to follow compared to League of Legends for example, which has an ebb and flow that’s consistent; you get the crescendos with the team fights and then you then get troughs when the fight resets. It’s quite a defined pattern. Whereas in CS the rounds start and finish quickly, it’s up and down constantly. One minute you could have nothing happening and then next thing you know someone hits a ridiculous skillshot and you’re at 100. That never happens in League, nothing like that can ever happen really. It’s a ridiculous challenge but as I said it’s about creating a story. The economic aspects help with that: you can say ‘this team is gonna be totally broke after this round’ or ‘another team is doing well and has tonnes of equipment.’
“When people were incredible at Quake it blew my mind – it was inspiring.”
EG: As we speak Luminosity Gaming is completely trouncing G2 Esports . How do you keep things interesting when one team is steamrolling another?
P: Sometimes you are sat there going: ‘I know it’s going to be a stomp, I’m in here for the long haul, but just take it for what it is.’ You don’t have to lie to the audience, they know as much as we do, they’re not dumb. If it’s going to be a whitewash then it’s going to be a whitewash. It’s also worth remembering that it can always turn around. Even though this is currently seven to one in favour of LG on the counter-terrorist side of the Train map, G2’s counter-terrorist side is very, very good. If they get enough rounds that they can survive the pistols, so that’s three rounds, they could do something here. Four rounds and they’re set.
EG: You say that your audience knows as much as you do which rings true with me. From what I’ve seen the CS:GO community is smaller, but very well informed. Is that challenging for you?
P: It’s brilliant on one hand and terrifying on the other. On one hand I can have ridiculously in-depth discussions about terrorist side setups and how the counter-terrorist aggression meta is faring at the moment and people in the audience will get it. On the other hand, if I say something wrong when I’m tired and had two hours sleep then they say, ‘How on Earth didn’t you know that Lauren?’ Then I know I’ve upset the masses and they’ve got the pitchforks out. But it’s awesome to cast for a very passionate community because it feels like they’re as excited as I am. I can’t really complain even if the pitchforks do come out occasionally.
“As a commentator it’s about building an overarching story.”
EG: That community is bound to grow, but as it does, do you not think it would be good to go easy on the acronyms and technical talk? Esotericism is what makes esports alienating for many.
P: It is a hard balance to strike and I think that’s why generally casting-wise we like to stick to player-by-player analysis. Though when I cast with Moses or Henry G they bring a lot of the depth and experience and a higher end knowledge that only a small niche can appreciate, but eventually people grow to like it more. They learn more and that’s a great experience for them. Personally, I have to consider how to talk to people outside of that bracket as well, and make sure that more informed audience members are catered for at the same time as the new guy it. Player-by-player on its own is just fluffy and boring. Same goes for the analysts’ desk, which without the high-level stuff gets very dull. Combine the two you get a nice balance and appeal to most people.
EG: Today saw the announcement of WESA, an esports governing body which is focusing exclusively on CS:GO at the moment. What do you make of it?
P: As a concept I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all. The teams are flying from event to event that clash with one another – it’s relentless. If this organization will look after them and put them in a good position then that’s fantastic. I’m not a WESA expert because when the announcement happened I was already doing rehearsals [for the ESL CS:GO finals] but if it has good intentions, then I think it can do well. I hope it doesn’t exclude people though.
EG: It seems that WESA also sees itself as an answer to the problem of corruption, which we’ve seen a fair amount of recently. Just look at Life in StarCraft II.
P: I wouldn’t say esports has ‘gotten away with it’, but because it was such a niche industry, even going back just a couple of years, it has taken time for corruption to come to the fore. Also the top tier audience and player base is generally young men who don’t know where they stand or how to conduct themselves professionally. Is getting twenty percent of the prize pool good for instance? Many don’t know. Do you just go up to someone and just ask? Hopefully WESA will remove that element for a lot of people. It’s such a passionate place to work and a brilliant environment that I’d hate it to be tarred or destroyed by corruption. We’ve got to remember that these are young players and sometimes they don’t always know what’s best for themselves. I hope that they get advice that will help them.
“You don’t have to lie to the audience, they know as much as we do, they’re not dumb.”
EG: In this ESL CS:GO tournament have you seen a particular team or player go on a journey that’s inspired you?
P: For me the story that’s been great to see is the rebuilding of Ninjas in Pyjamas. When I started casting CS:GO they were one of the teams that would be really open about discussing things and very inclusive. They helped me to get to know the scene from their perspective. Friberg was always incredibly kind and you could always have a discussion with Get Right as well. It’s hard not to like them! Strangely enough the community thought at one point that I was biased against them. I was like, ‘If that comes across that way then it means that I’m doing my job well at least.’
I’ve loved watching them even though I think they made a disappointing showing at the final stages of this tournament. But seeing them go from a team on their last legs to being rejuvenated has been beautiful from start to finish.
EG: Tell me why CS:GO is a formidable esport. Most readers might have seen pro-League or StarCraft, but where’s the magic here?
P: Hmm, that’s actually quite a hard question. Originally I played games like Quake and Enemy Territory – I played very hardcore FPS shooters. I loved the punishing mechanics of those games and I think that a lot of the developers of AAA titles these days have become a little nervous of raising the skill ceiling like that. Generally they try to keep it easier and focus on other features like kill streaks or whatever, which make it very fun, but they don’t encourage the hardcore elements which make some of the original FPS games so beautiful. When people were incredible at Quake it blew my mind – it was inspiring. I get that feeling watching CS:GO as well, especially when a player has worked incredibly hard to get there by putting in hours and the game allows him to do something incredible. Everyone in the audience feels it as well because when you play this game, you’re playing the same game as the pros.
EG: Following on from what you mention there, there seems to be two kinds of development these days: fluffy and fun, or challenging and esports-centric. Isn’t that kind of schism bad for gamers?
P: I technically don’t work in the ‘games industry’ so I don’t work with developers that much. My perspective is informed by esports and my experience as a hardcore gamer. The fact of the matter is that when publishers see something like League of Legends, which has breached those boundaries so perfectly by appealing to the masses, they say, ‘We have to make this appealing to the lowest common denominator’. These games often hold your hand for a long while and sadly that does slightly dilute the FPS market because they’re scared. If you throw a new player into a pool of people who’ve played CS:GO for a while, even just for three months, then that’s a really punishing experience. What’s important is not cutting the limbs off your player base; let them have the opportunity to experience that high skill ceiling and don’t alienate the grassroots players by not letting them access your game even though it’s very punishing.
It’s a hard thing to master, and I don’t think anyone’s done it perfectly yet – everyone’s still trying to find the right balance.