Esports News

Luci Kelemen
Written By: Luci Kelemen

Telling tales of esports, one word at a time, six years and counting

October 15th, 2023

It’s been four long years since the last time the CS circus went down under, and it’s a testament to how special the show is in Sydney that fans were universally praising its long-awaited return. A lot has changed since 2019 – for goodness’ sake, we’ve got an entirely new version of Counter-Strike to play on – but the staying power of the “Sydney brand,” so to speak, shows that it’s possible to create something special even in a straitjacketed circuit. Here’s how they did it.

Counter-Strike tournaments: spaced repetition

There have been many criticisms leveled at ESL over the past few years, and one of the standouts is the sameyness of their tournaments – especially during the pandemic times. For what it’s worth, it isn’t easy to differentiate between globetrotting venues when the core gameplay looks the same inside the servers no matter where you take it in the world, but the standout successes show that more can be done to establish an individual identity for each tournament.

It’s mainly because of convenience that I will focus on the Intel Grand Slam calendar and ESL’s offerings, especially as it’s IEM Sydney we’re hyping up here, but a quick word about BLAST won’t hurt. On a baseline, their setup is more appealing than ESL’s, but it’s mind-numbingly samey across their events. With the repetitive format and the poor naming convention, and the near-completely closed nature of their circuit (thank goodness that will end soon enough), it’s no surprise their tournaments tend to blend together. Then again, seeing what they cobbled together for the Major, maybe it’s better if they don’t experiment with different aesthetics.

Meanwhile, looking at the Intel Grand Slam calendar, only three events have a claim for a real sort of identity: Cologne, Katowice, and Sydney. The first two boast a stable and returning venue, and they were no doubt helped by their Major designations in the past (back-to-back ones for Cologne, no less).  The current iteration of the Pro League, with its high-budget, summit_cs-evoking style, is perhaps also worth a shout, though it’s way too new to confirm its staying power.

Then there’s IEM Sydney, the exception to all the rules.

IEM Sydney 2023: a special tournament

Not many events would survive in terms of interest and identity after a four-year hiatus. Yet, you think “IEM Sydney,” and you know what you can expect. Even with a venue change, even with the passing of all that time, the emergence of CS2, the event has a tangible identity.

IEM Sydney 2023: Schedule, Format, Teams

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to interview Machine, and while this part of the discussion didn’t make the final cut, it still resonates with me. In his mind, both a diverse split crowd and the purists of a LANXESS or a Spodek can make for a great experience, but like myself, he also expressed a partiality towards the former, saying this:

“As a commentator, from my ivory tower, as someone who’s trying to deliver on top of their product—the game, the stage, the stream, the crowd, the plays—I can appreciate when all of the layers are on their best form.”

The Sydney crowd does exactly that, but while simultaneously taking the piss out of themselves, which makes for an incredible end result. From shooeys to chants of “Henry’s a wanker,” all of it in good fun, you won’t find anything like that elsewhere on the planet.

For goodness’ sake, they even manage to make the showmatch special, a recurring storyline of The Caches and the clash of SPUNJ and HenryG (who gleefully and effectively plays the role of a heel), a level of organic identity that you won’t find anywhere else. No wonder they’re already hard at work setting up the foundations for the next iteration with some WWE-level social media posts.

Ultimately, every tournament hall is a cavernous area of metal and concrete, and it’s the people who fill it up that make them special. Even the Rio Major, flawed as it was, turned out to be quite memorable because of the crowd. It’s not something I’d want to experience again for a high-stakes tournament, but the memories are certainly seared into my mind.

Of course, there are further things a tournament organizer could do to make their event more special – it’s just that they rarely do so in the Counter-Strike space.

How else could a Counter-Strike tournament stand out?

Changing the format in small or big ways would be an easy way to create a special tournament. Interestingly, it’s rare to see CS matches in the competitive scene that eschew the standard competitive formula, but there could be many avenues to explore. MR12 is now forced upon us, for instance. I always liked the idea of designated home maps that can’t get banned, perhaps with additional color elements to reinforce the fact that it truly belongs to a certain team.

Weapon restrictions, a different kind of bracket: the sky’s the limit. Way back when, StarSeries’ events offered a full best-of-three Swiss group stage format, and it was seen as a truer test of skill than some other contemporary tournaments – it would be great to see more variation in this regard.

You could also do a lot more in the graphics and visual department to establish an event’s distinct identity. This makes me think of Dota esports and the flamboyant augmented reality tools, the really out-there aesthetics they are willing to chase for the occasional tournament.

Incidentally, it’s perhaps an interesting contrast that Valve scuttled the DPC with the explicit reasoning that it homogenized the competitive scene, hoping to return to the “beautiful unregulated insanity” of the pre-2017 era.

Perhaps, one day, we could see something like this in the world of Counter-Strike, too. These ideas are all for the future. For the present, it’s time for some shooeys and a bit good old-fashioned fun.