New year, new me. Chances are if you have any kind of social media profile you will have seen somebody post some kind of status with a similar phrase. Promising that 2016 will be the year that he or she will eat healthier, go to the gym, follow their dreams or some other kind of wishful thinking that is sure to fizzle out before too long.
It’s become something of a common cliche to say that every year is the year eSports will go mainstream, when in reality most scenes will continue to grow at a steady clip – prize pools may get slightly larger, and viewing figures will undoubtedly increase, but perhaps no more so than in 2015 or 2014. That is, except, for one eSport. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is primed to have its biggest year yet, and the one that will finally cement its place as one of the biggest eSports in the world.
Over the last couple of years Counter-Strike has grown at a fairly consistent pace. Since Valve introduced the majors, where the publisher offered up a $250,000 prize pool multiple times a year, other events have slowly increased their offerings, with tournaments going from mostly five figure pay outs to consistent six figure sums. Last year a handful of tournaments started to match the prize pools of the majors, but only the ESL ESEA Pro League managed to top it, and even that was spread across different events. However in 2016 we already have three events confirmed to have a $250,000 prize pool, one with substantially more, and earlier this week Dreamhack announced it will be giving away over $1,000,000 in CS:GO prize money this year – all that and we are less than a fortnight into 2016.
One of the biggest $250,000 tournaments that has already been confirmed is the first major of the year, MLG Columbus, which appears to be going ahead as planned despite the recent sale (and possible shuttering in its current form) of MLG to Activision. MLG Columbus will be one of the most important Majors in a while, as it is the first one to take place in North America. 2015 was a decent year for American CS, with Cloud 9 and Team Liquid both placing highly in some international events. Their success helped boost viewing figures and Counter-Strike’s general popularity in the US, but MLG Columbus will be the ultimate test to see just how popular it has become.
The time difference means that Europeans will either have to stay up until the early hours to see some games or miss out, which could mean that viewing figures are the lowest for a major in some time. However the much more likely scenario is that thanks to the large amount of new CS fans in the US, the viewing figures will again break records and CS:GO will comfortably sit atop of Twitch for the entire event. The MLG sale to Valve’s competitor Activision may mean that MLG will never get another major but a successful event should pave the way for more majors in the US and continue to grow Counter-Strike’s popularity in the States.
A few weeks before MLG Columbus is the Intel Extreme Masters Season X World Championship in Katowice, Poland. Despite not being a Valve supported major there is still a $250,000 prize pool on offer, and all of the top teams are expected to be taking part. Sure, another $250,000 tournament is certainly nice to have, but the thing that makes IEM special is the fact that this is the first season where CS:GO has been a part of the Intel Extreme Masters Circuit, which for the last few years has focused on League of Legends and StarCraft II.
So far CS:GO has performed well at the IEM Gamescom and San Jose events, but the World Championship will be the real test to see if Counter-Strike can perform as well as the other games on the IEM roster. The Intel Extreme Masters will never be the premier event in any eSport (and certainly not one that crowdfunds its world championship prize pool each year), but a constant spot on its roster of games will massively help boost CS:GO’s popularity, thanks to the big names and organisations attached to the circuit.
There is however, one tournament in 2016 that could quite possibly be the most important event in Counter-Strike history. ELEAGUE is the long rumoured collaboration between US media giants Turner and WME | IMG, and has a promised prize pool of $1.2 million, which is believed to be on offer for each of the two announced seasons and not split across both. Taking the form of two 10 week seasons ELEAGUE is set to be broadcast on TBS every Friday night. The competition will be played at the Turner Studios in Atlanta, which will allow for a presentation similar to that of the NFL and NBA.
ELEAGUE is important for two main reasons. The first and perhaps most obvious is the massive prize pool. If $1.2 million is up for grabs during each season then that is by far the largest CS:GO prize pool ever, and even if it is split across both it is up there with the likes of the ESL ESEA Pro League. More money ultimately leads to more exposure and more viewers, which in turn will grow into more money.
However arguably the most important thing about ELEAGUE is its weekly television broadcasts. Having CS shown on TBS every Friday night will be a huge boost, not only to Counter-Strike, but eSports in general. ESPN have dabbled in eSports before but never on a regular schedule like this. Having a regular broadcast that viewers are likely to see on a recurring basis, during one of the most popular times of the week, will bring in an unimaginable amount of new fans. If ELEAGUE goes as planned, its massive TV audience could cement CS:GO as the biggest eSport in the world in terms of viewing figures by the end of the year.
There is of course no guarantee that all of this will go as we expect. The MLG major could see the lowest viewing figures for a major ever, CS:GO could be dwarfed by the other games at the IEM World Championship and ELEAGUE could be a complete failure. However the much more likely outcome is that each event sees Counter-Strike grow even more to the point where it sits alongside the two major MOBAs in terms of prize pool and viewership figures. All that we can say for sure is that 2016 is the most exciting year for CS:GO yet, and with it should come some incredible action to watch.