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The rise, fall, and rise again of Chinese Counter-Strike

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The rise, fall, and rise again of Chinese Counter-Strike

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is a game dominated by the West. Of the 10 Majors that have taken place so far, eight have been won by Europeans, while two crowned South American champions.

Meanwhile, Asia, a region that has historically dominated much of the esports space, hasn’t been able to qualify for a single one.

Much of this could be blamed on Asia’s smaller CS:GO player base, and by extension talent pool.

“The biggest problem for the competitive scene in China right now is the lack of young talent,” TyLoo International Executive Chang “Marshall” Luo said in an interview with theScore esports. “Because there is no crisis of losing their job, the current professional players lack motivation.

“So if we can grow the player base, more young players who are eager to prove themselves join the scene, they also give pressure to the old players. That’s the way the competitive scene grows.”

In years past, before the Major system and the latest iteration of CS, Asian teams competed among Counter-Strike’s upper echelon. But with the lack of an official CS:GO release in China and a historically fractured competitive scene, the region’s progression has been stifled and stunted.

With an official Chinese release of CS:GO from Perfect World already in beta and set to drop soon, China is primed to make up for lost time. And any success in China will surely send influential ripples throughout Asia.

Counter-Strike’s fractured communities

CS fans in the West should by now be familiar with the competitive scene and how it developed in EU and NA, from a Half-Life mod developed by two people to one of the most-watched esports ever. But China’s history with the game was slightly different, to the detriment of their professional scene.

Competitive CS largely started in 2000 and it remained stable until 2004, with the release of the game’s sequel Counter-Strike: Source. It was at this point that the CS community at large split in two, with some jumping ship to Source, while the majority stayed with 1.6.

While the 1.6 scene was dominated by Europe, there were still a handful of American and Asian teams that were competitive at a high level. For Asia, teams like wNv and TyLoo from China and Hacker.Project (later e-STRO, WeMade FOX and project_kr) from South Korea, could go toe-to-toe with the likes of Fnatic, SK Gaming and mousesports, even winning some events over them.

“CS was super popular in China 15 years ago, it was like StarCraft in Korea, I should say,” Marshall said. “If you say the word ‘CS,’ almost everyone in China knows it is a shooting game.”

2012 saw the release of CS:GO, which, despite its own flaws, served to eventually unite the 1.6 and Source communities.

RELATED: Semmler on his first impression of CS:GO: ‘I thought it was a pile of shit’

However, this was not the case in China. With no official release of CS:GO, the closest official matchmaking server for Chinese players was Singapore, which offered at best a 150-200 latency connection — too slow for even casual play. This made the only viable servers in China third-party ones, giving way to only a small, dedicated community.

To muddy the competitive waters even further, Asian tournament organizers switched over to hosting events on Counter-Strike Online (CSO) around this time.

Asia’s alternate zombie timeline

Counter-Strike Online was released in 2008, a joint venture between Valve and Korea-based Nexon. It was free-to-play and a more casual version of CS 1.6 aimed at the Asian markets, featuring more guns, playable characters and an emphasis on its zombie gameplay modes. The game has also recently been updated with an Attack on Titan game mode, based on the popular anime.

The game’s focus on more casual play attracted much of Asia’s CS player base. At the same time it retained a much stricter competitive mode for tournament usage. While it was essentially CS 1.6 with additional bells and whistles, CSO had some “official support,” which may have been why Asian tournament organizers flocked to it.

Because of the release of CS:GO and Asia’s transition to CSO, 2012 ended up being one of the most disjointed years for competitive CS globally. We saw multiple tournaments for four different iterations of the game (1.6, Online, Source and GO) in one year.

In 2013, the West fully switched to CS:GO, while Asia straddled both CS:GO and CSO. To make matters worse, this was also the year that CSO’s sequel was released, Counter-Strike Online 2 (CSO2). The game further emphasized CSO’s more casual gameplay and ended up splitting Asia’s general CS player base even further.

All this doesn’t even take into account how that player base was affected by CrossFire. That game has dominated the Asian market since its release in 2008 and its casual gameplay and popularity is partly what sparked the creation of CSO. CF also continues to be the most played FPS in the world to this day.

Valve introduced its official tournament circuit, dubbed the Majors, towards the end of 2013 and CS:GO esports grew at an explosive rate, a fact not lost on Chinese players and organizations.

Near the end of 2014, top Chinese team TyLoo fully switched over to CS:GO from CSO, closely following the conclusion of the Counter-Strike Online World Championship 2014. Many of the other top Asian pros followed suit over the next year, with 2016’s iteration of the CSO World Champion featuring virtually no notable names from Asian CS.

The (slow) rise of China

Asia’s competitive scene finally transitioned to CS:GO, but two to three years after everyone else.

This late entry into CS:GO, along with Asia’s fractured casual player base, is a major reason why the region has been struggling to compete on an international level. TyLoo were the first big Chinese team to fully transition, so it’s no surprise that they’re one of the first to really make an impact on the global CS:GO scene.

TyLoo made their international debut at DreamHack Masters Malmö 2016, more than a year after they fully transitioned to CS:GO. At that event TyLoo shocked the CS:GO world by eliminating Luminosity Gaming (currently SK Gaming) not long after the Brazilian team’s victory at MLG Major Championship: Columbus.

Malmö was a watershed moment for Chinese CS:GO and it likely caused a surge of interest in China.

The number of Chinese CS:GO players before Malmö is not definitively known, but HLTV.org user Joooooni took a look at CS:GO’s player population on June 5, 2016, which was about two months after the Malmö event. According to his numbers from Steam Spy, a website which aggregates data from Steam, about 215,100 people were playing CS:GO in China within a two-week window prior to June 5, making up 2.39 percent of the total player count globally.

It’s a modest count, and one that was already higher than that of notable CS:GO countries like Denmark (which had a player count of approximately 133,200 at the time) and Ukraine (183,600). However, while Denmark and Ukraine’s CS:GO population makes up about 2.38 and 0.4 percent of those countries’ populations respectively, China’s CS:GO population only accounted for 0.02 percent of its 1.3 billion people.

Today, that’s starting to change.

TyLoo continue to be a force to be reckoned with, recently advancing to the offline qualifier for the upcoming Krakow Major 2017. Not far behind them are long-time rivals ViCi Gaming, and a new challenger has surfaced in the form of Flash Gaming, which features some former TyLoo players.

Many other teams are on the rise from the region as well, such as UYA and NEW4, and we’ve seen investment from recognizable organizations such as LGD-Gaming, EDward Gaming and EHOME, while Invictus Gaming just announced that they signed their own squad.

We’ve also already seen foreign interest in the scene, with Swedish giants Fnatic partnering with Chinese agency B.O.O.T to build their brand in China. B.O.O.T’s CS:GO squad is currently coached by former Fnatic 1.6 legend Harley “dsn” Örwall and Fnatic’s chief gaming officer Patrik “cArn” Sattermon has even expressed interest in acquiring a Chinese team of their own in the future.

“Over time, it may be possible to activate local sponsors that might want to grow as a brand in the world utilizing esports and Fnatic in that effort,” cArn told theScore esports. “A few years ahead, it might also be interesting for us to create local teams if we feel that is relevant. Today we have a fairly diverse strategy when it comes to esports.”

RELATED: cArn on Fnatic’s interest in China: ‘The next generation of esports stars will also pop up in China? Yes, I do believe so’

We’ve also seen growth in terms of tournaments, with multiple $100,000+ prize pool events hosted in China so far. SL i-League, which is a joint venture between two tournament organizers, Russia’s StarLadder and China’s i-League, has been the main avenue for the top Asian teams to compete against the world’s best.

And finally the World Electronic Sports Games 2016, hosted by Alisports (the sports subsidiary of the multi-billion dollar corporation Alibaba), featured the highest prize pool for a CS:GO event ever, at $1.5 million — $500,00 more than Valve’s Major events.

The growth of competitive CS:GO in China has come from all angles, but the key to the scene’s potential still lies within its general player base, talent pool and spectator base.

Back on June 5, 2016 there were about 215,100 players from China. But exactly a year after that, China’s CS:GO player base had nearly tripled to about 603,717 players.

And according to Steam Spy’s creator, Sergey Galyonkin, Steam Spy doesn’t account for the players currently in the beta for Perfect World’s CS:GO. This means that China’s CS:GO player base is even larger than we currently know.

China’s perfect CS world

The biggest improvement that an official release of CS:GO will bring to China is accessibility. There’s a clear interest in CS:GO from China, but previously, players either had to deal with bad ping, use third-party services or set up a VPN or proxy. That, and you’d also have to actually purchase the game. None of those options sound particularly daunting on paper, but when Chinese players are used to the free, plug-and-play accessibility of games like Crossfire or CSO, those extra steps turn into big hurdles for the general populace.

These tedious workarounds are no longer necessary with the Perfect World release, but there is perhaps one new barrier for Asian market to cross: players will be required to to link their Alipay accounts to the game.

In short, Alipay is phone app used by a majority of citizens in China to pay for goods, such as groceries and rent, and even monitor stock options. The system is used for the game’s microtransactions, but it also has the additional effect of linking a user’s personal information to the account.

This is an important factor when it comes to dealing with cheating in the game. Normally if your Steam account gets VAC banned, you can simply make a new one, re-purchase the game and start playing again as if nothing happened. As such, cheaters are a common nuisance in online match making, but if you get caught cheating in Perfect World’s CS:GO, you’re effectively banned for life. The game is linked to your personal ID and according to at least one news source, cheating could even negatively affect your credit score.

Another shot in the arm for Perfect World’s release is the increased marketing it’s benefiting from. Though Counter-Strike is more or less a household name, it doesn’t have nearly the same visibility in China as titles like Dota 2 or League of Legends.

“It is very hard to compare CS:GO with these two titles. Many people know CS, but the majority of them haven’t heard of CS:GO,” Tyloo’s Marshall said. “That is why it is really hard to find young talents in the scene right now. However, although the scene is so weak compared to the other games, I think it is healthy and has so much potential to grow.

“So the Perfect World release of CS:GO definitely boosts the scene, at least more people would know the existence of the game, so that more players come to the game.”

However, not everyone is so optimistic about the impact the release could have on the competitive scene.

“This whole situation is very weird to me because when I speak to people from the region about this, they’re a lot less excited than us Westerners are,” caster Jason “moses” O’Toole told theScore esports. “Apparently CS:GO there, you’ve been able to access it and there have been people playing it in places like China and Korea for some time.”

Aside from general skepticism, the gaming landscape in China has changed quite a bit since 1.6 was popular in the region. And with already popular titles like Dota 2, LoL, CrossFire and Overwatch having a tight grip on the region, CS:GO has an uphill battle ahead of it.

“In terms of attracting players from other shooters, it feels like history repeats. When CS was getting old, CrossFire came up. And now I have know so many CF players are joining CS:GO, but the Chinese video game market is much more competitive, compared to the global market,” Marshall said.

“I don’t think CS:GO will become as huge as CS was 15 years ago, but the scene is growing healthily.”

Regardless of the impact the Perfect World release will actually have, there’s a consensus that China and the rest of Asia is a key region for the future of CS:GO.

“I know from speaking to guys like Thorin and MonteCristo about some of the regimens that teams go through for League of Legends and Dota 2 over in Asia is that, as soon as the region gets clicked in we are going to see top teams come out of China, come out of Korea,” Moses said.

“Teams that just know how to improve at video games, teams that know how to cultivate talent in ways that Western teams don’t, and Western organizations don’t. So I think that’s the big excitement for me about that.”

Dennis “Tarmanydyn” Gonzales is a news editor for theScore esports who enjoys whiskey, D&D and first-picking Abaddon Slardar Clinkz Medusa Oracle a P90 my Souvenir Negev Discipline Priest Pharah. You can follow him on Twitter.

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