State of North American Counter-Strike: A Think Piece

Introduction

              The North American scene has seen a dramatic change in the last few years for varying reasons. Some of these reasons are out of the continent’s hands with the COVID-19 pandemic, but other reasons come from the engrained lifestyle the NA scene has cultivated over the past 5 years, which has led to a markedly less competitive field. In this analysis, I assess the current downturn of domestic and international competition that the continent has produced, the flaws that have come from it, how the scene can grow from it moving forward, and the routes in which prosperity can return to the North American space. Recent results aside, North America will always continue to bring star aimers, scrappy Counter-Strike, and most importantly, entertaining gameplay. It is the job of the tournament organizers, teams, and community alike to foster an environment where more opportunities can arise for smaller teams and provide a stage for the driven.

The Erosion of North America’s International Prestige

              2019 belonged to Team Liquid. They showcased brilliance as they took home the Intel Grand Slam and defeated many of their inner demons that plagued them across many iterations of the lineup. But as the state of the world deteriorated and games shifted to a purely online ecosystem, Team Liquid suffered heavily. 2020 brought forth a Team Liquid that could not win any titles within their region and a squad that even after roster moves, failed to show promise in Europe. While the team has shown success under FalleN’s tenure, inconsistent results suggest to the scene that even the former legends struggle against Europe’s tactics and sheer firepower. By having an organization that continues to put up consistent deep runs at international tournaments, a hope could emerge to the younger crop of North Americans that perhaps they too can find their way to an international stage with dedication to their craft.

              Evil Geniuses, the other North American squad that held promise on the international stage, has fallen even further than their domestic rivals throughout the last two years and continue to be a cause of concern regarding the longevity of a grassroots NA roster. Although Evil Geniuses boded well in the beginning of the online era, the team has consistently come last place in Europe and have continued to show gameplay that reflects a core riddled with confidence issues and a lack of unbridled aggressiveness that the North Americans used to showcase in their championship runs during 2019. With the team now pivoting to a slightly more international approach after adding the services of MICHU, the roots of the North American scene continue to wither away as even the top teams of the region believe that a dash of Europe is the solution rather than a change in the mindset and ecosystem that the continent currently believes in. What message does this send to the lower tiers of North American competition? With the lessened number of opportunities already plaguing the scene, the lackluster results of both legendary rosters can only compound the foreboding pressure upon the pros and semi-pros of the tier two and three scene.

The Underdevelopment of Younger Talent

              A prime reason why Europe and the CIS regions continue to create world-class prodigies lies in the opportunities to develop these talents within the Tier 2 and Tier 3 tournaments that are so plentiful for players to grow in experience. Tournaments like the Sweet Home cups, BLAST Rising, LOOT.BET seasons, and Funspark ULTI Regional Series all elevate the amount of competition that younger, more inexperienced teams face, as well as providing opportunities for them to learn the tools of the Counter-Strike trade. This has led to more developed gameplay when opportunities arise to compete for big ticket international events. Teams like Gambit, Spirit, and FPX have all risen from these tournaments and now comfortably stand within the top 20 teams in the world. If this kind of ecosystem could spark within North America, who knows how many of these teams can rise to similar ranks? For now, only one team dominates the restrained framework the continent has to offer.

              Extra Salt remain to be the final bosses of the domestic North American scene as every tournament based in the region is almost always snatched up by the squad. Every small ESEA Cash Cup, every qualifier, and every DreamHack Open seems to always end in JT’s squad taking home the titles. The lack of opportunities for North American teams to compete at a high Counter-Strike level in Europe is already worrying. This, paired with the fact that only one team has the qualifications to enter said tournaments, shows that the scene has remained somewhat stagnant in its growth. Think of the teams who have showcased rises in experience with these European opportunities: Chaos, Triumph and Complexity’s old roster with Stanislaw all come to mind. The experience became invaluable to these players and created a lifetime’s worth of development and passion for the game. While lesser teams have not had such opportunities, Extra Salt on the other hand has become another example of a grassroots North American roster that could provide insight to many of the upcoming teams the scene has to offer. Perhaps tussling against European-like competition within their own region could reignite a passion to chase those opportunities hand over fist. The onus lies in these smaller teams to rise to the level of Extra Salt through sheer dedication and structure to achieve these goals. However, even more problems lie within the scene, and these dilemmas have struck North America into a critical condition.

Dwindling Inspiration and Counter-Strike Turning Its Back

              European FPL has fostered many younger players into incredibly important pieces of their respective squads. Players like ropz, flameZ, broky, and ZywOo made a name for themselves through the premier player circuit and now play for world class teams as aggressive aimers to symbiotically elevate the older players of Europe. North America used to foster talent in a similar fashion with ESEA’s Rank S ladder and their own edition of FPL, but the circuits now have become a mere shadow of what they once were. Creating an environment of lackadaisical gameplay paired with the abandonment of veteran players has led the system to become a toxic environment where young players clash incoherently and froth at the chance to take home small cash prizes. Without any guidance on what top teams are looking for from the more experienced players and a void of structure in these games, when will the North American space ever improve? All this does is incentivize players to become an selfish individual who can frag rather than a puzzle piece that could unlock a developing team into the upper echelons of qualifying tournaments. My first call to action is to incentivize older players to re-engage with the FPL locale by offering similar mentor roles that FACEIT has done with Europe. This could not only change the mindset of the players within the circuit but also reinvent them to do incredible things at any level of the game.

This worrying mindset of chasing every opportunity to snag money in the scene has now oozed into the developing leagues of North America. Most recently ESIC had conducted an investigation regarding match fixing at the ESEA Premier level and found multiple players from Team Rebirth and Russian Canadians to be guilty. Some of these players had shown promise throughout their time in the league and finding these allegations to be true creates an even bigger loss of respect and trust against the North American scene. Why are players put in a position where these opportunities for committing crimes are considered and taken up? This stems from two glaring issues the scene has cropped up themselves. The first being the lack of earning any reputable income from the leagues themselves and the second being the esports organizations themselves completely abandoning North America’s Counter-Strike space for other options. While the act of committing these heinous acts should always be condemned, the motivations and systemic issues that pair with these acts should always be analyzed and fixed to bring a potential end to such dilemmas. My second call to action is for leagues like ESEA/ESL, BLAST, and FACEIT to provide similar investments to the North American ecosystem as they do with their European and CIS divisions in order to nurture these players into reputable, competitive, and passionate players who can compete at the international stage. If TO’s cannot come to these solutions , the belief that younger North American players belong in Riot’s VALORANT worryingly becomes more and more of a reality.

VALORANT’s Damaging Effects to North American Counter-Strike

Esports organizations have come to a consensus that with the drop-off in form from the North American region, they can now refuse to mold and support new rosters from the region. This has led to a foreboding feeling towards developing talent in the region as they watch the same organizations eye up quick paydays within VALORANT’s new tournament circuit. With spirits and opportunities being at an all-time low within the region, where else can these players turn to? Boxed into only one answer, many of these players have seemingly split for VALORANT instead. 

The similar traits between Riot’s new shooter and CS:GO have attracted numerous talents from the region and seriously cannot be ignored. Players like floppy, xeppaa, Ethan, autimatic, koosta, and freakazoid have all parted ways with our esport and the potential they had to do great things within the game have shockingly evaporated. As the Counter-Strike space within North America continues to deteriorate, players and on-air talent have become more incentivized to chase plentiful opportunities within VALORANT, rather than continuing to salvage whatever slim chances they have to make a name for themselves within Counter-Strike. While losing outstanding players has shaken North American Counter-Strike to its core, I believe what hurts it the most is the loss of legends our scene once had.

As North America’s most experienced player, n0thing was a father figure to the region. Providing an ample amount of educational content to the world and fostering a fantastic ecosystem within the FPL and Rank S circuits, the American rifler taught many developing talents on what exactly was desired from the continent’s best organizations. He recognized the importance of otherworldly game sense and passed on his knowledge to anyone by being so willing to work for the average player as well as the semi-pro. However, after generating a lot of buzz in VALORANT, n0thing has decidedly chosen to split his time between both esports. While n0thing has not left Counter-Strike completely, the sparse nature of his time within the game currently can definitely be felt.

Be it the lack of IGL’s in North America or lack of on-air talent, seangares had offered to fill both of these voids in Counter-Strike. Putting the region on the map with his tenure under Cloud9 and Misfits, while also dedicating time to being an analyst at four different majors, seangares provided a much-needed leadership position to the region and furthered the development of many different players throughout his career. The potential for him to become a household name across the world for his on-air analysis remained to be incredibly high going into the online era of Counter-Strike. However, similar to n0thing, seangares has had his success in VALORANT realized and the loss of this American IGL will leave a hole within the region that is yet to truly be filled once more.

The Committed IGLs of North America

              So where does the scene go from here? What tactical pieces does the region still house and how much potential do they truly hold? Avoiding conversation on the top two teams in North America, the first IGL that should indubitably be discussed is JT. Bringing South-African gaming into the spotlight with Bravado Gaming, JT made a name for himself calling against many tier two teams and showcasing that he has the capability to hang around the more important regions of the Counter-Strike scene. After bouncing through Denial and ATK, the South African was signed to the infamous Cloud9 organization alongside his countrymen Sonic and T.c. However, after failing to put forth any meaningful results under the coveted banner of C9, the team was released and sent back to North America to find their identities once more. Keeping faith in his system, the IGL kept all but one of his players on his new journey under Extra Salt. With JT’s personal aim being the downfall of rosters past, the South African has seemingly had a markedly improved performance during his European tour. This has led to outstanding results against the world’s best teams, and the sky is truly the limit for the budding tactician.

              As a player constantly having to face roster moves and still creating competitive squads, Shakezullah has fought back throughout his career to be a strong IGL in the North American space. Providing so-so results under Team Singularity, the American really started making waves as the coach of steel’s Chaos roster in 2019. Surprising the world with their depth, the plaudits steel received could not be overstated. Shakezullah, wanting to search for a similar roster while playing instead, chased a new opportunity under Triumph. Here, he elevated numerous careers and showcased true potentials of many elite players during his time as the IGL. Shining lights on FURIA’s current AWP’er junior, Liquid’s star rifler Grim, and underrated AWP’er Cooper, Shakezullah has found a system in which he can not only can develop diamonds in the rough the region has to offer but can also punch above the weight of greater opposition with them. His only trait that holds him back in the current meta remains to be his aim. With fragging IGL’s being the piece to truly separate great teams from good ones, this American IGL is only a few steps away from becoming a hot prospect among the North American space.

              Steel created a dangerous roster with Chaos. He developed incredible talents across the board with every member of his roster and forever will be a North American legend. Under his tutelage, ben1337 gained many international experiences and important lessons from the Canadian IGL and has completely reinvented his game after being let go from the organization. After realizing his supportive elements were a scarce resource among his countrymen, he paired it with calling within the game alongside the New England Whalers. Taking scalps from the top dogs of the region, the budding IGL has shown promise in leading a complete roster and stayed competitive when his squad shifted to High Coast. Now under Party Astronauts, I believe the next step in his career is to fight at international events and experience the world’s best under the lens of an IGL. Although the opportunities remain sparse, these tournaments have the capability of elevating his gameplay once more. With more experience under his belt, he will definitely become a more respected and coveted piece in North America’s repertoire.

The Hopes and Inspirations of North America

              One issue the North American scene has never faced is coming up with incredible aimers. However, the problems lie with how these aimers have been utilized and molded into exceptional teammates as well. As alluded to above, this comes from a systemic issue with how these aimers train among themselves and then proceed to carry this same mentality into league play. Of these players though, three have caught my eye in the capability of either carrying a team into relevancy in the near future, or perhaps landing a spot among the greats of the scene.

              Obviously the first player I must mention is FaNg of Extra Salt. Playing under many different MDL teams across his tenure as a semi-pro, FaNg continued to turn heads with his immaculate aim and attention to detail during high stake rounds. He had his breakout year with Rugratz last year, boasting a 1.11 rating despite getting trounced by Liquid and Chaos at IEM Beijing 2020 North America. Piquing the interest of JT, he was then added to the five-man lineup of Extra Salt in the beginning of this year. Slowly developing under the South African IGL, FaNg finally became a revelation during their tour in Europe. Smashing BIG and Dignitas, the Canadian has shown immense progress in his game and showcased a cool head and crisp frags across the event. The only thing holding the Canadian back remains to be his consistency. In due time, there is no telling what FaNg can do if he can channel the gameplay he displayed in Europe on a regular basis.

              A lesser-known player that has shown great potential is wiz from RBG Esports. With a relatively fresh career, wiz has showcased high-caliber AWP’ing at the ESEA Premier level and continues to develop within the North America region. Carrying his team through many different qualification events, the young American has shown the capability to become a star in his near future. The necessary trials wiz must face at this stage in his career continues to be facing higher tier opposition and putting up the same performances he showcases at the Premier level. When the pressure mounts, wiz has shown some signs of buckling and truly needs to experience many of these scenarios even more. Perhaps an odd European tournament could bolster his confidence even more if the American AWP’er can reach that level. The potential for wiz has always been there, it is up to him to harness it and shatter all expectations.

The last player I want to touch on is Cooper, who currently plays for Triumph. Since 2017, the American sniper has followed under his more renowned brother, freakazoid. Playing in markedly worse teams and rising slowly, he finally got his opportunity to play at the international level alongside his brother at EPICENTER 2018. However the American failed to provide any meaningful results at the tournament or beyond under the Swole Patrol banner and took his services to eUnited. Cooper reached peak form under the organization where he qualified for ESL One: New York and another season of ESL Pro League. However, after the organization let go of their squad, the American has failed to find his footing in the North American scene ever since. I believe that Cooper still has the star-studded potential from his eUnited days and really needs an opportunity to showcase the intelligent Counter-Strike he is known for playing at a consistent level. Cooper has all the tools needed to rise back up to the international stage, it is just a question of when and not how.

Conclusion

              The ecosystems North America has fostered over the years have truly bitten the region in the back. Through this analysis I hope you, the community, can find a way to support the continent during these turbulent times. I hope that the tournament organizers can find a way to provide one or two more invites for North America. I hope that the players our scene has to offer continue to persevere, perform valiantly within Counter-Strike, and rise to prominence once more. I hope that the environment of premier player circuits can be purified and nurtured again. I hope that one day North America can teem with unfathomable possibilities and rival international competition consistently at the highest level. In order to have these hopes realized, we must invest in our developing talent and provide a stage for the worthy. Anything else will result in an inevitable end to North American Counter-Strike and its death will be at our hand.

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