Watching Counter-Strike: Global Offensive in a 7,000-seat arena for 24 hours over the course of three days made me feel like I was 19 years old again. I don’t miss it, especially after being surrounded by fans around that age at Eleague’s CS:GO major in Boston.
When my 19-year-old friends and I argued about the differences between Counter-Strike 1.6 and Counter-Strike: Source back in 2004, these kids had barely emerged from the womb. They didn’t have to deal with the splintering of the North American CS scene thanks to the divisive debate over which version of the game should get priority in tournament circuits, one that was ended by the Championship Gaming Series’ decision to use CS: Source for their late 2000s esports tournament series.
The CGS decision was the nail in the coffin for the CS 1.6 scene, and when the tournament series went bankrupt two years later, the entire North American Counter-Strike scene suffered a wound that took years to heal. That community has spent the past decade rebuilding, with the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive 2012 release providing a much-needed hard reset.
Eleague’s CS:GO major, with its million-dollar prize pool and accompanying docu-series airing on TBS, signals a triumphant return to form for North American Counter-Strike. The frosting on this patriotic cake? For the first time, a team made up of entirely American pro players took home the top prize. Against all expectations, Cloud9’s all-American roster took down the French players of G2 Esports, the Brazilian pros of SK Gaming, and then, the multi-cultural powerhouse of FaZe Clan.
As the weekend wore on, the number of American flags in the arena increased, along with chants of, “U-S-A! U-S-A!” When European or Brazilian players and signs showed up on the screens, the audience would boo, stamp their feet, and chant “Send them home!” Of course, numerous international players were already stuck home with visa issues. Teams TyLoo and 100 Thieves both forfeited their qualifying spots at the major due to visa problems. TyLoo would have been the first-ever Chinese team to compete in a CS:GO major, had they been able to appear.
On Sunday afternoon, one attendee took the event’s jingoistic theme to the next level by raising a huge Trump banner in the air every time Cloud9 won a round. The banner showed up on Twitch for a few seconds, but after that, the camera never seemed to return to that section of the arena. Halfway through the grand finals, I saw the attendee shove his Trump banner out of sight, even though Cloud9 kept winning and ended up taking home the trophy.
The Trump fan’s reluctance to commit to his own bit seemed emblematic of the event’s overall identity crisis. How do you bring together a room full of people who all like to watch CS:GO? Cosplaying a military shooter would mean dressing up in fatigues and arming yourself to the teeth, so that’s out.
What you can do is have actual members of the military present. In fact, they’ll pay you for the privilege! Throughout the event, the U.S. Air Force served as one of the event’s sponsors, their logo appearing on screen throughout the broadcast alongside more predictable gaming hardware advertisers like Alienware. At the end of the event, after Cloud9 took home their trophy, Eleague awarded Cloud9 player Tyler “Skadoodle” Latham with the “U.S. Air Force MVP,” presented by an Air Force sergeant.
Esports caster Alex “Goldenboy” Mendez’s encouragement of the crowd to cheer for “our soldiers who fight for us” was met with a tepid response. It wasn’t the first time that Goldenboy had to battle the boredom of an arena stacked with twitchy teen boys; that fight had lasted all weekend. The Eleague CS:GO major had a lot of time to kill, and Goldenboy was tasked with filling the dead air.
A CS:GO top 8 finals is a big time commitment; it’s a three-day event with tickets that cost $120. With no single-day tickets available, the CS:GO Boston major is only for the truly committed. Individual CS:GO rounds only last a few minutes, but 30 rounds in a row can take about an hour and a half, and teams take breaks in between each of these 90-minute face-offs. During those breaks, Mendez earned his paycheck by running into the stands with a wireless microphone, peppering audience members with trivia questions. If they won, he’d hand them a crisp one dollar bill. Question topics ranged from historical trivia about America’s founding fathers to a quiz identifying which gun sound effect corresponds to which CS:GO weapon.
Eleague had to walk a careful line when it came to fan content, given the game’s gritty war on terror themes. Counter-Strike, which was first released in 1999 and rode the post-9/11 zeitgeist, features a team of terrorists and counter-terrorists facing off to either plant a bomb or diffuse it. Its most popular map, “Dust,” is a golden desert speckled with Islamic architecture. The game doesn’t have named characters so much as different iconic sets of masks and armor; the terrorists and counter-terrorists all have the exact same muscular build and size. It’s the perfect fantasy of egalitarian cookie cutter warfare, with every battle tightly regulated and defined, every scenario down to skill rather than chance.
Other esports arena events rely on fan-oriented photo ops to keep attendees entertained throughout a full weekend of matches. At the League of Legends summer finals, fans posed with paid cosplayers and prop fantasy weapons from the game. At Eleague’s CS:GO major, fans could still enjoy a photo booth, but with no props or cosplayers—just game logos and ominous, smoke-filled backgrounds.
Military shooters don’t want the reenactment part to get too real. A Call of Duty tournament in December was shut down by bomb threats. If you want to reenact or cosplay anything you see in the game, well, how about the Air Force? You were chanting “USA” before, so you’re already on board, right?
The fandom for Counter-Strike does seem to be predominantly American. The game’s two co-creators are American and Canadian, and the viewership for the game skews towards Western audiences as well. Eleague broke a Twitch record with the event’s grand finals garnering 1.1 million concurrent streams, and according to Esports Charts’ breakdown of the event, only 27 percent of those viewers used the Chinese stream. That’s in contrast to, say, Esports Charts’ breakdown of the League of Legends 2017 World Championship, with a whopping 98 percent of viewers tuned in to the Chinese stream. (Perhaps the Chinese numbers for CS:GO would have been higher if TyLoo hadn’t had those visa issues that prevented them from appearing.)
The arena’s attendees also looked a lot whiter and dudelier than most of the other competitive gaming events I’ve attended in the past few months, like the League of Legends Summer Finals, the Overwatch World Cup and Overwatch League’s inaugural week, or the Street Fighter tournament for Capcom Cup’s last chance qualifier. Sure, white dudes make up the majority at every esports event, but usually, there’s a sizable number of of attendees who don’t fit in that box.
Overwatch and Street Fighter showcase a diverse roster of fictional characters that may be stereotypical but undeniably hail from different countries and backgrounds. Counter-Strike, on the other hand, doesn’t even have characters, so the only people who can inspire you are the pros themselves.
The pros at the major were still all men, though. Counter-Strike has been a successful esport since the early 2000s, and it’s always had a small but stalwart collection of female pro teams organizing women’s events since 2003. In all of that time, though, top women players still struggled for recognition. The teams at this CS:GO major hadn’t drafted any female players. (Of course, Overwatch hasn’t either, but it’s not like any of its team shooter predecessors laid any groundwork for it.)
Going to the CS:GO Boston major felt like stepping into an alt-universe where every stereotype about who plays and watches competitive games appears to be true: young, white, male, and twitchy. At Overwatch events, I can look around and see that a lot of different people seem to enjoy the game. At CS:GO? Not so much. I don’t have a full ethnographic breakdown of who attended the event, but I can tell you that the line for the women’s bathroom never exceeded a five-second wait time.
I don’t even expect that to change, anymore, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. The gatekeeping for CS fandom still runs deep. I ran into another woman in the bathroom between matches on Sunday, and after we joked around about the lack of wait times, she asked me whether I “really” watch CS or if I’m “just here with a friend.” I felt my defensive hackles rise as I told her that I not only watch the game, I play it. She pressed further, asking if I actually play it online against other humans. I put my cards on the table: yes, I play against actual people, and not only that, I’ve been doing it since the game first came out.
Back in 2004, I had to work hard to impress my (entirely male) friends who played Counter-Strike. At age 19 when I got my first computer that could really run 1.6 and Source, I felt like I was so far behind them in skill and knowledge. In 2018, at age 31, I can finally cash in on the cred I never had back then. That woman in the bathroom wasn’t the only person who quizzed me about my Counter-Strike credentials at this event. Any time anyone asked me that question, though, I had a hole-in-one answer: I’ve been playing since 1.6. And every person who heard me say this to them in response smiled in awe, their eyes shining. At last, I thought. I am truly hardcore.
It’s an experience I longed for at age 19, and if I were 19 years old today, I’d probably feel some sense of validation. But I’m not 19. I’ve grown up. Counter-Strike hasn’t: it’s stuck in a holding pattern, reliving a cultural fantasy from 1999 that, somehow, won’t die. It just respawns and resets.
It’s impossible for me now to watch this game and not feel that tension. I screamed for Cloud9 with the crowd and stamped my feet in time with the “U-S-A” chants, with the Air Force ads and the Trump banner in my peripheral vision. It felt almost rude, the reminder that the game we were watching wasn’t a game at all, outside of this magic circle.
We had all agreed we wouldn’t talk about that here, that pesky “real world” with its actual violence and death and drone strikes. We need the conflicts to be simple here, for the rightful winner to get a dollar while the crowd cheers them on, for the skill-based competition featuring the rightful few who all deserved to get drafted and to have their visas approved. There are no politics in video games. Now, come on and cheer for the troops.