Luci Kelemen

Luci Kelemen

Luci 'YelloRambo' Kelemen is a veteran writer mostly focusing on the industry side of esports and the design specifics of card games like Hearthstone and Artifact. His work is featured on PC Gamer, Tempo/Storm, Rivalry.gg and many other gaming sites. Twitter @luci_kelemen.

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Could Substitute Players Become The Norm In CS:GO?

CSGO Esports
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Even though the parallels between “regular” and esports always seem to imply an uneasy companionship of sorts, the rise of playing video games professionally clearly owes a lot to the models established by existing sporting franchises. Some lessons are learned, many are ignored, and while it’s evident that CS:GO, League of Legends and the like are merely the pioneers of a brand new frontier brimming with potential, many of the changes we’ve seen in esports in the last few years amid increased investor and mainstream interests seem to indicate that essentially all parties have some interest in adapting some aspects from the world of traditional sports. Case in point: substitutes would allow for a higher level of gameplay, greater consistency, fewer missed majors due to illnesses and visa issues – and it’s already happening behind the scenes.

More Than Five

It goes without saying that a professional Counter-Strike team already employs more than the five individuals responsible for clicking and shooting in the server. There’s a whole host of roles to fill in an organization like that: from coaches to scouts and the lowly social media manager intern; there’s a lot more to the experience than “just” playing CS:GO. These responsibilities increase exponentially when the org is present in multiple games at the same time. It makes sense to expand on the number of players in your roster as well – and something like this already works reasonably well in something like the Overwatch League. It’s a setup that could translate very well to the eternal fight between CTs and terrorists as well.

The open nature of Counter-Strike’s third-party circuit also creates additional reasons for teams to go big or go home. Unfortunately, stand-ins are a regular occurrence due to visa issues, illness-related problems or last-minute replacements, moves that tend to greatly diminish a side’s competitive potential under the current arrangement. This, coupled with the increased concern of player burnout and an ever-increasing number of events in the scene further incentivizes the organizations to expand their roster.

You could argue that FaZe Clan’s tumultuous 2018 in CS:GO already exemplifies the necessity of such an approach: even without a large roster established, they chopped and changed to the extent that they fielded seven players over the course of the year with an eighth arranged early in January 2019. Of course, that was mostly due to necessity with olofmeister’s issues and karrigan’s eventual loss of stature in the team, but it nonetheless shows that most teams already rely on more than five players over even a fairly short period of time, except for the lack of opportunity to keep them around on a permanent basis if required.

Additional case studies include MiBR and Cloud9 – and you could make a pretty convincing argument that this was exactly the sort of arrangement that let mousesports keep hold of STYKO before deciding to reintegrate him into the team. It’s no coincidence the number of odd high-profile loans have significantly increased in the latter half of 2018: this is a complicated system of substitutes without the desired institutional backing.

Cui Bono?

Introducing substitutes would be a seismic change and one that is almost guaranteed to be opposed by Valve. For a developer, esports is purely a marketing initiative, and their vested interest lies in keeping the pro-level experience as close to the “real deal” as possible. This was mainly why they neutered the roles of coaches in 2016, intending to keep the focus on the five players in the server, despite how natural a development their expanded role was from a professional standpoint.

The question of ownership regarding a game’s esport scene is going to be a source of mighty struggles later down the line as the goals and interests of developers, and other actors continue to diverge. Watch this space: the battle over substitutions could very well mark the beginning of a war in the upcoming years.

That’s not saying it’s only the faceless businessmen who would benefit from a change like this. Beyond the aforementioned player burnout, it would increase the demand on all levels of professional Counter-Strike, creating more opportunities for up-and-coming talent that are currently shut out due to the carousel of mediocrity seen in the case of some player transfers in the second tier of the game. It would also undoubtedly increase the quality of gameplay on display – and the tactics toolkit available to the in-game leaders –, making for an even better viewing experience.

In many ways, a change like this feels inevitable: just consider how the salaries and the creed of coaches continued to rise over the last two years despite Valve’s rule change. The same is happening with player rosters, as shown by the aforementioned examples of FaZe and “budget FaZe.” Interestingly enough, BLAST and the non-major IEM events allow seven players on a roster (or at least doesn’t explicitly disallow it) with an option to swap players “within normal timeframes of map changes.” It’s only a matter of time until a team takes advantage of this opportunity.

There’s also the question of brand-building to consider. With smaller teams, tighter-knit rosters and a greater emphasis on individual players (rather than, say, manager or coaches), it’s been tougher to establish an org-specific following. The growth of the esports scene, in general, has changed this dynamic in recent years, and it’s clearly in the interest of teams to keep pushing the envelope in terms of marketing potential. A larger pool of players also allows for a more robust pool of streaming talent, something we’ve already seen shades of with orgs like Cloud9 and Tempo/Storm.

For the scale and size – not to mention the capital – of the organizations invested in esports, it truly feels like it’s just a matter of time that their rosters will rise beyond the simple player cap for a game. From poaching and nurturing talent to the financial acquisition and a chance to elevate their gameplay capabilities, it seems like an inevitable move from a business perspective – and one that will likely be reflected in the tournament rulesets as well in the future.

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