While games like League of Legends have been appearing on ESPN with increasing frequency, there may be no more telling sign of the growing ubiquity of eSports than the support and recognition from established cultural institutions. Danny “Mahone” Hsieh is a member of the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team at the University of British Columbia, and while the group is currently closer to an extracurricular club than a sanctioned football team, Hsieh believes that it may not be long before eSports become an established part of the intercollegiate competitive landscape.
According to Hsieh, the ease of online play has been crucial to the growth of eSports.
“It’s not like football or baseball or basketball,” said Hsieh. “You don’t have to play against guys in your area. You can play against people across Canada or the United States, or even across the world. So yeah, I do think that schools are going to start picking it up as an actual collegiate sport.”
That accessibility ensures a robust competitive environment because it makes it possible for anyone to practice against the best players in the world. Unlike a sport like soccer, which can have a strong regional flavor, the global and boundary-free nature of online play levels the competition regardless of territory.
“I can’t say there’s any real difference between countries. Playing in the US or playing in Canada is not that different,” said Hsieh.
Perhaps more importantly, it also helps deliver a potential audience, increasing the number of people who are familiar with and would be interested in watching eSports competition. That’s especially vital for a game like CS: GO, which is sometimes not as friendly to spectators because the first-person perspective limits the audience’s view of the action.
“You can’t watch all ten people at the same time,” said Hsieh, suggesting that the game benefits from the input of an editor. “You have to watch one and hopefully follow the action well enough so you can get the good moments. If you want to watch Counter-Strike on TV, for it to be enjoyable, it almost has to not be live.”
That stands in direct contrast to a top-down game like League of Legends, which allows both the players and the audience to see everything that’s happening at both ends of the map. The omniscient view helps those unfamiliar with the nuances of a game to figure out what’s going on, which may explain why games like League of Legends have been amongst the first games to break into the mainstream sphere.
However, Hsieh insists that CS:GO still offers plenty of suspense for the informed spectator. Just as football would be more exciting when seen through the quarterback’s eyes, CS:GO gives viewers a more intimate perspective, and while you can’t keep tabs on every player at once, the objectives in CS:GO are refreshingly straightforward. Every spectator is able to appreciate and comprehend the idea that you’re supposed to shoot the other players.
“It’s like ice hockey,” said Hsieh, making a uniquely Canadian comparison. “You have to learn how to skate. Then you learn how to shoot. The strategic element comes later, when you’ve mastered the basics. The idea of the game is simple. Doing those simple things is the difficult part.”
The commitment needed to reach that level of mastery rivals that of any other campus activity. Hsieh’s team practices roughly 10 hours a week and that number can jump to 20 to 30 hours in the weeks before a major competition. Some universities – such as Robert Morris University in Illinois – are now giving scholarships to eSports competitors, and more programs will likely crop up as the audience (and prize and sponsorship money) for eSports continues to grow.
“My goal is to take my UBC CS:GO team as big as we can before I graduate, and then after that maybe I’ll still be involved with the team as a coach or something like that,” said Hsieh, adding that he’d also like to help organize more events in the Vancouver area. “Being on the collegiate level in Counter-Strike isn’t going to fast track you to any pro teams or anything like that. The level of collegiate play isn’t high enough yet.”
Outside of a handful of top teams, the professional structure for Counter-Strike isn’t yet stable enough to justify a career as a competitor, at least not for a collegiate player like Hsieh. That may change as eSports becomes more prevalent and better organized. In the meantime, Hsieh will hone his skills while serving as an ambassador for the competition. He believes that the appeal of eSports is universal, and he’s happy to do what he can to make the experience more accessible.
The ESL One Cologne 2015: Counter-Strike: Global Offensive FINALS LIVE will be presented as a part of the Cineplex Front Row Centre Events’ eSports series with a theatre screening on Sunday, August 23. The event will be hosted by Soe Gschwind-Penksi (SOEMBIE) and will feature player interviews and other behind-the-scenes glimpses of the competition.