LANDodger: We all Scream for ESL Streams

BY Andrew Miesner / April 13, 2009

We all Scream for ESL Streams

Written by Mike “LANDodger” Luxion

(This is an editorial piece. The opinions in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of compLexity Gaming or its parent company.)

You’ve heard it before. I don’t even have to say the whole phrase. What do we all scream for? Ice cream, that’s what. And we scream with good reason. It’s refreshing. The perfect amount of cold on a hot day. It’s even a good source of nutrition – if by nutrition we mean saturated fat and tastiness (which in my experience are pretty much the same thing). But what you might not know is that ice cream’s delicious, iron grip on screaming is just about finished. There’s a new sheriff in Screaming Town, and he means business.

The sheriff’s name? ESL Streams.

The reason we’ll soon be screaming for them is pretty simple: it might be the only way we’ll be able to watch ESL matches for their offline events. About a week ago they officially announced they were banning HLTV from their EPS event, leaving the status of future HLTV broadcasts up in the air.

Now, most gamers were probably upset when they heard the news. HLTV is the comfort blanky of the Counter-Strike community. When there’s an important match, we cannot and will not rest until we’re snuggled up in its warm embrace, securely resting with ten thousand other people that we don’t know and probably wouldn’t even like if we got to know them. And if it’s not there, we’ll throw a temper tantrum until the tournament organizers can literally feel their sanity slipping away. Why do we act this way? Because it’s just not a Counter-Strike tournament until you’re sitting in HLTV and somebody says “+} +} +} +} +} +}+} +} +}+} +} +}+} +} +}” or “[player A] is terribad”.

I can empathize. We are all creatures of habit. As fans we take comfort in knowing that we’ll be able to watch a match and maximize our own enjoyment, whether that means following our favorite player to see if he/she dominates, watching a specific portion of the map for tips, or flying around in freecam pretending to be Superman because you’re high on acid.

Yessir, HLTV has something for everybody. And that freedom, control, and ease of use is exactly the reason why it had to go.

You see, ESL’s possible ban on HLTV has me excited. The problem with eSports isn’t that corporate interests consistently make bone-headed decisions (like not paying gamers or spending gobs of money with no profit in sight), it’s that watching games has been far too easy in the past. Anything that’s truly valuable is hard to attain, like love or a billion dollars. Everybody knows that. It’s just a fact of life. With that in mind it’s clear that the more we make our product accessible, the more we devalue it at the same time.

It’s time for change. It’s time for gaming to enter the real world where things are never simple and you never get what you want (read: don’t forget to do your taxes!). All we’re really doing is putting our product in the realm of frustration and idiocy that’s the hallmark of “real life”. The NFL does something similar to banning HLTV. They blackout all local TV broadcasts when the games aren’t sold out, forcing fans to view games the way the NFL wants. And correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure the NFL has been doing alright the last few years. Clearly the two are related.

Besides, from a fan’s perspective there are plenty of added benefits to having only the stream available. Buffering isn’t a bug, it’s a built-in slow-motion utility. And streaming is highly reliable. During ESL’s Extreme Masters competition, I was able to access their website during the entire competition, which let me enjoy their “Due heavy server load, any script based grabbing from the esl webpage has been blocked. Thanks for your appreciation,” message for hours on end. I can’t wait to see what happens when the 20,000 people that were watching the Finals in HLTV all try to access the stream, too … I think the sequel is going to be even better than the original.

For those of you that don’t enjoy text-watching, there are usually other sites carrying the stream, too, where you can experience one of the most under-appreciated aspects of streaming Counter-Strike matches: watching matches at a low resolution in a small window adds to the sense of wonder.

I I can’t wait to see what happens when the 20,000 people that were watching the Finals in HLTV all try to access the stream, too … I think the sequel is going to be even better than the originalWe’ve all seen plays that leave us asking “Wow, how did he pull that off?!?” Banning HLTV adds to that mystery. Now that you’re watching the match on a stream in a small window on your Internet browser, which may or may not be buffering, it’s entirely possible that you didn’t actually see what happened, at which point you’ll again be asking yourself, “Wow, how did he pull that off?!?” Sure, it might be followed by “No, seriously. I didn’t see that, can somebody tell me what happened?”, but let’s not quibble over the details. I just know that given the choice between watching a match on my 22” widescreen monitor at its native 1600×1050 resolution, or watching a match on a video player embedded on a webpage, the choice is clear. Good things come in small packages.

And if that still isn’t enough to convince you that banning HLTV was the right move, let’s not forget about the new opportunity for commercials. I know what you’re thinking. We all go to extraordinary lengths to rid our lives of advertisements. We download browser plug-ins, record TV shows on a DVR, or download edited shows and movies off a torrent site. But commercials serve an important purpose – even if you don’t include “making soap operas seem interesting in comparison” as an important purpose. Without commercials, how else would we know what over-priced, over-hyped products to buy with our third credit card? 

In the end I suppose it comes down to this: leagues like CAL, CEVO, ESEA, and even MLG (through GameBattles) that have embraced and developed the online side (and the online nature) of gaming just aren’t getting it done. The collective impact those leagues have had on competitive gaming is nothing compared to the collective impact of leagues and tournaments that have failed to embrace the spirit and tradition of competitive gaming; think about all the waves made by the CPL, WSVG, and the CGS. That’s clearly the path we want to walk down, right?

(Alright, alright, I’ll be serious for this last part, I swear.)

I don’t think banning HLTV will kill ESL. I’m just not sure how much it’ll help it, either.Dropping the hyperbole and exaggeration, I don’t think this is a league-crushing issue. But I also think banning HLTV is another small step forward on that same ignominious path of not caring enough about what the audience wants, and that’s coming from a guy who enjoys watching streams and thinks we need more of it, not less, because broadcasters are good for the sport and the viewing experience.

But I know that not everybody feels the same way and that streams aren’t always reliable for both the people connecting and the people broadcasting. Forcing fans to watch a stream by banning HLTV is just asking for technical problems (in the form of outages or just a poor viewing experience) with the added caveat that there’s no recourse for a frustrated viewer. And it terms of value to the customer, the person that really matters, the ban feels only slightly more valuable than forcing people to watch HLTV by banning streaming broadcasts. It’s okay if we have to pay for the experience, even if we’re just paying for an HLTV spot, but shouldn’t fans be able to watch the game any way they choose? If not, why?

Maybe it just comes down to execution. If ESL puts up a great stream, all the problems about resolution, reliability, and the fan experience fades into the background. It sure seems risky, though, and I still can’t help but feel that rather than solve gaming’s problems with a creative option that doesn’t punish fans, or at the very least is some sort of compromise, we’ve once again opted for a more familiar solution (ad revenue, commercials, etc) that not only limits how fans follow the event, but also seems ill-suited for both the audience and the medium.

I don’t think banning HLTV will kill ESL. I’m just not sure how much it’ll help it, either.