For today’s Syndicate Interview Series our focus will be on one of the founding fathers of North American eSports: Craig “Torbull” Levine. The founder of Team 3D and ESEA is no stranger to gaming fans worldwide and we’re grateful for the interview.
First off, thanks for sitting down with us. Let’s start at the end of 2008, after the demise of the CGS. Many observers had pessimistic outlooks for the year to come. What were your expectations for 2009? Were you highly optimistic or did you view the upcoming year as a rebuilding year?
I knew 2009 was going to be a massive rebuilding year. E-sports as we knew it had the legs kicked out from beneath us three times: once when CPL, ESWC, and WSVG went under, once when CGS called it quits, and lastly when the economic crisis of 2009 really sunk in. 2009 for most companies was about survival, and I think we should all be relieved to know that we made it… The day CGS went belly up, we announced our first season of ESEA League and a little over a year later ESEA League has given out over $100,000 in cash prizes and are coming up on our third LAN playoffs. I’ve said this before, but the past two years have proven to us that we need a self-sustainable model that doesn’t totally rely on sponsorship and advertising so we maintain control of the e-sports titles, calendar of events, and prize purses, not other companies. I’m very proud of the way the community stuck together and what we accomplished at ESEA over the past year and a half. I’m excited for what 2010 holds. Things aren’t going to immediately turnaround but we’re working towards it piece by piece. For example, our Season 5 LAN Playoffs for ESEA League will be held in conjunction with an open BYOC event. In hindsight, I think the old CPLs were great events to bring the community together and I hope that we can grow our LAN Playoff events to eventually feature 500+ person BYOCs.
During 2009 ESEA continued to expand its gaming leagues and held successful LAN tournaments. What challenges did you and your team need to overcome to achieve this? What surprised you the most about running a league? What was the best part? The worst?
Time has proven that there are only a handful of trustworthy and truly capable people in the North American e-sports scene and I’m fortunate to have a lot of them around me with ESEA League. Honestly, the biggest challenge we’ve had was deciding to do it… For so long when I ran Team 3D I tried to leave the league and competition elements to other groups, but they never did anything with it. lpkane had been wanting to launch a league for a while and with CGS going under, the timing was just right. We have an incredible development and admin team so the league is unbelievably simple to use and automated which cuts down on most of the operational bullshit. So it surprised me most to see how easy running the league could be with the right people and technologies powering it! The best part for me is the LAN playoffs. It’s the time where I get to go to the events, meet the players, and enjoy the great matches. I really want to grow our LAN Playoffs to be more of a community event for subsequent seasons. I try to rely on our team of admins to deal with disputes, but the worst part of the league is making the tough rule or dispute calls. We can never please everyone and sometimes we have to just do the best we can with the tools and information at our disposal and work to continuously improve.
Many fans argue that Counter-Strike 1.6 is in decline and maybe even dying. They claim the user base is dwindling and not being refreshed with new players. Do you think that is true? Has participation in ESEA’s 1.6 pug system changed over the past couple years?
I’ve heard a lot of people say North American CS 1.6 was dying and ironically I had a whole article I wrote prepared after the CGS Draft in 2008 titled, “The Death of North American Counter-Strike,” but I’m glad we never ran with it because I was wrong! All of our critical indicators are UP for CS 1.6… At ESEA we’ve increased our web traffic by almost four fold, have grown our Premium membership by nearly 40%, and CS 1.6 is our largest community. The CS 1.6 community has relied on GotFrag for so long to be the lifeblood, but they’ve done a pretty shitty job lately of providing coverage and I think it’s really starved the community. A lot of the founders that were so passionate about the website and community are no longer there and they don’t seem to have the support from MLG to do innovative coverage. I think a lot of those users have been coming to ESEA to interact and some of the coverage traffic has been lost to oversees websites, such as HLTV.org, but I hope we can recapture the energy and buzz that there once was around big events and big roster changes. So CS 1.6 isn’t dead, it’s just wandering around and waiting for a home…
Another game adopted by ESEA’s league has been Team Fortress 2. What can you tell us about the community? In your opinion, is interest in TF2 as a competitive title growing or declining? What are its strengths and weaknesses?
TF2 has been the bane of my existence! I REALLY enjoy playing the game, especially pugs, but the community really hasn’t embraced us. We haven’t seen a dramatic increase in our pug activity or Premium membership, but we’ve remained committed to trying to develop the competitive spirit of the community. We’re hopeful that with the ESEA Season 5 TF2 invite division playoffs on LAN that we’ll start to see them rally around us a bit more. To start, the TF2 community is about 1/8 the size of the CS 1.6 and CSS communities combined, and coupled with the fact that it inherently attracts a less competitive casual player, it’s been challenging to really gain their support. That being said, I think it is a great competitive e-sports title because the game is well balanced, has a lot of intricacies, is very fun to watch (and play), and the top teams are really great guys. I think it will just take some time and hopefully a ticket to a big dance for it to develop competitively.
Recently the new beta of CSPromod has been a hot topic of discussion. What are your thoughts on the game? Does it hold real promise as an eSports title? Will it unite the different CS communities or only create another category of player? Will ESEA be running a CSP league in the near future?
To be honest, I haven’t had a chance to even play it myself. It’s a neat concept but man, making a good game is really hard! I know it has been in the works for a while so I’m interested to see how it plays (I know it’s still beta), but most of the feedback I’ve read online has been surprisingly positive and optimistic. My main concern with CSP is that I hope it doesn’t further divide the communities, like many of the pro mods did to Quake. We setup some CSP pug servers upon launch and we’re going to continue to monitor the CSP development and community’s response. We learned from CPL with Painkiller that no league or organization can force a game down the community’s throat, so we’re going to roll with it and hope for the best either way =)
Are you considering expanding the games supported by the league? If so, what other titles (PC and or console) are you considering? What other ESEA League plans can you share?
We aren’t looking to add any other games or platforms to our league right now. We differentiate ourselves because of the technology solutions we have in place to offer a unique experience and few other games lend themselves to work the way we want to support them. If COD MW2 ever released a dedicated server and SDK then we’d probably jump at the opportunity to support it.
As of today, the ESEA site says there have been “157 cheaters recently banned.” Do you think the problem of cheating in eSports is getting worse or have the different anti-cheat systems around the world made a dent?
There are always going to be cheaters in sports. Baseball has steroids and we have wall hacks! It’s our job to make sure that we have a strong system in place to detect and ban cheaters. It’s a giant game of cat and mouse game between us and cheaters but fortunately we have a full time team of people who work to monitor and update our anti-cheat to stay on top of the game.
Recently ESWC announced a large prize pot for its summer event. As a founding member of the G7 teams, what do you think about this? What is G7’s current position regarding ESWC? What is the reasoning behind this position?
I’m a little disappointed with how ESWC has handled this to date. When they were first acquired, their new ownership reached out to G7 Teams and they said they were going to be announcing a plan to pay back past-champions. Time went on, we heard nothing, and so we launched our petitions against CPL, GGL, and ESWC. This finally got their attention after they’d ignored a few of our follow up e-mails. They were very upset that we took our grievances public and we tried to explain that we’re here to work with them and the community to make good on past prize payouts and help ensure future events are as great as their past ones.
I don’t know that we have a formal position yet with ESWC but we are discussing it internally and hopefully will have some news for the community soon. Right now, I encourage the community to stand behind our petition to boycott all ESWC events worldwide until the owed prize money has been addressed. It is absolutely absurd to me that anyone would go to their events without even a response, plan, or statement from ESWC regarding the owed money.
“Never say never” is now a popular catchphrase when it comes to the famous Team 3D. Do you have any immediate plans for the resurrection of the famed organization or are you keeping it in your back pocket as an option for the future?
No plans for Team 3D right now… I’m focused on ESEA and ESEA League. I had the chance to re-acquire Team 3D from CGS when they closed shop, much like Jason did with compLexity, so I took advantage of the opportunity while it was there. Who knows the future holds.
Now that you have many years of involvement with professional gaming, what do you think needs to happen to take it to the next level? Will eSports remain a small closed community or do you think it will eventually achieve mainstream acceptance?
To take e-sports to the next level we need to re-develop superstars, grow the viewership for matches, and recapture the energy and buzz that overwhelmed the community during big events! The way the video game industry is growing, gaming is no longer a subculture – it is mainstream and I think over time it will be a natural progression that people take interest in, understand, and respect the superstars that play at the highest levels. We need to get our own house back in order before we try to push it back onto the mainstream… we just need to be ready.
What professional gaming trends can eSports fans expect to see over the next couple years?
I hope that we can expect to see more events, bigger matchups, and more hype in the future. Consoles have kind of dethroned PC gaming in the US, but I think there is too much money endemic to PC gaming for it to continue to be pushed aside. We just need to get our act together and be open to change.
Thanks again for the interview. Any final shoutouts or comments?
I just want to remind everyone that our ESEA Season 5 LAN Playoffs are being held in Dallas, TX March 12 – 14 and will be held in conjunction with a 120 person BYOC. All proceeds go to charity, so if you’re in the area or willing to travel, signup online and be part of it. If you can’t make it then stay tuned to ESEA.net for SpecTV, scorebot, stats, and live stream information. Thanks to coL for the interview.