IEM Cologne: The last rites in the Cathedral of Counter-Strike
There is an alarming scent in the air. Vision is obstructed. Drums start beating and their sounds reverberate between the arena and the surrounding buildings.
War chants follow and after a brief moment of panic in onlookers, they are rolling in. Fans of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive are marching. Their destination is Lanxess Arena in Cologne, Germany.
According to the tournament organiser, ESL, 37,000 fans congregated in the halls, which they call “the cathedral of Counter-Strike”. The theme takes from the Cologne cathedral and will be the mainframe that the production will run their storytelling through.
Even the line for those attendees with premium tickets that cost 329€ for the three event days coils around the various booths in front of the arena. By the Grand Finals, few seats will be left untaken.
Most of the fans have a chosen denomination, draped in the garments of their chosen team. Even fans of teams who didn’t make it to the playoff rounds are in attendance for the mass. Indeed, the arguably loudest group is the local German BIG Clan supporters club.
That their team hasn’t made it to the final stages doesn’t seem to dampen their mood. After all, they are here to celebrate a game that has brought many of them together and see it played with excellence that only pro players know how to.
It’s a special occasion, even more so since it will be the last time the Counter-Strike version Global Offensive will be played here. Who knows what happens with the impending Counter-Strike 2? Eschatological events are topics for another day. This weekend is all about the present.
The mass begins
Seeking shelter from the terrible weather in Cologne, the inside is warm and cosy. Hugs are exchanged by friends from different parts of the world, some meeting for the first time, others finally united again.
ESL’s production strikes a tone that could be seen as laid on too thick. After all, this is a tournament for professional video game players. Religious themes and heroic tales for such an occasion may be an acquired taste and the length it goes to is a choice not many other esports have followed it on.
And yet they seem to string a cord with the scene they are producing for. Whether through a process of filtering for these types of customers or meticulous focus group research, they appear to be in tune with their audience. There is history here, actors on stage willing to add to it, and fans ready to embrace it.
In comparison to other esports, Counter-Strike is largely a European phenomenon and that can be felt here. From its chants, allegiances, and attire, fan culture reminds of European football. Close your eyes and listen, and they might fool you. This crowd’s ‘SUI’ are top-notch.
A special occasion
Between a deep line-up of the best esports talent, an impressive stage setup, a sizeable staff and production team, a wide offering of shoulder content, and a thorough vetting process in their tournament format to assure that most of the best teams make it to the Lanxess, ESL appears to have opted to go the extra mile.
As the lights dim and the bells toll, caster by vocation, preacher by calling, Alex "Machine" Richardson is inviting the flock to mass. The chosen topical exposition is to remember the last decade of professional CS.
The screens on the stage show church windows. Light rays suggest a frame to the cathedral. A long walkway leads to the main stage and parts the audience. There is a difference in elevation between the player and the fan but not a large one. That too is the esports way.
Since 2014, the Intel Extreme Masters Counter-Strike events have been hosted at the Lanxess and the main screen plays a reasonably well-produced video of the most memorable moments that happened on this stage throughout the years.
Creating a moment
As the first players enter, they are supposed to position on marks on the walkway with the intention for spotlights to illuminate them on stage.
For the first walkout of the event, this comically fails as players miss their marks. It’s not a big deal, humour is part of the process after all. The irony of professionals who have memorised hundreds of positions and pixel-perfect line-up positions for their utility only to fail at this task gets a chuckle out of the front row of fans as they see the confusion in the player’s faces. By the second match, it works according to plan.
Overall, it’s not all serious. It’s still fun and games. The tone sits in an interesting super-position between light smirks and a serious acknowledgement of competitive excellence. It fits with the celebration of video game players who still have sacrificed a lot, have given long hours to their craft, and have distinguished themselves from their peers.
The processions of each game take longer than I anticipated. On day 1, four maps of Counter-Strike turned into a six-hour broadcast. Given the potential variance in match time, it could’ve spun even longer. In comparison to other events, this is a reality the CS fan has to be prepared for and makes evening planning for both online and offline viewers rather unpredictable.
For the audience at the arena, it never appears to halt to a lull. Animators keep the audience entertained and serve as an opportunity to deliver sponsor activations. While the show breaks character here, there’s little friction to re-engage the refuelled audience after these interruptions. If needed, the ground floor audience entertains itself by building an absurdly long stack of beer cups. Free beverages are fortunately included in the premium tickets.
A worthy end to an era
Most importantly, the games themselves deliver. With few exceptions, the matches played at the Lanxess turn into all-out brawls and while only one of them went the full distance, most of them are close.
Counter-Strike has an evergreen formula no other esports game has struck close to. Some have given up and straight up copied it. This stability affords luxuries.
A fortunate by-product of a game that remains relevant without gameplay novelty injections is that it allows for long playing careers, especially in its superstars.
It’s for those circumstances that a player like Astralis’ Nicolai "dev1ce" Reedtz gets to savour this renaissance moment of his career like he appeared to. Looking back at a decade-long career as one of the most successful players to have ever done it, he is sitting on stage taking round after round from Heroic, a Danish rival team and clear favourite for the match.
In the way he engages with the audience and in the play he delivers on the server, it looks effortless. Players like Dan "apEX" Madesclaire and Rasmus "HooXi" Nielsen show a similar charisma level. It’s a quality other esports would kill for and the Counter-Strike audience rewards it with attachment to these personalities.
However, this much is clear: Those that attract the largest following are not those that gained it by a cult of personality but by sheer skill expression. This Counter-Strike religion is polytheistic and its Gods that weekend go by NiKo, m0NESY, SunPayus, ZywOo, and more. Player name chants scale exponentially with their Average Damage per Round number. The stars have learned to feed off the energy.
As G2 Esports runs towards one of the last major trophies in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and the last one at the Lanxess arena, emotions are running high both in the players on stage and the audience watching the action in awe.
The team gestures towards their German coach and thus live audience-favourite Jan "Swani" Müller to have the first honour. He reluctantly agrees but wisely calls for backup. After all, the trophy is heavy and it takes a team to lift it.