'There shouldn't be social pressure to stop people from being a villain': James Bardolph on IEM Cologne, cadiaN, and NA CS
After commentating professional Counter-Strike for nearly a decade now, it is undeniable that James Bardolph is one of the game's most iconic and recognisable voices. Many of the game's greatest plays and moments have had both himself and his longtime commentating partner Daniel "ddk" Kapadia behind them.
We had the chance to speak with Bardolph after his return from IEM Cologne 2023, discussing the history and iconography of Cologne as an event, the future of Counter-Strike as an esport, and a few of his personal favourite moments in CS:GO's history as the game comes to a close.
All roads lead to Cologne
IEM Cologne 2023 marked the first time in seven years that Bardolph has attended the event in a professional capacity, yet the magic still remains, and in the last moments of CS:GO as an esport there's seemingly scarcely a better place to be.
"It's an event where lifetime memories are made. I remember the first time I worked it and… you see the setup and the cascading chairs for the first time, and you're like 'wow'. It is just not like anything else."
It is not just the mythos of the event itself that contributes to the aura either, with the city of Cologne itself playing a big part in why this is such a special time in Counter-Strike's calendar.
"You have enough time to go around the city, look at the actual cathedral, and just absorb the vibes of the area which matters. It contributes to the overall feeling, expectation, and anticipation of the event.
"Working Cologne, especially with the history it already has, is an honour before the event starts. You know you're going to be part of something special. It's different when that Major title is tacked on but outside of that nothing really compared to Cologne on the calendar."
The evolution of Counter-Strike
While Bardolph has worked a vast number of high-profile events since his first venture in Cologne back in 2016, it is a rather great point to look back to in order to see how much CS:GO has evolved as an esport.
"If you were looking at these two events in a vacuum then much has changed. The overall level of professionalism on the circuit from the expectations, what's available to us working on the broadcast, the attitude and maturity of the players.
"We have a very solid professional circuit now, but that's many years of learning for everybody at ESL and so on. I think with all those years it just builds the anticipation. The first time I went it was what it might be, but now you know it's gonna be special."
The cadiaN controversy
One of the biggest talking points from this year's IEM Cologne was the controversy surrounding comments that Casper "cadiaN" Møller made during a match against Mongolz. The CS:GO community appeared divided over the Danish IGL's remark that the Mongolian team were "f*****g noobs", but Bardolph certainly has his own thoughts on the situation.
"The ubiquity of internet gaming and built-in matchmaking options isn't like it was 10 years ago or longer. I think a great example is arcade culture, or if you had a Gears of War or a Halo tournament, you'd be playing the guy next to you and people would be behind you talking smack.
"You've got to cope with that, it's like a sink-or-swim thing. And I think a lot of people in these new generations have not experienced that. That kind of old-school LAN vibes are good."
It seems easy to forgive a player like cadiaN too, who has worked harder than most for his entire career, and perhaps has earned the right to talk the talk and throw some heat back.
"CadiaN is like the 'everyman', showing you that with hard work and grit, you can do it. He has had to do it the hard way over years and years, so I think a lot of the time the smack talk is more for you than it is for your opponent.
I do think there was some awkwardness in that it was the quiet team who didn't speak much English just getting roasted. But there shouldn't be social pressure to stop people from being a villain. If you want everyone to be buttoned up and so on it's not interesting […] People should have the space to be an a*****e as long as it's not anything crazy - and that wasn't anything crazy in my opinion."
Valve's decision to limit brand partnerships
As VP of content at FACEIT, Bardolph has been no stranger to the difficulties when it comes to brand associations in the past. While FACEIT and ESL have since merged in 2022 - allowing him to work the majority of ESL competitions since - there has undeniably been a 'vacuum' of available events to work for most of his career.
This exclusivity also appears on the player and organisation side of things too, with certain tournament organisers creating 'partner teams' that automatically become invited to their events. Valve has put in motion actions to go against this, however, and we asked James for his thoughts on the situation as a caster and as part of FACEIT.
"I think there are pros and cons depending on who you are. For the brands who are part of those agreements, it helps them, there's financial support there. But I think change is needed to stop teams from being stale.
We've seen some bizarre scenarios where teams that aren't doing very well have slots and then there's less availability for up-and-coming teams. I would hope that this will help things go more in the right direction where there's more sustainability rather than inflated salaries, which don't make sense in the grand scheme of things."
The overall health of Counter-Strike
While it does seem a bit silly to consider the health of a game that has stayed near the top for nearly two decades now, it is certainly a valid question to consider when there are so many other titles vying for Counter-Strike's crown.
"I think Counter-Strike is lucky compared to other esports in that we've got many years of history." Bardolph remarked, "We've got a lot of people who are involved in organisations who have been here for quite a while, and there's many learnings to be had compared to some other games.
"I think we've got a lot of cash grabs and promises that people who've been in the industry for a while can see can't be delivered on, and we're seeing the results of that in different games. I think to some degree the industry is hurting at present with there being less venture capital (VC), but I think we're probably feeling that less than other esports."
Perhaps the biggest threat to Counter-Strike - especially within the North American market - though is VALORANT, which has left quite a hole in terms of organisations and players that CS has struggled to recoup.
"When another tactical FPS appears I would say it is generally a good thing because it spurs on competition. I think VALORANT filled a gap and in NA especially it was a big issue for Counter-Strike. When a new game arrives, that's a new opportunity - especially for orgs who are making proposals for VC.
"They'll go 'Let's seize this opportunity and be the biggest brand'. We saw that with Overwatch with those crazy buy-ins, and we saw it with VALORANT as well. In NA there's a lot of online play for VALORANT, whereas Counter-Strike over the years has transitioned into a primarily LAN, and I think that might make things more expensive from an organisation point of view."
Making the right decisions to bring that audience back to CS will be vital for it as an esport though, and there are some holes that could crop up to allow that.
"I think you need to make a compelling case for players to go back to CS from VALORANT. I don't really follow VALORANT but I'm not really sure how viable the tier-two scene is for players as a career pursuit, so there may be opportunities for there for CS.
"In Europe, you're dealing with smaller budgets per country, whereas NA is one big audience so budgets are generally bigger. It's a very key region, and everybody will be trying to rebuild it, but I think a lot of things have to come together for it to be successful."
Favourite moments in CS:GO history
As we are shortly moving over to Counter-Strike 2, we are technically leaving the illustrious history of CS:GO behind us, and with it all of the iconic moments we have come to love. As someone who has not only seen but called so many of CS:GO's most famous plays, we asked Bardolph what his favourite moment was - and it just to happened to be one that he was in the booth for.
"I'll keep it easy, I think one of my favourite moments has to be the MLG Major when coldzera got the jumping double with the AWP. Just the absurdity of that play but also the importance of it. It was a crazy force buy from the squad, he had no kevlar and they were like 9-15 down and he was the only person on that bomb site.
"We set it up quite well actually, in terms of the expectation when they whole [opposing] team was in apartment and he was very, very much alone. It was not just the play itself but the fact that it turned the game around, which is bananas. MLG was a special event in general too, it was definitely a festival feel, so I think that's a good one."
While it was ddk who's voice emboldened the jumping double from cold, Bardolph has no shortage of supreme lines that have etched their way into the minds of the CS community. 'Stewie's on his own', 'this is not FPL, this is a major', but what is James' personal pick for his best commentary line?
"I don't think I have a favourite line myself. I think if people who are watching have a favourite line of mine then that's always really cool and honourable. It's more the moment for me that I'm experiencing versus what I'm saying.
"Although there was a very old clip where three or four TSM players died to a Molotov coming out of apps on the old Inferno and I just went on some crazy monologue saying 'It's Saturday but it's a Sunday roast' and just listed items from a typical Sunday roast. So that was just like a flow of consciousness which I quite enjoyed."
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