Think about the greatest moments in CS:GO history. Think about the plays that you watch again and again, captivating even to this day. Think about the exhilarating highlights that never fail to pump you up.
Now consider what makes these plays special. What makes them linger in your mind, just as mindblowing as the day they happened? Certainly, the kills can often speak for themselves. For the best in the world, any round can make a highlight reel, regardless of external factors. But there’s something more to it that than raw skill and precision. Not every clutch of equal skill provides the same thrill. The iconic moments that we all love – Snax’s clutch in the Big Apple, Coldzera’s jumping AWP in Columbus – are on a different plane from the latest display of mechanical excellence in any old game of the EPL. What makes them memorable to this day, distinguished from the rest?
Above the metallic pangs of intense gunfights, over the hyped-infused shoutcasting, the roar of the crowd is what makes these moments so uniquely special. There’s nothing quite like the palpable exuberance of jumping out of your seat with a thousand other fans, all enthralled by the same awe that took your feet off the ground and your breath away. On its own merit, CS:GO is packed with fist-pumping, jaw-dropping action that has brought it front and center in the esports space. But it’s not until we share that with others that we find those memorable moments. When the crowd erupts in energy and passion, the explosion is felt everywhere, from the fans at home to the teams on stage.
Of course, the electric atmosphere of a passionate audience is not unique to Counter-Strike. The deafening boom of a fully packed stadium is one of the most beautiful traits of spectator sports. The tension of the crowd draws you into the mind of the players, taking you out of your living room and into the intensity on the field of play. The physical barrier between the game and the viewer is easily shattered by the emotional investment that a hyped up crowd can bring. The thunderous shake of an arena gripped by anticipation gives us a feeling to latch onto, one of fervor and zeal for the spectacle at hand. Without the second-hand excitement of a live audience, spectator sports would lose the auditory stimulus that contributes so much to their endless entertainment.
As a physical incarnation of competitive spirit, the roar of the crowd is an unquestionable benefit to the spectator experience. In traditional sports, they are an essential component of high-level play, and an undisputed necessity in any self-respecting competition. However, like any other aspect of traditional sports, the live audience formula should not be blindly ported to an entirely different realm of competitive play.
One of the biggest draws to the concept of competitive gaming is the lack of physical boundaries. Safety, practicality, and human error are of little concern in a virtual sandbox. Rocket-powered car battles and tense SWAT team gunfights have become sports only through the limitless potential of a digital playing field. But the nuanced technological capabilities of competitive gaming have also raised issues with the traditional method of viewership. In a real life environment, the give-and-take metagame of Counter-Strike intel is simply impossible to carry out. But thanks to the power of modern age technology, information has become a viable competitive battleground, the shifting balance of which can turn the tides of a match. As a result, the gap between the spectator experience and that of the player has increased dramatically. The observer is an omniscient being, informed on all the game-changing info, hidden from their puppets on the server. What would happen if those godlike figures took advantage of their all-seeing eye, in order to alter the outcome of a competitive series to suit their desires? Does the current situation of CS:GO spectating take entertainment over integrity?
These questions were brought under increased scrutiny in recent weeks, with the events of the ESL Pro League Finals in Dallas. In the grand finals, North and G2 took the stage, separated from a G2-favored crowd by only a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Soon, fears of fans playing god became reality. Throughout the entire 4-game set, G2’s many supporters could be heard screaming the locations of North, providing valuable intel without any in-game action. In certain, crucial situations, the compromising information nearly drowned out the casters, clearly audible even in the sensually active setting of a professional CS:GO match. Despite optimistic assurances that the headphones would suffice as noise-cancellers, it soon became clear through post-match statements that players of both teams could hear the crowd, and much of the illegitimate information they provided.
The EPL Finals were a reminder of this issue, but the problem itself is not a recent development. Multiple professional players, including N0thing of Cloud9 and steel from Immortals, have reported similar challenges to competitive integrity. At Dreamhack Bucharest, several fans were even able to hold up signs to leak information to Virtus.Pro. Not all instances are this severe, but even a miniscule amount of crowd interaction can change the course of a tournament. A change in the floor’s vibrations or a sudden hush to a bustling auditorium can tip off a player hiding in smoke or a round-changing execute. Who knows how many rounds, games, or even series have been lost off a slip of information that should have never been revealed?
These problems have existed in Counter-Strike for so long, they’ve simply become accepted by fans, pros, and tournament organizers as necessary evils for a successfully run event. More and more tournaments have omitted sound-proof booths from their more recent events, willing to sacrifice slightly decreased noise levels for players in favor of cleaner, prettier stages. Fire regulations and overall cost have also contributed to the decline in booths as a staple of competitive CS. Finally, some have downplayed the importance of closed in play areas, pointing to their inability to block out noise completely and the effectiveness of headphones as a justification for their The general disregard for booths is a disturbing trend for the maintenance of fair competition in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Booths may not be 100% effective, but they are a significant improvement over the open air setups that are commonly seen today. Specific callouts, like the ones at ESL Pro League, would be far less audible, and minor spikes in volume are harder to detect. It’s saddening that some of these tournament organizers would rather run the risk of an artificial advantage in what should be a skill-based sport, than try their best to normalize the competitive landscape of this beautiful game.
There will always be pros and cons to every situation. It’s impossible to please everyone, and dissatisfaction is the last thing any company wants. But in a thriving esport like CS:GO, the pursuit of serious competition should always be the primary goal. If that requires a minimized impact of the very people attending the event, then so be it. There is simply no way to achieve the desired increase in pressure and tension of a yelling crowd, without sacrificing the fairness of a standard match in the process. That is an unacceptable outcome, and can only hurt the scene as it continues to gain mainstream appeal. The outstanding reality that any number of matches could be decided not by the skill of a team but by the volume of their fans is outrageous in a serious competitive game. But in the end, it’s the players that matter. Before sold out arenas and non-endemic sponsors, before massive fanbases and million dollar prize pools, Counter-Strike was about the spirit of the game, and the awe-inspiring showcase of its very top level. Keeping the level of play at the top should always come before all else. When you think about those magical moments that the crowd turns into everlasting memories, remember the players who make it all possible.