The strangest part of TBS' first broadcast of the ELeague Counter-Strike tournament Friday night came right at the start, during the Turner Sports pre-roll video. Right there, in the middle of pro and college basketball highlights, was a brief clip of Counter-Strike. Not as a novelty, not as a bastard cousin of "extreme sports," but as just another sport carried on TBS. Like it had always been there.
Esports doesn't usually get this kind of treatment. Historically, it's the subject of behind-the-times trend stories written under PR guidance and laced with a lethal dose of generational patronization. "Can you believe these kids are paid to play video games and people actually watch them?" Far more surprising than Turner's decision to broadcast esports, then, was its decision to approach them with a straight face.
It made for a better, more accessible broadcast in the end. Counter-Strike's first major appearance on Turner risked leaving newcomers in the dark and instead put the focus on the games and the teams playing them. With the exception of a slightly over-edited "Counter-Strike 101" segment at the start, the ELeague broadcast seemed to trust that viewers either knew enough to follow the game or could catch up with a little in-context help.
If it managed to win over anyone stumbling in after The Big Bang Theory rerun that preceded it, much of the credit probably goes to casters Anders Blume and Auguste "Semmler" Massonnat, who have become the Madden and Summerall of the professional Counter-Strike scene. The two have become known for a briskly informal and knowledgeable approach to calling Counter-Strike games, and they were definitely throttling-back on their delivery for their first time on Turner.
It actually made them better casters for an evening, allowing them to explain concepts and shorthand that normally go unremarked on in a Counter-Strike stream. Esports sometimes has a problem, common to online culture, where expertise is measured by how knowing and obscure someone can be in their remarks. You didn't get the reference? Too bad, casual scum.
The ELeague broadcast was the opposite of that: all throughout, Massonnat and Blume were explaining the importance of each play in the context of the overall match. Why was that knife kill important? Because it pays five time as much money as a kill with a rifle. Why is money important? Because it helps you buy better, deadlier weapons. Without any condescension or impatience, the ELeague team unpacked a complicated game in a way that even taught casual fans like me a few new things.
None of which would have mattered if the games had been bad, and there was every reason to believe that they would be. You could not have asked for a matchup that promised to be more lopsided than Brazil's Luminosity Gaming versus America's Cloud9. Luminosity rapidly ascended over the winter to emerge as the top team in the world, while Cloud9 have struggled to distinguish themselves in an undistinguished region. ELeague's first Friday night final was destined to be a blow-out, and knowledgeable fans were bracing themselves for three hours of watching commentators feign excitement at the Counter-Strike equivalent of a Bills-Patriots game.
Instead, Cloud9 responded to the pressure by playing with a reckless abandon that the Brazilian team had trouble handling. Pro Counter-Strike is a game of tactics and teamwork but one of the things that makes it so gripping is that it's also a shooter where one player can win a round single-handedly, provided they have the reflexes and aim. Luminosity dominated Cloud9 in slower, more deliberately-paced rounds. But when Cloud9 threw caution to the wind, magic happened.
The team's much-criticized sniper, Tyler "Skadoodle" Latham, turned into a different player as his passive, camping style went out the window and he became the kind of kinetic, twitchy sniper that racks up unbelievable close-range kills against players he glimpses for a fraction of a second. Cloud9 captain, Jordan "n0thing" Gilbert, had a brilliant night, including one career-highlight in which he walked unnoticed past most of Luminosity Gaming in a smoke cloud, killed their sniper with a pistol, then took his rifle and proceeded to gun down half their team with his stolen weapon.
Of course, miracles are as rare in esports as they are in traditional sports, and Luminosity Gaming is notoriously difficult to put away. They forced a third game against Cloud9, on Counter-Strike's most famous battlefield Dust, and finally showed the kind of superiority that fans had been expecting all night. As they took the final with a 16-9 victory on the last map, they treated newcomers to a quintessential esports experience: they destroyed a North American team's hopes after letting them get within inches of a stunning upset.
It's rare, however, that a Counter-Strike final generates as many memorable moments as this one did. Turner could not have asked for better luck for its debut. But that's the great unknown behind the ELeague experiment. Esports has never lacked for evangelists, and certainly Counter-Strike's teams and players are hoping that the mainstream exposure that comes with Turner can bring in more advertisers, sponsors, and investors. The question that remains is whether that audience of latent esports fans actually exists.
ELeague represents two important bets. First, that Counter-Strike can grow into a legitimate sport and take its spot alongside the likes of hockey and basketball. Second, that cable sports networks can be a part of that future. Neither proposition is a sure thing.