Pillars of Sand: PUG platforms and the erosion of North America's foundation
To anyone who has been following recent headlines in the CS:GO space, it is beyond evident that North America as a region has suffered heavily since the beta release of Riot Games' VALORANT.
In mere weeks, teams at the tier two level disbanded, players both new and old announced their departure for the FPS, and the feeder league for ESL Pro League, ESEA's MDL, was left with a number of rosters that were hastily put together or entered the league with a focus on "pugging the season." While the opportunity now exists for fresh talent to make their mark in the coming months and years, it is without question that the overall level of Counter-Strike in North America at the tier two and below level is at its worst point since early 2018.
For some fans, criticism and disdain was quickly aimed at players who were swift to make the switch to the new FPS in search of a paycheck, and in turn, many of those players directed their ire at the lack of organizations interested in acquiring a CS:GO team to allow them to continue competing full-time. The handling of ESL Pro League's restructuring and the change in promotion process from MDL to EPL also left many players with few options in terms of advancing their careers, leading to some seeking new opportunities in VALORANT.
Additionally, on-air broadcast members and players at various levels have pointed towards an overbearing focus on statistics in North America fostering poor habits and culture, more experienced players retiring before passing on their teachings, and a lack of in-game leaders contributing to a failure to properly develop upcoming talent. Also, incentives for an organization to sign a team in North America who is not already at the top is low, as they are likely to yield a higher return on their investment by signing the best or second best team from a smaller region like Spain, where they could draw upon the nationalistic element of the team to entice fans and sponsors.
Some of the above concerns have been addressed by players both recently and in past years. Last week, Rahul "curry" Nemani, Maxim "wippie" Shepelev, and Jaccob "yay" Whiteaker all took to Twitter with their perspectives on the current situation in North America as it relates to players leaving the game, the competition and lack of oversight in Rank S and FPL, and some of the reasons that players have struggled to formulate professional teams. Many of their points were backed up by notable names, including Jake “Stewie2K” Yip, Joshua “steel” Nissan, and Anthony “vanity” Malaspina.
In a reply to steel, ESEA staff member and Rank S/G community manager Jackson “el_jack0” Wolf asked the Chaos captain and semi-pro player-base as a whole on how they could change their system, questioning whether allowing only MDL and EPL competitors to play in Rank S would be a good solution. Although a good idea on paper, Tyler “tweiss” Weiss pointed out that this would penalize players who are unable to commit themselves to a team at a single point in time, and possibly take away the opportunity for some to pursue playing the game full-time.
I will not delve much into the issue of adding, removing, and cleaning up players, but it is an important first step in dealing with the problem in the hubs, and would hopefully encourage professional players to return. It is not, however, a be-all-end-all solution, nor will it help long-term growth in the region, which is what the focus of this article is on.
It's easy to place blame on any number of the above factors for the downward trajectory of CS:GO in North America, especially with the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that have taken hold of the world and left the scene with no upcoming offline events on the calendar. However, none have been more debilitating than the extreme focus on pick-up games (PUGs) that platforms like ESEA and FACEIT have fostered with the prize money in Rank S and FPL, combined with the complete lack of standalone tournaments to help players gain experience in proper team settings.
The issue for platforms like FACEIT and ESEA is that they must balance the interests of their players and the health of the scene — that is, the top-level competitors who draw attention to their hubs and clubs — and their own interests as a company, which aligns with enticing more and more players to take part in that competitive circuit in hopes of attaining a spot in the leagues alongside the pros. The way money has been thrown around in these leagues should be a shock, though.
Famously, the two platforms engaged in a bidding war in late 2018 that saw an enormous increase to their prize pools, with both aiming to draw pros to play on their servers so that they could build a qualification circuit around attaining a spot in FPL or Rank S. This very bidding war is what, in my eyes, began a downward spiral for building a strong base of players in North America and led to an even worse situation than we were in previously.
Before further delving into my perspective and potential solutions, I want to clarify two points. First, having a platform to play high-level PUGs on, and one that rewards money for the effort of competing, is not inherently an issue on its own, and has historically provided a system that allows players to rise up in CS:GO based on their own merits — talents like Owen "oBo" Schlatter, Sam "s0m" Oh, wippie and more have come up through this very system in the past two years, for example.
However, the issue arises when it is more rewarding for a player to invest their time into solely playing on these PUG platforms due to the massive amount of prize money available, rather than practicing or playing matches with their team, watching demos, or working on fundamentals and grenade lineups on their own. Secondly, playing in these PUG divisions may be monetarily rewarding for a skilled player, but the money or prestige gained from a top placement goes to that player alone, and provides little benefit and no tangible financial return to a potential organization that is looking to sign a team in the region.
To find out just how much has been distributed through the two primary platforms, Rank S and FPL, I reached out to members of the staff team for ESEA and FACEIT. Although the former were initially unresponsive, the latter provided me numbers for how much money they have paid out since the North American relaunch of FPL and FPL-C in March 2018. From that date up until April 30, 2020, members of the FACEIT team informed me that FPL in North America has paid out $986,217 to its players, while FPL-C has distributed $180,150.
I was able to total the approximate amount paid out for Rank S in 2019 as we kept a running tally on Dust2.us during the year, with the ballpark figure looking to be around $205,424. Also note that since early February 2019, matches in Rank S have only played out on Fridays after the organizer made a change to their format due to losing the aforementioned bidding war with FACEIT. Rank G also had its prize pool increased to $3,000 to match that of Rank S in February, so conservatively, we can estimate that it paid out close to $140,000 in 2019.
Conversely, the prize pool for a two to three month long training season of MDL is $35,000 (distributed only among the top eight of sixteen teams), while placing in the top three during a promotion season would award you with a spot at Global Challenge, which offers a $75,000 prize pool. After that prize pool is split among the placing teams, it would once again be split among the members of your roster, with another cut potentially going towards a coach or organization’s share of the money.
Say a team claimed a hard-fought first place finish at Global Challenge — something which no NA team has done to date — they would win $25,000. Assuming that is evenly split among a team of five without accounting for any additional factors, that is $5,000 apiece for around twelve weeks of effort - less than the $6,000 prize pool that is distributed among the top placing players in Rank S and Rank G combined per week, the same amount that is paid out per week of FPL-C, and half of the $10,000 weekly prize pool for FPL.
- First place in FPL grants $3,000 a week, while Rank S and G each offer $1,000 to the winner
- If a player was to place first in Rank S, Rank G, and FPL all in one week, they could claim the exact same figure for themselves as a first place finish at Global Challenge ($5,000)
- Even consistent tenth place finishes in FPL, which awards $450, could allow a player to earn close to $2,000 in a single month. Regular placements in the lower end of the top ten over the course of two months would be nearly as rewarding monetarily as winning Global Challenge
These ridiculous figures, combined with a lack of organizations interested in signing non-established teams, gives players more incentives to grind through PUG after PUG rather than put focus on other elements of their game, occasionally leading to players who lack knowledge of grenades, gamesense, or top-tier communication being able to advance to FPL primarily through having good aim and playing more matches than other players. Additionally, the system as a whole rewards individual hero plays rather than teamplay and cohesion, leaving player development woefully incomplete and leading to many players first learning to play the game in a PUG, and then relearn it entirely as part of a team.
In Europe, FPL operates with a different prize pool, paying out $20,000 on a monthly basis to competing players rather than the per-week prize of $10,000 in North America. However, there is also one critical difference between the two regions — teams in Europe have the opportunity to compete in a variety of stand-alone events and tournaments, usually operated by betting companies and third-party sponsors.
Because of a difference in the availability of these sorts of sponsorships due to betting regulations and upcoming teams in NA having a smaller following, the same opportunities are rarely offered to players and rosters competing on this side of the pond. A handful of attempts have been made, notably with the recent iterations of the Mythic Cup and previously our very own Dust2.us Masters, but finding sponsors and funding the operation of tournaments such as these is no easy feat.
As such, I propose a solution to ESEA and FACEIT, and applaud whichever of the two make an effort to implement it first. Subtract a portion of your prize pool from your PUG leagues — whether that is $1,000 or $2,000 a week, or more — and allocate it to a monthly or bi-monthly open-entry tournament.
ESEA already operate a 5vs5 weekly cup, but the prize offered is often a variant of a minimal wear skin for each competing player on the winning team — a laughable incentive for a player who could otherwise be playing in Rank S or FPL. Both organizers have the clear capability to host a tournament of this stature on their platforms. Increase the incentive to compete into the thousands of dollars and see whether teams flock to sign-up for these events, even if only for a month or two, and I'm sure you'll have more attention than you would've thought. Create the event and give the community open GOTVs, see what happens.
The addition of a regular cup or tournament such as this would provide a wealth of benefits for the North American scene. For starters, it would give an incentive for teams to compete and practice more in a time where there are few qualifiers, and some leagues have moved to a semi-franchised model. It would also reward those who put a focus on teamplay, practice, and dedication to improving their craft, and give further insight into the skill level among teams of different calibers. Those who are competing in Advanced or Main may have the chance to go up against teams in MDL or a professional team who decides to take part, providing invaluable experience and exposure that they otherwise would be hard-pressed to gain.
Further still, organizations could gain insight into how teams perform in an open bracket, and rosters can gain attention by performing well. “Bad News Bears win $5,000 ESEA Cup #5” has a lot more appeal to interested parties than “ptr wins FPL week #145614”, and having more regularly viewable weekend-long tournaments could incentivize organizations to invest more heavily in teams in the region. More opportunities for commentators and production members would be created, whether through their own channels or through ESEA and FACEIT, should the organizers decide to cover a portion of the tournament through a broadcast.
As time goes on and if the model proves successful, sponsors may also choose to contribute to the prize pool, or offer funds for the organizer to create a broadcast around the latter stages. I also presume, maybe erroneously so, that the players competing in the FPL and Rank S circuits would not be opposed to a one or two-tenth cut to the weekly prize pool if it meant that they had more team-based tournaments to compete in, and a proper way to help develop players.
All in all, I see few drawbacks in at least testing the idea with redistributed funds from the platforms, and a plethora of potential benefits. To be clear, by no means do I think I am the first to come up with this idea, and if that is indeed the case, I question how this has not already been attempted in recent months by the platforms themselves. Have ESEA and FACEIT grown complacent in letting things continue as they are? Do they think that just pumping more money into their PUG leagues to out-do their competitor is the only solution, or is one of them ready to make a change for the better and encourage growth in the region? Right now, the long-term success of their platforms depends on the health of upcoming teams and players, and both operators sit in a position where they can make a small change to the benefit of many. What remains to be seen is, which will be the first to get ahead?