The news that Turner Broadcasting is launching an in-house Counter-Strike league next year has, predictably, evoked comparisons with the fundamentally flawed and hopelessly doomed Championship Gaming Series that DirecTV put on eight years ago. As perhaps the only person who was actually willing to publically identify the CGS as the boondoggle it was from the beginning, I’m writing this morning to say that the CGS evocations should stop, immediately. This project has more plainly evident differences with the CGS than similarities, and while there are a few key parallels and larger points of concern, this project has a far better setup for success.
Turner is not telegraphing any indication that they intend to ‘lock up’ teams and players in this league; let alone purchase operational assets, brand properties, or player contracts. The explicit goal of CGS was to own all of esports, forever and ever, amen. This is perhaps the most important difference from an operations standpoint. If this project fails to gain enough momentum in the eyes of Turner to warrant further investment after the first season or two, it will not mean a second Great Esports Recession; the effects will be more on the scale of what ESGN’s implosion meant to the Hearthstone scene. The rest of the scene will be able to find ways to continue operating mostly as it has, whether this project finds staying power or not, instead of facing a situation where capitulation is the only practical course of action, and years of oblivion the only result if it fails.
Turner is putting this new league on their flagship station, which came second only to ESPN in primetime cable ratings for adults aged 18-49 in 2014 (and yet, was still down 14% year-over-year); and the content will be produced by a Turner Sports division that is nothing to sneeze at, bringing extensive experience from broadcasting NBA basketball for years. For those who were paying attention when CGS launched, DirecTV cobbled together an entirely new production house, and stuck the programming on a DirectTV-exclusive in-house channel that nobody watched. Ever. Turner has the cross-promotional channels and existing audience mass to make this project work; DirecTV rolled the dice on CGS hoping it would make their own random potpourri channel work.
The scene is orders of magnitude more mature and robust than it was when the CGS rolled up. Valve has directly supported the scene for a while now, and prize pools are large enough that you’d need to bring truckloads of cash to get the scene at large to drop everything and sell right the fuck out again. The power dynamic is different. Top teams — the sort of teams Turner must attract for this to work — will not tolerate a competitive format where they’re lumped in with some other nameless fool playing a racing game. Top teams will not tolerate the adulteration of the Counter-Strike format to fit into a traditional television block format. The things that are sacred will remain sacred, because Turner needs esports, esports is just fine without it, thank you very much.
These factors set the stage for a project that is looking to be a part — a quite significant part, but still a part — of the scene at large, and it’s why there should be broad optimism and support for it if Turner holds to the moves they’ve telegraphed this week, and it’s why the CGS comparisons should taper off quickly. It’s a different game this time around, and it should be good for everyone.