The games publisher is perpetually a major factor in the growth of esports that we all would like to pretend doesn’t exist. I tend to forget this important aspect of the scene a lot. The presence of an additional party in the mix that literally owns the intellectual property that comprises the field of play of esports is one of the few things that is a real differentiating factor between esports and physical sports, and it’s an issue that we’re just beginning to figure out.
Warsow, for instance, seemed to have sprung into existence as a response to this very issue. Their answer was to release a game under an open source license in an attempt to take the publisher factor out of the loop. The thought was that a scene around a freely available game, that had no exclusionary provisions regarding the IP of the game itself, would see more rapid growth as an esport compared to other publisher-driven titles. This way, nobody would technically ‘own’ the sport. They tried to create a situation analogous to most sports, where nobody has claim to the sport itself, only the constructs built around it, such as leagues, teams, equipment, etc.
So why haven’t we seen explosive growth from Warsow? Yes, there’s some cups here and there, and it was run by some of the major prize circuits, and it’s arguably a very solid game. But in ditching the publisher, you also ditch the exposure that the publisher can bring to the table. Open source, community-built stuff often sees much slower growth than a triple-A title, simply because it’s promotions are mostly word-of-mouth.
Conversely, we’re seeing tremendous growth on the competitive side of triple-A games from publishers that have gotten directly involved with the competitive scene around it. The notables here are Blizzard with Starcraft II, and S2 Games with Heroes of Newerth. I think these success stories will be the start of a growing trend in PC gaming in particular (not so much with consoles).
Competitive communities aren’t to be treated as that 1% of your player base that are just obsessive, obnoxious fuckers to be kept off in the corner, in order to shield the game for being ruined for the common pubber; if you make competitive scene the centerpiece of your playerbase, it can help drive sales, can keep people engaged with the game, can help you make your game better, and can have a positive impact the bottom line of said game and subsequent titles. These examples also prove that savvy publishers are capable of balancing their prerogative to demand a cut of businesses that use their game as a raw material, and the necessity in not encroaching on the operations of these businesses to the point of having a detrimental effect on the entire competitive ecosystem. Whether you disagree or not with Blizzard’s approach towards the Korean pro scene in the transition from Brood Wars into Starcraft II, you can’t really argue with the results.
Whether or not you find a publisher imposing themselves on an esport as evil or not, I think the only reasonable conclusion that can be reached at this point in time is that it’s a necessary evil. Without consistent, deliberate publisher support of the competitive scene around their game, it seems particularly difficult if not impossible today to establish a large enough audience quickly enough around a game to make it viable as an esport.
And this is why CSPro just doesn’t matter. Diverging into discussions of the mod’s improvements over CS:Source or its mission to bridge a very deep gap between the 1.6 and Source communities are ultimately pointless here. If the mod isn’t going to directly result in more people entering the game of Counter-strike, then it hasn’t a chance of fulfilling its purpose, and that relies very little on just how fucking awesome the mod is. How many people can you reach?
The only way of reviving the growth of Counter-strike as an esport is through Valve themselves. They’re the ones with the potential to reach millions of gamers simultaneously via Steam. It’s a capability that the CSPro modders just don’t have. I can’t help but think that the efforts would probably be better served networking with Valve as to incorporating their changes into the at-large CS:S, or help them with the next version (if it exists). Else, I feel that CSPro won’t enjoy any faster growth than Warsow has, spreading by word of mouth, and maybe seeing the light of day at a few tournaments…