IEM Cologne: What Have We Learned?
by Tom Coles

IEM Cologne: What Have We Learned?

The first international CS:GO LAN for over a year took place over the last two weeks. Both the play-in and the main event for Intel Extreme Masters Cologne were held on LAN in Germany, and while we’re still some way from the true LAN experience with fans in arenas, it’s a huge step on the “return to normal” after COVID. But what did the first LAN for 500 days tell us - both about where we are right now and where we might be going?

It’s LAN, Jim, but not as we know it

What comes to mind when you think of LAN? Players facing each other in front of giant screens? Crowds cheering on the action? Suffice to say none of that was the case this year. Teams were segregated from one another, to ensure there was no COVID spread; there were no crowds for much the same reason. The casters were not even in the same studio as the games being played, working from ESL’s studios around Europe, while quarantine regulations meant that some teams played from practice rooms and some players were forced to play from their hotel rooms. (ESL’s innovation to run the entire event in a single hotel complex,
all connected to the same network, was vital, as it prevented COVID cases from destabilising the event or compromising its integrity) 

Some fans were disappointed - cries of “not a real LAN” were common throughout the play-in - but they can be safely dismissed. The realities of the COVID-19 pandemic - and the
tier 1 schedule - mean that LANs, at least for now, cannot proceed as they used to. Finding a way to make sure that they can happen consistently is vital to the CS ecosystem - and ESL have led the way in that regard. 


We Are Experiencing *cough* Technical Difficulties

Most events have some kind of technical difficulties. Equipment that worked in the morning suddenly dying, power fluctuations, broadcast overlay going down. Add COVID into the mix, and combine it with the fact this was the first LAN back, and it was a recipe for trouble. Not to, say, Gaming Paradise levels - all games took place as scheduled and the streams were maintained throughout - but there were some lengthy tech pauses, while the different locations of the casters (and consequent delays on the stream) meant that at times the casters were (slightly, but noticeably) ahead of the broadcast. 

With strict COVID protocols in place, there was only one positive test: a Heroic player (who later tested negative); while two Spirit players were forced to play from their hotel rooms due to close contact with a positive case on their flight in. These are likely to be the cost of “doing business” going forward; tournament organisers will need to have plans in place for positive cases, to make sure the tournament can continue - and to reduce the number of cases, since an outbreak would likely compromise the whole thing beyond repair. 

ESL’s success in dealing with COVID will hopefully be matched by other tournament organisers, and fingers crossed the experience of running Cologne will enable future events to proceed more smoothly with regards to tech issues.

Fans Love It 

As we went into Cologne, there was a narrative developing that elite CS:GO was having a viewership crisis. ESL’s previous event, IEM Summer, had reported low viewership figures, and
even the BLAST Spring Final, another large event, reported an average of just 160k and a peak of fewer than 400,000 viewers. These were blown out of the water come the main event, which had an average viewership of 235,000, with the final’s peak of 843,000 smashing the viewership record for a non-Major event, set at 506,000.  

There are several explanations for the jump in viewership; clearly IEM Cologne is a bigger event (in terms of prestige, invited teams, and prize pool) than the comparatively minor Summer; there was also the matter of Euro 2020 competing for viewers. But the “LAN bump” - after more than a year and a half without one on the international stage - seems very real. The bump in viewership will probably help assuage fans’ fears about Counter-Strike’s longevity amid competition from VALORANT - and proves LAN tournaments are still viable into the future. 

The More Things Change, the More They Stay The Same 

Speaking of LAN bumps, people were wondering how the pecking order would change once we returned to offline tournaments. And they were not disappointed. 

Astralis - the former gods who have looked listless in 2021, even before losing dev1ce - seemed revitalised, with Xyp9x in particular returning to his past form; they made it all the way to the semi-finals before falling to G2 in a close series. FaZe Clan started the Play-In outside the top 30 after a string of last-place finishes, but the experience of karrigan, olofmeister and rain proved enough to secure a spot in the semi-finals, taking down online titans Gambit and Heroic along the way. 

In the run-up to the event there was talk about the dominant sides of the online era: would they still be able to compete once they got into the high-pressure LAN environment? And a few teams did struggle. OG fell to Renegades in a stunning upset in the Play-Ins; the ESL Pro League 13 champions Heroic could not make it out of the group stage; and former world #1 Gambit suffered a quarter-final exit to FaZe Clan which must be considered a disappointment by their own high standards. 

That said, there were some things that stayed the same. The final, between NaVi and G2, was identical to the final at the last LAN - IEM Katowice 2020. Buoyed by huge form from their star players, especially NaVi sniper s1mple, who produced an astonishing 1.51 average rating over the event. The two teams picked up right where they left off last year, and the event even ended the same way - a dominant 3-0 victory for the CIS side.

The Future Is Ever-Changing

So, that’s great, right? We held our first LAN, it went really well, surely we just do it again in a month after the player break?

Would that it were so simple.

ESL have announced today [writer’s note: good thing I had time to go back and edit this] that their next event, ESL Pro League Season 14, will take place online due to the ongoing
uncertainty. The fact that they are not even attempting to hold the play-offs on LAN (their original plan for season 13, after online groups) is in and of itself a bad sign that suggests significant obstacles behind the scenes.  

Bringing players together from different countries is tricky at the best of times, but now you have to add in quarantine restrictions, which are different in every country and for every
starting point. It was frankly a miracle that IEM Cologne happened as planned when the teams competing in the CIS RMR - which finished 2 days beforehand - had to arrive in time to complete their quarantine and test-to-release before the tournament. Something as small as a change from 5-day quarantine to 10-day quarantine for a single country could completely throw an event off kilter. Even the Major, the largest Counter-Strike competition, is somewhat up in the air, with organisers PGL deep in negotiations with the Swedish government.

There’s also the question of facilities. Cologne worked because there was a 5-star hotel complex which ran on a single network, along with a broadcast studio and infrastructure. Even in Europe, those are not plentiful. One option would be to return to Cologne, similar to how most snooker competitions in 2020 were run out of a resort in Milton Keynes. But Cologne right now is not the same as it was going in; at the start of the Cologne play-ins, there were just over 5,000 weekly cases of COVID-19 in Germany; now, that number is increasing (up 63% in the last week). If the German government were to re-impose restrictions, that would likely kill any tournament ESL try to run all over again.

One thing is for sure. Counter-Strike will return to LAN. But it’s going to take a lot of work - and possibly a little bit of luck - before we see the pinnacle of the esport again.