Niclas Sundell, Head of Sales at esports data company Abios, writes for Esports Insider to explore the downfall of North American Counter-Strike — and why Counter-Strike 2 has a chance of revitalising the scene.
Even though Europe, CIS and Brazil have historically dominated Counter-Strike, North America has been home to many world-class esports organisations, including Cloud9, Complexity Gaming and Team Liquid. These major names have laid the foundation for a buzzing fandom, a strong player base and many top-tier players.
However, following the pandemic and launch of VALORANT, along with an emphasis on European competition, North American Counter-Strike has dwindled in recent years.
What led to the demise of Counter-Strike in North America?
In 2018, Cloud9 won the ELEAGUE Boston Major with an American roster — and the year after was arguably the year for North American esports. The ‘Liquid era’ was coined by the media to celebrate North American Team Liquids’ run to win six consecutive tier-1 competitions in 2019, putting North America on the map of Counter-Strike. Both Team Liquid and Evil Geniuses even reached #1 in the world rankings for a time, and Team Liquid won the Intel Grand Slam.
Then came the pandemic, bursting the bubble for North America (NA) by making travelling, and by extension LAN events, troublesome. Competition moved to regional events, putting North American Counter-Strike at a disadvantage.
Europe, CIS and Brazil had always dominated Counter-Strike esports. With no way for North American teams to compete head-to-head with the best teams in the world, viewership and interest in the American leagues declined.
The last nail in the coffin came with the launch of VALORANT. It prompted some of the leading American Counter-Strike personalities to switch gears, including Yay, Shroud and Tenz. With fewer domestic players and Counter-Strike influencers to root for and follow, viewership and engagement declined.
How can North America benefit from Counter-Strike 2?
Counter-Strike 2 came with many changes to gameplay, shooting mechanics and maps, meaning professional and amateur players alike had to switch gears and adapt to new playstyles quickly. During this process, Valve gathered feedback from players and teams, observed esports matches and took notes from casual skirmishes to perfect the game. This imposed a learning period on everyone.
Professional players who’ve spent years honing their precision shots and angles had to adapt to peeker’s advantage and altered spray patterns. They also had to adapt their spatial awareness and game sense to new lineups and smoke grenade mechanics.
The changes to the game levelled the playing field short term. Regardless of tier, every professional player had to spend hours relearning the game to compete at the highest level. This rings just as true for top-tier players such as S1mple or ZywOo as it does for a player competing in tier-3 Counter-Strike.
As such, Counter-Strike 2 provides an opportunity for new and upcoming players and teams to erupt from North America. With everyone getting used to the new game and many upsets happening, new teams can reach the limelight and find success quickly.
We have already seen US-majority Nouns Esports making waves in tier-2 competitions such as CCT, and no one following tier-1 esports has missed Complexity’s stunning near-victory at IEM Sydney.
While just one tournament, the podium spot for Complexity arguably already spells good news for the scene. Domestic teams capture the hearts of domestic fans like no other (Sweden’s Ninjas in Pyjamas being a case in point)
There are still a lot of Counter-Strike fans and players in the States. They just haven’t had a team or star players to root for in quite some time. Few countries are more patriotic and passionate than Americans, which means that if Complexity continues performing well, it could reignite the passion in the American Counter-Strike fan base.
Ecosystem changes may benefit NA
Valve, notoriously laissez-faire about its ecosystem, in recent months made two large announcements about the CS ecosystem; organisers can no longer have business relationships — such as franchising agreements — with teams, and the second Major of 2024 will be played in Shanghai.
The semi-franchised model of the BLAST Pro Series and ESL Pro League has allowed Evil Geniuses and Complexity to remain in the highest tiers of play and the limelight of international competitions. Nonetheless, it has also made it harder for other, younger organisations to reach the limelight and compete at the top level.
With BLAST and ESL being forced to alleviate their hold on the Counter-Strike tournament circuit and open up the ecosystem, it clears the way for other organisers and teams to find the limelight. Several teams have announced new CS2 rosters ahead of the next season, including Alliance and US-based esports juggernaut TSM.
While the location of the second Counter-Strike Major in 2024 does not set anything in stone, it might imply that Valve is moving to expand the borders of Counter-Strike and make its ecosystem more international. While this specific move is to the East, it is possible, that Valve set its sights on North America next to revitalise the scene.
North American Counter-Strike growth presents opportunity for betting industry
Growth in North American esports isn’t just good news for teams and fans — other esports stakeholders like betting firms stand to benefit, too. Many states are now permitting regulated esports betting, albeit to varying extents. With many states just regulating betting, others approving esports on a per-event basis, and some not regulating betting at all, it is hard to give an all-encompassing answer on Counter-Strike’s impact on the esports betting handle in the States.
VALORANT has seen immense growth in the North American market, spearheaded by teams such as Sentinels, Cloud9, Evil Geniuses, NRG and 100 Thieves. But publisher Riot Games does not allow gambling sponsorships in VALORANT.
As such, growth in the Counter-Strike scene could offer new sponsorship opportunities for teams from gambling firms. The game is also perfectly suited for betting products with its simple gameplay and engaging action. If the American audience would find new teams and players to cheer for, it could prove positive for sportsbooks in the region as well.
Why is Counter-Strike unparalleled in esports betting?
One reason for the popularity of FPS titles in betting might very well be that it is easy to understand for the uninitiated. While it has a high skill ceiling, Counter-Strike can be watched by both ingrained esports fans and casual sports enjoyers alike due to its relative simplicity. As such, it fits a variety of sportsbook users.
Moreover, with its fast, round-based action, it works well with the live offers that have amassed popularity in recent years in sports. Fans can bet on player performance with player props or make the entirety of a match more entertaining by filling out a same-game bet builder before a match.
If Counter-Strike 2 could capture the North American audience again, it could future-proof and grow its esports scene. The success South American scenes such as Brazil have had in this space is a testament to the opportunity available.
The key to the North American ecosystem is to produce domestic teams and players that consistently perform on the highest levels of play, giving the North American audience something to root for. As such, it is always important to support the grassroots ecosystem, for new talent to emerge and for teams to secure funding.
It remains to be seen if teams such as Team Liquid, Complexity or even Nouns Esports can continue to perform on the level needed on the world stage. If they do it consistently, we will likely start seeing an influx of viewers from the region, which will naturally also translate into betting.
While it’s too early to tell, we at Abios are excited about the prospect of new players joining the ecosystem. We hope North America can rise once again to challenge the European and Brazilian dominance in Counter-Strike.
Supported by Abios