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Massive Q&A with Thorin about ELEAGUE Season 1, whether esports can (or needs to) succeed on TV and Valve’s mistake with skins gambling

Duncan “Thorin” Shields is perhaps the most well known voice in professional Counter-Strike and has made an impact on the scene in various forms over the years.

Whether it’s his writing, popular YouTube videos or becoming on-air talent, Thorin is one of the people whose opinions almost everybody in the scene craves. He joined the first season of ELEAGUE as a desk analyst, and Slingshot’s Vince Nairn had the chance to talk to Thorin before the semifinals of ELEAGUE for an extensive interview about a wide range of topics, including how Season 1 went, prospects for the future and what is going on in the world of competitive Counter-Strike.

Vince Nairn: What are your overall thoughts on the first season of ELEAGUE and getting to this final weekend?

Duncan “Thorin” Shields: I think it was definitely something new. One thing I thought turned out to actually be pretty good was the overall format of the league, because a lot of the concerns coming into the tournament before it was announced were about what the structure would be and what teams would be involved. Everyone was really scared that because it was going to be a league, it would be every week; every team has to be here and play. If the teams all have to come to Atlanta for 10 weeks, as you’ve seen with the online leagues elsewhere, it’s going to limit what tournaments can take place. That was a real concern, and I think they came up with a really good compromise, which is that really it was a league that was kind of a series of small tournaments, because each group was kind of like a tournament. And I think what was really clever was the group simulated league play by having more matches than just in a bracket of teams, by having the teams play out the group for the seeding, and then every team from the group goes to the (playoffs) anyway. I thought that was interesting myself because it meant that you had seen the teams that played in the semifinals or finals of the group play already, and then, in theory, you can see that mirrored in the playoffs.

I also thought it was a very interesting system with the last chance qualifier because it was basically three different ways you could qualify for the playoffs. You could win your group and qualify, come in second and go to the last chance qualifier, and even two of the teams that didn’t come from there had a chance to battle through and get into the playoffs as well. So basically, if you can’t make it through those three kind of thresholds, you’re probably not a good enough team to win. I’ve actually never seen someone who is like a new entrance, new entity into esports, kind of come up with their own approach like that. I thought it was quite clever. As a result, I think they’ve done a good job of getting a compromise between a league — which I’m not a huge fan of leagues myself. Like even American sports leagues, I think there’s too many games to play, you know? And I think a lot of people tune out like I do. Like, the NHL, for example, I just watch the playoffs. I can’t watch 80 games of a team. So I think they’ve got a good compromise between that, and you can still follow the thread, but eventually, you get to what I care about: You get to eight teams and you have a bracket. That’s the best part of the tournament. So we got there, but we got there by an interesting means. I thought it was pretty good.

VN: Obviously, SK not being here might dampen it a bit for whoever wins, but what would this mean for each of the four teams to win here?

DS: I mean, it does and doesn’t (dampen it). It does because you can’t essentially take the No. 1 spot in the world away from SK. They’ve already won the majors and they’ve won the other tournaments. So in a sense, them not being here means they can’t lose that spot as well. But I think it also sets up kind of a different narrative. If you’re a Na’Vi, Fnatic, VP, then you kind of actually, it’s like a boxing scenario. You don’t want the people to meet constantly. You want them to build up their records separately, and then meet in the super final. For example, a really good opportunity to me would be, what if Virtus.Pro wins this tournament? VP is the only team, in all of those majors against SK, who really took it to them, took a map off them, took them close to losing. So VP wins a tournament like this, I would be very excited to see that next matchup when they play each other. For all the teams, right now, except for I think mousesports, they all have something to play for because they all want to re-establish themselves as contenders. It’s more to me almost like the contender’s match to become best in the world if you win this tournament. It’s kind of comparable to a major in terms of the level of prestige. Prize money is pretty good compared to tournaments. I think the only team that can’t really say that is mousesports. If mousesports win, OK, great for them, obviously they get the money and prestige. But it would still be very much considered an upset, an underdog story. But I don’t think they’re playing for the same thing in that sense.

VN: What do you think about VP? It wasn’t that long ago people were saying maybe they should make a change to the roster that’s been together for so long. What do you make of their resurgent summer?

Photo by Patrick Strack/ESL,
Photo by Patrick Strack/ESL,


DS: There’s actually a line they had in an interview recently. It might have been with NEO, I think, where he said, in, they don’t swap players, they just swap roles. And that’s something they have done throughout their history because 1.6, when they had just NEO and Taz, until they actually brought Pasha in, they never had a huge, overwhelming roster change. They had one guy they brought in during (an earlier) era, where they brought in a young player, who not a lot of people remember, just for a few months. It didn’t work out, and they went back to the old lineup. And that was the lineup that you saw the last five or six majors. Admittedly, they had a luxury in 1.6 and that was NEO himself was so good at all aspects of the game. Not a lot of people realize this, but he’s one of the only superstars who switched up how he played based on the team. Usually, you go the other way. The superstar does what he does best. Like, forest will never change his style. He does what he wants, and you build the team around him. With the right pieces around him you’ll win. NEO, he was literally changing up his position sometimes. Because their whole concept was that’s the one rule. It’s kind of like in certain creative disciplines, I know people say that actually. One of the ways you can get out of problems when you’re in a creative slump, you use a creative limitation to inspire the next move. Just the task of really trying to do a really creative thing will make you come up with something new that’s never been done before. I think they do this in, actually. What they do is, they think “Well, the one rule is you can’t change the players. So with the pieces we’ve got now, what else could you do? What other configuration could you go to?”

Now no one else thinks that on any other team because what everyone else does is think, “Right, there’s one piece here that must be faulty. Replace the one piece, and everything else is working fine.” The problem they have tends to be that conceit often isn’t true. It’s very rare you need one roster move to change the whole team. Often, this guy’s failing, but that might only initially start to bring about failure. If you’re a team like EnVyUs, you probably have systemic failure. This position, that position, maybe even a star player who looks good isn’t fully maximizing his ability. So I think a lot of teams could benefit from kind of learning this aspect from I would admit, they only do it because they’re forced to. They don’t think within their team at the moment that they have anybody ready to take that spot. If they were in Sweden or France, and they know this guy who is the best player on the other team in their country, or a rising talent, the temptation is gonna be there to just gamble, bring that guy in kick out the guy who wasn’t performing. So i think it’s a really unique approach, but just as in 1.6, you can’t argue with the results.

All that needs to be said is in the majors, we’ve had nine majors, and the only one they didn’t make the playoffs with this lineup was the first one. The last eight majors in a row they’ve made the playoffs, and a bunch of them, they’re there in the semis, and they’re just losing to the team who wins. So if that’s the hardest tournament in the world to win, I think the results bear themselves out.

VN: You touched a little bit on format, but from an operations standpoint and a hype standpoint, how has the first season of ELEAGUE met any expectations you had coming in?

DS: Personally, if I was to structure my own league — which, obviously, I wouldn’t do it based on the conceits of what a television station wants, what kind of show they wanted — I personally wouldn’t have as many teams. I thought it was OK in terms of league play because major sports leagues do have the lower level teams that aren’t that good. In the same sense, personally, I wasn’t a huge fan of seeing the compLexities or NRGs. I didn’t really think they were good enough, so usually in most tournaments, even in majors, I’m not that interested in the group stages anyway. For me, that part wasn’t as interesting. There wasn’t any hype coming from that. The best case scenario for those teams was win a map, maybe fluke (win) a series. I’m always concerned with the teams who can win a tournament or upset a team that can win the tournament. I’m always thinking about the top 10 teams anyway. In terms of the hype, they had a similar trajectory to other tournaments, but it’s just you have to realize it’s one tournament. It just took 10 weeks to play. The difference with a major is if you don’t like the group stage, like I don’t, you just wait two days. With this, it seems like there was less hype building, but that’s just because their group stage part took six weeks.

VN: I know you’re somebody who doesn’t care much about TV in esports, but do you pay much attention to the ratings, and how much is the success of ELEAGUE tied to that?

DS: I definitely looked at all the ratings when they’ve been published because people in esports keep that stuff updated. It’s interesting to look at just because I try to think myself what would the executives think. What was their goal? Now, I have to think going in, I don’t think they could have possibly thought about breaking records or being the No. 1 thing. I don’t think they would have put it in this time slot if they thought that. When people said, “Oh no, it’s in this time slot of death” or whatever, that shows to me that they essentially pre-planned that they might not get the best ratings. What they’re saying is everything in this slot doesn’t get great ratings. So you’re almost allowing yourself to do that, so you have time to figure stuff out. And then maybe in the future — I’m sure at some point there’s going to be a point in time where you have to decide “Do we stick with this, or do we go?”

Conceptually, reverse engineering what they must have thought, I’m pretty sure that they knew going in that they weren’t going to do super great numbers immediately. For starters, logically it wouldn’t make any sense because if so many people are trained to watch online anyway, then you’re not getting that audience and adding the TV audience. That audience is still watching online. So unless you live in America and you have TBS, you can’t watch anyway. So all those people around the world we know watch Counter-Strike, they’re not part of the viewer base for this show. So you’re essentially saying you’re gonna build an entirely new audience. I’m not sure that’s even possible. It might be, might not be. It might create some sort of snowball, cultural-like phenomenon nobody can really plan for. If they thought down that line, then I think that was very ambitious if they did so.

But personally, I don’t even know that it has to succeed on television. If you look at the way television things are going, people want on-demand things on the Internet anyway. They want to go with this model. And I think what happens is, people who run TV channels, they’re not idiots. I think they all want a model that’s digital as well. My speculation would be the plan is, if it doesn’t succeed on television or it can’t, who knows. Then maybe the model one day is they have their own digital platform anyway, or they have their own online presence anyway. I think there’s more ways to go than this traditional model method of thinking it has to make a certain number of TV viewers before they will be happy. That’s my own speculation. I haven’t talked to anyone about these topics. Just kind of what I put two and two together.

VN: It’s popular now for people to get on the esports bandwagon and talk about how great the industry is and its growth, but you still have instances like this skins gambling scandal. Something like that, what does it show about where the industry still is and where it has to go to get to the place all the people say it is or want it to be?

DS: That area never really made any sense to me anyway because essentially from the beginning, Day 1 of CSGO Lounge and all that stuff, it was obviously unregulated gambling. Which, personally, I like gambling, and gambling is good. I think you should be allowed to gamble if you want to. The problem is, this is the part that never made sense to me. First of all, unregulated is usually something where you think immediately the government is gonna come in and say something about it. “You can’t be making all these millions on the side.” I was amazed that never caught on. Surely, that’s the mark that esports is not mainstream. That people were making money hands over fist, millions of dollars secretly, some of them in countries you’ve never heard of, drawing money out of other economies, and no government person ever noticed that was a problem and they should do something. That shows me how incredibly small gaming is compared to what people want it to be. And then secondly, the real reason why you can’t have unregulated gambling is, when you let the person who is running the casino not have to abide by regulations, he might rig the casino so he wins all the time. So even if he’s gonna win anyway, he might say, “Oh, I’m gonna win all the time.” That’s what happened. I don’t know why anyone is surprised that happened. That should go without saying that would happen without regulating it. There’s no oversight legally whatsoever.

Stuff like that, to me, what the problem there is they’ve gone from one extreme to the other. It was totally unregulated, and now it doesn’t exist. That’s a ridiculous scenario. The correct scenario was it can exist, but it must have certain things in place — as does everything else in the real world — to mean you can’t have criminal stuff going on. Because nobody believes you should have criminal stuff allowed, but I don’t know many people who think there should be no gambling whatsoever. To me, I think Valve has really messed up with that. To me, they’ve killed the golden goose because nobody could specify how much, but it played a big role in elevating CS, at least, to having this huge viewer base and having this wide interest. Because you’ve got people who just collect stupid little glamor gimmicks in the game, so now they’ll be interested in the match. It’s a great concept. No other competitor in their field figured that out. Riot never figured that out with League of Legends. Nobody (else) figured that out. However it happened, it’s crazy to me that you’d kill it.

Stuff like that to me, unfortunately, I think that’s a negative of the industry that we have innovations like that, and then they just get killed off because people don’t figure out how to put them in the real world, how to translate them to a real business, a real model, have oversight. That’s the one thing they do in games like CS or esports in general is you never get proper oversight. There’s never a governing body. There’s never somebody who does this sort of thing. It’s either, in this scenario, Valve were scared of lawsuits, they didn’t want the government coming in. So rather than themselves set up a body that vets the stuff, the easy solution is to just turn it all off, because “We’re not making the money,” right? They’ll find out that their game was making the money and their game had health as a result. So I think that’s a mistake.

Why would somebody who made a video game know how to regulate gambling? There’s no connection between the two. Yeah, you did a sick job of making the AK look like this. There’s no connection there between how you would know about that (gambling) business. Unfortunately, it just shows me that the potential is there in all areas of this industry to be huge, and in ways that don’t exist in other industries. But where are the people to harness those aspects? The people at the moment, sadly, who were in those positions, abused their power and, rightfully so, have been punished. But unfortunately the rest of us have been punished, too.

VN: Do you think there will ever be an instance where it comes back in a regulated sense that is beneficial to everyone?

DS: I’d have to say no because if you look at the history of Valve, when have they ever set up governing bodies? When have they set up oversights? All this stuff. They still haven’t done it about match fixing. They still haven’t done it about cheating. So to me if there’s one thing you can bank on with Valve is they won’t do these things because they are a game developer. One thing I’ve always found really negative is that whole company ethos that everybody brags about, that whole “Yeah, we’re kind of this free spirit, Google-type thing where everybody just works on what they want to work on.” That sounds like a nightmare to me. So OK, here’s my question for them then: How does their trash get taken out? Oh, you have a janitor? So you must understand that someone must do this one job that everyone needs to have done. Well then you can understand why you need a cheating commissioner, someone to watch the leagues, and someone to check that gambling is regulated.

I think Valve has the power to run all these things, or delegate responsibility to someone who could do it and have a fantastic job. It would probably be great. You can see in areas like gambling or working with leagues so they don’t overlap, just ridiculously fill up the schedule. You can see how these would benefit everyone, and unfortunately at the moment, whether through naivety or just thinking other people can run it, at the moment we’re not seeing any oversight there. I think it could happen. Absolutely. There’s nothing to stop it. It could happen tomorrow. But it probably won’t. I wouldn’t put my money on it.

Cover photo: Robert Paul/Major League Gaming, remixed by Slingshot