Breaking down ESL drama: inside sources in the CSGO community speak
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Early January brought an announcement from HLTV confirming ESL changed the qualification process for EPL. Previously, European and North American champion MDL teams directly advanced into EPL. The report, however, revealed direct league promotions were no longer viable. Instead, the top three NA teams, three leading EU teams, one Australian team, and one Asia-Pacific group would compete against each other at the CSGO Global Challenge event. The top two teams earn promotion into the following Pro League season.

On one end, the new format gives an EPL path to Australian and Asia-Pacific teams. Historically, these regions haven’t had access to an opportunity of this caliber. At the same time, NA and EU communities expressed distaste for the update, an overwhelming opinion being international competition made Pro League spots more difficult to obtain.

Besides the MDL change, ESL completely revamped Pro League. All four regions (NA, EU, Oceania, Asia) have combined into one giant supergroup of 24 invited teams. Additionally, 24 professional-level teams move down to their respective MDL leagues. Within the league are four sub-groups of six teams, each team playing in a BO3 round-robin matchup. Group stage winners are seeded into playoffs. Grand finals are said to be a bo5 format at the end of a three-day LAN event between the top six teams.

Reshaping EPL

From a business perspective, it makes sense as to why ESL would move in this direction. Removing regional divisions and instead implementing a seeding system wards off complaints of regional under-representation. This is an opportunity to unify and streamline the league system. Operating from a single location saves the organization money, therefore increasing resources for broadcast talent and production.

ESL stated that all regular season matches are offline, meaning they can implement a standardized schedule. Having events take place at a single location means games are consistently scheduled and accessible to more audiences. Having offline events also suggests an improvement in viewer experience. Overlapping broadcasts caused by OTs or delays are a thing of the past because now one match can’t begin until the prior finishes. Enforcing a match schedule can also be seen as a quality-of-life improvement for teams who typically country hop to compete for a majority of the year.

ESL’s silence

Where ESL dropped the ball is their lack of communication with MDL. Rightfully so, their silence is where the vast majority of outrage from the community stems from. Players were unaware the new EPL format would mean MDL teams like HAVU, Spirit, Riot Squad, and Triumph, who may have qualified for EPL through relegation, no longer had the opportunity. MDL player for Triumph xCeeD posted on Twitter:

Up until confirmation of EPL’s new format, ESL had been oddly quiet in regards to the timeline for relegation, a tournament that essentially finalizes the teams in EPL and MDL. Every other division in ESEA had started their season, while MDL had no hint of a relegation date. Therefore, not only did ESL make significant league changes without teams being fully aware of the situation, but they’ve lost their chance to earn promotion.

On the other hand, it’s hard to ignore the reasoning behind ESL’s attempt to withhold information. We spoke to a former employee of ESEA who shall remain anonymous and whom we are referring to as Smith about ESL’s actions:

Players are notoriously terrible with leaking information, whether it’s on purpose or accidental. I had ideas for things during my time at ESEA that I spoke with players about and despite the request to keep it between us, I’d be hearing about it from multiple sources by the end of the week. Most of the leaks in the esports world are coming from the mouths of players. If ESL was reshaping the Pro League, it’s an understandable move to keep them in the dark.

Smith agrees, however, that the blame doesn’t lay on the players’ shoulders. Unless they’ve signed an NDA, there technically isn’t an obligation on the players’ part to keep information secret. The community consensus is that ESL was irresponsible in how they handled the league. As previously reported, popular personality Thorin was so upset at ESL that he now refuses to work with the organization in any capacity:

Controlling media perception

It’s difficult to gauge whether or not a request to keep quiet about the announcement would have been respected even if ESL kept communication to strictly “need-to-know” personnel.

Leaks of this caliber could have detrimental effects on ESL’s marketing plan for the league. It’s important to remember that managing the way information is presented to the public is an organization’s utmost priority. If the CSGO community were to gain access to bits of information through leaks, ESL has then lost control in the way information is delivered. That means the public is now able to stir rumors and controversy without actually having all the proper details. Moreover, if the leaks were to attract negative attention, it could discourage potentials organizations and investors from becoming involved.

ESL does have a legal right to handle sensitive information as it sees fit. Still, an organization must learn to balance being straightforward with its community and simultaneously manage inside information.

ESL’s repeat offenses

With this in mind, ESL has a long-standing history of poor communication and mishandling sensitive situations. Furthermore, their handling makes us question how ESL views semi-professional CSGO. Smith commented:

ESL has acted this way in the past, as if they don’t care about (relegation) at all. Relegation and promotion are one of the most compelling aspects of Counter-Strike league play and what makes CSGO better than other current esports. Yet, ESL behave as if it’s worth nothing. … The fact that ESL has consistently destroyed and undermined their relegation process is a bit troubling. One could infer from their history that they could care less about the semi-pro/aspiring player attempting to grind their way into the league.

An example of ESL undermining relegation was season four of EPL. relegated to ESEA Premier in EPL season 3, due to a 2-1 loss to PENTA. Despite this, because VP defeated GODSENT in the Europe Wild Card event, VP requalified for EPL.

EPL season three brought a crushing blow to Denial. In ESEA season 20, Denial won Premier. Typically their first-place win would mean they automatically promoted to EPL. However, in the middle of the season, ESL decided to implement a match between the first place in Premier and last place in EPL. After a close loss (2-1) to Winterfox, Denial did not move up to EPL, despite winning their entire division. As a result, Denial disbanded:

The future of MDL

Daily Esports spoke with several MDL players, coaches, and anonymous community members about their thoughts on MDL’s future. We asked how they thought ESL’s decision impacted MDL. Coach for Rugratz madcow stated, “MDL now becomes more competitive and makes it so being in MDL is more valuable than it used to be.” Our source Smith has thoughts similar to those of madcow:

If anything, MDL now makes even more sense. I’ve long wanted to see MDL treated as a proper semi-pro league instead of just the stepping stone to making EPL. Additionally, the process of making it into EPL is far more logical. The change to Pro League and bumping more teams and talent down into MDL also increases the quality of play in general in MDL.

A high-level MDL player who asked to remain anonymous shared the opposite opinion: “People will lose motivation to play, and teams will start dying at unprecedented rates.” Their sentiment comes from the notion that EPL demotion hinders the ability for upcoming players to gain recognition. Another aspect tied to motivation is the vast majority of mid-low-tier MDL players don’t have access to the same resources as their new EPL competition. It would be discouraging to anyone who lacks the resources to compete against professional organizations fairly.

A follow-up question was whether or not they would continue to participate in ESEA if there were another league. Madcow answered:

Other leagues I’d consider us playing in? Sure. But consider playing in over ESEA? No. The more competition you get to play against as a team, the better. We’re going to be playing in as many leagues and qualifiers as possible to continue to improve and move forward as a team.

Out of the responses we received, the majority of MDL competitors noted they primarily considered participating in FACEIT’s Winners League. A popular stance among the MDL players is they hope FACEIT releases an “MDL equivalent” league. Rush B was also mentioned, but details regarding the up and coming league are unclear. Still, MDL players stated to us they’d be interested in pursuing FACEIT leagues outside of ESEA.

Minna Adel Rubio is an esports journalist with an interest in first-person-shooter games. She specializes in class-based, arena, and tactical shooters like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Valorant, Overwatch, and Team Fortress 2. Additionally, Minna is a senior CS:GO guides writer at Dignitas and a graduate student. Catch her on Twitter for memes and more content!