The competitive landscape for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has changed, with two major tournament organisers going head-to-head in a war of exclusivity. ESL Pro League has locked in 13 major teams, whereas FLASHPOINT – operated by FACEIT – has drafted in six teams to co-own the league for a $2 million (£1.55 million) price tag each. Who’s looking to capitalise on the tiers underneath the top flight of CS:GO, though? WIN.gg with its WINNERS League is doing just that.
To find out more about WINNERS League and how its serving the semi-professional and amateur tiers of CS:GO, Esports Insider spoke with Serge Vardanyan, Founder and CEO of WIN.gg.
Esports Insider: You’ve been operating WINNERS League for over a year now and are about to enter Season 4. How do you feel about the competition’s progression and growth?
Serge Vardanyan: Overall, fantastic. If you look at the structure of WINNER’s League, you can see that we have the ability to cover all demographics ranging from casual gamers to pro teams. WINNER’s League has three divisions. First we have invite, where all of our top teams, such as Nemiga, SKADE, and BIG Academy compete for the big prizes and the recognition. ATK was picked up by Cloud9 after an impressive couple of seasons with us.
Then we have the main division, with teams such as Vexed Gaming, and then an open division that allows teams just starting out can join the competition. Through different tiers, we are able to have a high level of competition on one side while teams just starting out have a clear path to success. For the most talented teams, this looks like exposure to top organisations.
For our lower divisions, it’s the sense of progress, the idea that they’re improving and moving forward. Winners of lower divisions are fighting for the opportunity to compete in our higher divisions. They get a chance to show their talent and improve their chances of finding an organisation that can support and nurture their talents.
Another thing that positively supports the level of competition is continuity. The gamers appreciate that this is not a one-time event, but a long-lasting relationship between the league and their teams.
Lastly, any team that has worked with or played on WINNERS League can attest to how professional and timely our team operates. How quickly their payments are processed and the ability to reschedule their matches around qualifiers are important to the teams, and we treat them as such.
For the fans, we treat the quality of our streams as just as high of a priority. We want people to look forward to our matches and have fun in between. We had a live DJ set during games this year. People keep coming back, and that means we’re doing our jobs and doing them well.
ESI: We’ve seen the ESL Pro League announce big changes as well as the announcement of FLASHPOINT from FACEIT, what does WINNERS League offer that is different to these tournaments?
SV: Our focus is fundamentally different. FLASHPOINT, ESL Pro League, and also BLAST Premier are all focused on the tier one competition. They’re there to serve the top 20 to 30 teams. That’s where their focus lies.
Everyone fundamentally understands the importance of having a healthy scene beyond the very top teams in the world. But the fact is that we are among the only organisations actively trying to build it. We’ve seen over the past months that even MDL is a much lower priority to ESL, especially given its relegation of the 24 EPL teams.
WINNERS League exists to focus exclusively on the tier two and three scenes and provide a tier one broadcast and league for its deceptively large fanbase. It’s what we do, and it’s important.
“We’re the perfect gateway between brands looking to enter the space and the esports audience.”
ESI: How can brands benefit from partnering up with WINNERS League? Why wouldn’t they work with top tier teams and organisations? What does WINNERS League offer that other tournament organisers don’t?
SV: We all know that much of the money coming into esports is through sponsorships. Brands are heavily invested with top tier teams and event organisers, but they are missing out on the opportunity to capture the rest of those who enjoy esports.
There’s a huge opportunity for both endemic and non endemic brands to make inroads with these viewers who just want to watch a team from their city or town compete.
There is a large misconception that tier two and three competition is small with little potential for development. That is simply not true. Teams that participated in WINNERS League last season had a combined following of more than 4,000,000 people across Twitter and Facebook. Including our Russian and Portuguese streaming partners, we had more than 1,000,000 views over Season 3, and that number only gets bigger because we showcase what the fans want to see.
It’s a massive untapped market, and we cater to our teams and their fans to ensure it continues to grow. We’re the perfect gateway between brands looking to enter the space and the esports audience.
Through tier two and three teams and tournaments, brands can tap into the esports demographic with a lower risk and initial investment than if they chose a tier one team or organiser.
The optics of the investment matter to fans, too. We’ve seen brands seal seven-figure sponsorship deals with top teams and sponsor top tier events. Several bookmakers even organised their own tournaments, but does the community appreciate that? Public reactions often say that no, they don’t.
Bookmakers are sometimes still perceived as greedy organisations inside the esports community. By supporting the growing foundation of the scene, supporting the teams and players that need just a little help or exposure to become superstars of tomorrow is something that is valued tremendously. The community appreciates it and it can change public opinion on a brand overnight.
ESI: Have ESL Pro League and FLASHPOINT had an impact on WINNERS League at all?
SV: Actually, we’ve probably made more of an impact on them then they’ve had on us in a way.
For example, NA WINNERS League team ATK was just signed after their incredible performance during Season 2. ATK went 7-0 during the regular season, and that exposure surely influenced Cloud9’s acquisition of the team. From WINNERS League to Katowice is a big jump. But that’s the opportunity and exposure we’re able to provide to those invite-level teams.
Another great example is Nicolas “Plopski” Gonzalez Zamora, who recently signed a three-year contract with Ninjas in Pyjamas. Plopski was a fixture in WINNERS League S1 and used the time to put his talents on display. It paid off, and he’s made an immediate impact with that team. There’s so much talent out there that never sees the light of day. WINNERS League is trying to bring that light.
With their size, both ESL, FLASHPOINT, and BLAST need a constant inflow of viewers and talent. Right now, Counter-Strike just hit all-time highs in both players and those drawn to its esports offerings.
Eight years after its release, CS:GO hit its highest player count of all time at 901,681. Players have logged over 330 million hours played this month according to Steam Charts. That’s a ton of potential fans coming into the sport, and it’s the duty of all of Counter-Strike’s organisations and organisers to help sustain these numbers and take CS:GO to the next level.
ESI: Previously, you’ve mentioned your focus on developing up-and-coming players & teams, how have they responded to your competitions?
SV: Our goal is to better support amateur and semi-professional esports communities. We do that by incentivizing them to pursue those goals through the WINNERS League. We’ve done a pretty good job by providing the coliseum for the teams, but there is so much we can do.
I want to use the opportunity of this interview and address the leadership of FLASHPOINT and BLAST. If you love Counter-Strike as we do and understand the importance of having a healthy secondary scene, we are ready to become your backbone and allow you to appeal to all the demographics from casual gamers to pros.
ESI: WINNERS League recently partnered with Abios and Bayes Esports, what are your thoughts on the current state of esports betting?
SV: The biggest obstacle faced ever since the first bookie started trading on esports was and still is the availability of the data. Having the data in your hands instantaneously can allow bookmakers to trade more matches, and do it in a more professional way. Organisations such as Abios, Bayes, BetConstruct, and GRID help to fill in the gaps between bookmakers and tournament data.
In 2019, people wagered $8 billion on esports. This number is expected to double by 2022. Just a few years ago, it was almost impossible to find a trader who specialized in esports. That’s not the case now.
Back then, people also had to worry about integrity. Fortunately, we have organisations like the Esports Integrity Coalition and the Esports Integrity Commission working with stakeholders to protect the integrity of esports competition. All in all, I think that the current state of esports betting and its future are bright. It’s only growing, and it’s going to be much bigger than it is now.
“We’ve made sure to invite the world’s top female teams, like Besiktas and Dignitas Fe, to compete in WINNERS League.”
ESI: What other issues do you see in the industry and are trying to tackle via WINNERS League?
SV: Unfortunately, toxicity in the esports community is still rampant. We heavily monitor both in-game communication and stream chat for anything out of line. For our teams, they are and should act like professionals, so that’s what we require of them.
Our Twitch moderators come from all different nationalities and backgrounds, allowing us to timeout or ban anyone who decides to take these actions. We don’t tolerate poor behavior. We have teams from all over the globe, so we need people from those same places to help monitor.
Finally, we’ve made sure to invite the world’s top female teams, like Besiktas and Dignitas Fe, to compete in WINNERS League. These women have the talent to succeed in CS:GO and they deserve to be here. They deserve to be included in more competitions, but they’re often overlooked.
WINNERS League’s Season 4 is slated to begin on April 27th. Information on team registration can be found on the league’s registration page. Check out WIN.gg to see what else the company does in esports.
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