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Report: Counter-Strike And Controversy At Dreamhack

Putting The Hack In Dreamhack

Dreamhack Winter was held over 27th to 29th of November, and included the last major Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament of 2014. It was held in the recent context of professional players being outed as cheaters, a commensurate fug of spectator paranoia, and CS: GO's ever-rising popularity – viewer figures for the final topped out at around 430,000 people, which rises to just over half a million with syndication, meaning the largest audience the series has ever had. The tournament delivered, in scarcely-believable fashion, another huge cheating scandal, a new era for CS: GO's most popular team, and some of the best games in recent memory. Let's roll.

Dreamhack Winter was held in Jőnkőping Sweden and featured several games, though it's only really possible to keep abreast of one because everything's being played at the same time – and for me, CS: GO is the daddy. I used to keep up with certain eSports before Twitch was a thing, and there's no doubt that the streaming service has enabled a golden age of competitive gaming; what was once the preserve of the truly dedicated is now accessible to anyone.

Twitch is a phenomenon because it taps into this latent hunger. Obviously it would be wonderful to attend events like Dreamhack in person but, given most interested parties can't, it's equally as wonderful to have the option to watch it. The advantage and the trade-off with Twitch are the same thing: distance. If you're there you can see the sweat on individual players, hear the keyboards clack, and focus anywhere at any moment. Twitch viewers have a different perspective. An unknown controller makes sure we see important things when they happen, delivers regular panning shots of the prizefighter-like arena, and replays the crucial moments for our delectation.

What it does, in wonk-speak, is connect me to somewhere I want to be but can't. And boy was this one worth it. Every result from DH can be found in innumerable other places, but there are three major talking points this tournament brought up. The first has been something of a theme for CS: GO in recent weeks – cheating. Valve Anti-Cheat bans players in waves, and the latest wave included several pro players which led to accusations against several more – giving fuel to the ever-burning fire of cheating being rife amongst the game's competitive community.

Since this incident two Fnatic players have been a focus for scrutiny in CS: GO – though nothing has been proven against either of them, the internet has done its thing and amassed a tonne of circumstantial evidence. This is the context for what happened in the DH quarter-final match between Fnatic and LDLC, the two most-favoured teams in the competition, when it went to a third and decisive game on Overpass.

The first half was won 12-3 by LDLC. In the second half Fnatic lost the pistol round, making it 13-3, before revealing a new trick. It involves a boost from the Counter-Terrorist (CT) spawn that should be impossible, because there's nothing to stand on, but it turns out there's a rogue pixel somewhere. One player gets on this invisible surface, another stands on his head, and from here there's a view of the majority of the map – including the Terrorist (T) side's spawning location. Such an advantage is a map-breaking exploit, and Fnatic used this spot to enormous effect and turned the score around to win the match.

Quick intermission. CS: GO maps are tested by pro teams in the sense that Valve specifically requests their feedback to help remove unfair cheats and glitches. Fnatic had known about this exploit, as coach Devilwalk admitted in a post-match interview, for over two months.

There are two words for Fnatic's behaviour: immoral and idiotic. While the game was live the Dreamhack administrators ruled it was acceptable. Post-game LDLC immediately appealed. The backlash from the CS: GO community was furious. Dreamhack's initial decision was to replay the match from half-time, when the score was 12-3 in favour of LDLC. At this point Fnatic appealed, claiming a boost LDLC had used was also illegal, and this appeal succeeded in making Dreamhack rule that a full replay of the game was necessary.

We'll return to Fnatic in a moment, but the real problem with this incident was that Dreamhack didn't know what to do. eSports is a young scene where, simply put, things often have to happen before there's any precedent for how to deal with them and – while obviously cheating isn't allowed – it's often arguable what exactly cheating is. In this case the Dreamhack rules for 2013 (there is no 2014 version, which says everything) state both pixel-walking and any exploit that turns textures transparent are illegal. Fnatic's boost spot featured both.

Dreamhack's eventual 'solution' of ordering a full replay is really a way of saying that it didn't know what to do. At this point the CS: GO community went nuclear on Fnatic and, though not without good reason, this was lent an extra edge of venom by the team's recent controversies. The backlash was such that by the next morning Fnatic had decided the only course of action was to forfeit the game and exit the tournament. Some might call this the right result in the wrong way.

This exploit could have been worth $100,000 to the Fnatic organisation, and the context raises a serious question over its management and judgement. There's no doubt that Fnatic's players can be unpleasant people (watch them scream insults at NiP following a win here), but that doesn't make the recent cheating accusations against them true. Indeed some of the team's members, particularly Flusha, have been presumed guilty in a situation where it's almost impossible to prove one's innocence. What this context means, however, is that when Fnatic then go on to cheat in front of an enormous audience the reaction is going to be on a different level than if it was another team.

The forfeit may have saved some face but Fnatic brand has been sullied within CS: GO in the past, and this Dreamhack performance has put it in the gutter. There are oblique hints that certain players, or even the team, may give up the game. Fnatic has completely brought this on itself. But Fnatic also has some of the most exciting pros around and, while it's tempting to say good riddance to bad competitors, there's a whiff of mob rule about the whole incident. Clearly we'll have to wait and see but, whatever happens, there are no winners.

Luckily the remainder of the tournament was memorable for the right reasons, and some karmic justice in seeing the reinstated LDLC make it through to the final to face perhaps CS: GO's most iconic team – Sweden's Ninjas in Pyjamas. This was a remarkable tournament for NiP because, following a recent and extended slump in form, in-game team leader Fifflaren had stepped down to be replaced by young hotshot Maikelele. This new-look lineup had only been playing together for three weeks and was expected to deliver a respectable performance but little more.

Instead, after a so-so first day, the new NiP moved into gear and started to play some absolutely outstanding Counter-Strike. Their quarter-final defeat of Hellraisers was arguably the first big hurdle that NiP overcame, but the first game of the semi-final match against Virtus.Pro on Nuke was the game of the tournament.

Incredible CT play from both sides led to scores of 12-3 in each half, so 15-15 and overtime. At this point the precision CT play went out the window and overtime became a slugfest, the score split again at 3-3, and a second period of overtime finally saw NiP emerge victorious. All tournament long the home crowd was cheering for NiP, but the roar after the last round here was something else. It started to feel like this might be destiny.

Players such as GeT-RiGhT and f0rest had been anonymous in recent months, but major tournaments just seem to wake NiP up. New member Maikelele got better as the tournament went on, adding a threat with the iconic one-shot-kill AWP that the team has never really had before. And it was a pleasure to see the man he replaced find a new role, too, with Fifflaren working as an analyst and colour commentator over the course of the tournament. Fifflaren brought an enormous knowledge of individual players, strategies and in-game decision-making that enhanced every match. And an amusing echo of the Eurovision song contest, when he casually mentioned the Polish teams' understandable habit of bigging up other Polish teams.

The quality of presentation for eSports is incredibly important for its future, because the subject matter requires much more on-the-fly explanation than a 'normal' sport. Roping in fluent ex-pros like Fifflaren is a great start, but Dreamhack still has a ways to go – the on-floor interviews were uniformly poor, awkward pauses were everywhere, and the superior attitude of analyst Thorin, a pub bore with a mic, was unpleasant throughout.

Despite such issues, the quality of the games shines through – and Dreamhack got the final it deserved in NiP vs. LDLC. The Ninjas we know of, but following the Fnatic controversy LDLC dispatched a reinvigorated Na'vi 2-0 in the other semi-final – showing the team's mental strength if nothing else. This was Ali-Foreman time, old icon vs. irresistible force, some of the greatest players in 1.6 and CS: GO history and some of the hottest new things on the block. It had to be a cracker.

The final was played across Dust 2, Inferno and Overpass. There was no mistaking which team the crowd favoured, but LDLC took Dust 2 thanks to a top-class performance from captain Happy (28 frags with the next-highest score on both teams being 19) and NiP simply collapsing on CT side after a halftime 9-6 lead. NiP responded in the best fashion by destroying LDLC on Inferno, one of the French team's strongest maps, with Maikelele, f0rest and GeT_RiGhT dominating throughout. At 1-1 it went to Overpass.

Overpass is a funny map, because it has been regularly changed since its introduction and (as the Fnatic incident showed) still has a few kinks. The focus in this final game was all on the A site and the amount of smoke grenades involved was ridiculous, with many rounds seeming to come down to both teams waiting on the other side of smoke before one rushed in – though there was one exceptionally beautiful play where NiP used LDLC's smokes plus their own to create a small corridor to the bomb site.

After 30 rounds the teams were dead level and it went into overtime. The crowd sensed a fairytale, and Maikelele was in unbelievable form in his first major final, but this was to be LDLC's game. The French team took two rounds as CTs before the team-switch, and steamrolled through NiP's defenses to win their first two rounds as Ts and win the match 16-19. It was a hell of a game, and both teams played at the highest level, but LDLC had the extra gas in the tank when it mattered – GGWP.

Where next for CS: GO? It is the way of things that such a fantastic tournament would not only be the follow-up to the recent cheating storm, but stoke the controversy. The line between perception and reality with cheating is always fine, particularly when internet Clouseaus get involved, but it's fair to say that professional CS: GO may need to take the issue much more seriously than it has been doing – everything from tournament hardware to isolated tournament Steam profiles deserves serious consideration.

Outside of this the game itself increases in popularity every month and, though elements of the community disagree, is maintained assiduously by Valve through balance-changes and updates. The teams and tournaments just get better. There will always be Counter-Strike fans who swear by 1.6 and how Global Offensive will never live up to it. Fair enough. All I see is the most exciting FPS on the planet, a pro scene that's producing better games at every tournament, and a lot of work to be done. Bring it on.

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