I was at a friend's house when I received the message: "LOL look at what Warner just posted." The vice-captain of Australian test cricket was having a quiet Saturday night, and was a touch confused. "Can someone tell me why [FOX Sports] are showing this stuff for," the opening batsman tweeted.
FOX Sports was broadcasting Counter-Strike on their main channel, something the A-League wishes it could have more of. They even set aside two whole hours in prime-time, 8:00 PM to 10:00 PM, for the $55,555 four team invitational at Melbourne's Crown Casino. You can already guess what the reaction to Warner, a man who has been trying to repair his reputation, was.
But while it's easy to heap scorn on the diminutive opener, his question is entirely reasonable. Why did FOX Sports broadcast Counter-Strike in the first place?
Who Is FOX Targeting?
Can someone tell me why @FOXSportsAUS are showing this stuff for?? 501 counter strike.
— David Warner (@davidwarner31) October 10, 2015
When players and organisers started talking about the prospect of Counter-Strike on TV, the reaction was universally one-sided. It was unanimously supportive -- but it was coming purely from gamers, the crowd most excited about video games being broadcast.
On the surface, it seems like FOX Sports is targeting the wrong demographic. Gamers are highly unlikely to be interested in FOX Sports and cable TV generally. More and more gamers are replacing their TV viewing habits with streams and online video services like Netflix and YouTube, or refusing to watch TV altogether. And according to the latest Digital Australia survey, the average daily gaming session for an Australian is an hour long, time that 10 or 20 years ago would have been dedicated to TV.
But how much cross-over is there between hardcore FIFA fans and the gamers that are obsessed with high-level eSports, the kind who will flip between multiple Twitch channels showing League of Legends tournaments, an ESL broadcast or some chilled Rocket League action? And how many parallels do those two crowds have with the older Australian male, the one with a deep love of motorsport -- it was the weekend of the Bathurst 1000, remember -- rugby league, union, cricket, AFL and in between?
Who exactly was being targeted here? It's unlikely that FOX or Crown genuinely believed two hours of prime-time headshots would convert people with Warner's mentality. If anything, the growth of eSports shows how unnecessary -- and potentially damaging -- chasing traditional broadcast media can be. The Championship Gaming Series only survived two seasons on DirecTV, having failed to manufacture a truncated format for TV.
But it's not the first time local pay-TV has got its feet wet in the world of video games. Warner suggested that something like FIFA would have been a more appropriate fit. And he's right: earlier this year, FOX Sports roped in Andy Harper and Simon Hill to commentate the grand final of the FOX Fans League.
And if there's one connection between fans of Counter-Strike, FIFA and sport more broadly, it's that they all like to bet. A lot. The growth of trading and betting on in-game skins has been astronomical in Counter-Strike, so much so that fans were supremely upset when they learned that matches for the Crown Invitational would not be listed on CSGO Lounge, one of the most popular third-party trading and betting services.
The reason? As part of the hosting requirements, Crown wanted betting on the matches to go through their own bookmaker, Crownbet. It wasn't a great weekend financially for the bookie though: they had the North American invites, Cloud9, as a staggering $1.11 favourite over Team Immunity only for the locals to blow them away in a best-of-three that culminated in a humiliating 16-3 loss on the final map.
What's In It For Crown?
It's not the first time Crown has offered bets on video games -- that's been happening for a while, and they're not the first in play with Ladbrokes, Sportsbet, bet365 and Pinnacle Sports offering odds on a variety of games, including League of Legends, Hearthstone, StarCraft 2 and Dota 2.
Despite the wave of positivity from what historically has been one of the most toxic, cantankerous online communities in gaming, let's not pretend that Crown are interested in building eSports. Tickets just for the Saturday started at $55 a pop and they went like hotcakes, with organisers confirming around 800 gamers had paid entry into the venue.
That's $44,800 alone, and if every single one of those gamers bought a beer at $9 a pop -- which would be almost un-Australian, but let's keep it simple -- the total rises to $52,000. That obviously doesn't offset flying two teams over from Europe and North America, fees for the event organisers, accommodation and ancillary costs, but it's a far, far better starting base than most tournaments have.
But unlike most tournaments, this isn't a promotional exercise designed to fuel money or support back into the local scene. Let's not forget that Crown could have easily just rigged it as a local-only tournament and spun it in a similar fashion to the FIFA event earlier this year.
The TV audience watching, possibly confused as to why FOX was favouring the refined spray of virtual AK-47's to golf, would have been none the wiser. And it's not like it would have mattered internationally either. HLTV.org, the major English site for Counter-Strike coverage over the better part of the last decade, carried no coverage of the pre-qualifiers or results on the Friday.
In fairness, Australian websites didn't cover it either. And that's because they couldn't: staff on the ground, who were already in a tight spot thanks to VAC issues plaguing fans of Valve games across Australia and New Zealand, struggled to get GOTV (CS:GO's spectator service) running. The only information was delivered through forum posts, reminiscent of the old days where fans would follow matches through scorebots on IRC.
Gamers Are The Ones Paying And They're Paying A Lot
FOX Sports is inextricably linked to Crown for obvious reasons: Australians like a punt on the races, footy or anything else just as much as they like pokies and scratchie cards. Five years ago, around 70 percent of Australians took part in some form of gambling. The Productivity Commission also found in 2009, sports betting accounted for approximately $200 million of the gambling market in Australia, a market totalling $19 billion.
Remember this is before smartphones and smartphone apps had penetrated our daily way of life (and also before telco companies began to value data as a priority in their phone plans).
More recently, The Economist found that Australians gamble more and lose more per person than any other country in the world. The data was collated by H2 Gambling Capital ahead of the annual ICE Gaming conference, global shindig for the gaming and wagering industry. If you're interested, H2 pitches themselves as the world's leading analysts on the sector, although the majority of their data is behind a paywall.
It's not difficult to see where this might lead. The FOX Sports audience might be no closer to accepting Counter-Strike as a professional sport as a result of the broadcast, but if there are decent enough odds on a best-of-three on Virtus.pro and Team Immunity or Some Random Name vs Some Other Random Name in Some Thing I've Never Heard Of That Looks Like A Video Game to pad out their multi-bet then they might not care.
Australians already have an affinity for gambling, and fans of eSports certainly have no problems throwing cash away. The International's astronomical prize pools are tantamount to that, but the growth of third-party trading and betting sites, ones that are wholly unregulated and undoubtedly unconcerned with the whims or fates of gamers who risk their inventories -- and then spend real cash to rebuild their bankroll, so to speak -- should bother everyone.
If you've got an Android phone you can even download the Crownbet app direct from their website and start betting within two minutes. The age verification process is as weak as ever, and you don't even need to enter credit card details to begin browsing markets.
All of those concerns might be brushed away if there was some evidence that Crown and FOX Sports had a long-term plan or at least interest in growing the local scene. But the only evidence of Crown's involvement in eSports has been ticketed events, like viewing parties for The International or packing out a bar for League of Legends. These aren't investments, and neither was the Crown Invitational -- after all, half of the $55,555 went to Virtus.pro and Cloud9, and that was only because the Americans underperformed astonishingly.
Warner was right to question what FOX Sports was doing. He didn't realise it at the time, but anyone with a passing interest in eSports as an industry should be questioning the motivations of their benefactor. What did the fans on forums and matchmaking servers get for the involvement of FOX Sports and their partners -- and does it really benefit the scene?
Feature image courtesy of ESL Australia