As the countdown to IEM Cologne hits full throttle, Michal “Carmac” Blicharz is riding a rollercoaster of emotions. It has been over a year since that day, when he appeared on the ESL broadcast, teary-eyed, to announce to the world, on the eve of the IEM Katowice playoffs, that the knockout stages of the tournament would be held behind closed doors due to the emerging coronavirus threat.
The wait for Counter-Strike LANs to return has been long. So long, in fact, that Carmac even uses a ‘Game of Thrones’ reference to describe what the community has been going through and the significance of this moment. “It feels like with this LAN we’re coming out of a six-year winter and into a brand new period in Counter-Strike,” he tells HLTV.org. “That’s exciting.”
There have been numerous challenges to make IEM Cologne a LAN event. The tournament will be held inside a hotel in the German city and not in a studio in Malta as initially planned because of the latest travel restrictions in place in the island nation. As part of the event’s strict COVID-19 protocols, players will have to quarantine for three days upon arrival and will be tested more than once throughout the tournament. They will not be allowed to leave the hotel without permission, and the traditional handshakes with opponents have been scrapped at least for the first week of the event.
Even if IEM Cologne concludes without any incidents, it is still unclear what the event will signify for the rest of the tournament calendar because everything can change in the blink of an eye; the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Europe, which is the result of the delta variant, is a last-minute concern for the organisers as Germany has tightened its borders. It is no wonder then that Carmac wavers between “enthusiasm” and “apprehension” as the tournament draws nearer.
ESL was the first CS tournament organiser to be affected by the coronavirus. What does it feel like to be the first one to bring LANs back?
The feeling is, ‘Why did it take so long?’ Understandably, fans see events for other game titles and they want LAN as soon as possible. But in a game like VALORANT or in a game like Rainbow Six, you control the entire calendar.
When organizing an event, you have to take into account that something can happen when your team is arriving and you have to create a two-week buffer for quarantine. You may need to take into account that teams returning home may have a two-week quarantine period as well. So, in order to allow everyone that is technically eligible to come, you may need to clear four weeks in the calendar to be close to certain you will have everyone. Find me a free month in the CS calendar to do that. So this is something that I feel some fans are not taking into account to some degree, and obviously fans want more competition.
How do we feel about it? There’s excitement and apprehension because it’s the first time. It’s going to be a very, very difficult event because we’ve never done something like this before, ever. And the expectations and the difficulty level are very high. As we speak, teams are arriving, and hopefully, all of them will make it.
If some teams are unable to enter Germany, what will you do?
That depends on which stage we’re talking about, but let’s say that some of the final 16 teams do not make it, then we would fill those spots with teams from the Play-In. So there would be more teams from the Play-In coming in.
Have you spoken with other tournament organisers that have held events on LAN during the pandemic to know what to expect and how to react?
Every country has its own approach to this. Just as a reference, ESL operated the Rainbow Six Finals for Ubisoft, so this is something where we have a measure of experience. But every country, every environment, is different, especially in COVID times. So this is not something that we are necessarily doing based on someone’s example. We have an agency that we work with that is helping us with all this. We’ve sought advice, but for the most part, you have to create your own protocol based on the conditions that you have on the ground.
We’d rather overreact now than be in trouble down the line if we cannot, for example, play the semi-finals because all of the teams were exposed to somebody carrying the virus, or if we make a mistake that can cost somebody their health.
Michal “Carmac” Blicharz
What are some of the biggest challenges and some of the logistical nightmares that you’ve run into?
The biggest challenge was the fact that we originally planned to go to Malta. We have a business agreement with Malta to run esports competitions there. We had a setup that was already partially built, but then COVID travel restrictions for certain countries were put in place, meaning that the CIS teams would have to quarantine in another country for two weeks on the way to Malta.
This forced us to reconsider the plans and do it in Cologne. Doing it on four weeks’ notice is not easy, you need to find the appropriate venue, take all the equipment from Malta, send it back to Germany and get it all set up on time. We’ve gone with a hotel that we are familiar with and a tournament setup similar to the IEM Cologne group stage. Creating something similar to an ELEAGUE style studio tournament wasn’t feasible.
We had two focuses. Number one, make sure that the competition plays the way we designed it, which is 24 teams, play-in and in the main stage. Number two, make sure that people are safe because players are coming in from, I think, 20 different countries, and some of those countries have the Delta COVID variant in them. We have about 200 people or so in our restricted environment. The likelihood that somebody coming to Cologne may be infected is not insignificant, so we’ve created protocols that I’m quite sure will help protect everyone, though it may make many players less comfortable than they are used to. But for us, this is something that we have to do safely. And maybe next time, we’ll ease up a little bit. We’d rather overreact now than be in trouble down the line if we cannot, for example, play the semi-finals because all of the teams were exposed to somebody carrying the virus, or if we make a mistake that can cost somebody their health.
What is the tournament setup going to look like?
Players will go to the gaming station for matches in the hotel ballroom, similar to the setup for the group stage for IEM Katowice or ESL One Cologne in the past, but they will not be allowed, at least for the first week, to shake hands or anything like that. We’re going to have to use separate restrooms as well for breaks and so on. We don’t want them to contact each other because if player X on team number 1 gets sick, we want to make sure that it’s only that team that goes into quarantine and not everyone that player X touched, so to speak.
What will you do to make this tournament feel special and different from what we’ve seen in the online era? What sort of access will you have to be able to create content around the teams?
We’re going to have people on site and we’re going to have cameras on them, so just us being able to show players the way we are used to… Think about that, how much of a better experience is the simplest LAN event compared to anything online? We’re going to have the players’ adrenaline transmitted into the broadcast. There will be one less barrier between the viewer and the actual adrenaline of the players.
IEM Cologne and IEM Katowice are generally our two targets to deliver something that’s new and improved and better than previously. For this one, we will drop the biggest update to ESL’s CSGO HUD since IEM Katowice in 2018. It is a visual re-work of the HUD by our broadcast team with a new approach to aspects like what you can find on screen and where you find it as well as, improving clarity.
We’re also switching the trophy with a new one. We work with a German workshop that creates official World Cup and UEFA replicas and trophies for German football competitions. They designed the Intel Extreme Masters Katowice trophy for us and they’ve been producing it for us for a number of years. They are producing the new IEM Cologne trophy, which will be a homage to the old trophy. Hopefully, these two trophies can be brothers, just like the events are brothers in our ESL Pro Tour structure.
Within our COVID protocol, we are going to try to have the maximum time spent with the players and maximum access to the players but without exposing them to additional risk. As far as I’m told, about 80% of our event staff will have some measure of COVID vaccination, and they will also have to quarantine the same way as players. It’s not like players are in a restricted environment and the photographer goes home, eats dinner with his kids, who are not in any sort of bubble, and comes back to IEM Cologne the next day. That way our setup wouldn’t make any sense. Anyone wanting to visit the event will quarantine for three days and stay at the hotel. The moment they leave the hotel, they leave the event and they can’t come back. For example, the NIP CEO can’t just fly in and pay a visit to his players.
Will you use this tournament as a lesson for the future, especially for the LAN event that you’re hoping to host with an audience in December?
Any tournament is a lesson for the future. We want to see if maybe we are, let’s say, too uptight with the tournament. Coming back to why the event is special: Honestly, the situation and the fact that it’s IEM Cologne, that is an EPL Championship, that it’s a million dollar event. It’s a long-awaited event as well. The fact that, assuming that Gambit show up, we will have the answer to, ‘Was any of that real’?* Because Gambit’s domination needs to be verified on LAN. Heroic’s performances, winning ESL Pro League, probably have to be verified on LAN. So many questions. Are Astralis better on LAN? The online era hasn’t been kind to them, but was it the natural trajectory of a certain team model just running its course, or is it the fact that they are playing online and this group of players isn’t suited to an online style and on LAN the edge will be back? So many questions will be answered and they will have to be answered multiple times. This is assuming that the next events are on LAN as well, which, fingers crossed, they are, with the developments of vaccination and whatnot.
So many questions are out there, and they will have to be answered over and over again, because on the basis of a single million-dollar event, if Gambit places second behind Virtus.pro, what does that say? We don’t actually know in the grand scheme of things. That’s the way CS works, we need a string of events to find out some kind of truth.
I use the ‘Game of Thrones’ reference, where they have a six-year winter and then a long number of years without any snow. It feels like with this LAN we’re coming out of a six-year winter and into a brand new period in Counter-Strike. That’s exciting. All we’re trying to do is deliver a good competition that will provide all these answers and make sure everyone’s safe. So competition and safety, that’s it. Everything else is a bonus.
Would you say that this is your biggest challenge ever, in terms of event hosting?
No, absolutely not. Well, in a way, yes, but the biggest challenge is to go to a new territory for the first time, like America, and try to book an arena not knowing how many people end up buying tickets. That is still, without a doubt, the biggest challenge, but it’s probably the biggest challenge of the last five years because it’s so different and difficult at the same time.
What are the plans for the December event, which is supposed to have an audience? Is it going to be held in Asia?
We’ve learned that it’s silly to talk too much about things that are months away when things change on a seven-day basis. I wish I could tell you a lot, but anything that goes on record may be rendered invalid in two weeks. So I don’t think I can say anything of value other than our wishes and dreams. It will all depend on the same factors that are currently influencing IEM Cologne.
When ESL announced that the Rio Major was cancelled, it said that the plan was to revisit this matter and bring the Major to Rio one day. Do you still stand by those words?
One hundred percent. Nothing else to say. One hundred percent.