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Staying at the top is harder in esports

It is hard to be number one, and it is even harder to stay there because everyone is trying to knock you off the top. – Allan McNish

It’s not an original thought, but the statement above from Le Mans champion Allan McNish is undoubtedly true when it comes to elite competition. Be it cars, tennis, even trampoline, you can go out and find a top competitor talking about the fact that getting to the top was only the start, and the battle begun after that, and the same is true in CS:GO today. However, in CS and esports generally there are other factors at play making it harder still to be the best long-term, and it’s going to be some time until those are resolved.

Traditional sport vs esports

People will always compare traditional sport to esports, and in many ways it makes sense, but while both are elite competition there are massive differences, especially at the developmental level. Young athletes in major sports have the benefit of decades of training and knowledge that has come before, as well as millions of dollars of investment every year into new technology and methodology to give the teams a tiny edge over their competitors.

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Because there are 10,000 failed hopefuls for every one Premier League star, there is also intense competition at every point of the young athlete’s development, with the chaff cast off annually and those who make it having watched hundreds fall along the way by the time they arrive at the top. Compare all this to the experience of a rising star in CS, who comes through the ranks of FACEIT or some other firm’s ‘development’ system, with all that entails.

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Things have been worse, of course. We are only a few years on from arguably the most talented player NA had produced to that point getting a lifetime ban as a minor because of a gambling infraction allegedly arranged by his older team-mates. In that situation, Braxton ‘swag’ Pierce was hung out to dry by Valve, and the wider world of esports, as nobody in a position of power stood up for a kid who had been led astray.

Today at least a few orgs are looking to get players in early and help them develop, with the likes of Tyson ‘TenZ’ Ngo and Own ‘oBo’ Schlatter both being brought onto orgs at a young age, and in some cases even before they join the team proper. Part of that is a desire to get hold of potential world stars early, and therefore having to put them in where a top team might wait and sign them when they have proven themselves, and part of it is also a recognition that esports pros are capable of so much, so young, as Mathieu ‘ZywOo’ Herbaut has proven this year.

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Foundation for sustained success

The problem is, this system doesn’t prepare young players for the life of a professional athlete, and while there is a legitimate debate about how athletic the average CS pro is, there is no doubt they have to endure much of the same grind and scrutiny that many sports stars experience. Spending hundreds of days a year on the road, away from your home and loved ones is a gruelling experience, and doing it under the spotlight just adds another layer of heat to an already pressurised situation.

What’s more, where a young sports star might already be used to this life, having come up in a stunted version and been surrounded by the culture of professionalism, the young esports player has gone from his or her bedroom, in most cases, to a life on the main stage, with nothing that significant in between. They may be lucky enough to play under an intelligent leader, who understands that young men and women need to learn more than how to click on faces if they want to survive, but it’s not a common occurrence, with most older players retiring rather than sticking it out in tier 2 or 3 to pass on their knowledge.

We are just getting to the starting point where things will change in future, as Astralis and Liquid are the most professional number one teams we’ve seen, but there is a long way to go until we see a Lionel Messi or Roger Federer-style reign, from a person who has nothing left to win but cannot stop competing. In terms of improvement, esports has a lot of areas to work on, but the way young players are developed should hopefully be radically different in a few years’ time, and the top level of the scene will look totally alien as a result.

Images: Starladder / ESL / Helena Kristiansson

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