Counter-Strike observer Halvor Gulestøl on the job for 2015's ESL Pro League. Image: ESL / Helena Kristiansson.

The Eyes of Counter-Strike

In 'Counter-Strike' spectator games, the most important shooter is the cameraman.

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May 14 2015, 3:20pm

Counter-Strike observer Halvor Gulestøl on the job for 2015's ESL Pro League. Image: ESL / Helena Kristiansson.

You probably don't know Halvor Gulestøl by name even if you follow organized video game competitions, or eSports, but you might be familiar with his work. At peak viewership during a recent Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament at Katowice, Poland, more than a million people were hanging on his every choice as he controlled what and how they saw the match, shifting between different perspectives and angles on the fly like a virtual director.

"I think it's an underestimated job in terms of how much time it takes," Gulestøl told me. "When you're observing [controlling the camera for] a game you have to watch 10 different players doing 10 different things for the span of maybe 14 hours a day. You don't get that many breaks, the longest of which are maybe five minutes between games."

By now you're probably familiar with the image of a giant arena packed with fans, all cheering for professional eSports players. More often than not these big events are for one of the popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games like Dota 2 and League of Legends. All MOBAs are descendant from the same popular Warcraft III user-made modification, and with a few less popular exceptions, are played and spectated from the same overhead perspective.

The live audiences for these games dwarf Counter-Strike, even though it's the most popular first person shooter in eSports—and a big part of the reason is the camera.

The stage at ESL's Counter-Strike eSports event in Katowice, Poland. Image ESL / Helena Kristiansson.

To understand why, think about football. The game is hard to understand as it is if you didn't grow up with the sport, but with an eye-in-the-sky perspective on the entire field, you can at least get an idea about the flow of the match. The guys in blue are trying to move the ball past the guys in red, and you can tell if they're doing a good job just by seeing where they stand in relation to the ball. MOBAs and real-time strategy games like StarCraft II also benefit from this overhead perspective.

Now imagine if you could only watch football from the first person perspective of one player at a time. You can't see the entire field, and since the camera keeps shifting to different players on both teams, you quickly lose track of who's where and why.

"People think sports fans are idiots, but football is actually hard to understand and watch and does require some advanced literacy," Frank Lantz, director of the NYU Game Center and eSports fan, told me. "But, it's easier to watch than StarCraft, and StarCraft is easier to watch than League of Legends, and League of Legends is easier to watch than Counter-Strike."

First person shooters were late to the current eSports boom, but even with the marketing machine now in place and every new first person shooter trying (and usually failing) to cultivate an eSports scene, games like Counter-Strike are still struggling with problems unique to first person shooters. Quite simply, they're harder to broadcast.

"MOBAs are much slower paced," professional eSports commentator Leigh "Deman" Smith told me. In Counter-Strike, by comparison, the team that's trying to plant a bomb at one of the sites the other team is defending can rush the objective and get there in 15 seconds. "Then it's down to the cameraman's expertize to know who's going to be the first guy in. The hardest part for us and the viewer is recognizing where they are on the map and what is happening at an instant."

ESports event organizers have tried other solutions before realizing professionals observers were the best option. Counter-Strike developer Valve has an auto-director AI, which is designed to present the match in the best way possible, but falls short of Gulestøl's abilities.

Like all professional Counter-Strike observers, Gulestøl played the game competitively. Not at the highest level, but long enough to have deep knowledge of other top teams and the metagame, the ever-evolving strategies that can change with player trends or technical updates to the game. He can recognize when a team is trying to execute on a certain strategy and which kills will help it plant the bomb and win the match.

"While the thought behind auto-director is excellent, it's not able to really differentiate between what's a significant kill and an insignificant kill," Gulestøl said. "To the auto-director a frag [kill] is a frag."

When DirectTV aired the Championship Gaming Series in 2007, it experimented with another solution: a giant split-screen showcasing the first person perspective of all 10 players at once. Both Smith and Gulestøl said it was too much to follow.

Valve also seems to realize that at least for now, observers like Gulestøl are the best way to broadcast Counter-Strike, and they're receptive to their needs.

In 2013, Counter-Strike pro player and map maker Salvatore Garozzo suggested that letting spectators see the outline of other players through walls would be a huge help, and Valve eventually added the feature. Smith told me that just before Katowice, fans asked for an icon above players' heads to indicate they've been blinded by a flashbang grenade, and two days later, there it was.

At the moment, every observer is campaigning for a better version of the 2D, overview maps in the corner of the screen. If done right, it could give Counter-Strike the advantage of an overhead perspective MOBAs and traditional sports enjoy.

Gulestøl suggested Valve clarify which player's perspective the audience is seeing at any given moment by highlighting the arrows representing players on the map with a colored blip. The bigger issue is that the maps are practically useless in stages like de_nuke, which have two stacked floors.

"Basically every time nuke shows up everyone just cringes," Gulestøl said. "Observers go into fetal positions and they just cross their fingers. You can't see if players on the upper level or lower level. We'd like either two different maps or just a 3D overview, which would obviously would be harder to implement."

Gulestøl isn't sure if viewers appreciate all his work in overcoming these challenges. Basically, they only think about his job when he fucks up.

"You can have a tournament where you're doing 90 percent really good work, but it's easier for people to remember the moments you miss...I don't think a lot of people coming into Counter-Strike now know that the observers we have now are doing a better job than the other solutions were around before." he said. "One of the biggest things you have to get used to is that you're just a human being and you're not going to catch everything that's going to happen."

As to whether or not it's worth it, like any job, it mostly depends on if you love what you do.

"In terms of work hours it's probably the worst job to have but it's still fun," Gulestøl said. "You get to travel, meet everyone else that was at the tournaments, it's decent pay, especially as a first job in eSports, I was overjoyed when ESL offered it to me. I would have done this for free, but obviously I wouldn't tell them that."