The Championship Gaming Series, or CGS for short, is often attributed with the monocle of being esports’ highest profile failure. But when it initially arrived expectations were… very different. It’s been 14 years since the CGS, but it’s impact can still be felt today. This is the story of how a league promising to invest $50 million over five years managed to crash and burn. And more importantly, the valuable lessons it taught esports.
The year is 2006. Twitter has only just launched and YouTube is just one year old. There is no Instagram, WhatsApp or Snapchat and, more importantly for esports, there is no Twitch. Esports is in its infancy. The year before, in 2005, there had been 338 tournaments with a combined prize pool of $4.3 million. For reference, 2019 was blessed with 5,031 tournaments and $227 million in prize money.
In 2006 multi-gaming events were still the norm. The Electronic Sports World Cup (ESWC) and the World Cyber Games (WCG) were the most prestigious titles, although other tournament organizers such as ESL in Europe and the CPL in North America, were starting to gather momentum. Their events however, were still very little more than large scale LAN parties.
So when the number one American satellite provider DirecTV announced two pilot invitational events to be broadcast on TV in front of a live studio audience in San Francisco, it was headline news. Although Starcraft had made its way to national TV in South Korea through the MBC Game and OnGame Leagues in the early 2000s, the idea of esports on mainstream TV was still a fantasy for gamers in the rest of the world.
DirecTV’s interest in esports was influenced by a former executive by the name of David Hill, who had witnessed the success of the World Series of Poker on ESPN, and believed esports could be equally if not more successful. With the help of Team 3D’s manager at the time, Craig “Torbull” Levine, Hill got a pilot green lit.
DirecTV’s test-run was called the Championship Gaming Invitational (CGI) and came with a $166,000 prize pool split across two events. The CGI included five titles, the most important of which were Counter-Strike 1.6 and Halo 2, which, at the time, were the biggest games in NA. In fact, all of the invited players and teams were North American, with the exception of Swedish Counter-Strike team Ninjas in Pyjamas, led by the incredibly high profile and legendary Emil “HeatoN” Christensen.
Regardless, DirecTV’s CGI 2006 was a success. Production levels were well above standard for esports at the time, it had top NA players, popular esports titles and established broadcast talent such as Marcus “DJWheat” Graham. It was proof of concept, and DirecTV was ready to expand.
The CGS League is born
Following the success of the CGI in 2006, the following April, DirecTV announced it’s master plan. Instead of continuing to do one-off events, DirecTV was going to launch a full-scale televised league, and had secured in excess of $50 million in investment.
“This is the moment the gaming world has been waiting for,” said CGS Commissioner Andy Reif. “We will be paying salaries and bonuses to our players in excess of $5 million dollars during the 2007 season. The time has come for a new era of professional gaming as sports entertainment.”
To say the salaries on the table were attractive would be an understatement – they were outrageous. In exchange for exclusivity, broadcast talent and players were offered absurdly high salaries, with FPS icon Jonathon “Fatal1ty” Wendel reported to have been paid $300,000 to take up commentating, $69,000 more than even his best year as a competing player. The prospect of televised esports and economic gain of this magnitude was too good to pass up, even if it did mean rebranding an organisation or changing games.
The CGS on paper was the ultimate payout, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – with the rainbow representing the blood, sweat and tears expended trying to make ends meet. Players in the American CGS division were paid $2,500 a month, even if they were not competing, put up in a house by the beach in LA’s Marina del Rey and given a daily food stipend of $50.
The playboy mansion, franchising and a peculiar format
For the first season, DirecTV secured two massive media partners, BSkyB in the United Kingdom and STARTV In China. It also secured repeat sponsorships from Mountain Dew and Alienware, who had both sponsored the Championship Gaming Invitational. Instead of sticking exclusively with North America for its first season, the CGS went global immediately, choosing a format that could make the most of their TV partnership deals.
The CGS League’s format was inspired by the franchise system used in traditional sports leagues in North America, with each competing team tied to a specific city. To make this happen the CGS either enticed existing esports organisations and then assigned them to a city or they created entirely new brands. For example Evil Geniuses became known as Chicago Chimera and Team 3D became New York 3D. For the first season, the CGS ended up with 18 franchises in total, starting with 6 in North America before expanding to Latin America plus Europe and finally Pan-Asia.
To decide which individual players or teams would be part of each franchise, drafts were held – a common process in traditional sports in the U.S. and Canada. Each CGS franchise team had a general manager, who took turns picking their players and teams for each of the four disciplines; Counter-Strike: Source, Dead or Alive 4, Gotham Racing 3 and FIFA 07.
Although potentially stale as a broadcast, the CGS spiced things up by holding the first CGS Draft for North America at Hugh Hefner’s 22,000 square foot Playboy Mansion in California, with the general managers flanked by playboy bunnies. With the CGS’ first season not even underway, it was already flexing the power of its connections. The CGS was taking esports mainstream like never before.
It was of course not without its criticism, the biggest of which was directed at their choice to choose Counter-Strike: Source over Counter-Strike 1.6, which they had previously picked for the Invitational events. The switch to Source was seen as bizarre, especially considering the original Counter-Strike was the hottest esports game at the time, and in terms of public perception as it required “more skill”. Likewise the choice to drop the immensely popular Halo 2 from CGI 2006 in favor of Dead or Alive 4 for Season 1 baffled esports enthusiasts. That said NA tournament organizer MLG was leading the Halo charge, and it’s highly feasible the CGS was keen to differentiate themselves by supporting a different title.
The end result was that the CGS was flaunting the biggest check book in all of esports, but not supporting the most popular games, which left the esports community divided. For the chosen games, however, it was an unexpected blessing and it helped raise the profiles of their dedicated players.
CGS a glorious ship, but not water-tight
Season 1 of the Championship Gaming Series allegedly drew 50 million viewers worldwide, with Asia as the biggest market. Regional events were held in England, Malaysia and the United States, to determine the 11 teams to attend the $477,500 World Championship. The Chicago Chimera won emphatically in December 2017 in Culver City, California. However, the CGS was not in good shape.
In the first season alone, the CGS managed to burn through $25 million of its immense $50 million budget, which was meant to last for five years. The original plan was for the CGS to be an NA league, and the decision to haphazardly expand to Europe and Pan-Asia in Season 1 was both bold and incredibly costly. It was in over its head, and it was hemorrhaging money. The problem was, the wheels were already in motion.
For Season 2 the CGS continued with the same 18 franchise teams. FIFA07 was updated to FIFA08, and Forza Motorsport 2 replaced Gotham Racing 3. While the first season had eight offline events, the second season had just four, only one of which took place outside the United States. While Season 1 had lasted eight months, Season 2 was over in four. After than, the CGS went dead silent.
Four months later on the November 18th, 2008, the CGS re-emerged to confirm rumors that it was closing its doors. Officials stated that “it became increasingly clear that profitability was too far in the future for us to sustain operations in the interim”. The CGS had burned through its investment, and with the economy in crisis, DirecTV decided to cut their losses and pull the plug.
According to the official announcement the CGS “was ahead of the curve in the e-sports space, (…) and invested wholeheartedly in the venture and presented viewers with a top-notch production”.
Teams and talents who had invested in the CGS, and suffered the consequences of the exclusivity clauses, were left high and dry. The $50 million league that was meant to last five years was now dead after barely two.
The CGS had a massive impact not just on the scenes of the titles it supported, but also the esports scene as a whole. While active, the CGS was a stickler for exclusivity, and players who were part of the league were not allowed to attend any non-CGS event unless given written permission to do so, even though the CGS only lasted four months of the year.
Players were also not allowed to compete in other titles, a rule CS:Source player Kevin “aZn” Wang broke when he attended a small NA Counter-Strike 1.6 LAN with friends, resulting in a $5,000 fine; two months wages.
With players in the chosen CGS titles unable to join other events, the scenes for those games dried up, particularly in North America. This was especially true for Counter-Strike: Source, and when the CGS died, Source teams were left with no scene to return to.
“It all went to hell in a hand basket when some well intentions but corporate suit type people tried to change gaming, the spirit of gaming and it crashed and burned during a bad economy,” said Jason Lake, the owner of Complexity Gaming, four years after CGS’ demise. “That was really hard on me, man. I’m quoted on video saying, ‘if this doesn’t work, esports is dead’ and, unfortunately, I wasn’t that far from the truth at the time. When CGS crashed and burned, the scene, in North America especially, was just a train wreck.”
The big CGS checks had killed off the competition, and the bubble the CGS had created had burst. What is more, the outrageous salaries the CGS paid out had artificially inflated the asking price for top players in the esports scene, and organisations began making promises they were unable to keep in a bid to snatch up the best players around.
For esports fans, getting on TV was supposed to have let the world finally see what they were missing out on. Instead, the product CGS had put out made esports appear a dangerous and foolhardy investment to outside investors. The product itself was poorly designed.
The CGS did not understand esports
Already before the end of Season 1 it was abundantly clear that the CGS was not esports’ ticket to mainstream acceptance. In fact, it was tarnishing its reputation. Not only had CGS picked unpopular titles, but it’s presentation of it’s players was seen as cringe-worthy, and… forced.
Inspired by the likes of the WWE, the CGS asked players to trash talk or call out their opponents, and play to the cameras as much as possible, sometimes even feeding them catch phrases for them to repeat. While for some this came naturally, for the majority of the gamers involved in the CGS, it did not. Managers would scream in delight at mediocre plays, and casters at times had no option but to fake hype just to keep the artificial adrenaline ride going.
The CGS was incredibly uncomfortable to watch for esports fans, and just portrayed gamers as socially awkward; the stereotype the CGS was trying to break. Another stereotype the CGS failed miserably to challenge was that of female gamers receiving undeserved praise simply for being female. In fact it reinforced it. For example Dead or Alive 4’s player Vanessa Arteaga’s intro included her posing on a beach in a bikini. Meanwhile models, would walk on stage in miniskirts waving flags ahead of each race. However, it was not the only presentation issue the CGS had.
While picking CS:Source over CS 1.6 was baffling, CGS’ choice to only show Source from a third-person perspective was heresy in the eyes of gamers, and a glaring example of just how little the CGS understood about the industry. The models were also changed in-game to look less militaristic, and the standard MR15 format used in competitive Counter-Strike – which has teams play to 15 with overtime for a draw – was changed to a best of 18 rounds, with a sudden death round in case of a tie. A bizarre decision.
The CGS aimed to make esports mainstream, but was ill equipped to do so, inadvertently making gamers and esports the object of ridicule. With a different approach and its $50 million funding, the CGS could have been a pioneer. The CGS’ biggest mistake was to try to adapt esports to TV, instead of the other way round. Its approach gave esports a bad reputation, suffocated competing companies, inflated esports salaries, and made investors more apprehensive of investing into the space.
Fortunately, despite a bumpy road esports weathered the storm, and decided to take matters into its own hands. The CGS remains nothing but a painful memory, and a how-to-guide of how not to do things.