Interview With James Bardolph: Understanding the Transition From CS:GO to CS2
The next big step for the Counter-Strike franchise.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive popularly abbreviated to CS:GO is one of the most legendary games in the world. It is part of the iconic Counter-Strike franchise whose origins date back to 1999 as a modification of an illustrious title called Half-Life.
More than 11 years after its release, Valve is in the final stages of rolling out Counter-Strike 2 (CS2), which will be the successor to CS:GO and is built on Valve’s latest video game engine Source 2. This upgrade has been welcomed with open arms by the community but brings with it a whole set of new challenges for both the developers and players.
CS2 is already available to selective players who are also acting as playtesters, providing Valve with the necessary feedback to implement changes to fine-tune the game. However, there are loads of doubts about how this massive shift would impact the overall gameplay along with the competitive side of things.
AFK Gaming might be able to answer some of these questions following its recent interaction with one of the top CS:GO commentators and analysts, James Bardolph, who is also the current Vice President of FACEIT Media.
Breaking Down the Future of Counter-Strike Franchise With Veteran Talent James Bardolph
To provide meaning and substance to this entire discussion, James explains why CS:GO is considered one of the best esports titles in the world, and factors that have resulted in its longevity to be at the pinnacle for well over a decade.
One of the primary factors for James is the spectacle of the game, which lies in its simplicity. He thinks it is a very easy game to understand, something he has observed at events where even the security guard at the door or by the stage is able to follow what is happening in the game.
“A simple measure for me has always been at events, where you've got like a security guard at a door or by a stage or something. They're able to follow along with what's happening. So the only time they might get confused, without any briefing as to how the game works, is halftime when the sides switch. But apart from that, it’s very clear and understandable what’s going on. There’s no magic in it per se or anything like that,” explains James.
Highlighting the accessibility of CS:GO, James compares it to old Street Fighter games, both being clear and understandable in their concepts. He further says that even the tools in CS:GO like firearms and utility are self-explanatory, which makes it a very intuitive game and is a key contributor to its success.
“I think there isn't really any bullshit in the game. I think it's beautiful in its simplicity and there's depth in the nuance, but it's a very accessible game. It's easy to pick up and play and it's easy to understand and watch,” says James.
He believes that the lack of nonsense makes for a better demonstration of individual skill to be on full display, something that a lot of games with champions or abilities are not able to showcase properly.
Having set a solid premise, James went on to provide his expert opinion on what challenges and opportunities this shift from CS:GO to CS2 presents for the players, teams, organizers, and the community.
Talking about how CS2 could play out for existing and new players, James reckons that about 12 to 18 months after the game’s release there will be a significant difference in the game. Focussing on smoke grenades, he opines that they cover a large area and are too big at the moment, which immediately raises a lot of questions.
Providing a gameplay example based on the CS2 port of the iconic map Mirage, James explains “If you are trying to defend Mid from the CT perspective and somebody smokes Connector, you can’t defend Mid. You just can’t defend it, because you can’t see anything. So something like that in terms of a player's point of view, that’s one small example. But if it stays as it is, then CT might have to fight more aggressively in Mid, which might make things more brittle. So I think in the short term there will be challenges like that.”
James also looks forward to seeing the revival of players that have disappeared with the release of CS2, hoping for someone like Kenny "kennyS" Schrub to make a comeback in the scene. He feels this is possible because, on the base level, the game will not be too different in terms of mechanics, movement, and so on.
“The developers have worked very hard to keep the same movement, so I think at the core, mechanics are the same. Then it would not be too concerning for the players, but I hope it will be different enough to offer a fresh start in terms of strategies,” says James.
As for the tournament organizers, James thinks it is going to offer a lot of new eyes and hopefully a whole new generation of players as well.
Similarly, even the esports organizations that are built around these players could benefit from new opportunities in terms of activations, sponsors, and so on. This is mainly because anything that is new and shiny is going to attract attention, hopefully helping them be more viable in terms of business.
Esports is one side of the coin for CS:GO, on the other hand, there is the huge playerbase that just loves to play the game and is loyal to the franchise. James thinks that there was nothing more that CS:GO could offer them, it was probably dropping off a bit and headed towards a stalemate.
He still considers that core CS:GO is always going to be one of the best games to watch and play but also welcomes the arrival of the new game engine, Source 2, that is going to power CS2, unlike its predecessor which ran on Source 1.
“I think a new engine is great because it provides developers with more tools to do new things. We are seeing an improvement in small details like the shine on surfaces, on knives, and so on. So that's very refreshing and engaging, especially considering the age of the game. I think these updates were necessary to keep people engaged,” says James.
James goes on to mention that CS2 will have a new menu, which he does not like, but it does hint towards the possible addition of new firearms and utilities to the game. As for the casual players, he thinks bigger maps and new operations could be made with the help of better tools that come along with the new engine.
According to him, developers might take the seasonal battle pass route along with CS2, similar to games like Apex Legends and Valorant. By taking inspiration from their competitors, CS2 could be in a better position to defend their own space while encroaching into foreign playerbases to bring those audiences in.
With such a massive change underway and the entire community looking forward to it, we discussed with James the possibility of CS2 adopting a world championship similar to The International (TI) or sticking with the current biannual Major system.
The response from James was loud and clear, No! He thinks that the Major system is better because TI, which is the world championship for Dota 2, simply overshadows everything else that occurs in the competitive year.
In a bid to justify his take with an actual example, James explains “Let’s say we just have the IEM Cologne, right? In most people's eyes, it should be one of the Majors. However, it not being one still makes it one of the biggest tournaments of the calendar year, outside of the Majors. So if you add an International (TI), that just makes those things less important.”
James thinks that ‘big money’ is not good for the general health of the overall ecosystem and this is why he would hate to have something like TI in CS2. He agrees to the fact that it would make quite a headline, but the scene does not require such short-term rewards.
“I think the system we have of two Majors a year is fantastic and I don't think that (TI) would add anything. I think people get obsessed with big numbers and don't look at the bigger picture,” says James.
James opines that streamers would be willing to play CS2 if enough people are interested in it, which will have a big impact in drawing the attention of the masses. From an organization’s point of view, if they are pitching to Venture Capitalists or planning a pivot for their company, CS2 will be a prime candidate.
“I think the timing is important as well,” adds James, pointing out the supposed reduction in size that the Overwatch League might undergo and not much going on in Valorant outside of the main league, he further says, “I think the timing is very good for CS2 to come out and for people to look towards it. I'm not sure that there’s much going on outside of the main Valorant league. So I think timing-wise, it's really good for CS2. In the end, it's partly about timing, it's partly about creators streaming new stuff, and it's partly about Counter-Strike being Counter-Strike as well.”
Coming back to Counter-Strike being the best spectacle in comparison to competing FPS titles, excluding Battle Royale, James considers that CS2 already has plenty of advantages in that respect.
The game has no concept of champions like Valorant, where every time a new hero is added it results in more visual clutter.
The demonstration of skills is more distinct in Counter-Strike than in any other title.
The upgrade in aesthetics that CS2 offers will be great for broadcast and casual players.
So, James believes that there are a lot of things going right for CS2, whose release is planned on or before September 2023.
CS:GO was not able to penetrate multiple high-volume regions like China, Asia, Oceania, and South Africa effectively on the esports side of things, something Valve could avoid with the release of CS2. James who has attended multiple events in China, Sydney, and Mumbai, knows the value of these regions and the challenges each of them presents.
Using India as an example, James breaks down the region by saying “I know in India for example, probably the primary gaming experience is on the phones. I remember (Indian esports tournament) had CS:GO and Dota 2 on big stages and there was a PUBG Mobile section which definitely didn't have a big stage but it had the most people around it. So there are variables like that. I know that's going to be the more accessible style of gaming in the region, but India is a massive country, so even if PC gaming is a niche, maybe it's bigger than niche, but that doesn't mean it can't happen in the region.”
James further says that other variables include things like the Internet, and dedicated regional servers in different areas to try and get a good average ping, which can be tricky in regions like Oceania and different parts of Asia.
“So if a good enough infrastructure can be provided regionally to help people grow on the base level and if there's more measurable activity, then that probably makes it more likely to have events there. When you have events, it's important to have live activations, something that I know is very, very important when conducting an event in China,” says James.
He admits that solving this problem is easier said than done because there are different layers, each having its own set of requirements to make it viable. Providing an example, James explains that first indicators are required, then partnerships need to be found for live activations, and only then an event is ready to take place.
“It is something that’s doable but it will take a lot of work. Personally, it’s definitely something to look at internally for me at least and understand what the status quo is, in that respect,” concludes James.
CS:GO is on its way out and with a veteran like James Bardolph who has seen the entire scene unfold in front of him while being a part of it, this is what he had to say about the game’s most iconic moment and the one most memorable to him personally.
James feels that the community is fortunate that there isn’t just one iconic moment that CS:GO has had to offer. In his opinion there are multiple, starting from Vincent "Happy" Cervoni’s Deagle shots through the smoke on Inferno, the moment when North America won the Boston Major, Marcelo "coldzera" David’s jumping AWP shots on Mirage, there are a lot of different moments and I think we are lucky that people can choose from many of them.
“I often reference the jumping AWP with coldzera because if you look into the details of that, it's a 9-15 scoreline. They're against game point and turn the entire series around off of that round. But then obviously for North America, the moment where Stewie2k (Jacky Yip) holds on to Inferno, and then they go through to win the Major in the hell of a run, is another moment for people. So it might vary depending on your allegiances, where you're based, and so on, but I think that's a great problem to have,” says James.
Coming to what he thinks the CS:GO community might remember him for across all his commentaries, James considers his casting during Cloud9’s moment on Inferno from where they went on to win the Major and Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyljev’s jumping AWP on Cache, as some of his biggest moments from the game.
“Those two moments would probably be the ones that will stick with people the most. They've been some of the biggest things we've seen in CS:GO. But again, I think it's the stage, what it meant, especially the Cloud 9 one considering that they went on and won the Major on a miracle run. So likely to be those two but that's ultimately the choice of the people rather than me,” says James.
It was lovely chatting with James Bardolph and hopefully, it provided some clarity about the next chapter in the legacy of this franchise, CS2. There is still a lot more left to be uncovered and understood about it and Valve is expected to roll out timely information as we move closer to the date of release.