“I think almost anyone who looks back at their childhood will have some kind of memory that they realize is being romanticised through the lens of time,” Anders Blume, a 28-year-old Dane, tells me over Skype. “That girl whose hand you touched or the first time you were allowed to watch The Terminator. Or really—and this is the point—it could be anything.”
For Blume, the moment he still recalls so vividly came late one summer night in 1999, when he was 13. Blume and some of his friends took an hour-long train ride to Copenhagen from the city’s small northern suburb of Farum.
They bought all night seats at a local net cafe, to play video games from midnight to 8am. It was pitch black and silent outside. But inside, the monitors glowed and headphones growled as the group played only one new title for the entire eight-hour stretch: Counter-Strike. The game’s first beta had only just been released a couple of months earlier, but the buzz online had already reached a fever pitch.
Counter-Strike is one of those great games that takes a minute to learn and appreciate but a lifetime to master. Two teams of five armed men—one side called "terrorists" and the other "counter terrorists"—fight to accomplish objectives or kill one another in labyrinthine levels that provoke both strategic smarts and physical acuity. You have to not only be in the right place at the right time but also instantly and precisely control your mouse to hit every target.
As the sun came up in Copenhagen, the kids went home. On the train, all they could talk about was the game. One of the teenagers was proudly going on about a headshot he had made, while another countered with the story of a knife he’d sublimely slipped into the back of an enemy he’d snuck up on.
It was early in the morning and Blume, short on sleep, zoned out. The chatter fell to the background as he closed his eyes. Blocking everything else out, he still saw the outline of the crosshair for the AWP rifle, the immensely powerful weapon that immediately caught his imagination.
“I think [then] I realized that we really had something with this game.”
Anders was right. It would take 14 years—a lifetime in eSports—but that Danish kid dreaming of crosshairs would grow up to become a commentary fixture at nearly every Counter-Strike tournament in the world. Anders would become the voice of the game he fell in love with.
Photo via kiev.ua
One of the many incredible things about the eSports boom of the past three or four years is that every new game is, in its way, an industry unto itself. When the game launches, there are opportunities for new careers.
In 2010, StarCraft 2 flooded a previously parched Western eSports industry with cash. Suddenly, players, leagues, writers, commentators, managers, coaches, teams, and entrepreneurs of every stripe were paid for work that had only recently been volunteer-only—if it existed at all.
League of Legends, easily the most popular eSport in the world, supports an economy of hundreds of millions of dollars, which is spread out among developers at Riot, professional players, and Chinese investors bankrolling the whole scene.
At 14 years old, the Counter-Strike franchise has a long and checkered history with money. In the early 2000s, the game supported the Cyberathlete Professional League, which was the pinnacle of eSports outside of South Korea for almost a decade. Countless careers began in the orbit of that game.
But big money often comes with a big price. In 2007, DirecTV’s Championship Gaming Series invested millions in televising itself, one of the most ambitious investments eSports had ever seen. But it was ultimately a ticking time bomb painted with dollar signs. When it inevitably collapsed due to monumentally bad management, many of the careers in Counter-Strike's orbit came violently crashing down.
Counter-Strike has had considerable ups and down since then. Different versions have pushed and pulled fans for a decade. Counter-Strike: Source, a 2004 sequel, fractured the industry and divided the players and fans. By the August 2012 release of its fourth sequel, Global Offensive, things were looking decidedly down. No one knew if this new sequel would be another fleck on the legacy of a great game or if it would catalyze a renaissance. Many people were skeptical about the new game and its potential.
Just 12 months ago, Blume was a full-time student with a part-time job. He’d bounced from studying physics to biology to English. But each successive subject left him feeling dissatisfied and empty.
Wandering through his mid '20s, Blume found a game he had almost forgotten about. Global Offensive was released in August 2012, but it was still under heavy development. When he first saw it, Blume was actually quite skeptical.
“When the CSGO beta rolled around I pretty much thought it looked like another failed attempt to remake CS,” Blume said. “Another Counter-Strike: Source in my mind, and I didn’t really bother getting a key or anything.”
That was, for a long time, the position of a lot of old school Counter-Strike players. But soon, Blume’s imagination was sparked by an old obsession.
Since its first shot was fired in 1999, Counter-Strike’s AWP rifle has been the gold standard of gaming imbalance. Angry gamers have begged for its removal and sore losers unleash salvos of slurs on those who wield it.
It’s easy to understand the frustration. The AWP is a one-shot-one-kill weapon, like the Golden Gun in GoldenEye. In the hands of a player who is hitting his shots, it can single-handedly turn the tide of the fight. It’s won championships in capable hands and lost them when the shooter’s unsteady trigger fingers can’t deliver under pressure.
Blume fell in love (again) with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive when he watched the French pro gamer Kenny “KennyS” Schrub use the AWP to lead his team, VeryGames, to become the second best team in the world. Watching Schrub push to a silver medal at the 2012 ESports World Cup inspired Blume to watch more and more Counter-Strike.
After not playing for years, Blume found himself running and gunning in servers, remembering the joy of the game he discovered as a kid. The memory of that AWP crosshair had changed over the years, but it was as vivid as ever now.
Commentators are important in any competitive game, be it football, basketball, or Counter-Strike. A good commentator can clue the audience into the essential subtleties of what's happening in front of them, turning what might look like a senseless shootout into a rich strategic experience. Back then, commentators like Rizc, Pansy, and Warclown were the top voices for the still-young game.
“I kept thinking as I was watching that there were a few things they neglected to mention,” Blume said, “which I thought could help the quality of the cast a lot. Mentioning what the purpose of a smoke grenade was in a certain spot. How does faking a bombsite work? And things of that nature.”
Blume even wrote a few private messages of constructive criticism to the casters. While watching a tournament with friends, he kept talking about things he thought were missing from Counter-Strike casting.
“This went on for a while,” he said, “until my friends, tired of listening to me whining about stuff, politely told me that if I thought I was so much better, why didn't I just cast the games myself? Fair question really.”
“I had in mind a type of cast where I just talked like I had with my friends on Mumble, about the meta-game, tactics and so on, and I quickly realised that without any kind of play-by-play casting, it just wouldn’t work. So the next cast I invited my friend Albert, and together we built Pugcast from there.”
Pugcast, named for Anders' two dogs, was a video series offering regular, insightful commentary to a top-level game of Counter-Strike. It took only a few days to find success. Local Danish Counter-Strike tournaments soon came to Blume and Albert with paying work, which gave them “an incredible boost of confidence." Absolute Legends, a major European gaming team, reached out to Pugcast as well.
“It all happened so fast that it really felt unreal,” Blume said. “I remember most evenings when the cast was over I couldn’t sleep for hours because the adrenaline was just pumping through my body.”
After just three weeks of casting, they were contacted by an account called “nipgaming.” NiP, short for Ninjas in Pyjamas, is the most successful Global Offensive team in the game’s history. The team has a championship pedigree extending back through all 14 years of Counter-Strike’s existence, right to the night that Blume discovered the game.
At first, Blume was sure it was a fake account. Nervously following up, Blume and his partner realized NiP’s Niklas Fischer really was on the other end of the conversation. Counter-Strike’s greatest team was offering them a gig to start at NiPTV, Ninjas in Pyjamas’ big venture into video content. That’s when Blume realized that this was more than just a hobby.
From the start, before the paychecks came, Blume put in the hours like it was more than a hobby. Dedicating 25 hours a week to casting, 10 hours to prep and review, and even more to playing and understanding the game, it seems fitting that he was quickly rewarded with a position to match all that time.
The community responded immediately to his work and has hardly let up in its vocal support for Blume. When it was unclear if DreamHack Winter, the biggest Global Offensive tournament of all time, would hire him, a petition was started on Change.org to make sure it did. With 651 signatures, the message easily met its goal, and Blume was added to the commentating team soon thereafter.
There are other high-quality commentators in Counter-Strike. Corey Dunn is blessed with a voice made for drama. Tomi “Lurppis” Kovanen offers insight that only a retired professional player can. Stuart “Tosspot” Saw is perhaps the fastest rising commentary star in today’s Counter-Strike scene.
But Blume sits on top. Even at his most excited, there’s something subdued about the way he presents top-level play to an audience. There’s little in the way of screaming or histrionics. Instead, he’s so consistently in the right place, calmly saying the right things at exactly the right time that excitement hits the audience even if Anders is low-key.
“He works hard, he attends every event. [Listening to Blume] is like listening to most sports radio. It provides the information you need to create the picture in your head of what is happening around the limited images you can see. This is actually a skill that requires a lot of practice to hone.”
The DreamHack Winter grand finals had a record-breaking concurrent audience of 145,000. There, Blume’s voice provided the soundtrack to Fnatic’s $100,000 upset win over Ninjas in Pyjamas. Just in time for the new year, Global Offensive is hitting its stride, with Blume calling the shots.
Blume's old obsessions, the AWP changed over the years and within the various versions of Counter-Strike. But it remains deadly and, in the right hands, singularly entrancing to watch.
One of today’s top AWPers is Fnatic’s Jesper “jw” Wecksell, one of the greatest Counter-Strike talents Sweden has produced in some time. Considering that Sweden is far and away the greatest CS playing nation of all time, that’s saying a lot. Wecksell's risk-and-reward playstyle led Fnatic to a DreamHack win and earned him superstar status.
It should surprise no one Blume’s voice is all over the highlight reel of Wecksell's greatest hits compilation. Blume loves the way Wecksell plays. One of Counter-Strike's great advantages as an eSport is that it’s so easy to understand and appreciate great play. It only takes one lightning fast shot to understand Wecksell's talent.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive just had a big moment. Wecksell's booming AWP shots and Blume’s voice calling the kills are more recognizable than ever. The resurgent eSport seems poised for something big in 2014. There’s some skepticism about the game’s future, of course, and even excited fans want to pace themselves. Blume is optimistic.
“I think we have actually already set ourselves up to make 2014 the year of Counter-Strike,” Blume said.
“Companies and sponsors decide at the end of each year how to budget for the upcoming year, and as a community we have just showed everyone that we can reach very respectable numbers with the right setting and the right teams. This I can assure you will not go unnoticed.”
In fact, DreamHack is convincing a whole lot of skeptics.
“I didn't [think Counter-Strike could be a premiere eSports title] prior to the Dreamhack tournament,’ journalist Duncan Shields said. “But now that I saw almost 150,000 people watching a CS match at once, I think Global Offensive can be a premier title.”
The smart money says that Anders is going to be the voice of a big year for Counter-Strike.
Photos via Anders Blume (remix by Max Fleishman)