Somehow I am onstage, the lone English speaker on a team of Chinese players, including three from the Asian scene’s top two teams Tyloo and Vici Gaming. Sat next to me is stage host DXMaster. We’re the T side - or offense. A bid to plant on the B site of community-map Breach, a map none of us have played competitively prior to this event, goes horribly wrong. It is just me on my own versus Tyloo player Somebody, and desk host Stunna. There’s no weight of expectation on my shoulders - no-one sees me winning this one.
To be fair, I didn’t even see myself playing on that stage at the Beijing University Students' Stadium. I’d never played in a showmatch before. For me it seemed like something I could build up to and train for. With around 70 hours playtime in Counter-Strike (I learned my trade as a viewer), the plan was to perhaps add a 0 to that total before even daring to request a spot. When spots had come up in the past I wasn’t up for consideration - why would I be?
And yet, when Erik, who lead player management for ESL in Beijing, popped into the green room to find some willing volunteers, I found myself hesitantly volunteering. This could be my opportunity to find out what it’s like for the pro players I interview when they play onstage - call it research, albeit with the knowledge that my “research” would be up for scrutiny from the CS:GO community.
In the minibus on the way back to our hotel that evening, I fired up my gaming laptop and zoomed through the map we would be playing. Breach was a total unknown to me - set in a fancy office block with a trendy slide. I zoomed through looking for boost spots, cover and ideas for reaching each bombsite. The A site in particular was a tough space, with very little coverage for defending, while a two story mid section would require supreme coordination and smokes (which I don’t even bother buying usually, given my propensity to fail with them).
Without a playable internet connection in my hotel room, I was stuck practicing with expert bots in the Deathmatch mode of CS:GO - if you’ve not played CS before, it pretty much entails running around solo, taking down anyone on the opposing side. It’s a good way to get to grips with weapons, learn maps and work on your aim, movement and reaction times. However, the bots aren’t going to play mind games like your opponents will. But every little helps…
On the morning of the showmatch, the admin team got me set up on the stage PCs - all powered by Intel’s 9th Gen i9 CPU technology. Usually they have player configs (in-game settings like crosshair and keybinds) set up on SSDs they simply insert into each PC ahead of the match. Not remembering my crosshair settings from home, I decided to copy was “Clutch Minister” Xyp9x’s - which seemed appropriate as the only player jersey I had to wear was an Astralis one. Peripherals in place, I practiced with a few weapons on the Workshop map Aim Botz, a community-made practice range.
And then it was showtime.
It was a bizarre moment waiting backstage to meet our fate. Evil Geniuses player Tarik, a former CS:GO Major winner, and host Stunna were on a team together, Somebody’s Somebodies. My team, Zh0king’s Warriors, walked on after them. Before DXMaster revealed he would be our final player, I bounced onstage with a cheeky peace sign to the camera, unburdened in the knowledge that I was unlikely to threaten the enemy. All I needed was one kill on the leaderboard. However, as I sat down at the end of the desks, a mixture of jet lag and nerves shot down my arms. My bones felt like feathers.
After failure in the pistol round, I chose to hold onto my silenced USP and get a one-tap headshot. After that, I decided I’d proved myself as much as I needed to. Communications-wise, it was tough - as you’d expect being the only fluent English speaker on a Mandarin-speaking team - and it wasn’t helped by me sometimes buying too hastily or having a deep-rooted fear of buying utilities. When I play online, I tend to say “save?” to my teammates, but I soon learned my squad preferred “eco”. After four rounds or so it transpired by teammates couldn’t hear me on Team Speak so we took a quick tech pause to sort.
In the first half I switched between A and B and which players, but sometimes end up lost in the mid corridors, not sure who to trade with or ending up solo. Casters Anders and Moses even nicknamed a tree on the A site “Frankie’s Tree” after I determinedly anchor it for too long. My nerves relaxed somewhat, although not enough for me to remember to put my glasses on (remedied for the second half.) And yet - thanks to the reunion of the former Vici Gaming fragging duo, Kaze and Freeman, the first half was salvaged and we went into the break 8-7 up.
It was an interesting feeling having the noise-cancelling headset on. When I’d heard about them before, I’d imagined white noise would be played in-ears audibly. Instead, I discovered they’re more like your standard noise cancelling headphones. We could only hear a murmur of the Chinese commentary in the arena, but make out no words. Granted, the audience was still arriving for the sold-out grand final, but when we were in the game, it was surprisingly simple to focus.
On the side of the break, Krieg in arms, I eventually managed a lurker-style triple kill, but at the fateful 15-9 scoreline, we simply couldn’t close it. And then I ended up being the last player standing in a single round of overtime, playing nervously for the victory...
I am in mid when I realise everyone else is out of the running. The bomb is dropped, I don’t even know where and I know seeking it out would mean a quick, merciless death, and I don’t need the cash. So I decide to hunt. I take the flank to the A site through a reception area. A hasty near-exit onto the A site and a whiffed shot brings my attackers towards me. It serves as bait, but I don’t know this yet. A nade flies past a SWAT tank. They think I am there. I retreat backwards into reception, thinking the CTs will push around the corner. They don’t.
So I move forwards, sight trained on the tank. I take down Somebody, head backwards and rotate around the desk again, the repetition ritual-like. Bottom lip between teeth, sight back on, I peek. My opponent strafes right and suddenly it’s over. I have managed the 1v2 clutch. We’ve won. I jump to my feet and throw off my headset. Emotion pricks my eyes, permeating the shock; it may only be a showmatch, in the moment, it means the world.