ESL Pro Tour seeks to corner market on Counter-Strike competitive scene

ESL One Cologne will be one of the tournaments that will be part of the ESL Pro League. FRIEDEMANN VOGEL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

On Tuesday, the Modern Times Group announced the ESL Pro Tour, a circuit that will link more than 20 Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournaments operated by ESL and DreamHack in 2020.

With $5 million in prizes and more details to be announced, ESL and DreamHack are looking to corner the market in the second biggest esports game in the world by incentivizing teams to frequently attend their events.

Unlike League of Legends and Overwatch, Counter-Strike does not have a franchised system. But according to a Tuesday report by Dexerto, ESL is mandating exclusivity for teams participating in the ESL Pro League in their renewal team participation agreements. That means those teams would not be able to participate in FACEIT's Esports Championship Series (ECS) and that ESL would be hosting the de facto Counter-Strike league.

For the past few years, ESL, DreamHack, FACEIT, BLAST, StarLadder, ELEAGUE and other organizations have battled for market share in the Counter-Strike event-hosting space. All of those companies, except BLAST, have been awarded Major designation by Valve, the game's developer, in the past and also have awarded large prize pools in hopes of luring teams to participate. Without Valve's direct input, the market has become an event free-for-all.

Counter-Strike teams and players have faced a problem: How do they decide what event to go to? And how do they ensure they aren't burning themselves out? ESL and DreamHack are hoping to answer that question for them.

The ESL Pro Tour will feature 18 tournaments divided into two tiers of events that contribute to a cumulative ranking for the teams, that will be anchored by championship events throughout the year, including Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) Katowice in Poland in February and ESL One Cologne in Germany in July. The masters tier of the Pro Tour features events from the ESL One, DreamHack Masters, IEM and ESL Pro League series, while the challenger portion includes DreamHack Open, the Mountain Dew League and the ESL National Championship events. There will also be a few other tournaments that will be part of an open tier of events.

The Pro Tour is essentially a larger iteration of the Intel Grand Slam, a smaller circuit of events that awarded $1 million for multi-event wins by the same team.

The idea of making a league exclusive, like the Pro League in 2020, isn't new.

In late 2016, seven North American esports organizations -- Cloud9, Complexity Gaming, Counter Logic Gaming, Immortals, NRG Esports, Team Liquid and Team SoloMid -- formed the Professional Esports Association (PEA) and said they would create their own exclusive Counter-Strike league.

Weeks later, their players banded together and spoke out about their owners restricting what leagues they played in. That saga led to the suspension of the PEA's plans in Counter-Strike and the eventual formation of the Counter-Strike Professional Players' Association.

Back then, those North American teams wanted to increase their revenue share in leagues they participated in. ECS gave teams a larger revenue cut than ESL did for their competing pro league and the teams wanted to cut out ESL events.

Still, ESL continued operating and slowly rebuilt its relationship with the seven North American teams. Now, the tables have turned. ESL has become the most reputable Counter-Strike operator in the space, highlighted by the continued success of the annual Katowice and Cologne events. The ESL Pro Tour marks the latest consolidation of the Counter-Strike events market, with ESL at the center.