Journalist, podcast host, analyst, YouTuber. There are many titles that fit Duncan "Thorin" Shields, one of esports' most veteran, most influential personalities. And recently yet another title was added to that list: Creative Director. Thorin's vision for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive will be on full display in the recently announced, team-owned league, Flashpoint, which kicks off in March this year. It's promised to bring a story-driven league, with the amount of banter one could expect from anything the bantering Brit is involved in. Joining Thorin for the project are some of esports most prolific names like Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles, Anders Blume, and Auguste "Semmler" Massonnat.
At the press reveal of Flashpoint, Thorin sat down with Inven Global's Tom Matthiesen to have a talk about the new role he will be taking on. Additionally, he gave a glimpse at what his role as creative director will mean for Flashpoint's production and explained why the project will be such an important step for the future of esports tournaments.
For Flashpoint, you won't only be on-air talent. You'll be taking on a completely new role: Creative Director. Can you shed light on how that came to be?
It's actually quite an interesting story. What happened is: when I first came along, I was just hired to be a consultant to the people that were gonna set the league up. The potential owners wanted to have people experienced in esports, like me and Monte, to listen to their ideas, give them feedback and potentially suggest some ideas. Basically, the people who were in the league at that point already, like FACEIT, had an idea already. It wasn't that dissimilar to the ECS product. It was a standard kind of league with the usual types of group stages that go into playoffs. Not that much different from anything else you've seen.
But Monte and I aren't exactly the sort of people that consult and then just sit back, giving our feedback later. I basically just said: "I think this looks like shit. I hate leagues, I hate best-of-ones, I hate your league." These owners are people who have LCS or Overwatch League slots. So they know things are wack. They know it's not the greatest product in the server, using old models in esports. So luckily, these owners turned to us and said: "Well, what do you suggest?" Obviously, that's all we needed. We have all the ideas that we've been thinking of for years, things we've seen in Korea and things we've seen in sports, certainly in other esports. I just want to take the TI playoff format and bring it over to CS:GO, with double elimination instead of single Elimination.
And even at that time I thought I was just being a cheeky consultant. But they then basically said: "We don't want you as consultant and as talent. Be the Creative Director then. Do the same thing going forward. Rebuff the ideas that aren't good, and give us the ideas that shape the vision of our league." If you've noticed, they may just as well have said that it's Thorin's CS league. What they're leaning into is kind of what my vision of CS has always been, which is that it's about attitude. It's about the idea that you unapologetically dominate your opponent and then banter with them a bit. People don't have to take it too seriously outside of the server, but inside of the server it's all business. You have the best formats possible. The other leagues go the other way. They make the wack parts in the server, and these matches don't really matter. Like in the LCS with the Best of 1's. They pretend that it's the game of the century. But then outside of the server, where they could show all this personality, that's where they put on the suit and tie. They have it the wrong way around, in my opinion.
"What I'm doing now is certainly something I've always thought about."
You've been in the scene for such a long time: how long have you aspired to be this much involved with the creation of a tournament?
One thing that made me first think about it, was something almost ten years ago. I actually think it was the end of 2008. One of my main rivals, who came up at the same time as I in esports, was Carmack, from ESL. He used to be a journalist as well. He exited the journalist world because ESL hired him at the time to be the product manager of Intel Extreme Masters, who are obviously still a big name with things like the Grand Slam. He initially got some of the say in choosing some of the format details and some of the concepts of that. It was a long time ago though, so it was very limited.
What I'm doing now is certainly something I've always thought about. Like, I'm kind of a know-it-all as a person, you know? I would like to hope I do my work well—I've done my research, I've done my preparation, so I do know it all.
Right, and you like to flex that as well.
Of course! Luckily for me, as I kind of implied before: everything else has been tried now. I'm the last game in town. At the moment, inside the server even the best game in the world won't make enough revenue to even pay the salaries of the players in that game. So the idea that everyone is going to get rich off that is a ridiculous premise. What you're gonna need is an overall package where the game is part of it, but the build-up to the game, the story, the show, things like documentaries, fun aspects with the players getting involved with the sponsors, that's all part of it too. It's an image they have in most professional sports, quite frankly. I think that's the path forward.
I'm a curious person. I'd say that's what my number one skill is. I just follow the things that I'm curious about. When I get to a point where there's a fork in the path, I want to continue down one road, I've got to be able to do something. I'll put in the work, and I'll learn the skills I need to do that. I've always found ideas very interesting. But in the past in my career, I wasn't in a position where I had the skillset to do it. I was like everyone else, sitting in the peanut gallery just saying "that's rubbish" without necessarily knowing what had to be done. *chuckles*
Another part is that none of the other TO's had the wherewithal to realize that the people they needed to run their leagues, in terms of the vision, were already there. We were already on the desks! It's crazy to me that some of these people out there, certain other leagues didn't use that. If they would've come to us talent a year ago, and said: "Here's what we'll do. We'll lock you in for the next year for the big events, here's a little bit on the side, a few thousand dollars, and just give us your thoughts every now and then. Help us on some side projects." I think pretty much all of us would've signed up. We all wanted to do more in those leagues.
Unfortunately, in the ecosystem, if you're talent you're in that box. You're not creative outside of that. It's almost like that famous Hitchcock line where he wanted his actors to be treated like cattle. You just turn up, you go to your spot, you say your line. I do all the thinking. That's kind of how people in some of the other leagues are, unfortunately. I don't think they made enough use of the minds that they had in their leagues. If you look at the people who are spearheading this, it isn't the big executives. They're the ones getting the money together because, guess what: that's their world. Ours is the vision of the league, and what it's gonna be.
Not many details of Flashpoint's production have been revealed yet. Can you open up a bit about something you have put in and you're excited about.
I'll keep it vague and won't go into specifics, but I'll give you something interesting. In the tournament, the analysts won't just have telestration and simple things you might have seen occasionally implemented elsewhere. If you watch the NFL, the Super Bowl, or the European Champions League Cup final, it doesn't just start after an advert, and then go like: "Liverpool versus so and so, who's gonna win? Liverpool? Right, into the game!" They have a two-hour show before where it builds into the match. It has an interview with a player, then comes back to the studio where the talking heads give their thoughts on it. They build up the history of the two teams and what they've done up until this point in time, they break down the style of them and then go into the specifics of tactics. Then after the game they don't just go home. While all the fans go out of the stadium, there is the post-game show where they bring on a player. You have this elongated format.
I don't blame the other tournaments in esports. They're still roadshow tournaments. They go to one place and they've got three or four days to get everything done. Sometimes, at certain placed, you even have to be out of the venue by a certain hour. So you have to run things at quickly as possible. Sometimes as talent on those shows, it feels like you don't care what you say. They just care that you talk for two minutes, two minutes only, and at the end of the two minutes, it goes to a commercial. And everyone gets paid that way. With our tournament, the games will have time to breathe. There will be no rush between the games and crucially: for my money, there will be as much emphasis on what happens before and after the game as there will be on the game itself.
I'll give you another vague aspect, but you can imagine how this will be implemented. One of my ideas is, in terms of the analysts, is that I don't want them to wear a million hats on their head. For example, when I'm on the desk, and people probably notice this, I actually make a division of labor. I tell a Sean Gares, or if I had SPUNJ, back in the day: "You handle all the tactics mate, that's what you're the best at." I'll never encroach on that. But as a result, I'll set the storylines. I'll analyze a player's performance, and then you just pick up the baton whenever you want and go where you need to go. I want the show to be an analyst's playground. This is where these guys can really show that they're as skilled at their job as the player is inside the server. I want an analyst to be able to focus during the whole match. One of them on the tactical side of the game, so that when we tap into him he won't give us his thoughts of the whole game, but he'll give us the best rounds, the key moments. He'll have it all queued up, and the production on it is big time. It's not something put together last second, where they're trying to push a button and hope it works. It'll all be queued in.
Think of sports that are quite complicated like American football and so on. We're gonna give you a chance to go as deep as you can with these guys. If you're only a beginner, maybe starting to open your mind to the deeper side of the game, you can watch what you want. And if you're just there to watch the frags and have some fun, maybe you tune in an hour later and hear Anders scream about how crazy the play was, or whatever it is.
"When you look at who the Counter-Strike fans are, it's the stupidest thing to try and make [a tournament] like Disneyland."
It is a bit risky though to have these large amounts of downtime in terms of action. The esports audience traditionally comes for the action, and there's a chance you'll lose viewers when you have these long breaks. How does Flashpoint account for this?
I think it's another flaw with the way esports is made. It's made to be this summer blockbuster action movie. To keep going every minute, and you never have to engage your brain with it. It's all on the surface. You're watching this game, then you're watching the next one. I want it to be like a sport. When I watch the NFL I don't watch all the teams play all the games. I watch the team I care about, and I watch the marquee matches and then I watch the playoffs. The idea is that I choose the games that I am interested in. I think that old model of esports should go out anyway.
Secondly, the whole reason why people like me and Monte are here, is that when we have someone like Sean Gares go super deep into the tactics, it'll be woven in with banter and the storyline elements—the reasons why someone who maybe doesn't care about analysis may care about the segment. It won't be too much of one or the other. Anything I'm involved with will never be dry.
You'll want to draw in new viewers as well, obviously.
Within reason, yes.
And you think the audience overall is ready for such a new type of broadcast, after being fed the other type of broadcast for so many years?
Yeah. I think it's of the most wack, watercooler type discussions have in esports—which is similar to how we were making fun of people saying "why do they call them counter-terrorists, why don't we call them the defensive team?" Like, that was the threshold to get into the game mate. If you couldn't handle that, you'd never gotten it at all. We aren't gonna change that.
When I was at ELEAGUE, they kept telling the commentators: "You have to understand that people have never seen Counter-Strike before, so don't be afraid to tell them it's a 5v5 game, and that they have to plant the bomb." Like, nobody who doesn't understand that premise could even be watching the game. All you're gonna do by saying that over and over again is piss off the guy who already knows Counter-Strike and make him think: "Is this not for me? I thought I was here to watch Counter-Strike. Is this a little kids version?"
I want it to be layered. You can come in on the most surface level and enjoy Anders screaming about a brilliant set of frags. You can come in on the level where you start to learn some of the aspects of the roles we're picking out. If there's stuff you don't understand, you let it go. You're picking it up at your own pace. But the idea is that you'll follow us to the level of depth you want to go to. If you really are someone who has played semi-competitively, you'll understand the tactical aspect. You'll understand that it's a chess game between the coaches and the in-game leaders. Content like that won't dominate the broadcast, but it definitely won't be consigned to almost an odd mention, like on the other broadcasts.
Flashpoint is a multi-year deal, a long term project where adaptations and improvements will be made over time. In the long run do you think the other leagues will gravitate more towards your format, or is also reasonable to assume Flashpoint will move towards what other leagues are doing?
No, if anything, it's the other way. We're going into it. That's why the sports I like to compare it to are the NFL or the UFC et cetera. You don't sanitize those sports, you don't make them surface-leveled. If anything, you want the casual fan to come in initially, and then follow you into the sport. I remember when people first started watching the UFC. They just wanted to watch people get punched in the head and bleed. But now even the average fans try to give their opinion on whether that's the right Brazilian jiu-jitsu hold. Everyone gets to follow it to whatever level they can understand and handle. It doesn't matter that there's a level below that, that's invisible to them still. That's the beauty of it. If we do it the right way they'll think they're getting it all to the level that they belong to. If they want to go deeper there is something as well, but they're not missing out necessarily.
Personally, I think we've already seen it. If you go look at the work I'm doing with BLAST Premier now. I was kind of joking when I implied that I killed BLAST Pro Series, but I kind of did. BLAST Pro Series was the antithesis of what I care about in Counter-Strike. Very short tournaments, a lot of Best of 1's, one big showmatch and then the final. That was it. In my opinion, you never really got to the meat and potatoes of the match. If you look at it now, they've already gone to the best-of-three format, they've got me and SPUNJ, they've got Semmler, and they're giving us the breathing space on the broadcast. They're certainly not rehauling the whole paradigm like we're trying to, but they're already moving in that direction.
I think it's just logical. The key thing, like Monte has also said, is that when you look at who the CS fans are, it's the stupidest thing to try and make it like Disneyland. These guys wouldn't go to Disneyland! *chuckles* They're already about the game. If anything, we're already trying to sanitize them for the sponsors. So if we can just get the rights sponsors that want to advertise to those people, that makes much more sense to me than trying to bring in the group of people who reply to us on Twitter and tell us to kill ourselves. That doesn't make sense to me. It's just not logical right now.
Storyteller by heart. If something is competitive, I am interested in it.