IEM Cologne’s Cathedral of Counter-Strike makes a grand return

We all have a favorite game, and for me, that game is Counter-Strike. I’ve been playing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive since 2012, and I’ve been watching it as a spectator esport since 2014. The first-ever event I watched was ESL One: Cologne 2014, and since then, I’ve been hooked. I recently had the amazing experience of attending the most recent ESL-run Cologne event, now called IEM Cologne, in the Lanxess Arena. Hailed as the best crowd that the game has to offer, I was enthralled the moment I entered.

For context, Counter-Strike is one of the oldest esports titles on the planet. Its initial beta version was released in June of 1999 as a modification of the original Half-Life, and it later became a standalone title. Since then, Valve has released two more main entries to the series; Counter-Strike: Source in 2004, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive in 2012. Global Offensive‘s aim was to merge the communities of the two previous games, as a divide had emerged with some players believing that the original Counter-Strike was superior to the version released in 2004.

Anyone can organize a tournament in Counter-Strike, be it a tournament organized by you and your friends, or a large-scale full production like an ESL event. IEM Cologne isn’t officially sponsored by Valve unlike Major tournaments like the PGL Major in Antwerp, but it’s arguably one of, if not the biggest tournaments of the year outside of Major events. It’s right before the player breaks too, meaning that it’s the last time we’ll see any of these players in a stream or big event for at least a month.

OJ Borg at IEM Cologne 2022

OJ Borg, stage host, introducing the final

IEM Cologne tournament structure

IEM Cologne took place over three stages: the play-in stage, the group stages, and the playoffs. Both the play-in stage and the group stage took place in the Hyatt Regency Cologne hotel behind closed doors, though games were streamed online for spectators to tune in.

However, the playoffs were played live on stage in the Lanxess Arena. It’s a massive venue capable of holding up to 18,500 people, and the event sold out entirely for the weekend. There was floor seating and then three rings of seating that went up and around the outside of the arena. The floor seats went right up to the stage, with a center walkway used by both interviewers and the players when entering. It was also used to display the trophy to the crowd.

My first day of attendance was the entirety of Friday, which was also the first day of games being played in the arena. While typically Fridays would be emptier, I was surprised to find that the arena was incredibly full. The crowd was loud with fans clearly having a great time.

The Cathedral of Counter-Strike

Faze Clan walks to the stage at IEM Cologne 2022

The Lanxess Arena is dubbed year after year as “The Cathedral of Counter-Strike”, and the reason is two-fold. For starters, there’s a massive cathedral in Cologne which the city is known for, and two, the venue is iconic. As previously mentioned, ESL has run Counter-Strike events in Cologne’s Lanxess Arena for years, and every year it delivers one of the best tournaments ever held in the game. This year was no exception either.

Cologne is a city that I’ve been to before, and it’s not much of a tourist city. It was full of people who had flown from all over the world to attend. I went to a bar with some friends and we ended up having a few drinks and talking to people from Finland who had flown over to attend the event — later on, we joined up with some Americans, as well.

As for the arena, it was an incredible experience. Fans were chanting constantly, and the crowd was incredibly engaged with everything happening on the stage. Hours before the games began, I saw people lining up to get into the stadium, and people started to line across the walkway to high-five their favorite players as they would walk up to the stage to play. The trophy was brought out by Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella, one of the winners of the last physical Cologne event in 2019.

Nicholas "nitr0" Cannella carries the IEM Cologne trophy

Fans could participate in lots of events around the arena too, including games sponsored by DHL and ESEA. ESL also had an airbrush booth where you could get a temporary tattoo of your favorite team for free and organized signing sessions for premium pass holders to get any of their merch or other items signed if they wanted it. The cost of a standard weekend ticket only came to a total of €94, which for fans of the game, isn’t all that bad of a price. Festivals and other weekend events typically cost a lot more.

The IEM Cologne 2022 final: Navi vs Faze Clan

IEM Cologne s1mple looks at the stage

Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev, considered the best player in the world

Rehashing the same final from the PGL Major in Antwerp, it was again Navi vs Faze Clan to take the stage. This time around it was a best of five final, a grueling experience that ended up taking roughly seven hours from start to finish. It went the full distance too, with all five maps being played in an incredibly close fashion. ESL was also one for showmanship, as the final opened with a ten-minute ceremony celebrating some of the best in that very arena over the last number of years.

The games themselves were incredible, with both teams playing a chaotic style of Counter-Strike. The game is won when the first team reaches 16 rounds, and when Navi had 15 rounds and Faze Clan had 4, the map seemed basically over. However, Faze Clan managed to run it all the way back to 15-15 and bring it to overtime, where the arena went crazy.

In the end, Faze Clan brought it over the line in the fifth map in a nail-biter finish. A final score of 16-14 (the closest it can get) brought an end to the hours-long battle that took place on stage. The players were then interviewed by OJ Borg, the stage host for the event. It was hard to understand anything being said, as fans continued to clap and cheer throughout the entirety of it.

These events are why I love Counter-Strike as much as I do, and I’m always grateful to be able to attend. The fans and the talent involved in its production have always been fantastic, and in Ireland, the community is one that I spend a lot of time on. Some of the best friends I’ve ever made have been through the game, and in Cologne, thousands of fans descended on the one city to share one common hobby.

Where Counter-Strike goes from here

IEM Cologne became the most watched Counter-Strike event of all time that wasn’t a Major tournament, and it’s not hard to see why. The game has seen an explosion of interest since the return to in-person events on a global scale, and one that has propelled the game back into the spotlight of esports. I heard many stories of people who watched the game for the first time and hadn’t ever watched it before, with many not understanding the game to the depth that long-time viewers may.

That’s the best part though, as, with Counter-Strike, it’s possible to intuitively see what’s happening and understand it without understanding the tactical depth. I once took my father to see an ESL One Cologne final in the cinema near us, and while he had never played the game before, he intuitively could understand the meaning of the economy and see the reaction time of players.

IEM Cologne 2022 was likely the first event many will have seen, and just like it was for me in 2014, it’s possibly the event that will get people hooked for years on years. These events bring people together, they allow you to explore a new city and experience new cultures. I’m always excited to see what the future holds for the game, and with massive organizations like ESL pushing the envelope of what showmanship means to big esports tournaments, I’m excited now more than ever before.

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