Once again, Astralis are breaking new ground by expanding their active roster to six players with the addition of es3tag, albeit under somewhat controversial circumstances. Most of the commentary about the matter focused on the in-server feasibility of this approach, but the greater concern is whether this is the sort of innovation which Valve will allow in their competitive scene. History suggests that won’t be the case.
Astralis shocked the world once more, though not with their in-game performances for once: instead, it’s their signing of a permanent sixth in the form of es3tag (under controversial circumstances) which promises a juicy source of speculation and argument in these uncertain times. Can such an arrangement work? Substitutes are nothing new in sports, and even certain esports titles have already embraced the concept – however, it never really took hold in CS:GO, though if you squint hard enough, certain runs like karrigan’s successful streak of wins under the FaZe banner with different stand-ins while olofmeister was out could count, and it’s clear the Dane with the big brain has already considered the matter in the past.
From a chemistry perspective, many seem to suggest that the role of a substitute doesn’t mesh well with the close-knit nature of a CS:GO squad. Motivation and morale matters more than one may think, and it’s clear that anyone attempting to introduce this kind of a system is facing an uphill battle.
That said, a larger roster guarantees an increased tactical flexibility, especially when you’re the first one to make such a move. Zonic has gone on record in a recent interview that their main motivation to expand their roster was “health and long term performance” and that “it is the healthy choice for the players that will extend their active careers”. With es3tag’s arrival penciled in for July 1, it’s likely we won’t see the real impact of this move until the tail end of 2020.
Or possibly ever, as far as Valve’s concerned.
Here’s the real issue with the entire discussion: whatever the gameplay considerations may be, there’s no guarantee Valve will go along with this kind of an experiment. The developers have already expressed their desire – many times, in fact – to keep the competitive experience as close to the regular one as possible, which was one of the main reasons behind their decision to crack down on the influence of coaches in 2017, removing their ability to communicate with the five men on the servers during active playtime. They stated that “distributing the work of 5 players (e.g. keeping track of the economy, calling plays and mid-round calls, and general situational awareness) across 6 people was not in line with our goals”, language which lines up suspiciously well with any potential long-term six-man roster (and a stance which remained controversial for a long time).
Though there’s an argument to be made that six-man (or larger) rosters are still worth pursuing elsewhere in the circuit if the performance benefits are big enough, a quick look at the languishing careers of the players involved with the iBUYPOWER matchfixing scandal suggests that not even the current state of third-party tournaments makes it worthwhile for the bigger orgs to pick up a player who can’t compete at the Majors.
If Valve continues with their existing policy, singing up to become the sixth man in an Astralis-level roster would likely deprive you of any chance to compete at the most prestigious event on the CS:GO calendar. As likely as it is that we eventually get into a showdown between TOs and devs as they try to shape esports their own way, Valve’s iron grip on Counter-Strike suggests that this is a doomed novelty experiment on the part of the Danes, at least if you believe that they’re truly working to establish a permanent six-player roster.
Speculation time. There’s a lot about this signing we don’t know, and it’s quite likely that not all of its aspects will come to light. What exactly went down between Astralis and Heroic? Is this really about getting six players in the same CS:GO side? What if there really was something to the suggestions that Zonic was considering to retire? Is it possible that device’s health issues or some other concerns with the existing quintet suggest there’s a roster move on the horizon, maybe with the goal of moving a member of the current roster into a coaching role instead? Wouldn’t that make more sense than breaking with the established protocol in such a large way after a recent set of middling LAN results? With all due respect, is es3tag really the player to push the Astralis project forward? Only time will tell.
Photo credit: HLTV