IEM Cologne’s Counter-Strike Cathedral is making a big comeback

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We all have a favorite game, and to me that game is Counter-Strike. I played Counter-Strike: Global Offensive since 2012, and I’ve been watching it as an esports viewer since 2014. The very first event I watched was ESL One: Cologne 2014, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I recently had the amazing experience of attending ESL’s latest event in Cologne, now called IEM Cologne, in the Lanxess Arena. Hailed as the best crowd the game has to offer, I was captivated as soon as I walked in.

For context, Counter-Strike is one of the oldest esports titles on the planet. Its initial beta version was released in June 1999 as a modification of the original half life, and it later became a standalone title. Since then, Valve has released two more mainline entries in the series; Counter-Strike: Source in 2004, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive in 2012. Global Offensivewas to merge the communities of the previous two games, as a rift had arisen with some players feeling that the original Counter-Strike was superior to the version released in 2004.

Anyone can organize a tournament in Counter-Strike, whether it’s a tournament hosted by you and your friends, or a full scale production like an ESL event. IEM Cologne is not officially sponsored by Valve unlike major tournaments like the PGL Major in Antwerp, but it is arguably one, if not the biggest tournament of the year outside of major events. It’s also right before the player break, which means it’s the last time we’ll see any of these players in a stream or big event for at least a month.

JO Borg at IEM Cologne 2022

OJ Borg, host, presenting the finale

IEM Cologne Tournament Structure

The IEM Cologne took place in three stages: the play-off stage, the group stages and the play-offs. The play-in stage and group stage took place at the Hyatt Regency Cologne behind closed doors, although matches 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 that can hold up to 18,500 people, and the event sold out for the weekend. There were seats on the floor and then three rings of seats that went up and around the outside of the arena. Floor seats rose up to the stage, with a central walkway used by both investigators and players when entering. It was also used to display the trophy to the crowd.

My first day there was the whole of Friday, which was also the first day of games played in the arena. While Fridays were generally emptier, I was surprised to find that the arena was incredibly full. The crowd was loud and the fans were clearly having a good time.

Counter-Strike Cathedral

Faze Clan takes the stage at IEM Cologne 2022

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

Cologne is a city that I have already visited, and it is not really a tourist city. It was full of people 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 some Finns who had flown in for the event. Later, we also joined Americans.

As for the arena, it was an incredible experience. The fans were constantly singing and the crowd was incredibly engaged with everything that was happening on stage. Hours before the games started, I saw people queuing to enter the stadium, and people started queuing across the catwalk to clap their favorite players as they walked up on stage to perform. The trophy was presented by Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella, one of the winners of the last physical event in Cologne in 2019.

Nicholas "nitr0" Cannella wears the IEM Cologne trophy

Fans could also take part in many events around the arena, 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 products signed or others items if they wanted. The cost of a standard weekend ticket only reaches a total of €94, which for fans of the game is not that bad. Festivals and other weekend events usually cost a lot more.

The final of the IEM Cologne 2022: Navi vs Faze Clan

IEM Cologne s1mple watch the scene

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

Resuming the same final of the PGL Major in Antwerp, it was again Navi vs Faze Clan who took the stage. This time around it was a best-of-five final, a grueling experience that ended up taking around seven hours from start to finish. He also went the full distance, with all five cards played incredibly close. ESL was also one of the biggest talents on the show, as the final opened with a ten-minute ceremony celebrating some of the best moments in this same arena in recent years.

The games themselves were amazing, with both teams playing a chaotic style of Counter-Strike. The game is won when the first team reaches 16 turns, and when Navi had 15 turns and Faze Clan had 4, the map looked pretty much over. However, Faze Clan managed to bring it back to 15-15 and bring it back into overtime, where the arena went wild.

In the end, Faze Clan got him over the fifth map line in a biting finish. A final score of 16-14 (the closest you can get) ended the hours-long battle that unfolded on stage. The players were then interviewed by OJ Borg, the host of the event. It was hard to take in anything that was being said, as fans kept cheering and clapping throughout this one.

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

Where does Counter-Strike go from here

IEM Cologne became the most watched Counter-Strike all-time event 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 globally, and that has thrust the game into the esports spotlight. I’ve heard many stories from people who watched the game for the first time and had never watched it before, with many not understanding the game to the depth that longtime viewers might have.

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

IEM Cologne 2022 was probably the first event many will have seen, and just like for me in 2014, it may be the event that will keep people hooked for years to come. These events bring people together, they allow you to explore a new city and discover new cultures. I’m always excited to see what the future holds for gaming, and with massive organizations like ESL pushing the boundaries of what showmanship means for major esports tournaments, I’m more excited than ever.

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