This May, Australia is set to see its very first esports stadium event take place with Intel Extreme Masters Sydney. We took the chance to speak with our ESL Pro League expert and native Australian Chad "SPUNJ" Burchill about what this means for the Australian community and how the local esports scene developed. We also look into Chad’s transition from pro player to analyst.
ESL: Hi, SPUNJ, and thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Tell us, what was your reaction when Intel Extreme Masters Sydney was announced?
Chad "SPUNJ" Burchill: Excited would be an understatement, Having an event in my home country of this scale is a dream come true. We are huge sports fans in Australia and to see that carrying across to esports is huge.
ESL: You were a professional Counter-Strike players for quite some years. Tell us about the history of the pro scene in Australia - how it began and how it grew over the years.
SPUNJ: We have had names representing Australian CS dating back as far as 2001, maybe longer but that is as far back as I can remember. Names like iCHOR, f-zer0, Immunity, Sydney Underground, Vox Eminor and more recently Renegades have played at major events around the world for as long as the game has existed.
There have been some memorable moments, f-zer0 beating 3D at CPL on cobble in 2002 is one of the earliest and still one of the biggest upsets in our history.
ESL: What is the state of the professional CS:GO scene in Australia at the moment and esports in general?
SPUNJ: Right now the professional scene in Australia is in a pretty good spot. We have Renegades and Winterfox (New Zealand) representing the motherland in North America, playing in the ESL Pro League. Rickeh is also playing for the NA side CLG and performing extremely well.
Locally we have the top spot contested by Chiefs ESC and Tainted Minds who have both gone through some roster changes recently. We also have MindFreak console COD team who is a constant fixture on the international scene, Chiefs are a constant fixture as the top League of Legends team.
The biggest issue for professional esports in Australia is money. Right now as far as I am aware the only full time professional teams earning a decent wicket are Renegades and Winterfox. Otherwise the Oceanic sponsor budgets don’t allow for full time players. We need big events like Intel Extreme Masters Sydney to show the local sponsors that the investment is worth it.
ESL: We are yet to see Australian teams winning big international tournaments, competing with European and north American teams. Why do you think it hasn’t been happening?
SPUNJ: Personally I think there is a huge transition to go from a top team in your region to a top team of the world. When I was apart of the Renegades team we were basically on our own, learning as we went. None of us had ever been at that level before and the organization at the time didn’t actively support during that teething period.
That definitely stunted the transition for Renegades, but concerning Australia as a whole - the old cycle would be, top team goes to an overseas event, learns as much as they can, comes back and then that naturally filters into the rest of the scene. With Renegades and Winterfox moving the majority of the top talent to North America that left a void.
Australia has had to recover from that and I think we are seeing with more qualifiers, leagues and events for teams to get opportunities they are once again learning as they go. The community is definitely on the right track but could use some injection of international coaches or players to speed up the process.
ESL: What is it going to take for an Australian team to win a major?
SPUNJ: Personally I hate the fact that we (VoxEminor/Renegades) had to leave our homes to be able to compete as professionals. For me, the entire region of Oceania and Asia needs to expand dramatically so we can breed top tier talent, have A grade leagues and have our own brand of world class Counter-Strike.
At the moment this isn’t a possibility, but I hope that with CS:GO being officially released in China we see a huge movement in the region that opens the door for Australia to have more full time professional gamers.
Renegades core three are still the top Australian talent we have and it is clear to me the organization wants to build around them. They are in my opinion they best chance a majority Australian team has of winning a big event.
ESL: What does IEM Sydney mean for the pro Australian scene?
SPUNJ: Having an event of this scale on our door step is huge for the scene. When we had the Crown event in 2015 we had an amazing turnout and the crowd was awesome. People even flew in from New Zealand and Singapore to watch the likes of Virtus.Pro and Cloud9 compete. I am positive this time around we can get an event bigger crowd and show the world we have a passionate esports scene.
I also think it shows that esports in Australia is finally evolving to a level where it can be considered legitimate. The work that Nick Vanzetti and the crew at ESL Australia is doing hugely benefits the region in all games. It will hopefully bring bigger, non-endemic sponsors into the fold and we can finally have some well paid professional gamers in the country.
ESL: What are your predictions for the tournament? Who is your favorite to take it all and why?
SPUNJ: FaZe and Astralis are the clear front runners for the event in my mind. I think everyone would love to see a round 3 of that Grand Final take place after seeing them do battle at both IEM Katowice and StarLadder S3. I don’t know if we will see an Australian team manage to pull off and upset, but it would be great if the new Renegades lineup is able to hit the ground running and get the home crowd fired up.
ESL: Last year, you made a transition from a pro player to an analyst. Tell us more about it. Was the process difficult for you?
SPUNJ: Quitting playing was difficult for me, it was and still is something I am extremely passionate about. Leaving behind a team that I had been through so much with was hard, people who I had grown with as a person and a team was a huge decision to make.
In the end I think it was for the best of everyone involved. I would always talk to the manager of the team who had been with us since the beginning, GoMeZ, and we discussed that when I felt I couldn’t contribute anymore it was time for me to go.
Personally, I think the last 6 months of my career don’t represent me as a player very well - but I can’t change the past and I am happier now and I think the team have gotten better results since my departure.
Moving to an analyst felt like a natural choice, I have a big mouth, I love to talk and I love Counter-Strike. Watching CS all the time helps sooth the itch but nothing will ever be close to the feeling of actually playing and competing at the highest level.
ESL: What do you enjoy the most about being an analyst?
SPUNJ: I enjoy the fact that I get to be involved in the ever changing CS landscape and get to watch something I am passionate about evolve in and out of game.
ESL: What does the future hold for SPUNJ?
SPUNJ: I would love to do as much work in the CS world as possible. Analyst work is something I enjoy, I am keen to branch out into some colour casting as well. Producing CS content and streaming is something I would also like to make more time for.
ESL: Thanks so much for the chat!