Crossfire Stars is an esports event that many in the Western world are likely unaware of. However, throughout November and December, the international event celebrated its 10th anniversary — complete with a $1.4m (~£1.1m) prize pool.
Crossfire is a PC first-person shooter (FPS) title created by South Korean game developer Smilegate in 2007. Similar to other notable titles in the genre its main mode is a 5v5 defuse-the-bomb style of game. Shortly after its launch, the company partnered with Tencent to bring the game to the Chinese market and from 2008, Crossfire has remained one of the country’s most popular FPS esports titles.
Whilst the game never cemented itself in the global mainstream esports ecosystem, Crossfire’s player base is still incredibly large. At the Tencent Global Esports Summit earlier this year, Abner Chen, the Vice General Manager of Tencent’s K1 Corporation Department and Crossfire Publishing Producer, stated that the game has recorded over 1bn registered users in its lifetime.
The title is also popular amongst viewers. During the event’s Grand Final — in game four, more specifically — Crossfire Stars 2023 was the number one stream on livestreaming platform Huya (tenth on Douyu) via the Chinese viewership metric Heat Index. According to Esports Charts’ DoHuya platform, Crossfire Stars’ official DouYu stream recorded the fifth-highest peak Heat Index from December 5th – December 12th, with a figure of 8.6m (fourth on Huya with a 7.3m peak heat index).
A representative from Smilegate told Esports Insider that one of the reasons that Crossfire became so popular within the country was due to localisation for Chinese audiences. This included utilising popular colours in China like red and gold for gun skins and other in-game cosmetics.
“I think the strong point with Crossfire, the game itself, in China is we as a company are trying to understand what our Crossfire China users want, and which aspects inside the game they love. Local marketing in China has been very effective,” stated Smilegate’s Esports Global Operation Team Manager, Seong Hoon Lee.
Alongside its annual season-ending tournament, Crossfire has its own franchised league in China, the CFPL. The league was recently bolstered by a ten-year partnership with Chengdu’s Gaoxin district, which has seen all 10 franchises be settled in Chengdu. There is even a competitive ecosystem in China for the game’s mobile variant.
The event’s return to the Chinese city for its 10th anniversary is also poetic given that it was the home of Crossfire Stars’ first edition, as well as the event’s first return to China in four years.
This notion was echoed by VSPO Senior Vice President Xie ‘Old_Xie’ Yixian: “Chengdu has a really large Crossfire fanbase. In the offline events in April this year, we also witnessed huge enthusiasm and popularity among Chengdu fans. I think it is a really fabulous choice to host the event in Chengdu this year.”
Taking place in Chengdu, China, Crossfire Stars 2023 also features a global array of teams, with representatives from Turkey, Egypt, North America and Brazil all participating in the 12-team competition. Whilst most of these regions struggle to compete against the Chinese competitors, Brazil in particular has created an established competitive stronghold in recent years, even winning the competition back to back in 2018 and 2019.
According to Imperial Esports professional player Caio ‘Goken’ Aguiar, one of the competitors at Crossfire Stars 2023, this competitive success from Brazilian teams occurred despite the ecosystem still needing development, both from a structural and support standpoint.
Via a translated interview, the player said: “I think we should have more amateur championships so new players will see opportunities to join. Today we only have the main league.”
The former Crossfire Stars finalist went on to note that while Brazil has notable organisations, such as Imperial Esports, the support for its Crossfire roster is not comparable to the organisations’ rosters across other titles.
Crossfire currently operates a seasonal esports league for Europe, Brazil, Vietnam and China, with only the latter being franchised. Moreover, the top performers in these leagues (and other nations such as the Philippines and North America) compete for regional qualification into Crossfire Stars.
Crossfire’s influence in Chengdu was not only felt during the main stage at the Chengdu Gaoxin Sports Centre, but the WenShuFang Folk and Culture Street (which is located next to a Manjushri Monastery) was also littered with activations and branding. Some of these include themed cafes, a watch party area, a PC set up for fans to partake in games and team stalls for all CFPL teams, such as EDG and LGD Gaming.
The purpose of these activations, according to Tencent’s Crossfire Marketing Director Chen Jin, is to build greater connections between the crossfire teams and their fanbases. “For the fan area, the main thing is that we have to focus on the culture and the user’s recognition of the clubs and also the players. …Different clubs have different cultures; after we build their cultures the fans will choose which players they like or which club they like.”
Crossfire Stars also provided opportunities for competitors that are typically used to online play to experience a LAN event. Given the game’s stark difference in popularity from region to region, Crossfire Stars creates an intriguing dynamic in which players of all competitive tiers compete. For example, North American representative Kungarna had players competing at the amateur level, some of whom worked 9-5 jobs.
Meanwhile, Tiago ‘LionClaw’ Moreira is a Portuguese player who competes for Turkish team LCK and plays semi-professionally. Interestingly, he also had a brief stint in VALORANT for For The Win Esports in-between his Crossfire career.
According to Hoon Lee, following Crossfire Stars’ 10-year anniversary, the goal is to develop its global esports scene further. Building robust ecosystems seems to be at the forefront of this with Hoon Lee also teasing more developments for Crossfire Stars in 2024. These come off the back of Smilegate launching a second Crossfire Stars event earlier this year, which took place in Vietnam.
This need for development was echoed by one of Crossfire’s most successful players, Bisha Gaming’s team leader and now four-time Crossfire Stars champion Wang ‘N9’ Hao.
After beating fellow Chinese team Chengdu All Gamers — an organisation that was recently announced as a VALORANT partner team for its new Chinese league — he told Esports Insider via a translated interview: “I think for Crossfire to be better the three aspects are: first we allow more countries to participate in the game; second, we can raise the prize pool; and the last one is that we can improve the feeling of the audience to make them have a better feeling when watching the show.”
Still, while developments are needed to grow the game globally, N9 highlighted how the Crossfire ecosystem has grown since he first graced the scene eight years ago. “Over the past 10 years, it’s not [been] very easy for Crossfire. As for the competitions, the scale and the prizes have changed, they have been expanded and there are more teams, more players and more audiences. So, I think the trend for the future of Crossfire is on the rise.”
For Tencent, Smilegate, VSPO and some of the event’s competitors — all of which have strong ties to the Crossfire ecosystem — there is a strong belief that the game is one of the most popular FPS’ in China. With more and more competitors entering the space, such as VALORANT and a newly refreshed Counter-Strike 2, the goal will not only be to develop its competitive ecosystem outside of China, but to cement itself and retain its position at the upper echelon of Chinese esports.