Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CSGO for short) was released on August 21, 2012, and is currently the 6th most popular esport and the 3rd most popular competitive first-person shooter. After all these years, why is the game still so popular? And for that matter, why did it become such a popular esport in the first place?
Designed for Competitive Play
CSGO is the fourth game in Valve’s Counter Strike series, and it is by far the best. Valve refined the gameplay that players had grown to love in the previous entries in the series, and has continued to update the game regularly to bring it even closer to perfection. Valve focuses on making the game work well for competitive players, and works hard to ensure that the game is balanced. A few of the game design features that make CSGO a great competitive game are:
- Hitscan guns. In games like Battlefield V, bullets are treated as projectiles. Over a great distance, gravity drags them downward. Wind may push them side-to-side. Damage may decrease at long range as the bullet slows down. In CSGO, this is not the case. CSGO’s weapons are hitscan, meaning that rather than being treated as objects, bullets travel instantaneously from the barrel of a player’s gun to the target. If a player takes aim and fires, the bullet goes exactly where the crosshairs are pointing (although guns do still have recoil and bullet spread). Aim in CSGO is all about eagle eyes and steady hands.
- Ranked matches. In previous Counter Strike games, players were tossed into lobbies at random. A new player running into a team full of experienced players and getting absolutely stomped was a common, frustrating experience. In CSGO, there is a ranked matchmaking system that ensures that players will get to compete against players of a similar skill level, allowing them to hone their skills and improve.
- High skill ceiling. CSGO’s basics are easy to learn, but just knowing what to do doesn’t mean players have the ability to do it. Better aim, better reflexes, better positioning, and better overall strategy make the difference between winning and losing. The rules are simple, but the difference in skill and ability between professional and casual players is incredible.
- Even playing field. CSGO has no leveling system, no unlockable perks, and no unlockable guns. This means that every player, whether they’ve been playing for six minutes or six years, has access to the exact same equipment. Skill makes the difference, not time spent grinding, money spent on stronger guns, or anything else.
- Strategy is required. In CSGO’s competitive 5v5 matches, players don’t respawn until the end of the round. You can’t run around like a madman shooting everything that moves; you have to bide your time, because your life actually matters. On top of that, the game’s system for gaining weapons involves a lot of strategy as well. Based on their performance, players are awarded in-game currency at the end of each round. Then, they can either save that money for a later round or spend it. Coordinating with teammates to use resources in the most effective manner is an important part of CSGO’s gameplay.
- Ebb and flow of action. Instead of a constantly moving firefight, CSGO has some variety to its gameplay. Some rounds are extremely fast-paced and are over quickly. Others may go on for several minutes and may turn into a cat-and-mouse game rather than a shootout.
While CSGO is an excellent shooter to play competitively, great game design isn’t the sole reason the game has gotten so popular as an esport. Valve has worked outside of the game itself to create an environment that is kind to professional players, and their efforts have allowed the game’s competitive and professional scenes to flourish. Some of the external factors that work in CSGO’s favor are:
- Team-benefit items. Making a living as a professional esport competitor has always been challenging. Valve has helped make it a little easier for CSGO pros by introducing a range of in-game items (like stickers and skins) that directly benefit certain teams. If you buy a sticker of one team’s logo, that team gets a cut.
- Free to play. CSGO has been free to play since December 2018, which has allowed even more players to give it a try. Spending $15 USD will upgrade a player’s account to “prime” status, which allows them to get into matches that are more carefully vetted for hackers and smurfs, but even that isn’t perfect. Even so, making the game free has lowered the barrier to entry for new players, which is a good thing for the game’s longevity.
- The Arms Deal update. This update came out in 2013. It introduced new skins that could be purchased, and a portion of the proceeds went toward funding CSGO esports events. The first of these was a competition hosted by DreamHack, which had a $250,000 prize pool. Today, tournaments organized by Valve have prize pools of $1 million.
At first glance, Counter Strike: Global Offensive might not look like much (although thanks to a few graphical facelifts, it looks a hell of a lot better than it did seven years ago). However, CSGO’s apparent simplicity is one of its greatest assets. The game is straightforward and easy to understand, but it’s incredibly difficult to master the nuances of the game’s strategy. It’s fun to play and fun to watch, and Valve’s continuing support of the game as an esport has made it a challenge worthy of professionals’ efforts. Recently, Overwatch and Fortnite have claimed the #1 and #2 slots as far as popularity of FPS esports goes, but CSGO is something else: a shooter in its purest form, where skill means everything and nothing else means anything. Until a new game can provide that in a form as carefully refined as CSGO, this game isn’t going anywhere.