How CS:GO managed to survive in the esports era

November 12 2021

I remember being 12 years old and counting the minutes until the school day was over so I could rush to the nearest internet cafe to play Counter-Strike with my friends.

Back then, LAN parties were not a common thing in my area. Internet cafes were the rage and you even had to wait in line at times just to get in. Literally, everybody inside was playing Counter-Strike, regardless of their age. It was a time where the market was not oversaturated with video games, let alone online shooters. My dad, who was a gamer in his own right, one day asked me “what’s this Counter-Strike I keep hearing about?” and it dawned on me. I was unwittingly a part of history in making.

Go! Go! Go!

Counter-Strike made its debut in 1999, as a Half-Life mod. Half-Life deserves its own article for its contribution to video games in general, so I’ll keep it short for now. Half-Life sparked a new age of gaming, which led to a lot of games we still play today. It’s like the great-great-grandfather of shooters today, you can trace a lot of games back to it. Even Apex Legends uses a heavily modified version of Half-Life 2’s Source Engine. 

Back in the day, all you could get for FPS arena games were Quake III Arena, Unreal Tournament, some Team Fortress Classic if you’re one of the OGs, and a bit of Half-Life multiplayer which was, let’s be honest, basically just the Crossfire map. While all of its competitors were timeless classics, some of which still hold up to this day, Counter-Strike took it to a different level. As you’ll notice, all of the examples I gave above have some sort of fantastical or sci-fi elements to them. Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament were a mix of fantasy and sci-fi, while Team Fortress and Half-Life were… also a mix of fantasy and sci-fi. Huh. It was a good time to be a gamer and a sci-fi fantasy fan back then.

Counter-Strike

Pictured: What Counter-Strike looked like years ago. (Image: Valve)

Counter-Strike, on the other hand, gave us a more realistic setting with factions, characters, and weapons based on real life. Coupled with the signature radio announcements such as “Counter-Terrorists win!” (you can literally hear that sentence while reading it), Counter-Strike immediately became a sensation. Those quick, helpful radio messages were so useful that they became a crucial part of every online shooter today. It took everything good its competitors did and mixed it with its own formula, making another timeless classic in the process.

As time passed, Counter-Strike became “older,” and modern shooters started being published left and right. With the emergence of online distribution, the video game market saw an unprecedented influx of products, making it very difficult for any individual game to shine. While this trend helped indie games to breathe and have their own share in the market, it was (and arguably still is) a tough time to “make it big.”

As the Call of Duty and Battlefield series started to have a strong footing, Counter-Strike tried to keep up with the times. This, of course, didn’t go so well for a while. Following Counter-Strike’s trailblazing steps was very difficult. The original CS formula worked so well that it became its own downfall. Because times were changing. High quality and production value were becoming commonplace among big developers, and Counter-Strike was “that great old game” among new and amazing games.

How did Counter-Strike manage to survive?

Well, Counter-Strike did a sequel. Counter-Strike: Condition Zero was released in 2004 to mixed reviews. It took too long to develop and what was expected to be the continuation of a legendary game turned out to be an already old one, which was Counter-Strike’s problem, to begin with. Condition Zero felt like a letdown and people kept going back to Counter-Strike 1.6, arguably the best and definitely the most popular iteration of classic Counter-Strike.

Counter-Strike 1.6 was such a lightning in a bottle that it still has players to this day. Objectives, maps, the balance, it all works so well despite being old enough to go to college. It delivers the definitive Counter-Strike experience. How do you beat that? How do you manage to keep it fresh yet have your game not be old? Valve was yet to answer this question, but they tried to respond anyway.

Thus came Counter-Strike: Source, a version based on Valve’s new Source Engine. While Hidden Path Entertainment was porting Counter-Strike: Source to consoles, Valve saw the opportunity to make it into an entirely new entry in the Counter-Strike series. And so, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive was born.

Counter-Strike Dust2

Dust 2, arguably the most popular Counter-Strike map. (Image: Valve)

Finally, Valve had found the answer. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO for you pros out there) delivered the quintessential Counter-Strike feeling while itself being a modern game. It adapted to the time and quickly became a live-service game. Regular events, lootboxes… you name it. With the help of Steam, CS:GO brought an amazing, living environment to Counter-Strike.

You can get item drops, sell them on the Steam marketplace, get lootboxes and also sell them on the marketplace… Yeah, there’s a pattern here. But there’s also a great game hidden under all the daily transactions made on the market.

I’m an older Counter-Strike player, and an older gamer in general, so you might not agree with my perspective. But I feel like CS:GO managed to achieve the flavor of CS 1.6 and that’s no easy feat. CS:GO has all the classic maps such as Dust2, Inferno, Mirage, and Train. And it manages to take you back all those years, to when you were just a kid playing Counter-Strike for the first time. This “flavor” became CS:GO’s lifeblood and Valve managed to attach a high functioning marketplace mechanic on it to create the monster that it is today.

How did CS:GO manage to survive the esports era?

Now, to the real question. Back in the day, CS:GO was peerless. While alternatives did exist, none managed to achieve the quality or flavor CS:GO had. But today, not only are there a lot of alternatives to CS:GO, there are also high-quality competitors to it. Yes, I’m talking about Valorant.

While I played Counter-Strike for more than 10 years, I don’t have enough knowledge about Valorant to make a solid claim. But watching it, it’s really not that hard to make comparisons to CS:GO or Overwatch. Of course, as long as you make an original and a good game out of it, being inspired by such giants is not a fault.

Looking at Valorant’s current player statistics, it’s quite obvious that it’s taken the esports world by the storm. Adding Rainbow Six Siege, Call of Duty, PUBG, and Overwatch to the comparison, the question becomes even more puzzling: How did CS:GO manage to survive the era of high quality & high popularity esports games?

CS:GO muzzle flash

Pictured: What CS:GO looks like now. The sight may not be, but the feeling is familiar. (Image: Valve)

The answer came to me during a conversation with my fellow writer, Catt. As I was talking (and Catt was probably trying to work), I found myself explaining why CS:GO was still going strong.

First of all, as I mentioned at great length at the beginning of this article, Counter-Strike is an old game. CS:GO achieving that old, nostalgic flavor is one of the prime reasons it’s still a big esports game. Hardcore fans aside, older players like me will always return for a few rounds of Dust2. Despite CS: Source and CS:GO releasing 8 years apart, CS:GO still made a strong return. This alone shows how great the original Counter-Strike was and why preserving that perfect formula was the right answer.

Second of all, CS:GO is a really solid game. Let’s be honest. There’s a reason why Counter-Strike made it this far. Back when it first came out, CS didn’t have many competitors. So you could attribute its success to the lack of competition. Now, however, CS:GO still shines as a high-quality game. It has downsides, of course, just like any other online game. You can find a long list of complaints on any online platform about CS:GO, but that long list also means that CS:GO is far from being dead or unpopular.

Another important aspect of CS:GO is how it adapted to the games as a service era. First came the operations: season-like events with exclusive drops. Those drops, of course, also made the marketplace very active but the real money part of CS:GO is a rabbit hole I’d rather not go down in this article. Following the operations period, CS:GO went free-to-play, which boosted the player numbers even further. This, of course, again created a divide among the player base. I feel like “online game community is divided over opinions” doesn’t even qualify as news at this point. Yet it keeps happening.

CS:GO Colorful

The game looks much more colorful than it used to, thanks to the constant updates. (Image: Valve)

Counter-Strike, being one of the oldest examples of esports games, made a perfectly-timed return just when esports as a whole was becoming mainstream. Mostly thanks to League of Legends, esports became a worldwide sensation in the early 2010s. Counter-Strike made its return in 2012, riding the hype-wagon with its already established player base. In time, CS:GO’s esports scene got bigger and bigger, especially with the involvement of industry giants such as Intel. An increase in online broadcasting and Twitch becoming the go-to platform to watch esports certainly helped. Only this week, the PGL Major in Stockholm achieved an astonishing ​​2,748,850 concurrent viewers for the quarter-final match between NAVI and Vitality. If Counter-Strike is dead, 2 million people didn't get the message. Maybe you can try yelling at them, telling them not to enjoy their favorite game.

So why play CS:GO today?

The answer is simple: it still works. CS:GO is still the Counter-Strike you know from 20 years ago. It’s solid, realistic, and generally balanced. While Valve and Hidden Path Entertainment did make mistakes over the years, they also managed to listen to the community and keep the Counter-Strike formula intact.

So if you’re eager to get into esports, why not give CS:GO a try? You could also use the G-Loot app to track your stats and improve yourself faster. I’m currently an Apex Legends player, but to me, CS:GO is the quintessential esports experience. Even if you intend to switch to other games, CS:GO is a great rite of passage for anyone who wants to see what esports are like and what to expect from becoming an online warrior.

Plus, it has chickens! 

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Barış Tekin author picture

Barış Tekin
Barış Tekin

Cat Whisperer, Fight Choreographer, Retired Stuntman, Semi-pro Voice Actor. I dream of a world where Caustic mains can be happy.

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