Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Popularity and Controversy
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is the latest release in the Counter Strike series of video games. While it was released in 2012, there has been no need for a new installment in the series due to its continued relevance and consistent updates. When the game was first released, it was clear that many adjustments were needed to fix the game. A Blogcritics article depicts the early game as being buggy and not worth the $15 price tag (2012). However, the game would not remain in that state, with many updates bringing life and depth to the game and its community. The Circuit of Culture, when used to ‘fit’ CS:GO into the culture of the internet and gaming, can be used to draw interesting conclusions as to the game’s success as well as its various scandals.
CS:GO’s developer ‘Valve’ is a company deeply rooted in computer gaming. Valve is the creator of ‘Steam’, a platform for Valve to promote and sell its games. Steam is the Xbox Live of computer gaming, in that it is a hub for online multiplayer gaming. Steam also sells thousands of other games under other developers, such as the Call of Duty franchise and the Fallout franchise. However, the games that Valve released themselves became smash hits, such as Portal and Left 4 Dead. Counter-Strike was no exception. The original game was released in 2000, predating the original Call of Duty by six years, and became the baseline for multiplayer first-person-shooters.
Due to Valve’s overall success as well as the success of the Counter-Strike series, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive was created to capitalize on that. The game essentially paid for itself, as by 2016, Valve had sold over 21 million copies of the game, amounting to over $500 million dollars in revenue (Brustein and Novy-Williams, 2016). Furthermore, CS:GO has various ways that you can spend money within the game, via purchasing ‘skins’ for your weapons, opening ‘cases’, and participating in various in-game events.
The consumption of CS:GO as a product comes in multiple forms. Some are in it for the skins and the potential money they can make from them. Others just are a fan of cheap, well-crafted first-person-shooter games. The developers, creators and players are more similar than one might think. Since video games are a creative product that require a bunch of moving parts to work together perfectly, creators and developers must enjoy and play these games themselves. Furthermore, each of these groups are in constant contact, with players tapping in through reviews and feedback.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive represents the continued relevance of its creator ‘Valve’. Valve was an industry titan for video games in the 2000’s with big name titles such as Half-Life and Team Fortress skyrocketing to success. Once Counter-Strike released, it also became a smash hit, and is arguably Valve’s most successful game series. CS:GO signifies many things for many different people. For Valve, it represents one of their biggest money-making initiatives. For some, it is a cheap alternative to Call of Duty. For professional players, it is a lucrative career in Esports. However the most interesting and perhaps problematic representation for some is a virtual economy. The regulation of this economy and the dark side of it will be talked about in detail later.
Since the original release of Counter-Strike in 2000, numerous sequels came out, such as Counter-Strike: Condition Zero and Counter-Strike: Source. However, the concept of the game remained the same. Players were split into two teams, the ‘Terrorists’ (T-side as people call it) and the ‘Counter-Terrorists’ (CT-side). The T-side’s job was to plant a bomb on a bombsite and ensure its explosion, or just kill the CT-side before the round timer was up. The CT-side’s job was to either diffuse the bomb or kill the T-side or run out the clock before they could plant the bomb. After a certain number of ‘rounds’, the teams would switch sides/roles, and the game would end when a team reached a certain number of round wins. This simple concept kept gameplay engaging and fast-paced, contributing to the massive success of the franchise. The original Counter-Strike has 96% positive reviews on the Steam marketplace with over 100,000 ratings, and Counter-Strike: Source has 96% positive reviews with over 85,000 ratings. However, once we get to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, things start to go south as is seen by the only 88% positive reviews out of over 6 million ratings.
When CS:GO was released, there were already a number of competitors on the scene, the most notable being Call of Duty. Call of Duty was releasing new games on a yearly basis, each game having a ‘Campaign’, or single-player story mode, as well as various multiplayer game modes. One of these game modes divides players into two teams, one of which is trying to plant a bomb at a bombsite while the other tries to stop them. Therefore theoretically, Call of Duty should signify the death of Counter-Strike since it does the same thing but has more content in it. However, this clearly is not the case, as CS:GO was wildly popular among the similar demographic of people who would play Call of Duty. If you wanted to play a first-person-shooter on your computer, it would most likely be CS:GO. However, as I mentioned, CS:GO started having some major issues mostly due to the regulation surrounding the game.
Video games for the most part have a nerdy connotation surrounding them. The first-person-shooter genre somewhat alleviated this, but new connotations were drawn from this genre. Let’s face it, FPS games are violent. In CS:GO, you shoot people, stab people and blow them up with grenades. In fact, FPS games often become the scapegoat for horrible atrocities like school shootings. This leads people to think that players of these games have violent tendencies. However, these aren’t the only connotations surrounding FPS players.
Player toxicity is a major stereotype and an unfortunate reality of multiplayer competitive games. CS:GO is not immune to this. CS:GO has an in-game typing and voice function, where players can make their frustration towards each other or the game abundantly clear. The ‘Blogcritics’ author (unnamed) remarked, “[…] the CS community is not exactly the friendliest to noobs and can sometimes be downright nasty. Because there is no way to mute people, you may just find yourself under a constant tirade of vicious abuse if you aren’t good enough or learning quickly enough. For me, it was so bad in several cases I had to put headphones on lest I offend the ladies of the house” (2012).
The game is now free-to-play for a base version, meaning that the game is now more accessible. Anyone can try it without having to spend a dime, but this comes at its own price – dealing with cheaters. To circumvent this (theoretically), you can pay for an upgraded version of the game, which also comes with item drops and other perks with regards to the matchmaking process. Furthermore, there are other ways to spend money within the game, via in-game items. The items are a sign of status, and creates a sort of have versus have-not separation in the community.
The in-game items known as ‘skins’ were implemented into CS:GO as an update, where you can essentially have artwork on your weapons. In fact, Valve recently hosted a competition with $1 million dollars in prize money for artists to design skins. While these skins breathed life into the game and inevitably became the game’s identity, it also caused some disastrous controversies due to the subpar regulations surrounding them.
CS:GO became infamous for its lack of regulation surrounding the skins back in 2016. When the skins were released in 2013, they brought a whole new life to the game. These skins could either be bought for real money, or opened from a ‘case’ via a ‘key’. The skins were ranked by rarity, and rarer usually meant more expensive. Skins could be sold on the Steam community marketplace, or third party websites where skins could be traded to the site then sold for cryptocurrency or cash. The regulation behind these third party websites was minimal, yet reputable ones surfaced where people knew they wouldn’t be ripped off. The process of opening a case is similar to that of a slot machine; the game spins a wheel of skins in that case that eventually lands on one. With the key that costs roughly $2.49 before tax, you had the super high chance of opening a low rarity ‘blue’ skin which would be usually worthless (<$1), as well as the super low chance of opening a ‘Rare Special Item’ which could cost thousands of dollars. The game is rated M for mature, but there was no regulation for purchasing the game through Steam, meaning that there was no age regulation to participate in the opening of cases, which is essentially gambling.
Once you had skins, there were options for what you could do with them. You could use them, meaning your guns and knife could have some cool designs on them, sell them, either on the steam marketplace or a third party website, or worst of all, gamble them. In 2015-2016, CS:GO gambling became an enormous problem. Over these years, third party websites would emerge where people could trade their skins to the website to gamble with them. The websites were fully unregulated and only required a Steam account to start gambling. CS:GO gambling became wildly popular, amassing over $2 billion, that’s right, over $2 billion dollars in bets in that short period of time (Brustein and Novy-Williams, 2016). With the popularity of gambling came the rise of gambling-related content on Twitch and YouTube. In fact, two youtubers/streamers came under fire for promoting a gambling website that, unbenounced to the public, was owned by them. The demise of CS:GO gambling was brought forth by a lawsuit against Valve. The case, filed for Michael John McLeod, was on the basis that these websites required signing in with Valve’s system, and that Valve was profiting off of illegal gambling (International Business Times India, 2016). Furthermore, McLeod was a minor and lost a lot of money. I personally lost a lot of money when I was just a highschooler on these websites. After the lawsuit, the websites started to disappear, but new ones still pop up here and there to make a quick buck before being shut down.
The other problem with regulation that CS:GO faced was with cheaters and hackers. Valve came up with a few ways to combat this over the years. One was an anti-cheat system used to detect scripts and foreign code entering the game. Another was a player-based reporting system. Players could report people that they thought were hacking, to which other players could use ‘Overwatch’ to watch the reported person’s gameplay and determine their fate. If someone was caught, they’d be indefinitely banned from the game. These two systems however hardly made a dent in the onslaught of hackers, so Valve took further measures. Players could use their phone numbers to authenticate their accounts, and the game separated into a free-to-play versus paid upgraded version. The idea was that cheaters would be less likely to spend money since they could get banned. Furthermore, CS:GO implemented a ‘Trust Factor’ system, where essentially people would get matched against other people with a similar Trust Factor score. The score was based on both how many authentication systems you opted into and not using third-party-software. The issue with this score system was that streamers had to use third-party-software to record their gameplay, but had to suffer the loss in their score. The Trust Factor system was not working as Valve had hoped, but it turned out that it actually wasn’t working at all. The CS:GO twitter account tweeted, “If you’ve had bad matches recently, it may have been because Trust wasn’t working right. We fixed it yesterday and confirmed that it is now working as intended. Thanks to everyone who provided useful feedback” (@CSGO, 2021). While many measures have been taken against hacking, it’s impossible to get rid of it entirely.
As I mentioned earlier, the consumers of CS:GO are often similar to the very creators of the game. It is well known that the head of Valve, Gabe Newell, dabbles in his fair share of video games. Oftentimes, developers will playtest the game to ensure its top-notch quality. It would be stupid for them not to, like if a chef didn’t taste their food as they were cooking. Developers who have invested interest in their creation will make it as good as possible. As previously stated, the game is currently free-to-play, but has a $15 upgrade to ‘Prime Status’. Prime Status players will typically have a higher Trust Factor, and will encounter less cheaters. Furthermore, they will get more item drops, which is essentially the chance to get an item at the end of a game.
Many updates to CS:GO coincide with new ‘Operations’. Operations consist typically of new maps, missions you can complete in games, new game modes, and new item collections and drops. Players can purchase an operation pass, granting them access to these missions and more item drops. The current operation, ‘Operation Riptide’, has passes going for $15. Therefore, getting the game with all of its perks costs $30, which is half of what most triple-a (major developers) games cost. However, if you include the addicting case opening component, players can easily blow through hundreds of dollars.
This game is very clearly marketed toward those who like the FPS category of video games. Back in the early 2000s, there wasn’t a lot of competition. However, today we see a large number of highly successful competitors such as Valorant, Overwatch, Fortnite and Warzone. Fortnite was incredibly popular a few years ago as a free-to-play game that was fast and exciting, and created an easy way for content creators like Ninja to have massive success on their platforms. Since Valorant is also free-to-play and is also a lot better about regulating hackers, it has seen a large amount of recent success. However, CS:GO uses consistent updates to stay relevant today.
Marketing of the game can also take on other forms, such as the realm of Esports. CS:GO has a flourishing Esports scene due to the popularity, competitiveness, and enjoyability of the game. In fact, M. Nazhif Risani and Hiroyuki Iida used mathematical modelling to determine the ‘game refinement’ of CS:GO, and determined that the balance of skill required and the unpredictability of each round means that the game and the Esport is exciting and popular (2018). However, you don’t need a mathematical model to measure popularity. It was clear by the immense viewership of live matches that CS:GO was an incredibly successful Esport.
While CS:GO has seen its ups and downs, its average concurrent player count of over 500,000 really shows that the success and longevity of the game are undeniable. With many new games being released annually and some being from triple-a developers, it is truly remarkable for a nearly 10 year old game to maintain its status and popularity.
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