Richard Lewis: Valve, now is the time to show CS:GO the love
Another week of re-adjusting my sleep schedule, turning up to meetings with eyes like pissholes in the snow. Yes, whatever the timezone the big Counter-Strike tournament is in, I’m there, whether it means early mornings, late nights or foggy limbos.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by Dexerto.
It’d be hard to think of one I’ve missed these past fifteen years. That’s what this game does. Since moving to the US I barely set an alarm to catch the football and when it’s time for the NFL I know I can watch the games on catch-up with all the commercials stripped out. Who would have thought that for most of my adult life it’d be a video game that would be my sporting consistent?
When the original designers created the Counter-Strike Half-Life mod they probably didn’t realize just what they’d created. Ignore all the imbalanced and inaccurate weapons that were there at the start and instead focus on the game’s core. An idea so perfect in its simplicity. Two teams of five shooting each other, one team planting a bomb, one team stopping them. Win, and you get more money, potentially snowballing your advantage. Lose and suddenly you’re relying on skill and tactics to dig you out of the hole. This would be enough for a memorable game, a classic in the genre, but one that would fade as new fads came in.
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Why Counter-Strike endures is the layers, that while it can be boiled down to the visceral thrill of shooting someone before they shoot you, the game gives you so much agency and freedom that it is never as easy as the best player wins. You can flank them, you can blind them, you can evade them with smoke, you can use teamwork and communication, you can fool them and if all of that fails the mechanics of the game even allow for a little bit of luck. Different guns, different maps, infinite possibilities. And all this is happening under the surface, there if you want to learn about it but not even necessary to appreciate the adrenaline rush that Counter-Strike delivers.
This is why CS is unique among esports. Its format has endured for two decades. It has survived everything from a community split across different versions to global financial crashes. It has outlasted every competitor and killer that has come for its crown. Even now, in the Global Offensive era, it has yet to peak eight years after the game was released. This past week saw it become the number one game on Steam by a huge distance, with over 931,000 players online at once. IEM Katowice, the first real-world championship of 2020, attracted over a million simultaneous viewers, the kind of numbers we usually see reserved for the Valve approved majors. Top streamers and influencers are continuing to pick up and learn the game, admitting what we all know, that it is the greatest competitive FPS game ever created and its not even close. A new contender was revealed this week too and not only is that game a Counter-Strike clone, but their marketing is also a laundry list of long-time CS player complaints. Just know, we will come and dabble, we will grace your counterfeit with our presence but whatever we say we will not leave this game behind. It simply does not happen.
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Safe to say Counter-Strike is my first love in this weird world of esports. It’s in the best place it has been for a long time and signs are that 2020 will only see it improve. I’ve been one of its biggest advocates at every level of esports I’ve operated at, from community meet-ups to corporate boardrooms. Yet, it’s got to be said, the one entity that seems to be decidedly unimpressed with all our achievements is Valve. This piece is really aimed at them. I’d just be preaching to the choir otherwise.
Now, don’t get me wrong, finally we’ve seen a shift in Valve’s thought process when it comes to leaving the Counter-Strike fields fallow. The free-to-play, Danger Zone patch came in at the end of 2018 and since then updates have been more frequent. We even got the Shattered Web Operation after two years without one. But let’s be honest here Valve, because I know at least one of you will read this, it’s nowhere near enough content or attention for the game that is now inarguably the flagship title of your company. The latest patches to Dota 2 saw player numbers drop dramatically. One year ago it had over a million peak players, now it is just over 650,000. I appreciate the balancing act for that game, for any MOBA, is insanely difficult. You have to try and create systems that don’t punish experienced players and newcomers, who will often be rubbing shoulders, in a game that takes 1000 hours to even comprehend the broad spread of the basics. If you simplify and streamline you lose the hardcore, if you add complexity you lose players to one of the more accessible replacements on the market. Dota is a gaming proposition like no other and it is a product you can be immensely proud of.
Yet the fact you try so hard to do this, having employees glued to subreddits to roll out hotfixes and implement patches, while Counter-Strike waits a year or longer between content, isn’t going unnoticed. I’m sure Dota is a more lucrative game. It’s clearly the one you all prefer playing. We know that Gabe Newell is probably running around as Weaver right now. But the Dota IP is giving you diminishing returns and will continue to do so. Artifact was a disaster, Underlords was a quick way to monetise a flavour of the month genre that is designed for the new generation of people who game on their mobile phones. I doubt it’s going to be anything other than a footnote in your portfolio. I will also say I have a suspicion this will be the first year that the crowdfunded prize pool of The International doesn’t go up.
None of these things are probably considered metrics of success for a company that has always been known for their unique approach but just in case they are you do have a solution. There’s an audience full of people that would love to just give you their money. They would love to pay you for a Dota plus style match-making system with unlockable cosmetics and stat-tracking. They would love to part with their money for 128 tick server access and ranking up away from the free-to-play cheater accounts. We are all willing to fork out for new cosmetics and ways to support our favourite esports teams and players with in-game merchandise. And if those things don’t really sound all too interesting to the team, an operation every 3-6 months, like the old days, is definitely something that we’re all just itching to open our wallets for.
Now is definitely the time to start just giving us a little bit more attention at least. Not just because we’re number one right now, but because Valorant is round the corner and Riot Games are willing to do more pandering to the CS community than you, the game’s creators. You can’t just keep relying on the fact the game is great to keep people sticking around, even if it probably will work and has worked for twenty years. A commitment to content and development is not just what we want, it’s also what we deserve. And we’ll pay you for it. Our position as black sheep of the family remains baffling given the unwavering loyalty. You won’t see us lobbying the president because we didn’t get a seasonal mod. Hell, we’re grateful when the Twitter account says something.
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It doesn’t need to be a cavalcade of corporate crossovers like Fortnite. You know what we want and you know how to monetize it. You’ve done it with your other games and now it’s our turn. It surely cannot be the case that we love your game more than you do. Maybe it is. We’ll be here playing whatever version exists in ten years. We’ll be watching a new generation of stars earn cheers from stadium crowds. It says something profound about the game that there’s no bitterness that it is transparently obvious you know that too and have used that as a justification for years of indifference.
CS:GO has something no other game you make does. I can show it to someone who has never seen it before and make them a fan in two minutes. I know I can do that because I have done that. I spoke to those people when we were taping ELEAGUE on US television, saw the people who brought their kids and expected to be bored in week one, and then saw them rocking a Cloud 9 jersey and screaming their lungs out by week four. I saw fans of other games who had never played an FPS title pick up Counter-Strike and uninstall whatever game they came from. It’s time to reward that loyalty before someone else comes along and does it instead.