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Counter-Strike Esports 101

A First-Timer’s Guide to Understanding Competitive CS:GO

If you’re a listener of sports radio, you may have heard various personalities like Colin Cowherd scoff at the thought of esports, oftentimes outright insulting esports players by comparing them to the stereotypical basement-dwelling nerds. If you’ve never been interested in the industry, you might think that this is a boom stemming from Fortnite blasting its way into public consciousness through everyone’s kids’ console.

Yet, the truth is that Esports have been around for a while, and today we’re going to be talking about a genre classic, the oldest esport to still gain massive traction despite almost two decades in the spotlight. Counter-Strike.

Unfortunately, if you’re totally removed from the world of gaming, it’s very likely that the only times you’ve ever heard about the game is through media headlines alarming linking “violent” video games to school shootings and teenage violence. Those theories have been largely disproven since, but the stigma continues.

Similarly, when hearing the word esports, you might be inclined to think about Cheeto-dust-covered basements smelling of Mountain Dew and BO, rather than places like the Lanxess Arena, Oakland Arena or “the home of esports”, the Katowice Spodek (pictured below).

Spodek at Katowice, Poland. Image via spodekkatowice.pl.

First Shots

The truth is, esports have come a long way from the time when gamer stereotypes were created, so let’s take it back to the start. If it’s not a violent shooter for blood-thirsty teens, then what is Counter-Strike, and why are hundreds of thousands of people tuning in to watch people play it?

Counter-Strike as a game is very much the product of the era that created it. With video games gaining new grounds in terms of visual fidelity and input responsiveness thanks to the development of 3D graphics in the late 90s, video games were able to shift from simulating 3D space by using sneaky perspective tricks for games rendered in 2D. This enabled Valve Software, a Washington State-based game developer created by two former Microsoft employees Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington to create Half-Life, a story-based first-person shooter game which is still regarded as one of the most influential games ever made.

But why are we talking about a story-based game when we’re supposed to be talking about esports? Well, outside of its revolutionary design choices, Valve allowed players to modify the game to create new ways for people to play it. These “mods” ranged from unplayable monstrosities to brilliant developments on the base game. One such mod was Counter-Strike developed by Minh “Gooseman” Le and Jess Cliffe.

The 1999 mod transformed Half-Life’s rather low-key Multiplayer Mode from a sci-fi showdown into a semi-realistic special forces simulation. In the new mode, Counter-Terrorists faced off against Terrorist in various scenarios, including Hostage Rescue and Bomb Defusal, the latter of which became the template for the esports ruleset and by far the most popular game mode in Counter-Strike.

A screenshot from Counter-Stike 1.6. Image via Dobre Programy.

With the community continuing to provide new maps and ideas for the game, it wasn’t long before Valve took notice and hired Le and Cliffe, buying out the game and releasing it as a separate game in 2000.

The Bomb Defusal mode that served as the esports template ever since then became an esports staple because of its easy-to-learn, hard-to-master nature. The rules can be described in a mere few sentences, yet some of the game’s nuances often require separate articles.

Rules of Engagement

Players are split into two teams of five. The game is played in rounds up to a max of 30 split into 15 round halves, where the teams switch sides. The Terrorist (or Attacking) team is tasked with planting a bomb on one of two bomb sites, while the Counter-Terrorist (or Defending) team is tasked with preventing them from doing so. The attackers have just under 2 minutes to plant, or else they lose the round.

After a successful plant, the Counter-Terrorist side has a 45-second window when they can take back the site and defuse the bomb. A typical defusal takes 10 seconds, which can be halved with a team buying a defuse kit.

After every round, both teams receive a set amount of cash (depending on who won the round and how many rounds were lost in a row) they can use to purchase weapons and equipment. Every weapon deals different amounts of damage to the enemy player, making them a crucial element of eliminating the players standing between you and the bombsite.

Additionally, players have access to a wide range of utility tools that help in taking control over the map by blocking the enemy line of sight, blinding them or outright damaging enemy players trying to cross map sections blocked off by Molotovs/Incendiary grenades.

A well-placed smoke grenade blocks the line of sight on the map choke points. Image via Steam Community.

Three paragraphs to describe the basic rules along with some intricacies. That’s probably shorter than the amount of text required to accurately describe what a catch is and isn’t in the NFL. Additionally, the commentary teams for most major CS:GO events do an amazing job of explaining the rules along with various intricacies as they go along, always willing to introduce the game to new viewers.

An (E)sport is Born

This ruleset was just what was being developed throughout the early days of CS:GO esports which started from the ground up in the 2000s, particularly through internet cafes all around the world. By 2001, the first major Counter-Strike tournament was organized by the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) offering a $150k Prize Pool to contestants which was eventually won by Ninjas in Pyjamas, one of the few names from the early days of Counter-Strike that is still present in the scene, albeit not without a few bumps in the road along the way, in many ways making them the Boston Celtics of the CS esports scene, a legendary organization that’s been around for what seems like forever.

However, at that time, due to limitations in broadcasting capabilities, a lot of the scene was based on players watching back “demos” (in-game recordings) days after an event, only after finding out who won through internet chatrooms. At the time, Starcraft was definitely the most popular esport, particularly thanks to its popularity in Korea which, in many ways, pioneered the spectacle of the esports of the future.

In 2004, Valve released a follow-up to Counter-Strike. Counter-Strike: Source featured improvements in graphical fidelity and new mechanics that weren’t really liked by pro players, who felt that the gameplay wasn’t as refined as the original. This lead to a split into two professional scenes, the “1.6” scene (named after the final update to the original game) and the Source scene. 1.6 was definitely the more popular of the two with extremely strong local scenes in Denmark, Sweden, and Poland, while Source found a pretty large player base in the UK, France, and the US, yet failed to attract bigger organizers for more prestigious tournaments.

The Counter-Offensive

Image via Steam

This chaotic limbo in the esports scene stopped in 2012 when Valve released Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. It wasn’t long before both scenes merged into one, launching us into the modern esports era.

With the new infrastructure in place and the rise of streaming platforms, suddenly, CS:GO had a chance to be more than a reputable esport for hardcore fans. It was ready to go mainstream. This is around when Valve noticed the potential and started officially supporting esports competition, launching a series of sponsored tournaments called “Valve Majors” in 2013.

Valve Majors quickly became the most prestigious tournaments in the Counter-Strike world, essentially becoming their Olympics, however, thanks to the less physical aspect of esports, Valve was able to organize them three times a year in 2014, before switching to twice a year in 2015.

The first-ever Major in history was held in November 2013 in Jönköping, Sweden, which turned out to be a great decision with a hometown showdown between Fnatic and NIP ending with the former’s victory. Hometown heroes continued to win in the next CS:GO Major held in Katowice, Poland in March 2014, with Polish squad Virtus.Pro taking the crown. NIP eventually broke that streak in Cologne in August, where they beat Fnatic in a rematch of their inaugural Major Showdown.

2014 saw one more major in Jönköping where the French Team LDLC took first place, with NIP once again being the losing side. The Swedish side saw one more final appearance in March in Katowice, where they once again fell to their countrymen in Fnatic, who would repeat a few months later in Cologne.

ESL One Katowice Major 2015. Image via ESL One.

The last major of 2015 would be the first one that would break off from the Sweden-Poland-Germany hosting trend and was organized in Cluj-Napoca, Romania in October 2015, where Cologne 2015 runners-up, the French Team EnvyUs beat out the Russian-Ukrainian Na’Vi.

Conquering America

The first Major of 2016 would mark a massive change in the overall format and approach from Valve. While the first majors were organized exclusively by two tournament organizers, Stockholm-based DreamHack (Jönköping, Cluj-Napoca) and Cologne-based Electronic Sports League (Cologne and Katowice), Valve decided to remake the major organization rules in response to the game’s growing popularity.

The Columbus 2016 major held by American organizer Major League Gaming saw the Major Prize Pool increase from $250,000 to one million dollars. The Columbus Major wasn’t only the first Major held outside Europe. It was also the first Major won by a non-European team. Brazilian outfit Luminosity Gaming disposed of Na’Vi in the finals and claimed the grand prize.

The Brazilian core would once again prove to be victorious in Cologne, however now playing under the banner of SK Gaming after a tumultuous exit from their previous organization. 2016 would also prove to be the year when Valve decided to switch to playing two Majors in a year, meaning that the Brazilians were the first team to retain their championship status over an entire “season.”

CS:GO returned to the United States in January 2017 for the Atlanta Major. Now organized by Turner Sports subsidiary ELeague, marking another milestone in the mainstream appeal of esports. The major was won by Danish team Astralis who took victory in the final over Katowice 2014 champions Virtus.Pro. While the Major wasn’t broadcast on TV, a $250,000 rematch between the two teams in June that year was shown live on TBS.

The Major circuit also returned to Poland for the third time, this time taking place in Kraków, organized by PGL. After multiple upsets throughout the tournament, the final saw an underdog face-off between Kazakhstani-Russian-Ukrainian outfit Gambit Esports and relatively unknown Brazilian team Immortals, ending with a victory for Gambit after an intense series.

CS:GO once again returned to the U.S., this time coming to Boston in a tournament which saw the first-ever American major champions crowned after Cloud9 took down tournament-favourites FaZe in overtime of one of the most legendary series in Counter-Strike history. This was also the final tournament to date that wasn’t won by a certain Danish team…

Astralis during Berlin Major. Image via ESTNN.

The next three majors followed a pretty similar script. London, Katowice, and Berlin all saw Astralis absolutely demolish their competition on the way to a record-breaking fourth major championship for the organization, as well as four of their five players. While two of the finals saw surprising underdogs emerge as title challengers, with Finnish team ENCE shocking the world in Katowice and Kazakhstani AVANGAR reaching the final in Berlin, there wasn’t a team that could truly match the skills of the Danish outfit, widely accepted as the best CS:GO team of all time.

With the COVID-19 pandemic delaying the announced ESL One: Rio 2020 major until November, Counter-Strike now has an unprecedented period of constant online play which has largely shifted the power structure from what we’ve seen before as teams now have to requalify for the tournament to compete for the title of best in the world and the biggest prize pool of all time.

With rabid crowds and as much as a million viewers tuning in at peak times, Valve Majors are a fascinating piece of the CS:GO puzzle, rare celebrations of the esport. Yet, premier tournaments are held basically every month throughout the year, so there’s almost always something going on outside of the grandest stage of them all.

Esport Teams 101

Now that you know a bit about the past, how about we introduce you to the present? We’ve taken the liberty of taking the current Top 10 teams and their players as ranked by HLTV.org and giving you a rundown of their real-life comparisons.

#1. G2 Esports

Nationalities: France, Bosnia, and Serbia.
Real-life Comparison: Early 2010s Oklahoma City Thunder

Ranked number one despite a penchant for losing finals, G2 are consistently reaching the top of the knockout stages, yet are never quite able to win the big one. Very much like the Kevin Durant-led Oklahoma City Thunder, they are a powerful mix of young players and veterans that just can’t ever seem to get over the hump. With legendary sniper Kenny “KennyS” Schrub joined by up-and-coming Audric “JaCkz” Jug and Francois ‘AmaNEk” Daulanay, the French core eventually decided to go international by taking in Bosnian superstar Nemanja “huNter-” Kovac and Serbian sensation Nemanja “nexa” Isakovic.

#2. Fnatic

Nationality: Swedish
Real-life Comparison: The Pittsburgh Penguins

Absolutely dominant years ago, they’ve gone through a lot of trials and tribulations over the past few years, yet their core of Robin “Flusha” Ronnquist, Jesper “JW” Wecksell and Freddie “Krimz” Johansson has stuck together through thick and thin, in many ways making them not-so-different from Crosby, Malkin and Letang. Now joined by two young stars in Maikil “Golden” Selim and Ludvig “Brollan” Brolin, Fnatic have been consistently one of the top teams in the world over the past two years, similarly to the Penguin’s near ever-presence in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.

#3. FaZe

Nationalities: Bosnian, Norwegian, Brazilian, Latvian and Lithuanian
Real-life comparison: 2010–11 Miami Heat

I specifically listed the 2010–11 Miami Heat as the reference because FaZe’s last few years are like the faithful season when LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade took their talents to South Beach. FaZe was a team built on the theory that you can just craft a championship-winner by just buying up all the best players in the world. Going through a couple of iterations, the team is now finally shifting into a more balanced approach, but their Big Three of Havard “Rain” Nygaard, Nemanja “NiKo” Kovac, and Marcelo “Coldzera” David is not dissimilar from the big three of Chris Bosh, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade, with the latter two being named the best player in the world in previous years. Now joined by young stars Helvijs ‘broky’ Saukants and Aurimas “Bymas’ Pipiras, who is temporarily taking over for another CS:GO legend in Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer, it’s interesting to see whether the team can finally conquer the world.

#4. Furia

Nationality: Brazilian
Real-life comparison: 2018–19 Boston Celtics

Kind of coming out of nowhere, the Brazilian team shocked everyone when they’ve recently won DreamHack Spring in North America. With young talents ready to take over at any moment, nobody expected them to be here, yet here they are. While they have veteran presence in Major runner-up Henrique “HEN1” Telles, the remaining squad of Andrei ‘arT’ Piovezan, Yuri “yuuurih” Santos, Vinicius “Vini” Figueiredo and superstar-in-the-making Kaike “KSCERATO” Cerato is a team to look out for.

#5. Astralis

Nationality: Danish
Real-life comparison: Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls

While they don’t quite have a player at the level of Michael Jordan, they are by far the best team to ever play the sport. Tactically, a better comparison would be perhaps the San Antonio Spurs or the Golden State Warriors, legacy-wise perhaps the New England Patriots would also be appropriate, but at the end of the day, they are a force beyond anything we’ve ever seen.

Now struggling with burnout, with their in-game leader Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander(think Quarterback or Point Guard) and clutch master Andreas “Xyp9x” Hojsleth (think Robert Horry) taking extended leaves of absence due to burnout. Now the core of Nicolai “device” Reedtz, Peter “dupreeh” Rasmussen and Emil “Magisk” Reif have to integrate new players Jakob “JUGi” Hansen and Patrick “es3tag” Hansen into the team if they want good results.

With rumours swirling around a conflict between players and management, it seems more and more like Astralis may just be in full Last Dance mode.

#6. Na’Vi

Nationalities: Russian, Ukrainian
Real-life comparison: 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers

While they have arguably the best player on the planet on their roster, this is a team that just doesn’t have enough to get over the hump. Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev is widely regarded as the greatest CS:GO player on the planet, and while he has solid support with the likes of Denis “electronic” Sharipov, Egor “flamie” Vasilyev, Ilya ‘Perfecto’ Zalutskiy, and Kiril “Boombl4” Mikhailov, it’s just never quite enough. Perhaps things will change in the future as they did for the Cavs, but for now, s1mple remains without a Major Championship.

#7. Team Liquid

Nationalities: American, Canadian
Real-life comparison: Minnesota Vikings

While for most of these teams, I used basketball as a reference, if only because it’s also a 5v5 sport and there are some stylistic relationships you can make between the two, this one isn’t about style. It’s about a curse. Team Liquid seems to be cursed with inexplicably failing to win important games. While recently they managed to snatch a few tournaments, their failures in Majors have become the stuff of legends, something Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski and Nick “nitro” Canella are all too aware of, being the veterans of the team. Now joined by Canadian superstars Keith “NAF” Markovic and Russell “Twistzz” Van Dulken as well as Major winner Jake “Stewie2k” Yip, they’re looking to finally take the next step in their journey.

#8. BIG

Nationalities: German, Turkish
Real-life comparison: Philadelphia 76ers

While their process wasn’t tanking for drafts, BIG are very much a process-based team. Created by now-manager Fatih “gob b” Dayik from the ground up, the German powerhouse had ups and downs before finally winning an international tournament last week. Focusing on players with potential along with sound tactics, it’s interesting to see where BIG go from here, especially with the emergence of superstar sniper Florian “syrsoN” Riosche as one of the most fun players to watch in the world. The rest of the team is lead by German veteran Johannes “tabseN” Wodarz and Turkish star Ismailcan “XANTARES” Dortkardes, along with supporting players Tizian “tiziaN” Feldbush and Nils “k1to” Gruhne, the future is bright, but nothing is guaranteed.

#9. Mousesports

Nationalities: Denmark, Netherlands, Turkey, Slovakia, Estonia
Real-life comparison: Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns

It’s hard not to love an athlete who makes the players around him better. That can be said about Steve Nash, and can also be said about Finn “karrigan” Andersen, a Danish in-game leader who has captained the likes of Astralis and FaZe, but never got to see Major glory. Joined by veteran Chris “chrisJ” De Jong (who is actually related to FC Cinncinati forward Siem De Jong) along with up-and-comers Ozgur “woxic” Eker, David “frozen” Cernanski and Robin “ropz” Kool, the team had a dominant end of 2019 and early 2020, but with the COVID pandemic limiting in-person tournaments, they have struggled to find their stride in an online environment.

#10. Vitality

Nationality: French
Real-life comparison: Milwaukee Bucks

If s1mple is LeBron James, then Mathieu “ZywOo” Herbaut is Giannis Antetokuompo. The young French sniper has been named the best player in the world in 2019 by HLTV.org, for good reason. Just like the Milwaukee Bucks, however, the team struggles to find playoff consistency, despite the presence of French legends Richard “shox” Papillon, Cedric “RpK” Guipouy and Dan “apEX” Madesclaire and young support player Kevin “misutaaa” Rabier. With big money coming from sponsors Red Bull, Renault, Orange and Adidas, the expectations for the French outfit must be high in 2020.

Time to Get On Board

That said, the Top 10 is only a small part of the CS:GO scene, with almost every country having their own local scenes and a massive Pro-Am type proving ground on FACEIT and ESEA platforms. Counter-Strike’s accessibility, combined with the amazing quality of its broadcasts is a great way to enter the world of professional gaming. If you’re interested to find out more, be sure to follow our Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook and check out the CS:GO category on Twitch.tv. You can also find much more CS:GO-related guide on our website, Skinwallet.com, and blog.

While traditional sports are slowly recovering from the pandemic, CS:GO has been going full speed ahead all through the spring and seems like it’s not stopping anytime soon. While the players may not be freak athletes, their hand-eye coordination and creative thinking are anything if not world-class.

This means that if you want to take your first steps into the wild world of esports, now might be a perfect time. Soo… What are you waiting for?

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