The Enduring Success of CS: GO
How the competitive shooter continues to find players 6 years later
To say that Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CSGO) is a popular game would be an understatement. Its daily peak player count consistently reaches over 425,000 concurrent players, comfortably sustaining its spot as the third most active game on Steam (beaten only by PUBG and Valve’s own Dota 2, and three times more active than the fourth-most active — Payday 2). If SteamSpy’s estimate of 50 million units sold is accurate, it also holds the title of 5th best selling game of all time. CSGO is, in other words, a very big deal. And while it may be out-played or out-purchased by games looking to encroach on its turf, it’s important to remember one thing: it’s old.
CSGO was released in August of 2012, just a few short months before the world ended. It was a follow-up to the wildly successful Counter-Strike: Source, which itself enjoyed an extremely active audience for nearly a decade. In an era where new installments of the biggest game franchises are an annual affair, six years is a very long time. And yet, CSGO perseveres. While a game like Overwatch can boast similar concurrent player counts, it benefits from being four years younger. That CSGO continues to attract scores of players day in and day out for the better half of a decade is a testament to what it does right at its core. That is, it’s a game that values the competency of its mechanics above all else, and rewards mastery.
CSGO, like many of Valve’s titles, can be described as an unforgiving and highly technical game. Its steep learning curve is due to its many complex mechanics, and how they overlap to create unique and rewarding experiences. Mastering the recoil of each weapon type, counter-strafing, and mobile accuracy are integral to successful matches. These things are treated as significant components to the player’s toolkit, and their balancing is extremely important. All of this might sound like obvious or silly mentions, but you don’t have to look far to see games like Destiny 2 or the Battlefield series, where the balance of things like recoil and movement take a backseat to what looks coolest.
And this is what makes Counter-Strike stand out — it’s not focused on looking flashy or engaging in gratuitous power fantasies, but in giving players reliable tools that they can master and use to do incredible things. It’s through this philosophy that a game can be played a collective 20 billion hours and still surprise people. Pros can still learn from other pros by watching their streams and analyzing their strategies. CSGO teams are always looking for more players. Communities are built around training muscle memory and map strategies. Websites are dedicated to tracking player stats, and leveraging that to improve their game. And it’s because of Valve’s philosophy to put the mechanics first that its games can have such an enduring impact on the gaming community. It should be no surprise, then, that they’re often left competing with themselves for the gaming community’s attention.
Fortnite might be the breakout hit of the year, and it’s not hard to see the appeal. But while the spectacle and game show draw of the battle royale genre might be attracting viewers, it’s legitimate competition that brings us back. We might like to look or feel powerful for a month or so with a casual experience like Destiny 2 (which lost over 80% of its player-base within the first 90 days of release), but it’s eschewing cheap tricks that makes that feeling real. If those games are Candyland, CSGO is Chess. If Overwatch is Mega Bloks, CSGO is Lego.