With breakthrough tournament, ‘Counter-Strike’ finally returns to former glory

At 14 years old, the Counter-Strike franchise is certifiably ancient by eSports standards

Image via DreamHack/Facebook

At 14 years old, the Counter-Strike franchise is certifiably ancient by eSports standards. And yet, as 2013 comes to a close, the series is quietly returning to its old place as one of the biggest eSports on the planet thanks to its newest iteration: Global Offensive.

Over the weekend, a record-breaking 145,000 concurrent viewers tuned in to watch DreamHack Winter, an enormous Swedish tournament. Global Offensive stole the show—perhaps thanks to the $100,000 grand prize, the largest in the game’s history. The DreamHack audience was treated to see an upstart Fnatic team beat the legendary Ninjas in Pyjamas squad in a 2-1 upset that no one will soon forget. Soon afterwards, another record-breaking 93,000 concurrent players loaded up games in Global Offensive after the grand finals wrapped up.

After a year of middling numbers, Counter-Strike is suddenly booming. In player numbers, it’s finally besting the earlier versions of the game to become the definitive Counter-Strike title by a large margin. That’s no small feat. Purists who previously railed against new versions in the series are finally making the move to this title.

“There will also be diehards that never accept and move forward,” said Scott “SirScoots” Smith, co-host at this year’s DreamHack Winter. “Is it [version] 1.6? Nope. Different engine, different feel and even some game tweaks, but it is CS. Jump on the train, or get off the track, because you will get run over.”

 Stats via steamgraph.net

But if you take a look at the numbers, you’ll see that the old versions haven’t fallen off much at all in the last few months. Instead, Global Offensive is attracting totally new players by building an in-game experience that the old games never had: New maps, quality matchmaking, and fun weapon skins. All this helps catch the eye of younger gamers who, let’s face it, need a few bells and whistles to make a purchase.

“I do believe, just in general, there are millions more gamers than there were just a few years ago,” Smith said. “So, certainly new gamers are going to try this version and not an older one if they can.”

Over on Twitch, the world’s premiere video game streaming service, Global Offensive gained the most total minutes watched of any game, shooting up eight places to overtake rival shooters like Battlefield 4. Just above Counter-Strike in the overall November rankings is Call of Duty: Ghosts, the most recent installment in the hugely popular Activision series. In December, however, Counter-Strike is poised to take the lead.

After years of watching eSports leave first-person shooters behind, Counter-Strike is ready to carry the mantle once again.

From an eSports perspective, much of Global Offensive’s success can be credited to the superbly produced tournaments at DreamHack and the Electronic Sports League over the last month. These are easily the two best spectating experiences Global Offensive fans have ever had. A constant stream of great games were complemented by insightful analysis, big crowds, and perfect shots of players screaming in triumph and defeat, all of which brought audiences at home right into the action. A new bar has been set for the premiere tournaments as fan expectations are higher than ever.

At the game’s Reddit hub, /r/GlobalOffensive, pageviews have grown 800 percent over the last year.

Another factor in the game’s surging popularity is the success of Complexity, an American team that finished third this weekend at DreamHack. Despite historically fielding quality teams, the United States has struggled mightily to gain major international success in Global Offensive. With Complexity gaining victories over VeryGames and Astana Dragons—the number one and three ranked teams in the world by some measures—it stands to gain an entire nation of Counter-Strike fans hungry for international success.

In fact, the whole game stands to gain.

“Complexity having a good showing hopefully sends a message to all the other teams that CS is a viable investment on this side of the pond again,” Smith said. “The viewing numbers are something worth chasing for sure these days. Before that was not part of the possible return on investment back to a team.”

While Complexity rises, Ninjas in Pyjamas falters. The Swedish team, who won 17 gold medals over the last year, was once the prohibitive favorite to win every tournament it entered. Today, it faces serious challenges. In drama worthy of a World Cup, NiP lost in a 2-1 upset to fellow Swedes Fnatic in the grand finals. Unpredictable, high-level play like this is exactly what the game needs to attract even more fans.

There’s still more work to be done. Valve, the game’s famous developer, must continue to actively develop Global Offensive in a way that they’ve never done with any past Counter-Strike title. They must, for instance, quickly figure out how to stop the rash of cheaters that have accompanied the thousands of new players. They should also continue to support big prize pools and great tournaments year-round.

There’s no doubt that 2013 has turned into a great year for Counter-Strike. There’s a lot of work to be done to make sure 2014 is even better. But you can’t blame fans for seeing nothing but great promise just over the horizon.