17 years ago to the day the first beta of Counter-Strike (CS) was released. What could have just been another mod among many quickly eclipsed the game it was modifying and became a cultural phenomenon in gaming on a scale never before witnessed.
On the 19th of June, 1999, Counter-Strike beta 1 made its way into the world. Online gaming was still relatively small at the time, revolving largely around games like Quake, Quake 2 and Ultima Online. The Doom and Quake scenes had seen communities spring up around them which modified those games to create new games. Just as other developers could license the engine to create their own game, thus avoiding the strain of having to create entirely new technology, so fans were afforded some of those options, thanks to the generosity of the developers.
Half-life had been one of the most successful single-player games on the PC upon its release in 1998, itself using the Quake engine. As a result, masses of people owned Valve’s game and were thus able to play Counter-Strike for free, as the game was a modification (mod) and thus simply required one had installed Half-Life. This by-passed the purchase barrier that most games at the time possessed, where one had to be pursuaded, perhaps by marketing or word-of-mouth, to try the game. Instead, for owners of Half-Life Counter-Strike was essentially one of the first free-to-play games, in a roundabout way.
Counter-Strike spread rapidly around the internet by word-of-mouth, as people downloaded it and began playing with friends and upon servers which seemingly sprung up out of nowhere overnight. Games like Quake and Quake 2 had been massively popular, but not to this extent and more in line with a traditional marketing campaign leading into an official release of a to-be-purchased-at-the-stores game.
To play Counter-Strike, all one needed was Half-Life installed and to download the patches for the game and install them. Admittedly, that in itself posed an initial barrier, as most internet users were still on dial-up-modems and required hours to download the game. The hype surrounding Counter-Strike over the first 16 months of the betas made it very much the Overwatch of its day, as new users and veteran players poured into the player-base of this new title, which at the time was very much touted for its casual public server play.
Soon enough, it had dwarfed the likes of Quake with the amount of servers, players and noise surrounding the game. Quake III was released in December of 1999 and as it failed to hit the kind of critical mass of players that Counter-Strike was enjoying the industry began to get the first inklings of the kind of sea change which was occuring within online gaming.
A real esports game
The game was released as a stand-alone title by Valve, who had not created Counter-Strike but were in position to take ownership of it as a result of how their software development kit (SDK) terms and conditions worked, in November of 2000. The first Counter-Strike tournaments, in an esports sense, had only just begun to appear.
For the next two years or so the tournaent circuit which emerged was fairly consistent. The biggest names in the scene were the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) and the World Cyber Games (WCG). There were two big CPL events in North America each year, labelled “Summer” and “Winter”, focused in Dallas, Texas. Over in Europe, there would be a few CPL Europe events, run by a company called Turtle Entertainment, who have since gone on to become the Electronic Sports League (ESL).
That circuit and the slowly developing ecosystem of organisations around the best teams meant that Europeans competed at CPL Europe events, which had prize pools half as big as those in North America, and then those with enough sponsorship or who had won a qualifier event, which had travel expenses as a prize, would fly over the Atlantic to compete at the North American CPL Summer or Winter events.
For the first two to three years there was next-to-no travel in the opposite direction by North American teams, as they struggled to develop the level of organisation and business potential to obtain the necessary sponsorships. In that time-frame, the competition would become truly international, as teams from the likes of Brazil, Peru, Singapore and Japan competed at events, admittedly all failing to make any kind of impact at the time, though.
Each year there was a World Cyber Games held in the latter third of the year, with the event modelled on the Olympic concept. Leading up to the event, WCG out-sourced qualifiers to their Main Event to organisers in each country. Counter-Strike and numerous other games, depending on the country in question, would then have one representative team sent to the WCG itself. For the first three years, the event was held in Seoul, Korea, making qualification to the event practically as much of a prize for many Westerners as winning the hefty first place prize.
At the World Cyber Games, even more countries saw representation than at CPL events, so many eventually successful players from less highly rated CS countries got their starts at the WCG and competing domestically to be the team who qualified.
While Counter-Strike as a phenomenon within gaming was primarily centered around its first few years, as one might expect of such cultural snowballs, the competitive side of the game would run strong for more than a decade after the first beta had been released. From 2003 onwards, the international circuit began to be expanded, most notably with the arrival of the Esports World Cup (ESWC) in France. This event held its big games in a cinema style theatre setting and combined the qualification approach of the WCG with the focus upon being the best tournament of the CPL.
Winning CPL Summer or Winter was still the primary focus of most teams, as it essentially crowned one the unofficial world champion in the community, but the four majors (ESWC, CPL Summer, WCG and CPL Winter) were set for the next few years. The hierarchy of majors would be upset a little in 2005, as the CPL made a misstep by deciding to drop Counter-Strike for Counter-Strike: Source, its sequel, and scheduling their event to run parallel with ESWC. Top teams opted to attend the latter event and the former, even after hastily adding CS 1.6 to the bill again, saw one of its least impressive showings in history.
2006 might have been the year which saw the healthiest circuit in Counter-Strike, as there were events every single month without fail and spanning more countries than even. China alone boasted a handful of events which saw attendance from the best Western teams as well as domestic talent. By now, the world of competition had expanded too, as teams from previously insigificance Counter-Strike countries like Brazil, Poland, South Korea and China had begun to find success upon the biggest stages and both compete with and beat the main-stay elite countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany and the United States of America.
From 2007 to 2011, the circuit slowed down a little in terms of sheer number of tournaments, but continued to see a large circuit and most top international teams with the sponsorship necessary to attend and compete on a regular basis. Where the early 2000s might have seen a great team limited by qualifiers or distance, now only greatness within the server dictated whether a team became champions or not.
As if to highlight that principle in action, the best team in the world early in 2006 was the Chinese wNv, the Polish Pentagram team which rose up the same year went on to win more majors than can be counted on one hand, South Korea’s eSTRO finished top three at all three majors in 2008 and in 2010 Ukraine’s Natus Vincere won all of the majors and broke the yearly record for prize money won.
2012 was the last year of real competition, with the last truly huge international event being the IEM VI World Championship in March. Beyond that, the game was dropped from ESL’s IEM product and other tournament organisers began to follow suit, with it being largely Dreamhack who flew the flag of 1.6 until the end of the year.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive was released in August of 2012, but saw a muted response both in terms of player base and the number of tournaments which welcomed it in. Most events were hovering around the level of being comparable to tier two or three events in 1.6 from years prior, both in terms of scale and amount of prize money on offer, and were almost entirely located within Europe, in contrast to the wide-spread circuit of 1.6.
Not only did the player base of CS 1.6 not embrace the new title, but most of the professionals of the previous game either did not make the jump or lasted only a few months before deciding the Counter-Strike adventure of their lives had come to an end.
Counter-Strike on TV
In 2006, a News Corp cable television channel called DirecTV had run a four team tournament called the Championship Gaming Invitational (CGI) as a trial run to see how Counter-Strike would look if broadcast on television. At the end of 2006, the Championship Gaming Series (CGS) was announced. The tournament would feature regional franchises which had teams in numerous games. While the CGI had a Counter-Strike 1.6 competition, CGS was announced with Counter-Strike: Source as the varient of CS, largely due to Valve not wanting to grant a license for the older game in the franchise.
While CGS saw the majority of the North American 1.6 talent, both in terms of players and organisations, jumping over to compete in CS:S, the vast majority of European professional remained in 1.6. That proved to be the better choice, as CGS offered high salaries and treated players lavishly, spending a reported 45 million dollars over its two seasons, but was seemingly doomed to failure from the start.
The Counter-Strike component of the competition was a microcosm of the larger failures with the organisation of the tournament. Not only was the game CS:S, a far less popular game at the esports level than 1.6, but the ruleset was modified for television so that teams only played maxrounds9, as opposed to the maxrounds 15 which had been standard for more than three years, and teams began with a full $16,000, doing away with the traditional pistol round.
Even the scoring system was an abomination of Counter-Strike, as each round won counted towards the franchise total, which also comprised points scored in other game titles played, so the best CS:S team could win their match but their franchise could lose due to the performance of players in sports titles, driving games and fighting games. As if to show the level of incompetence DirecTV brought to the table, CS matches were largely shown in a third person POV as opposed to the traditional first person.
CGS had come and gone within two years, burning through their budget and failing to get the kind of ratings which would justify its existence. The North American players and teams who chose to continue competing came back to 1.6 competition and the circuit which had continued.
CS:GO as a game only began to pick up speed and legitimise itself as an esports title in the latter part of 2013, as the major system was announced and the skin economy was added. The option to bet skins lured many a casual player into following the competitive scene, to have someone to bet on and more insight into who they should place their wager on. With the skin economy fully flowing, the majors were very much the explosion of that cache of gun powder, as the games player base and viewing figures exploded over the following year.
Perhaps most notable about the CS:GO era of Counter-Strike has been the rapid rise in production values and the almost exclusive domain of Video On Demand (VOD). The former is significant in as much as the first few years of CS competition saw viewers having to connect to HLTV servers to watch the game from within the client, with audio commentary arriving eventually, but having to be played via a sound application and synched up with the action.
The first video streaming platforms began to appear around 2005, notably with the World Esports Games and the octoshape plug-in, but success of these platforms was not as widespread until years later. Given the option, as they often were, fans still chose to simply join HLTV over streaming the games. ESL was one of the first leagues to find success with a large tournament circuit and an exclusive broadcast approach, via ESL-TV, to shifting the viewer base.
By the latter days of the game, streaming and commentary were staples of all the big tournaments, with Joe Miller well established as the voice of the game. In CS:GO, the smaller scale of the game, in terms of success and reach, meant a step down initially, though streaming technology continued to advance. With the arrival of the first majors, CS rose back up to eclipse its peak in 1.6 in this respect.
Commentators like Anders and Semmler are as well known in CS:GO as some of the biggest marque player names. Majors now boast first place prizes of $500,000, a figure which is around double the total prize pool of a major event back in 2002 and players earn individual salaries which, in many cases, could have been the payroll for an entire elite team in 2010. Oh and Counter-Strike found its way back to television again, this time shown in its original format, perspective and with the top casting talent in tow.
These 17 years have been a long and winding road, but Counter-Strike prevails.
Photo credit: Dreamhack, gettyimages, SK