Photo courtesy of Valve Corporation.
Why did that Ninja build a castle during a gunfight? Who turned that monkey into a block of ice? What even is a Kircheis Shard, anyway?
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive doesn’t have that problem, though. CS:GO is two teams armed with guns, going after one another. It’s one of the most accessible games in esports and that fact has helped it grow into one of the cornerstones of the industry.
But while the game itself is easy to digest, there is a lot to take in when it comes to the CS:GO pro scene, its teams, its players and its tournament structures.
With that in mind, it’s worth taking a deep dive into the game to discuss what it is, who its most influential figures are and how you should approach it as a new fan.
At a quick glance, CS:GO looks like like any other first-person shooter out there.
That’s justified on some level, of course. The casual experience has all the standard game modes that can be found in a Call of Duty or Rainbow Six, ranging from run and gun death matches to “level up your weapon by getting kills before ending the game with a backstab” wackiness.
At the professional level, however, CS:GO is very unique due to its one of a kind game mode, Bomb Defusal.
In Bomb Defusal the two teams, terrorists and counter-terrorists, spawn on opposite ends of the map. The Terrorists are tasked with planting a bomb in one of two designated areas while the Counter-Terrorists need to prevent it from detonating. After the bomb is planted, it has a 40-second window before exploding where the Counter-Terrorist team can defuse it. If the bomb goes off or Counter-Terrorist side is exterminated, the Terrorist side wins. If the Counter-Terrorists defuse a planted bomb or prevent the bomb from being planted within the time limit, the Counter-Terrorists win.
Each set has 30 rounds, with the competing teams switching sides after 15. The first to 16 rounds gets the victory, with overtime in pro games being decided in six-game blocks with teams playing three games on either side. For non-professionals, a set that ends 15-15 is scored as a draw.
It isn’t just the bomb that sets CS:GO apart from other FPS esports, though. In addition to those unique win conditions, the game has a deep economic system that influences how a set can play out.
Players do not simply spawn with their favorite guns in Bomb Defusal. Instead, everyone receives money at the start of a round that they need to ration as things progress. Extra cash can be earned in a variety of ways including getting kills and securing objectives, but winning rounds gives the biggest windfall by far. That makes for huge momentum swings over the course of a series as teams can quickly go from fully loaded to wielding just pistols within just a few rounds, only to climb their way back to better gear.
That extra layer of strategy, coupled with the frequent opportunities for clutch performances, makes CS:GO a particularly entertaining esport.
Esports as a whole is a volatile industry. CS:GO takes it to another level. And CS:GO teams? Well, that’s like trying to find stability in a pool of quicksand.
Indeed, despite having one of the most mature player bases and the continued investment of almost every major esports organization, CS:GO generally struggles to have even a basic level of continuity in its teams. At any moment, an organization can go from collecting trophies and paychecks at huge tournaments to struggling to field a roster at minors.
That said, certain organizations have managed to weather that storm and while few have been able to maintain a level of legitimate dominance over a prolonged period of time, several have managed to enjoy high-level status for years on end.
Fnatic, for example, enjoyed one of the greatest runs in recent esports history from 2013 to 2015. Its loaded roster led by Robin “flusha” Rönnquist made it to the grand finals of four Majors, taking the championship in three. The team was rocked in 2016 when three of its players left for the newly formed Godsent team but it managed to rebuild in the following months. While it isn’t the powerhouse it used to be at this point, Fnatic still stands as a world-class team and a regular contender at bigger tournaments.
Though Fnatic was the dynasty from 2013 until 2016, Astralis was the team that picked up in their stead. The all-Danish squad that split off from Team SoloMid in 2015 has enjoyed a fairly steady roster in the years since, and that has been made easy given how consistent its success has been. The team posted a number of solid performances in 2016 before truly breaking out during ELEAGUE season 2. From there, it took the top prize at the ELEAGUE Atlanta Major and never looked back. Though the team hasn’t won any Valve-recognized Majors since then, it has raked in a slew of six-figure checks and filled its mantle with trophies from events around the globe.
Side-by-side with Astralis’ rise came the breakthrough of SK Gaming. Founded in 1997 in Germany as a clan in Quake, it transformed into an esports organization and eventually began sponsoring players in the original Counter-Strike. With time, it transitioned to CS:GO and became a staple of the South American scene, touting a formidable Brazilian roster.
In 2016 the team hit its stride in full, establishing itself as an elite contender at ESL One: Cologne 2016 by taking first-place. The team only sped up from there, however, posting a ludicrously good 2017 that saw it break a number of records for prize money in the game.
The wheels came off to a degree in 2018, but some major roster acquisitions seemingly righted the ship. In June, however, SK Gaming fans were left stunned when its roster departed for the rebooted Made In Brazil (MIBR) organization. Does SK Gaming have a future in CS:GO? Will the ex-SK Gaming team be able to return to form under this new banner? That remains to be seen and, unfortunately, there’s nothing really protecting any other team from this exact situation.
As with any team sport (or esport), there is a lot of room for nuance when it comes to picking out the best players at any given time. Like Lebron James’ first run with the Cleveland Cavaliers, a world-class player can be dragged down by flimsy teammates. Similarly, the esports equivalent of Terry Bradshaw can be carried to multiple championships with the right people around him.
But of course, everyone still knew that Lebron was an all-time great talent before he left for the Miami Heat and everyone knew that Bradshaw was a ho-hum quarterback even with a fistful of rings. CS:GO is no different.
From a prize pool perspective, Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo stands as one of, if not the, winningest players of all time. The Brazilian AWPer has found regular success during his career, helping to establish Luminosity Gaming as a force in 2015 and then bringing his talents to the aforementioned 2017 SK Gaming. He remains a top talent today with MIBR and could be poised to hold onto his place at the top for a long while.
From a championships perspective, few can match the accomplishments of Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer Gustafsson. Arguably the top star on the Fnatic dynasty from 2014 to 2017, he collected a lifetime’s worth of trophies with the team before moving to FaZe Clan. Though many wondered why he would leave after such a successful run, the reasons became obvious as FaZe immediately began taking first-place finishes at LAN tournaments and just never slowed down.
When one looks at pure technique, the best in the business today might be Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev. Initially a journeyman of the European circuit, he established himself as a legitimate talent with Team Liquid in 2016 by helping the team claim second-place at the ESL One: Cologne 2016 Major. He found himself a more permanent home later that year with Natus Vincere and has thrived under that banner, earning a reputation as one of the world’s best AWPers and helping to reestablish the organization as one of CS:GO’s best.
Of course, nobody rises to the top on their own in CS:GO and these players are all surrounded by exceptional, possibly comparable talent.
CS:GO is unique from other esports in terms of how its competitive calendar is structured.
While most games have a relatively defined season or a Super Bowl-like event that all teams strive to be a part of, CS:GO has an almost constant cycle of big tournaments worth paying attention to. There are three different leagues, frequent tournaments from all the major organizers and plenty of smaller events that have something unique or interesting to offer.
A strong case can be made that there is, quite simply, too much quality CS:GO to follow. Thankfully though, there is a fairly straightforward hierarchy to CS:GO tournaments that makes it easy to parse which ones are most deserving of your time.
At the top is the biannual Valve Major tournaments. Hosted by a different prominent organizer each time and sponsored by the publisher behind CS:GO, these shows tend to be the biggest and best on the calendar, featuring the largest prize pools, the most formidable teams, and the highest production values.
After that is a slew of other large events.
The finals to the various regular leagues that inhabit CS:GO (more on them later) hold a special place on the calendar, given the high stakes and consistently high-level action to be found. There are typically between five to seven of these events annually, making them rare enough to be appointment viewing and just frequent enough to not tune out on.
ELEAGUE events, meanwhile, stand out from the rest. The Turner and WME-IMG-owned outfit turned heads by bringing regular esports content to North American televisions in 2016, rolling out as one of the premier leagues in the game. Though it has dropped its league in recent years, it remains active in the CS:GO scene by holding a few events each year.
Finally, ESL’s Intel Extreme Masters tournament tour is a CS:GO institution, bringing the pro scene around the world in a way no other organizer has. Though IEM events aren’t the biggest, you can count on ESL to provide a solid experience, whether seen at home or in person.
The bread and butter of the CS:GO competitive scene is its league play and there are three noteworthy leagues operating at the moment; the ESL Pro League, FACEIT’s Esports Championship Series and StarLadder’s StarSeries i-League.
All three follow the same general format, starting with an intraregional round robin “season” that lasts four to eight weeks. The top performers therein earn spots in a LAN tournament that will crown a champion.
ESL Pro League is the largest of the three, featuring four regions and the largest prize pool of the lot. ECS has a similar prize pool, but only features two regions while StarLadder features three but has the lowest payouts by a considerable margin.
That said, all three manage to consistently attract world-class talent. While you may not stay abreast of everything going on, these three can all be relied on to put on a good show.
Like most esports, the bulk of CS:GO action can be found on Twitch.tv.
On a 24/7 basis, something of interest can be found on the site, whether it’s pro players streaming their pub games, reruns of old events or analysts breaking down footage. Most importantly, the majority of tournament action can be found live on Twitch but unlike many other titles, a notable chunk needs to be found elsewhere.
As was previously discussed, ESL’s ESL One and ESL Pro League are some of the biggest events in the CS:GO scene and can be found on Facebook and the official ESL website. That said, ESL’s Intel Extreme Masters events can be found on Twitch.
ELEAGUE, meanwhile, has the bulk of its action live on Twitch but also airs some of its content on the cable television network TBS. Depending on the event, this may be aired live or via tape delay.
And of course, everything that takes place in CS:GO can be found in the actual game client and watched live, or downloaded and watched as replays. Though this requires you to watch at your PC rather than on-the-go over a mobile device, the game has strong spectator features that just might make it worth the inconvenience!