By Alec Moylan
November 22, 2018
Is CS:GO dying? It’s a simple question with a complex answer. First, we need to define what it means for a game to die.
I think you’ll agree when I say that most video games are “dead.” People stop playing, developers stop supporting modern systems, and servers shut down. Remember Battleborn, the big competitor to Overwatch? It sees 19 players per month.
Video games die due to a lack of relevance. In other words, only one question matters: are people still playing and watching enough to warrant the developer’s attention?
It gets tricky when people say a video game is “dying” when it has hundreds of thousands of players each month. While there’s no agreed upon definition, a “dying game” is a title that’s endangered and at risk of losing the majority of its players and viewing audience.
Many point to a rapid decline in peak player count over the past year as evidence that CS:GO is dying. However, its average player count has remained relatively steady over the past two years and is still one of the most played games on PC.
Whether CS:GO is dying is not a simple thing to explain. I think it would be helpful to look at it from two perspectives: the pessimist and the optimist.
Pessimists say you’re either getting better or worse; they claim there’s no middle ground. If that’s true, then CS:GO has been on a downward trend for a while.
Proof of CS:GO’s struggles are in its peak player numbers. The peak player numbers normally fluctuate between 600,000 – 800,000 players a month but in 2018, CS:GO has largely missed the mark.
This year, CS:GO has sunk below a peak of 600,000 players for seven consecutive months. To compare, CS:GO only fell below that mark four times between 2016-2017. It’s clear that players are leaving and aren’t coming back. That raises a massive question. What could possibly be causing the decline of this flagship esport?
Despite an increase in competition, CS:GO’s biggest problems are internal. Missteps by Valve, the game’s developer, have angered both casual and competitive players. If nothing is done, it’s only a matter of time before players, both casual and competitive, turn their backs on CS:GO.
When Valve made it possible to trade skins and items, CS:GO entered uncharted territory. Valve essentially created a micro-economy centered on the collection of rare items. While it’s been largely successful, it has allowed for shady practices.
It wasn’t long before illegal gambling and scamming invaded CS:GO, causing major problems. Most agreed that something had to be done, but for a while, it went unchecked.
Finally, Valve had enough. In 2018, they implemented new trade limitations including a 7-day cooldown period on all trades. The cooldown period is widely disliked because many players believe it discourages people from trading in fear of value fluctuations they can’t immediately react to.
In fact, the introduction of new trade limitations coincided with the worst period in CS:GO history. In a 3-month span (March–May 2018), CS:GO lost more than 30% of its peak player base and dropped below 300,000 average players for the first time since 2015.
Many in the CS:GO trade community have “cashed out” — sold their skins for real money — and completely emptied their backpacks. People are so outraged that a petition to revert the rules back to the way they were received nearly 160,000 signatures. To put that in perspective, that’s about half of the average player count (325,907) for the month of October 2018.
The trade community makes up one of the biggest and most tightly-knit groups in CS:GO. If Valve makes it harder to trade, they lose the support of their most dedicated fans.
If you don’t play CS:GO, it’s easy to forget how old it is compared to its competitors. Released back in 2012, CS:GO still operates using slow, outdated technology and is a major source of frustration for its players.
Players have complained about the servers (which are notoriously laggy and susceptible to hacking) for years. CS:GO’s 64 tick servers are ancient compared to those in other games. It’s gotten so bad that many players are forced to use third-party sites for more reliable connections. Considering how old the game is, you’d think Valve would at least update the systems to meet today’s standards.
Keeping up with today’s standards has been a reoccurring issue with Valve. While other games are continuously churning out new content for their player, CS:GO players are starving.
The release of updates and Operations (purchasable DLC containing new maps, weapons, missions, and achievements) has seen a massive drop off in recent years. Operations tend to generate a lot of buzz, bringing people back to CS:GO, but Valve is only averaging about one a year.
Players have the right to feel that Valve is neglecting them. Other games (even Valve’s own Dota 2) are doing a much better job at addressing issues, providing new content, and listening to their community. CS:GO has gotten by on its legacy, but if it fails to adapt, that good faith will eventually run out.
Did you know that before football, baseball was referred to as “America’s Game”? For 100 years, baseball was the most popular sport in the country, but football translated better to television and eventually overtook baseball as the country’s favorite sport.
Today, according to the Gallup Poll, baseball ranks third, only 2% ahead of soccer as America’s favorite sport. Yet, no one would say baseball is dying. It simply peaked, and I believe a similar argument can be made for CS:GO.
The video game industry is often a revolving door, but the Counter-Strike series has been a pillar of esports for almost twenty years. There are CS:GO pros who weren’t born when the original game came out. CS:GO’s strong relationship with esports is the most convincing argument for its longevity.
Beloved for its straightforward mechanics and emphasis on teamwork, CS:GO’s simplistic formula has made it a favorite in competitions. In fact, CS:GO has the most pro players of any game in esports.
One of the main reasons CS:GO attracts so many big-time players is because of its large prize pools. CS:GO is currently the second most lucrative esport behind Valve’s other mainstay, Dota 2.
But what about the numbers showing a decline in CS:GO’s player base? Doesn’t that affect its standing in esports?
As turns out, CS:GO is more popular than ever because of its evolution in esports. The rise of professional esports has caused many to stop playing CS:GO but remain loyal spectators.
CS:GO is the 2nd most watched game on Twitch and Youtube in 2018 with over 212 million hours consumed. Does that sound like a dying game?
Honestly, it’s difficult to tell what the future holds for CS:GO. A pessimist would say that players, not viewers, are the foundation of the game, and if the player base shrinks any more, it won’t survive.
On the other hand, an optimist would say the game is doing better than ever. How could a game that’s in the top five of both popularity and viewership be dying? CS:GO no longer dominates esports, but it’s entrenched in the industry. Maybe, just maybe, we’re witnessing the beginning of the end, but I’d be skeptical of anyone who says they can hear the death rattle.