A watershed moment: “Counter-Strike” industry leaders brace for the impact of “CS2”

A watershed moment: “Counter-Strike” industry leaders brace for the impact of “CS2”

For over a decade, “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” (“CS:GO”) has been one of the most popular esports titles in the world. This summer, it will be replaced by its highly-anticipated sequel, “CS2” — which could represent a much-needed shot in the arm for a beleaguered esports industry.

All of the major esports have suffered over the past year, following a decline in viewership growth and an exodus of investors and sponsors, and “Counter-Strike,” a first-person shooter game developed by Valve Corporation, is no exception. Fan interest in major “CS:GO” tournaments has declined by 10 percent since 2021, according to data shared with Digiday by GWI.

“This is, in my mind, what’s kind of forcing Valve’s hand,” said GWI trends manager Matt Smith.

The hype surrounding “CS2” has already led to an uptick in activity within and around “CS:GO,” and the game’s release this summer could help further rejuvenate the esports industry. To learn more about the effect of “CS2” on esports, Digiday spoke to representatives of some of the major stakeholders in the “Counter-Strike” ecosystem. Here’s what they had to say.

Valve has been extremely reticent about the release date of “CS2”

Nobody seems to know when exactly “CS2” is coming out, beyond Valve’s announcement that “CS2” would launch at some point in summer 2023. It’s unlikely to come out in the next few weeks, as the game is still undergoing a limited beta test — but leaders at esports leagues and organizations say they have been working with Valve to ensure that the transition goes smoothly, whenever the release happens. Notably, “CS2” will be released as a live update for all owners of “CS:GO,” unlike past “Counter-Strike” sequels, which shipped as entirely separate games.

Shaun Clark, senior director of game ecosystems for “CS:GO” at ESL FACEIT Group: “With this, it’s just a flick of the switch, and a new game just kind of consumes ‘CS:GO.’ In a world where they were to release the title at, say, the night before a competition, we would then be operating off a frozen build of ‘CS:GO.’ The new game would be public for everyone to play, but we’d just be operating off of frozen builds for the competition.”

Alban Dechelotte, CEO of G2 Esports: “The smooth-transition approach that Valve is offering us at least gives us a bit more time to anticipate this major shift. It’s a bit scary in the short term, but only positive in the long term.”

Ryan Friend, editor-in-chief of Dust2.us: “In a lot of ways, things are going to change, but also in a lot of ways, things won’t. It’s a forced update that was happening to the game, so you’re not buying a new version. It just becomes a bit unique in the sense that you can’t play ‘Global Offensive’ ever again. We’re at the last ‘CS:GO’ major, and that’s very neat — that’s a big storyline for media companies.”

Gameplay changes threaten to upend the competitive scene

“CS2” is fundamentally the same game as “CS:GO,” in that the basic objectives and terminology of the game remain largely unchanged. But it’s still a new title, and significant updates such as changes to the game’s smoke physics mean that the skills and strategies that propelled teams to success in “CS:GO” may simply not apply to its sequel. It’s a potential challenge that teams and league operators are taking seriously in the lead-up to “CS2.”

Clark: “Especially when you look at the fact that we’re running the very highest tier of competition, you can’t necessarily just instantly plug in a new game without risking the integrity of the sport. So that’s the number one thing that we’ve been looking at and talking about, and we’d be hoping to have a couple of weeks at minimum in the new title.”

Dechelotte: “It took us four years to assemble a team that wins trophies, and then the minute they do, they fucking launch a new game, so that’s a bit scary. But it’s positive, overall. Seeing Valve investing in a new version of ‘Counter-Strike,’ investing into new content, giving it a fresh look — it’s exciting. At the end of the day, if ‘Counter-Strike’ goes well, then esports will go well.”

The release of “CS2” is good news for the tertiary businesses in the “CS” ecosystem

In addition to the third-party league operators and esports organizations that work directly within the competitive “Counter-Strike” space, a multitude of other tertiary businesses, such as betting and online marketplaces for in-game items, have also arisen around the game. These businesses anticipate an influx of player activity following the release of “CS2,” and they stand to benefit significantly from this uptick in interest.

Valve itself has already profited from a significant increase in in-game item sales following the announcement of “CS2” in March 2023. (Valve representatives did not respond to requests for comment.)

Victor Goossens, CEO of Team Liquid: “You can see it from the current major that’s going on in Paris — the sticker revenues for Liquid are on a trajectory to be the highest sticker revenue for us of all time, for any major that we participated in. The digital item market has blown up in a positive way because of the announcement of ‘CS2,’ and Valve is smart with their digital economy, where stuff from ‘Counter-Strike’ is going to be ported to ‘CS2.’ Instead of everything losing its value, it’s building more excitement.”

Steven Salz, CEO of Rivalry: “I’m sure concurrent player accounts will spike up, and we expect we’ll see an additional increase in interest — and this almost always translates to increased betting activity. We think ‘CS2’ has a high probability of generating more betting action on Rivalry.”

John Fazio, CEO of Nerd Street Gamers: “We all talked about ‘Valorant’ being the killer of ‘CS,’ and yet ‘CS’ hit all-time highs, right? The truth is, the market is growing that fast. I don’t think ‘CS2’ is going to have the explosive new ‘Call of Duty’ factor, but it is good enough that anybody who plays ‘Counter-Strike’ is going to be like, ‘I can’t wait to get my update.’”

Timofey Sobolevsky, Chief Communications Officer at EX CORP: “From what we have already seen, the announcement of CS2 enormously boosted the audience’s interest in the game. According to StreamCharts, hundreds of thousands of people went on Twitch to see the new game tests. This interest means that there will be more players in the future for ecosystem services.”

The build-up to “CS2” is validating Valve’s esports business model

As stakeholders from around the “Counter-Strike” ecosystem gear up for “CS2,” it’s clear that everybody is excited, and that the impending release of “CS2” is roundly viewed as a positive development for competitive “Counter-Strike” and esports as a whole. At a time in which esports winter is mounting and industry observers have grown increasingly skeptical about the franchise model championed by Riot Games and Activision Blizzard, Valve’s more hands-off approach could be further validated in 2023. 

Dechelotte: “Counter-Strike is, right now, the most sustainable ecosystem in esports. And one big factor for me is that it’s a healthy combination between stability and good stories and the majors.”

Goossen: “If a publisher like Valve says, ‘We’re going to be very hands-off, but for the majors that are hosted by third parties, we’re going to provide all of you with digital item revenues’ — that works fantastically well for us. If the game has viewership, we know how to build the esports ecosystem.”

Friend: “They don’t create tournaments; they let other people do them, and it’s been working. So, from their perspective, they’re like, ‘Why would we ever need to do it? We’re creating jobs by letting other people handle it.’”

Fazio: “I think ‘CS2’ is going to be yet another validation of the model that Valve has chosen. I think it’ll be yet another slap in the face to Riot’s kind of poor managerial structure.”

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