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Game Changers: The Explosion of CS:GO

With origins tracing back further than almost every [active] esport today, Counter-Strike remains one of the most celebrated and elite titles in the space; originating in 1999, Valve’s first-person shooter has truly withstood the test of time - however, prior to Counter-Strike achieving esports stardom, there was once an impenetrable divide within its competitive panorama. Long before Counter-Strike had the means of selling-out stadiums, the title garnered a fiercely competitive community of its own within grassroots LAN gatherings surrounding the first iteration of the game, 1.6. Spawning as a mod from Valve’s Half-Life, a pair of designers and programmers went on to create what was known as Counter-Strike, using the game’s engine as a foundation. The mod’s popularity skyrocketed immediately, and it wasn’t long before Valve recognized this and sought to acquire Counter-Strike’s intellectual property as well as the duo that developed it. image4-300x169.jpg Under Valve’s direction, Counter-Strike saw a series of patches and updates to help refine the game and support its development. One update was called “1.6”, the version in which the original game came to be known so as to distinguish itself from later models. At its core, Counter-Strike is an uncomplicated game to pick up; mechanically, the point-and-click shooter makes it relatively easy for beginners to get started while the overarching nature and objective of the game is simple - attack or defend the bombsite. This low barrier of entry coupled with what would be discovered as the game’s seemingly infinite skill-ceiling made Counter-Strike a recipe for success and the choice competitive shooter across a broad population. The Half-Life mod embodied the idea of a competitive title that was easy to pick up, but difficult to master. CS 1.6 had established a thriving competitive scene when professional gaming began to come up in conversation but still well before the term ‘esports’ was a household name. The first iteration of Counter-Strike fielded legendary teams still playing today such as Ninjas in Pyjamas and SK Gaming (rebranded to MIBR). image5-300x200.jpg In keeping up with developing games and technology, Valve partnered-up with Electronic Arts (EA) in 2004 to create an entirely new game based off the Source Engine - cleverly named, Counter-Strike: Source. While Source was a newer and more professionally built game, it’s success was offset by the inherent split between competitors who enjoyed one title more than the other. “Different engines, different feel to the game.” Ex-professional American Counter-Strike player, Erik “da bears” Stromberg, put it simply. Stromberg, having been an integral component of the competitive 1.6 movement since its adolescent stages, helped explain how Source failed to resonate with the collective whom had fostered its success. “Source was always considered an easier game than 1.6 - easier headshots, this turned away a lot of players who preferred a harder game,” Stromberg says. All in all, while both 1.6 and Source had separate, blooming esports divisions, it seemed to boil down to preference for those competitors as the disparate engines made for mechanically and fundamentally different games. We reached out to Sudhen “Bleh” Wahengbam, commentator and analyst with a weighty specialization in the Asian/Indian Counter-Strike space who explained Source’s failure to ‘live up to the hype’ was perhaps more than preference. “Well, firstly Source was just an inferior game compared to 1.6 and was too buggy. Secondly, it came out at a time where 1.6 was still the undisputed king.” csgo-04-300x169.jpg With one franchise and two profoundly split communities beneath them, Valve had aimed to find a solution that could unify both camps as the decade rounded out; this decision led to the creation of the newest Counter-Strike project being handed over to American game developers, Hidden Path. Communities stood behind their respective games (1.6 and Source) as if they were religions - therefore, the logical approach to building out Counter-Strike’s next instalment was to have it be the best of both worlds. Identifying the appropriate blend between the two was an exasperating and tedious task for developers though, one that was intensified by the vastly different engines. Physics, movement and weapon spray patterns were all apart of this ongoing conversation, one the Hidden Path CEO, Jeff Pobst, intended to mirror. "So we created unified systems for movement, for weapons, for jumping and physics. And then we went back in those unified systems, put in all the data to try and make it be just like 1.6. When we got that we said, 'OK, that’s pretty good. Now let’s try and make it just like Source'. We did that." Counter-Strike: Global Offensive made its debut in 2012, however, the finely-crafted product was met with a muffled response, far from what Valve was hoping for. “Most people just looked at it like an inferior version of 1.6,” Sudhen said. “CS:GO was abysmal when it first came out.” While Global Offensive failed to attract either party, the crux of its proliferation during this defining period was its publisher and developer support - an asset Valve had previously disassociated themselves from. With Valve in talks with professionals from 1.6 and Source during the further development of Global Offensive, it became clear that players loathed the divide in Counter-Strike - despite commitment to their preferred version, they aspired for there to be one. image1-300x169.jpg This continuous push towards refining Global Offensive to create the ultimate competitive title would be a long, strenuous process in finding the right combination; the developer’s open ears to community feedback, however, would help achieve what would become the primary competitive title and eventually bring both groups together. Through many patches, updates and refinement led by the community, Global Offensive had managed to find that sweet spot. ESL One: Katowice, the first Major of 2015, was a monumental year for CS:GO and arguably the point in which the title had cemented itself as the leading first-person shooter in esports. Following ESL One: Cologne in 2014, the Katowice Finals had sparked a 150% increase in viewership, boasting over 850,000 spectators on Twitch; the event was groundbreaking and enlisted a new wave of investors, organisations and leagues with towering prize pools into the Counter-Strike landscape. Counter-Strike remains a top-tier esport today, often included in what is known as the “big three” (League of Legends, Dota 2 and CS:GO) and showing no signs of slipping up. While its prosperity seemed to be a truly organic and communal effort from players, publishers and developers, Sudhen reminds us that we should give a well-deserved nod to 1.6 - the iteration that started it all, fueled solely by the community. “It's a testament to how damn good 1.6 was that it lasted as long as it did with no support or love from Valve.”