The mods that made Esports: Counter-Strike

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then you should feel proud if someone mods your game.

A ‘mod’ is whatever is made whenever a game is modified to make custom levels or characters. Sometimes, mods would even go on to become their own games or even establish an entirely new genre. These mods would then go on to be very close to the heart of the esports industry.

In the first part of this series, we take a brief look at one of the earliest and most successful mods of all time, Counter-Strike (CS).

The story of CS starts off with Half-Life, one of the best video games of all time. Critically acclaimed for its revolutionary graphics (for its time), realistic gameplay, and compelling narrative. Upon the release of Half-Life in 1998, its publisher, Valve Corporation, also released a level-design tool used to design the game alongside its software. Valve followed it up by releasing a software development kit, which gave rise to the first of many multiplayer mods that would go on to be their own games, namely Team Fortress, Day of Defeat, and, of course, Counter-Strike.

Half-Life gameplay, from which CS was largely based. Image courtesy of Valve Corporation.

It was in the following year that Canadian programmer Minh “Gooseman” Le released the first beta version of CS, which just had 4 maps, 9 weapons, and only one game-mode back then was centered on rescuing hostages, not the iconic bomb crisis deathmatch mode mostly played in modern CS.

After another year of beta updates to the mod, with 7 versions incrementally adding features that not only improved gameplay but also became some of the game’s iconic emblems, Valve acquired the rights to CS and published its retail version of the game. The game was only playable on LAN, however.

In 2002, the game was updated to version 1.5, which introduced Valve Anti-Cheat (VAC) to prevent hackers and cheaters from ruining matches, as well as one of the game’s most popular and iconic maps, de_dust 2. Version 1.6 followed a year later, which added the option to equip tactical shields, sniper rifles with functioning crosshairs, and several backend improvements. CS 1.6 would end up as one of the most beloved iterations of the game, even after a slew of updates in the years that followed.

CS 1.6 gameplay. Image courtesy of Valve Corporation.

2004 saw two new versions of CS come out, Counter-Strike: Condition Zero in March and Counter-Strike: Source in November. Condition Zero was developed by Turtle Rock Studios alongside Valve and featured both singleplayer campaign and multiplayer modes, but was poorly received. A few months later, Valve came out with Source, the publisher’s first-ever publicly released game on its new ‘Source’ engine. While Source vastly improved on the original game’s graphics and other gameplay features, the CS community still vastly preferred the 1.6 version over both of the 2004 releases.

Around this time, the CS competitive scene was largely localized among a few hotspots around the world, with in-house leagues being the most common forms of competition. At the time, CS was viewed as inferior to other popular shooters of the time, like Battlefield and Call of Duty. It would take almost a decade for CS to fully mature into a true esports title.

That time came when Valve finally released the series’ much-anticipated sequel, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO).

Image courtesy of Valve Corporation.

Aside from a massive graphics and user interface overhaul, the game still retained the core gameplay elements of the original, and was an instant hit. With the addition of a new matchmaking system, CS:GO made it much easier for players to not only have organized matches with friends, but more importantly, it would jumpstart the game’s competitive scene.

CS:GO massively improved upon the graphics of older versions, but still retained the core mechanics of CS. Image courtesy of Valve Corporation.

CS:GO’s first tournaments and pro teams started organizing around 2013, with third-party sponsored tournaments like Eleague and ESL Pro League popping up with the first huge prize pools hitherto unseen in the game’s competitive history. Eleague tournaments would even go on to be broadcasted on primetime US television, signaling the scene’s surging growth.

Valve would even go on to sponsor its own set of competitions, with biannual ‘Majors’ that were treated as the biggest events in competitive CS every year.

In August of 2013, Valve released the ‘Arms Deal’ update, which proved to be what secured CS:GO not only as one of the most widely-popular and successful esports titles in the world, but also one of the most lucrative. The update introduced ‘skins’ to the game, cosmetic modifications for ingame weapons that could be obtained through gameplay or purchase, but more importantly, betting.

CS:GO skins. Image courtesy of Valve Corporation.

CS:GO skins started an entire economy within the game, not only were they bought and sold in Valve’s own Steam Community Market, players also started to use them for betting and gambling. With some skins reaching values of over thousands of dollars. The skin economy also came to support the teams and leagues of the game’s competitive scene, with fractions of purchase sales going directly to the players, teams, and leagues.

Eventually, the betting and gambling in the game’s skin economy got out of hand, and in 2016 Valve was forced to step in. Major betting and gambling platforms that were supposed to be shut down were then reopened under new brands and stricter legal policy.

Alongside a thriving in-game economy, CS:GO remains one of the world’s major esports titles, with millions of players around the world and hundreds of professional players, teams, and leagues.

All that from just a simple game mod.