Nick J. March 28, 2020
On March 22, CSGO reached another milestone on its way up the charts, totaling 1,102,067 players in-game and breaking its previous record set just earlier that day by almost 15 thousand. So why is this happening now?
Eight full years after release, CSGO hit the million concurrent player mark for the first time on March 14. The first-person shooter has continued to gain players since. Even more exciting for Valve and the game's fans is how the graphs are shaping up.
Instead of tall, skinny peaks, the player count's grpah shows a even, upwards curve. In other words, instead of the explosive and unpredictable growth that is often difficult for games to sustain, Counter-Strike has started an expanded growth phase, one where the game steadily attracts new players over time and is less influenced by outside factors.
The coronavirus quarantines, for example, have likely contributed to CSGO's million-player week, but the charts show that Counter-Strike isn't a game people typically try once and then put away. That data is much easier to see from the game's monthly average player counts.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has actually been growing steadily since August 2019, well before the release of its Shattered Web Operation or the emergence of the coronavirus. Between July and August 2019, CSGO added 79,499 players or +13.7% over its January numbers.
This jump is the "Major peak," and fans see it every year. It coincides with one of the two yearly CSGO Majors, drawing players back into the game and exposing new viewers to its "easy to learn, hard to master" concepts.
StarLadder Berlin wasn't the most wild of CSGO's Majors, but its grand finals featured AVANGAR, a relatively unknown CIS team that drew in more new viewers from the region and converted them into players.
CSGO does something unusual as Valve waits patiently
Afterward, something strange happened. Normally player counts fall off drastically after the Major ends. In 2019 however, CSGO's player count stayed relatively steady. The Major ended on September 8 and Counter-Strike added an additional 64,000+ players in that month. From there, it could have gone one of two ways.
Luckily, CSGO's biggest problem became its best solution.
CSGO's constant tournament schedule has been criticized consistently for the strain it puts on players, but here it actually helped Counter-Strike hold its gains from the Berlin Major. After Berlin, several high-profile tournaments occurred in a row: ESL One New York, DreamHack Masters Malmo, StarSeries iLeague Season 8, IEM Beijing, ESL Pro League's Season 10 and its finals, ECS Season 8 and its finals, BLAST Pro Series' Global Final, and finally EPICENTER 2019.
After StarLadder, it was basically all CSGO, all the time. CSGO gained an additional 31,209 new players in October. The chart above shows that Counter-Strike doesn't just hit its post-Major high and crash like normal, but actually gained players.
That is strange in and of itself, but here's the even stranger part. Operation Shattered Web, Counter-Strike's first event in over two years, debuted on November 18. The player count barely changed. Most would think that Shattered Web helped CSGO get to where it got Sunday, and it did after a period of time.
Most would think that CSGO's long-awaited operation would have players flocking back to the game in droves. But no large increase during the first real month after release shows that something else had propped up Counter-Strike long enough for Shattered Web to take hold.
Operations have historically failed to entice players back to CSGO. You would have to go all the way back to 2015 and Operation Breakout to see an increase in players in the month after an operation release.
Valve seems to have waited strategically, following consumer trends and data, before releasing what the company itself called a "battle pass." It's a different format than prior operations and looks as though it will be the new standard going forward. Valve has even started to refer to operations as "seasonal" in the game's code, meaning that the next one shouldn't be too far away.
This time, Valve had another weapon in its arsenal: Perfect World.
Perfect World's skin advertisements might have had a big hand in CSGO growth
When Valve partnered with Perfect World in 2017 to release Counter-Strike: Global Offensive in China, many thought that China might finally get in on what all the hype was about. It didn't quite go that way. But over the past two years, patches and improvements to the game have brought in fans across the Chinese region.
Perfect World's marketing tactics are effective
There are signs that Perfect World's marketing is slightly more exploitative and focused than we would have believed. Over the past several months, Perfect World has run events designed to play to a fans want for skins by offering them free crates and the skins as affiliate rewards.
Perfect World started a blog by telling fans that now was the best time to purchase Shattered Web's exclusive crates, featuring ultra-rare and expensive skins like an AWP Gungeir.
By the end, the Chinese publisher is dangling the AWP in front of Counter-Strike's Chinese players, almost begging them to purchase a crate for their chance at a skin worth "20,000 yuan."
This isn't the first time that Perfect World has held these "Bring a Friend" events and offer the chance at skins to fans close to once a week, according to its official blog posts.
Combined with Valve's "wait and see" approach to content, it had and still has all the makings of a grand slam. Even if Counter-Strike had reached 800,000 monthly players and sustained it, Valve would've come out on top. With COVID-19 quarantines only somewhat effective in the world's hardest-hit areas, Counter-Strike could see more growth before it slows down.
That said, a season pass offering on the horizon and what might be a Source Engine 2 port rumored for this year, Valve's shooter might have more growing to do than we think.