The impact of free-to-play on CSGO

By William Davis


Jun 6, 2021

Reading time: 3 min

What do the biggest esports titles including Fortnite, Dota 2, League of Legends, Counter-Strike, Rocket League, Rainbow Six Siege and more in common? 

You remembered the headline and cheated, didn’t you? Well, correct. They are all free-to-play games with gigantic audiences, likely in part due to their lowered barrier of entry due to not having a buy-in. Allowing gamers around the world to dip their toes in without committing fully, it follows that many more players will stick around. 

Systems like microtransactions and, in CSGO’s case, even an entire cosmetic economy has largely taken care of developers’ monetization concerns. Once the system had proven itself, it allowed scenes to balloon to unheard-of sizes, giving even niche groups like modders or esports enthusiasts enough audience volume to build industries around. 

More players means more markets, laying a new path for gaming in the 2010s. In 2021, very few major esports titles have been able to accrue a meaningful audience while maintaining a pay-to-play system, and looking at the trajectories of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Overwatch, it’s hard to argue that everything is going great with their paywalls. With the incredible success of Warzone as a free-to-play title, the company has signalled that it’s ready to consider more entry-free options. Free-to-play seems to be the inevitable choice of monetization for games looking to create sustainable esports. 

While revolutionary in many ways, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive didn’t immediately follow the trend and was rather a late adopter of the free-to-play ways, not opening the doors until 2018. The CSGO news of free-to-play implementation felt like an attempt to breathe wind into the CSGO’s sails. 

Making sure it does more good than harm 

Unfortunately, transitioning to a free-to-play model doesn’t guarantee that players will pour into the servers. The perennial issue is not everyone respects the rules, and in 2021 players have to deal with an onslaught of cheat providers and their customers who are easily empowered by free-to-play. With a free game comes the possibility of creating an infinite number of accounts that allow cheaters to duck bans. 

In order to allow for a fun experience while also providing value to those customers who had initially bought the game, Valve opted for a wider solution, introducing Prime status. The feature allowed access to a special ranked queue, only allowing players with verified telephone numbers and a paid-for account to participate in. While not flawless, Prime status put up another protective barrier against repeat cheating offenders, improving the quality of play.

Those outside of the Prime status could still access the vast majority of CSGO’s features. New players were given the full experience while dangling the possibility of entry into the perceived safe haven away from cheaters in front of their faces behind an XP threshhold. Moreover, CSGO’s battle royale mode Danger Zone provided an additional reason for players to give the game a try. 

Did free-to-play grow CSGO? 

Looking at the immediate numbers in the week of free-to-play release in early December 2018, an increase in peak player count of more than 35%, up 24% year over year, and an average player count of over 25%, up +16% year over year, can likely at least in part be attributed to the game going free-to-play. 

Noticeably, the following summer in 2019 didn’t show the same significant summer dip in the player count that 2018 had shown, with a difference of local minima of a whopping 200,000 players, seemingly saving CSGO from a rough summer. 2020 was an excellent year for the game as well but unfortunately, it’s difficult to tell what to make of the numbers due to how many outside factors were in play. 

While a conversion of active players to esports viewers appears plausible, the data available is relatively inconclusive. 

Nevertheless, based on the numbers available, it looks like Valve made a good call by making CSGO free to play. Counter-Strike is likely set up for more fruitful years in the upper echelons of gaming.