From Sofas to Stadiums: How ‘Counter-Strike’ Became as Big as the NHL

Tom Regan

The year is 1998. Titanic has just won itself 11 (11!) Oscars, someone called Britney Spears is causing a bit of a stir, and amidst all this, a little-known game developer — Valve — is about to release its first ever game. Unfortunately for this Washington-based studio though, the world is barely paying attention.

For the last two years, PC gamers have been enraptured by 1996’s Quake, falling for id’s fully 3D, frenetically-paced fragfest. Valve’s project, however, couldn’t be more different. Rather than ramping up the speed and the gore, its odd-looking shooter toned down the mayhem, giving players a stunningly detailed and refreshingly cinematic world to explore. The name of this ambitious new FPS? Half-Life.

Thanks to its slow-paced cinematic intro and incredible attention to detail, Gordon Freeman’s debut went on to sell over nine million copies, laying the foundations for a new generation of immersive, interactive storytelling. Yet, in ’98 Half-Life‘s impact had only just begun to be felt.

Like pretty much everyone who played it, college kids Minh Lee and Jess Cliffe immediately fell in love with Half Life. Unlike most videogame-loving fratboys, however, they started messing around with Half-Life’s code in between classes. Their dream? To create a fun, realistic-feeling multiplayer mod for Half-Life. And in 1999, they achieved it.

Somehow, in under 12 months, these  two college buddies had transformed a sprawling sci-fi adventure into a complex team-based shooter. And Counter-Strike was born.

“Because I was having such a good time doing it, I was really motivated to continue working on it!”, reflects Counter-Strike co-creator Minh Le on his sleepless nights coding the game. Posting the first beta online for free, the duo expected a couple of hundred players at best. On launch day it attracted 8000 concurrent users. A week later: 12,000. A month later: 16,000.

2018’s Counter-Strike’s ‘Major series’ tournament saw over 1.2 million fans tuning in – making it just as popular as your average NHL game.

Fast forward to 2019, and it’s clear that Minh’s hard work has more than paid off. Counter-Strike is now a gaming juggernaut, boasting a player base of over 20 million. Yet, it’s not just its mammoth player count that makes Counter-Strike so special – it has somehow blossomed into a bonafide spectator sport, too.

In fact, Counter-Strike’s 2018 official ‘Major Championship’ final saw over 1.2 million fans tuning in from all over the world – making this annual esport event just as popular as your average NHL game.

Photo by Joe Brady.

From cafes to ballrooms

So, how did this bedroom-made mod become a stadium-filler? On the beta’s 20th anniversary, we spoke to some of the world’s biggest esports organizations to chart CS’ journey from niche shooter to esport phenomenon.

“The first ever esports tournaments were pretty much accidental,” explains Michele Attisani, co-founder of industry-leading esports platform Faceit, “Even with Quake back in the day — with the exception of John Carmack offering his Ferrari as a prize for one of the first esports tournaments– there wasn’t really a huge amount of support from publishers and developers in person. It was mostly driven by the community, by the fans.”

The first ever esports tournaments were pretty much accidental…

Before Counter-Strike, there was only really one competitive FPS on the scene – Quake. In the late 90s, walk into your nearest internet café (ask your dad) and you’d find rows of young men hunched over CRT monitors, rapidly unloading rockets into their foes sat opposite. Seeing CS’ suddenly become the cool new shooter on the block, Valve snapped up the rights to Counter-Strike in 2000, taking its first strides into the world of competitive gaming.

Counter-Strike was certainly more appealing [than Quake] to people just coming in,” recalls Michel Blicharz, VP of pro gaming at leading esport organisation, ESL. “In internet cafés in Poland, around 2001, Quake used to be the cool thing, but the bounce rate was very high; people just couldn’t stay long enough to become good at the game. Then someone brought CS to the internet café and people could get kills much more easily than in Quake. That’s what got them hooked.”

Ironically for a medium built around escapism, CS’ secret sauce turned out to be its realism. Where Quake’s arcadey deathmatch forced every player to fight for themselves, Counter-Strike split players into tightly-knit teams instead. And here, every player is genuinely crucial to the experience. This is a game with no respawns, where one bullet to the head puts you down for the count and has you sitting the rest of the round out. It’s tense, complex and a world away from id’s twitchy fragfest.

“In Quake the rules are a bit more abstract. They’re not something you would have learned in real life, in schools, etc,” adds Blicharz, ” With Counter-Strike, the skills that you need to succeed are team related. What made it such a hit was that without ever having played Counter-Strike, you come in and you’re able to find your feet in the game. Obviously, you’re not going to immediately feel like an expert, but, you’re not going to feel completely out of your depth either.”

How a game on Steam spawned an Underground scene

Thanks to its massive popularity, Counter-Strike fans became increasingly interested in watching (and learning from) pro players. Like Tetris and Street Fighter obsessives before them, suddenly, CS players wanted to prove that they were world class — and back in 2000, there was only one place to do that: The Cyberathelete Professional League (CPL).

Run without any publisher help, this smalltime esport league managed to gain itself a cult following, initially only attracting the world’s best Quake players to compete in its tournaments. But now, there was a new kid on the block. While Valve’s shooter joined the CPL as the side event in 2000, a year later, Counter-Strike was too popular to ignore, replacing Quake as the main attraction.

“Back then about 100 teams would show up to a LAN event like the CPL, ”Blicharz recalls, “That was the first kind of signature marquee tournament, where if you win, it meant that you’re the best in the world.”

Despite the stakes for the participants, the CPL was still a long way from becoming a passable spectator sport, let alone a compelling one. These early tournaments were held in the backrooms of dimly lit hotels, featuring only the most barebones of production values. With no screens set up for audience members and only each teams’ family and friends in attendance, watching Counter-Strike in the early days felt more like attending your nephew’s judo tournament than witnessing a proper sporting event.

Before Twitch came around, the whole scene was kind of similar to the movie Fight Club…

“Before Twitch came around, the whole scene was kind of similar to the movie Fight Club,” says Blicharz, “If you know about it, then you’re completely hardcore. If you meet somebody and talk about it, you have that understanding that you’re both in the same super-secret club. …if not, you’re completely oblivious, you have no idea that [Counter-Strike] even exists.”

Growing from a product to a platform

While most video games launch only to be forgotten a few years later, somehow, Valve’s hardcore shooter was transcending the medium’s normal lifecycle and slowly becoming a platform of its own. Not only was it still entertaining millions of players — it was creating jobs for (some of) them, too. There was only one problem, beaming these increasingly elaborate tournaments to fans. With TV channels refusing to recognise esports and Twitch’s inception still awhile away, ESL had to get creative with how it showed its tournaments.

“Before Twitch, back in the CPL days, trying to follow esports tournaments [was difficult.],” remembers Attisani, “esports content wasn’t really accessible and wasn’t really in range to be consumed by large numbers of people. It was purely something for hardcore fans.”

So how did these hardcore CS players get access to these tournaments in the early 2000s? Well, the same way noughties kids got their hands on anything….

Back then, we had a peer-to-peer, file-sharing platform called Octoshape,” explains Blicharz, “ You would go on the website and you had a [media] player … you connected into a stream, you took some traffic from us natively, but you also spread some of the traffic back to other people. In this way, it became a little bit more efficient for us ….We didn’t have to pay for 100% of the bandwidth that eventually got used.”

Not only was CS entertaining millions of players — it was creating jobs for them, too.

While this sounds pretty excruciating in a post-streaming world, that didn’t stop thousands of teenagers from logging out of Myspace, ‘borrowing’ some tunes from Limeware and finding their way into the livestream. But now that the audience and the playerbase was there, there was only one question on tournament organisers lips: how do you turn these CS events into a spectacle?

 “Around 2003, the first big event popped up. And when I say big I don’t mean in terms of prize money, but in production value,” says Blicharz, “The ESWC in France was held in an auditorium for probably 800 people with a big cinema-type screen experience, watching with live commentary and live excitement and sound-proof headsets. It was a small version of the type of esports experience that we know today.”

Photo by Joe Brady.

Building a bonafide sport

Around that time, CS tournaments got their first sponsors. With computer manufacturer Intel putting their name behind the CPL, these once slightly embarrassing events began to look increasingly legitimate. And what comes with legitimacy? Hungry companies that are all too ready to cash in.

Thanks to a massive funding injection (and tournament organisers taking a healthy amount of inspiration from traditional sporting events) watching the pros play Counter-Strike was starting to become genuinely entertaining. But as much as flashy looking stages and slick editing helped, it was the under the hood  software tweaks that really transformed CS into the stadium-filler it is today.

“I think first and foremost, the overall sophistication of the spectator experience — and the tools that Valve made available to organisers in terms of spectating the game — are fantastic and quite rare in the esports ecosystem,” explains Attisani, “There’re very few games that have a comparable level of sophisticated spectator options… In CS you can really use the in-game tools to build a great show and great narrative with it.”

“If you’re watching CS right now, it’s very natural for you that you have your health bars on the bottom left and bottom right, and when somebody dies, that health bar shrinks to zero. That didn’t used to be a natural feature of Counter-Strike,” adds Blicharz. “In the first Intel Extreme Masters events we had to add it — it was just a Flash add-on thrown on top of the game.”

It may sound fairly unimportant, but these increasingly clever tweaks to the HUD really made a huge difference in helping viewers follow the action. Whether you were a hardcore fan or just Counter-curious, these ‘little’ changes helped transform a game of Counter-Strike from a vaguely confusing affair to an exciting, spectator-friendly event. Now, making sure that the on-screen action is as readable as possible has become big business, with tournament organisers employing a whole team of in-game, virtual camera operators.

“We now have observers who are basically experts in providing the right replay from the angle that wasn’t caught live,” explains Blicharz with a smile. “Back when I started at Intel Extreme Masters, the standard was that the commentator himself would click through and rotate all the views of the players and select who they would watch. Now it’s done by an entire team of observers…

“There are scripts, camera scripts that fly around the map, scripted by people at our broadcast innovation unit, that essentially provide very, very smooth third-person perspective pans, pre-scripted camera angles, improvements to the games, HUD hubs, etc,” he continues, “There’s a huge layer that the tournament organisers and broadcasters of Counter-Strike have added to CS:GO today to make the experience as good as it is today.”

Professional care

The other big shift came in the way the sport treated its players. For many years, pro teams would be self-taught, playing with their mates at LAN parties and learning by getting whooped by better players online. But as the stakes became more serious, so did the pros’ training regimes. Soon they had professional coaches. Then came player transfer fees. Now the way teams train and operate is almost indistinguishable from what you find in traditional sports.

Teams are investing in training facilities…psychologists, military experts, physiotherapists…

“Just like you have multimillion-pound complexes for training facilities for Premier League clubs, that didn’t used to be there 20 years ago, it’s a similar progression with Counter-Strike,” explains Blicharz. “Teams are actually investing in training facilities, back-up staff like psychologists, military experts that help them with their mindset, with communication, physiotherapists to make sure they don’t have carpal tunnel syndrome…

“These days some teams live in a facility together and practice together.. Teams are willing to pay large transfer fees, teams are willing to invest. Players are more and more aware of their health, more and more aware of what they eat, what they drink. They demand a supply of bananas if they play, just to make sure their blood sugar is correct and all of these things. They’ve gone quite a long way from that bedroom, play a game in your socks and your underwear type situation.”

Turning software into hard cash

Soon, playing for bragging rights wasn’t enough – tournament organisers had to lure in pro players with cold, hard cash .Back when we started with Counter-Strike, we introduced something to aspire to for the players on our platform — a monthly competition with $1,500 in prize money, and we regularly had the best teams in the world participating in this competition, “reveals Attisani.

Now we’re hosting tournaments for millions of dollars in prize money every year.

 While $1500 is nothing to sniff at, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the jaw-dropping prize pools players compete over today. From there, things organically evolved to a point where now we’re hosting tournaments for millions of dollars in prize money every year.”  

Unsurprisingly, pro players also now command more cash than ever. Thanks to team sponsorships, ridiculous prize pools and everything else you’d expect from the sporting world, CS main league is filled to the brim with cash. In fact, one of the more high profile transfers recently saw the much sought after Jake Yip reportedly bought for a jaw-dropping half a million dollars.

Finding its audience

So how did CS explode from a niche pursuit into a staggeringly huge sporting event? Well, you know the answer really, don’t you?

“When Twitch came along, it all became, I don’t want to say mainstream, but it became extremely big to the degree that many, many more people found out about [Counter-Strike]. It allowed you to reach really large audiences really quickly globally, where originally we used to have to pay for bandwidth if we wanted to stream.’ says Blicharz.

“In very first days of Twitch, we were just starting to build our own channel and our platform on Twitch as well, and suddenly our viewership on both platforms started growing very, very quickly,” agrees Attisani.

Photo by Joe Brady.

Despite being boosted by Twitch, Faceit, however, weren’t’ just creating a platform for gamers to watch — but a new way for them to play, too. “There were a few esports companies back in the day, but they were focused on physical events. No one was really trying to create an online community, a digital solution for gamers that want to play competitively that catered not only to the professional but to players of every skill level,” explains Attisani, ”So that’s where we started. Seven years later we have the largest esports platform globally with over 12millions users.”

Like CS itself, Faceit was a platform made by the community, for the community. With many players tired of cheats on the main servers, Faceit’s tournament-ready alternative offered up a hacker-free haven. Unsurprisingly, this meant its tournaments became a breeding ground for future pros.  “We regularly had the best players in the world play our tournaments,” recalls Attaisani, “We’re talking about some of the current players that play in Fnatic, Ninjas in Pyjamas, some of the best teams in the world in Counter-Strike today.”

Despite Valve’s reputation for being incredibly secretive and unapproachable, both companies reveal that the elusive Valve are surprisingly keen to work closely with these outside organisations.

People think [Valve are] just locked in their ivory tower, ignoring the world outside…But it couldn’t be further from the truth.

“People think [Valve are] just locked in their ivory tower, ignoring the world outside,” says Attisani, “But it couldn’t be further from the truth. They are super communicative, they understand everything that is going on with the community. They listen to the feedback of amateur players, professional players, and are constantly improving and finetuning the game to make it better every day. They’re not talking much to the public, but that’s a conscious choice they made in terms of communication style.”

20 years on and still No signs of slowing down

“It used to be that we would be happy with 10,000 people watching online at the highest point,” says Blicharz “At our highest point last March, we reached 1.2million for the Intel Extreme Masters. Now, 10,000 is closer to the number of people actually showing up in the flesh at the stadium to watch these events.”

After a rough patch in the early 2010s, it seems like CS has become borderline unstoppable. And for these two companies, Valve’s FPS behemoth shows no signs of slowing down.

“Fundamentally what’s really impressive is that while the game has improved a lot over 20 years, in reality, it’s fundamentally the same game that was created by the community 20 years ago, ” explains Attisani, “It still retains the same soul, the same core mechanics, and that shows how visionary the people that put together the game were back in the day. There’s simply no other game in esports that has held this level of success for such a long time.”

Without Counter-Strike ESL wouldn’t be where we are today.

“Today we are a 500-people company with offices on one, two, three, four, five different continents running around a dozen stadium events per year, ” says Blicharz. “And without Counter-Strike [ESL] wouldn’t be where we are today.”

In the history of video games, few releases have boasted the staying power of Minh Lee’s bedroom-made mod. Happy birthday old chap, here’s to another twenty.

Tom Regan
Having written for everyone from Trusted Reviews to The Guardian, Tom is a London based writer who can't stop talking about games. Now he's joined the team at FANDOM as gaming editor, we have to constantly remind ourselves that he's not actually Ed Sheeran.