When Valve announced last year that they would send cease and desist letters to some of the biggest skin betting websites out there, many feared that this would dramatically decrease CS:GO’s popularity.
The many gambling controversies of 2016, most notably the CSGOLotto scandal involving ProSyndicate and Tmartn attracted widespread media attention; even mainstream news outlets such as the BBC were paying attention to Counter-Strike in ways that they wouldn’t normally.
The controversy came to a head when Valve – also in the midst of a class action lawsuit regarding their alleged complicity with gambling sites; more specifically the way that they used the Steam API and bots on steam to conduct much of their business – sent cease desist letters to some of the biggest CS:GO gambling websites.
Many of the community consider gambling skins to be one of the biggest drivers of growth for CS:GO, especially with the game’s initial release in August 2012 not being particularly spectacular. Whilst Valve happily let these websites exist when they weren’t being sued (rather conveniently), their decision to shut these websites down sent a firm message to the community and thus; created fears that it would hurt the game’s growth and popularity.
This wasn’t helped by the fact that ESL One Cologne (taking place during most of this controversy) saw the viewer count for the finals between SK Gaming and Team Liquid lower than the previous tournament, MLG Columbus. The finals at Cologne saw a peak concurrent viewership of 850,000 whilst the finals at Columbus saw a peak concurrent viewership of 1,600,000. Many were quick to claim that the game’s popularity was beginning to wane, and that (in some hyperbolic cases) it was “dying”, citing correlation between the drop in viewers and the gambling controversies.
However, there are more (in my opinion, logical) reasons as to why the viewer count dropped the way it did for the Cologne 2016 finals. Not only was this was the first major finals in the history of CS:GO to not feature a single European team, but the finals of both Euro 2016 and Wimbledon were also taking place on the same day. Additionally, some within the community suspected that Overwatch’s high profile release into the gaming world had drawn some away from CS:GO.
There was almost certainly a core audience in the European continent who didn’t see any reason to watch SK dumpster Liquid, which is a particular problem as the times that Cologne 2016 ran suited European viewing greatly (as you’d expect), the finals of both Euro 2016 and Wimbledon would’ve almost definitely drawn away a fair few less-dedicated viewers as well.
Not only that, but whilst Overwatch had a big and well exposed release alongside its emergence as a legitimate form of competition for CS:GO as the second biggest first person shooter eSport, it wasn’t realistic to assume a game of its kind (a class based FPS) would hurt CS:GO more than let’s say; Team Fortress 2. But alas, it’s more trendy to write threads titled “CS:GO IS DYING” on r/GlobalOffensive in an effort to make it onto the front page.
However, whilst some skin gambling websites have resurfaced since Valve’s initial cease and desist letter; they do not operate on the scale that they used to. To their dismay, Valve have stated their intentions to continue blocking both the CS:GO and TF2 betting sites that appear. Many official betting websites (in the UK at least) run legal, regulated and age verified betting on eSports games including League of Legends, Dota 2 and CS:GO.
Fast forward to January of this year, and the ELeague Major at Atlanta saw the viewer numbers increase from Cologne. The concurrent viewer base actually peaked at over 1,000,000 not just during the finals, but during one of the games preceding it as well. The unique player count for CS:GO (which had dropped to below 10,000,000 in the latter half of 2016) had risen to over 11,000,000 for last month.
There’s no particularly visible evidence to suggest that the lack of big skin betting websites has hurt CS:GO’s popularity in the long run; skins and betting were always a side product of the Counter-Strike experience; not the beating heart of it. The game’s popularity derides much from its unique style (compared to other FPS games) and the huge spectator appeal. The game is far from dead. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is still very much alive and well.