The brave new world of competitive gaming: bright colors and flashy lights
Esports, or competitive gaming, has become one of the hottest new phenomena in the entertainment industry. Whether purists approve of the “sports” tag is now long besides the point as team valuations and viewer counts are slowly creeping up to the levels of traditional sporting competitions.
For those approaching esports from a mainstream perspective, it’s the colorful and friendly games that are most likely to strike a chord. Titles like Fortnite, Valorant, Overwatch, or even Rocket League are pleasing to look at and quite approachable from the perspective of someone with limited experience in the world of gaming.
It’s no coincidence that all of them have been released fairly recently, unlike some of the other staples of esports: the ability to promote your product to a younger demographic even in a traditionally “aggressive” genre like first-person shooters is of great importance to publishers, and the growing focus on accessibility and legibility also naturally pushed the visual designs in this direction, which, in turn, impacted the choice of themes covered by these games.
This is a fairly new phenomenon as developers begin to figure out the outsized impact of esports in terms of the longevity of their game. Up until the last couple of years, esports games have always emerged organically: games with a robust competitive background owed more to a loyal grassroots community than the developers themselves, meaning sometimes titles with less broad appeal and not-so-sponsor-friendly themes emerge as top tier competitive titles.
In recent years, efforts like Activision-Blizzard’s Overwatch League and Riot Games’ focus on franchised League of Legends competitions have had an outsized impact on the games’ development and community moderation. It’s quite frankly unthinkable that either of these companies would allow anything offensive onto their broadcasts or into the servers.
Add all this up, and you can see why it makes the Counter-Strike franchise a unique gem in the esports landscape.
CS:GO, or why Counter-terrorists win
Imagine any major publisher putting together a game today featuring terrorists and counter-terrorists battling it out over a potential bombing incident with copious amounts of blood everywhere. It’s impossible to even conceive of the notion. It’s the incredible strength of the Counter-Strike franchise as a legacy game that allows it to survive (and even thrive) in the esports ecosystem despite this theming, which inevitably repels a wide variety of mainstream sponsors.
Focusing on adult teams also has an outsized impact on the type of ancillary industries and fields that CS:GO esports can interface with. Experts of CS:GO betting site Rivalry suggest that the game attracts an outsized interest from their entirely adult userbase, and other metrics also suggest that the average Counter-Strike player skews older than some of the other gaming demographics.
The incredibly high skill ceiling and the brutally fast nature of the game’s gunfights make it an appealing spectacle to watch, and it’s part of this brutality that makes it more visceral and appealing than a game like Call of Duty.
Perhaps the most interesting comparison point to emerge of late is Riot’s Valorant, a game that is very clearly modeled after the Counter-Strike franchise in terms of gameplay, but one that has purposefully followed its modern compatriots’ design philosophy when it comes to theming, accessibility and style. It’s the same 5v5 objective-based gameplay at its core, with a set of abilities sprinkled in, but everything is colorful, the characters are diverse, and the violence is nowhere near at the levels seen in its inspiration.
With two games so similar battling it out for the same market niche, it remains to be seen how they will align alongside each other in the great marketplace of esports ideas. Still, the adult nature of CS:GO will likely still fulfill the same sort of games as “adult” titles covering serious topics did in the early eras of gaming: they were the odd ones out, yet sometimes the most memorable and inspiring titles.
War has never been so much fun, goes the theme song of Cannon Fodder, an Amiga 500 game that inspired you to go up to your brother and kill him with your gun in the catchiest manner possible. Counter-Strike has struck the same chord and it’s the reason why it’s been around for over two decades while so much else in the industry has splintered.
CS:GO may not make it to ESPN and its best players won’t be invited on to late-night TV shows, but as competitive gaming becomes more and more hyper-commercialized and nearly analogous to traditional sports, it’s arguably all the better for it: the gateway between what gaming used to be and what it will inevitably become.