Whether you’re a fan of Counter-Strike or not, on the forefront of most conversations in the general eSports space has been that of skins-gambling and the ethics/legality behind it. Catalysed into the mainstream via massively popular content creators and personalities being in the centre of a maelstrom of controversy, what had previously been an elephant in the room in growing CS:GO as a game is finally being directly addressed by the solemn overseer, Valve. The previously unregulated “Wild West” of skin gambling, especially that of purely luck-based games like roulette and variations of a coin flip/slot machine has now experienced a total collapse. This devil-may-care system of grossly unethical behaviour and even more unethical business practices has brought in the absolute detritus of society, such as organised crime and corner cutting website owners. However despite these unsavoury characters being interwoven into the fabric of the scene, the impact of gambling, and specifically skin match betting via websites like CSGOlounge and Fanobet, has also incidentally and artificially inflated a largely ignored part of the scene.
Without the interest of bettors from CSGOlounge, tournaments with slim pickings in terms of high-tier player talent, production elements, and sponsors would have nowhere near the same level of viewership/interest on stream. CSGOlounge is the primary hub of trading and skin match betting, and with estimates of their net annual turnover running into the tens of millions, to be listed as a game to bet on in the website is a massive deal. The level of traffic that these semi-professional tournaments receive by being a listed match far outweighs any amount of audience reach they would receive with their comparatively tiny marketing budget and is imperative in order for their survival. This influx of numbers on stream for these normally tiny tournaments boosts the profiles of the players and teams playing in them and has as such created an almost entirely artificial interest that is mainly focussed on watching to make money through skins rather than watching the teams play for their skill. The further you go up the chain in terms of prize pools, quality of teams and production value, the less the effect gambling has on the viewership, but that isn’t to say that it doesn’t play a factor. Although the bigger tournament organisers can rely on the actual fans of the game/team/players to watch and form the solid base for viewership, the betting side of things is the secret sauce that pushes the big numbers up on stream and helps make the tournament look like a tasty opportunity to potential sponsors for investment. However, with CSGOlounge being sent a cease and desist letter from Valve following their mistreatment of the Steam API and terms of service, it seems that all of these skin match betting numbers will likely dry up. While it seems obvious that with the absence of this betting life blood the lower order of the food chain of tournament organisers will die out, the real question will be how large of an affect it will have the more established organisers. Some extreme estimates guess upwards of a 50% drop in viewership whilst more conservative industry figures guess 10-15%, either way, no-one can really predict for certain the fallout from this betting bubble popping. However, that is not to say that it is all doom and gloom, just as eucalyptus plants have adapted to resprout stronger after devastating forest fires, so will in some sense the CS:GO landscape.
This exodus of betting from the scene is the closest thing to a crash that this iteration of Counter-Strike has come to, and whilst in the short-term many investors and corporate eyes might be averted from the space, the long-term growth and benefit from not being artificially inflated through gambling will outweigh this. Consolidating those organisers and fans that are genuine about contributing to the growth of CS:GO as an eSport will allow for a more organically grown scene, free of Ponzi schemes and shady behaviour. So although we will as a community watch the top one percent of the money-making side of things run away with their overflowing, pious sacks of filthy skin money, and as such might have to watch a trickle-down effect of income loss of many others, we might be better off. With the primary focus of tournaments returning to the appreciation of watching ten players practising a finely tuned craft, that they have dedicated their lives to, we can really return back to what the root of eSports, and Counter-Strike is all about. In the end, we as a community don’t want those people that are just looking to create tournaments, websites or teams for financial gain, and if Valve stepping in and taking actual action against unethical behaviour scares these money driven people away, then so be it. Let all of this controversy show that CS:GO as a scene doesn’t take lightly to shady behaviour and unethical decisions, and that those that choose to exploit the system will pay a price.
The Counter-Strike franchise is no stranger to bubbles, from the disastrous CGS era in the mid 2000’s that gutted the entire 1.6 scene, to 1.6 as a game being kept alive by rich magnates until the bitter end of 2010/11. So with this gambling bubble popping in a spectacular explosion of Youtube Drama and lawsuits, the handful of people that worked through the previous bubbles are already preparing for the doomsday preachers and overly naive optimistic. To say that there isn’t going to be a drop in viewership is just as good of a guess as saying that the entire scene will have to start from scratch. The reasonable stance to take is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, and to believe that our collective short-term financial loss will pale in comparison to the long-term organic gain.
Written by Max Melit – @max_melit