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A nearly 20-year franchise, Counter-Strike doesn’t go through as much reinvention as other esports titles. However, the game’s newly introduced character models now pose a risk to its competitive viability, both online and off. As a result, multiple esports tournament organizers (TOs) have forbade players from using them in match play.
Cosmetic items are commonplace in competitive video games, so why were these ones so detrimental? And what does the TOs’ decision mean for the future of player customization in the genre of shooting esports?
The New Character Models Explained
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) periodically introduces downloadable content packs, known as “Operations.” These purchasable updates include maps, missions, and customization items (such as weapon decals, graffiti sprays, etc.). The new “Operation Shattered Web” added 22 “agent” character models, offering more variety than the long traditional Terrorist (T) and Counter-Terrorist (CT) costumes. There’s even a female character model, a first for the franchise.
The issue is that several of the CT agents are designed with a variant of green camouflage, which can blend into the background on certain maps. There’s no restriction for players to use these models in ranked play, and no option to disable them either.
Custom player models in CSGO is, unfortunately, game breaking. The only way this idea works is an option to disable it.
Sorry. I know this isn’t what Valve wants to hear. The idea is bad for gameplay. Mappers pick certain skins (.kv file) because they want clear contrast https://t.co/zwf7Aia5dE
— FMPONE ???? (@FMPONE) November 21, 2019
On social media and forums, the general reaction to the agents was negative. One of the creators of de_cache, a map still used in pro tournaments, described the models as “game breaking.” It didn’t take long for these concerns to trickle down into professional competitive play.
A Swift Set of Rule Changes
Last week, ESL and FACEIT, both of which run CS:GO leagues and tournaments, announced that their events would be played on the game’s current patch, but custom character skins would be disabled. ESEA, a third-party matchmaking service owned by ESL, also restricted players from using the agents. This followed discussions between both companies and the Counter-Strike Professional Players’ Association (CSPPA), one of the esports industry’s more developed player unions.
“The feedback we got from the CSPPA was that such a dramatic change in player model visibility wasn’t suitable for competitive play just yet,” Road Van Buuren, director of esports for FACEIT, told The Esports Observer. “The models are drastically different in color, shape, and size from the defaults so cause player legibility issues in-game.”
When it comes to third-party run esports, like Counter-Strike, new gameplay additions always require evaluation and quick decision making. ESL’s tournament director Alexander Nehr told The Esports Observer that the consensus was that the agents affected competitive integrity. “They have proved to be very hard to see for colorblind players as well as additional visual issues that needs to be addressed,” he said.
“We’ll continue to have a discussion on this topic internally and with the player association in the future, as updates may happen to the models to review the current decisions but will keep them disallowed as long as there are competitive integrity issues.”
The Long-Term Impact
Character costumes are a staple across modern multiplayer games. CS:GO’s own monetization model is based around weapon skins, which infamously can be sold on third-party marketplaces. Though the game’s publisher, Valve Corporation, doesn’t run CS:GO esports events, it routinely introduces team-branded weapon skins as part of the game’s biannual Major tournaments.
While character models are new for Counter-Strike, other first-person shooting titles such as Overwatch routinely patch in new character costumes, which can differ dramatically in shape and color. In PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS (PUBG), it’s even possible to acquire a gilly suit that camouflages you from enemies. The key difference is that CS:GO is a tactical shooter; gunfights typically end in a millisecond, and players always need to have full spatial awareness.
“Changes to player silhouette, coloration, or size will always have competitive repercussions,” said Buuren “We always want players to be able to express themselves and build their personality, but not at the expense of competitive integrity.”
Buuren added that a good solution would be an option for payers to toggle the models on and off, if only for their point of view. This wouldn’t make the inclusion of the agents totally redundant, but would allow Valve to continue building on (and monetizing) them.
While the CS:GO character models are a severe oversight for the usually hands-off developer Valve, they do showcase a maturity for the game’s esports scene. Two separate companies made identical rulings, after discussion with a player association, no less. It is highly unlikely that Valve will contest these decisions, but in the latest updates for CS:GO there is still no solution for casual players using the game’s matchmaking system.
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