Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) is now completely free to download and play on Steam. You can install it and jump into matches without paying anything upfront. This legendary competitive first-person shooter has been free since 2018.
A Brief History of CS:GO
Let‘s quickly recap CS:GO‘s origins and journey to becoming a free game.
Counter-Strike started as a mod for Half-Life in 1999. Various iterations released over the years, with Counter-Strike: Source launching in 2004.
Then in 2012, Valve released CS:GO as the latest title in the series. It was developed with Hidden Path Entertainment and built on the Source engine.
CS:GO Originally Cost $15 on Steam
When CS:GO first launched, it had an upfront cost of $14.99 on Steam. During its early years from 2012-2018, you had to purchase the game.
Over this time period, CS:GO built up a loyal player base as one of the premier competitive FPS games. It offered deep gunplay, strategic 5v5 defuse matches, and complex maps to master.
Transition to Free-to-Play Model in 2018
After 6 years as a paid game, Valve made CS:GO entirely free to play in December 2018.
This coincided with the launch of CS:GO‘s battle royale mode called Danger Zone. It also aligned with the growing trend of free-to-play online shooters like Fortnite and Apex Legends.
Making the core game free helped bring in new fans to try out CS:GO‘s unique tactical gameplay. It benefited both Danger Zone and traditional defuse modes.
Monetization and Economy
With CS:GO now being free, how does Valve generate revenue? The game has multiple ways to monetize engaged players.
In-Game Cosmetic Items and Skins
CS:GO has an in-game economy where you earn cosmetic weapon skins and other items. You can get new skins through:
- Random drops
- Opening sealed containers called cases using keys
- Trading with other players
- Buying directly from the Steam Marketplace
Rarer special skins can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars due to supply and demand. This creates an entire metagame around trading and collecting.
Prime Status Upgrades
As mentioned earlier, ranked competitive matchmaking requires upgrading your account to Prime status.
Upgrading to Prime costs $14.99, same as the original game price. Prime gets you:
- Access to Ranked queues
- Better matchmaking experience
- Daily bonus XP
- Exclusive Prime-only loot drops
- Unlimited entry to Danger Zone
For dedicated players who want access to Ranked, Prime is a must-have. This steady revenue stream replaced CS:GO‘s previous $15 entry point.
Every few months, Valve releases optional "Operations" that offer new cosmetic rewards, modes, and challenges. Players can purchase Operation Passes to get exclusive Operation Loot.
Again this targets engaged players willing to pay for fresh content and progression.
3rd Party Marketplaces
While not directly run by Valve, CS:GO‘s item trading economy has spawned various 3rd party marketplaces that also generate money from the game. Sites like Skinport facilitate millions in transactions by taking commissions.
So while the core CS:GO gameplay is free, there are plenty of ways committed players invest money to enhance their experience. The monetization primarily comes from cosmetics.
Impacts of Going Free-to-Play
Now let‘s explore how going free-to-play has impacted CS:GO over the past 5+ years.
Player Base Growth
Since the free-to-play shift in late 2018, CS:GO‘s monthly active players have nearly doubled from 11 million to over 20 million as of 2022. Removing the $15 barrier to entry helped bring in a massive influx of new players.
While it‘s harder to retain players long-term, free access has dramatically increased CS:GO‘s reach. It remains one of the most played games on Steam.
More Cheaters and Smurfs
Unfortunately, the surge of free accounts has also enabled more cheaters, hackers, and "smurfs" (high-skill players posing as novices on alternate accounts).
Prime matchmaking helps mitigate these issues somehwat. But they remain persistent problems due to free access making it easy to create throwaway accounts after getting banned. Cheating does get banned in waves though.
Healthier Player Base at Lower Levels
However, free access has also greatly benefitted lower ranked players who just want to casually play.
CS:GO‘s learning curve is brutal for new players starting out. Having a healthy pool of other novices to compete against leads to better matches at lower skill levels.
The free influx drove growth across the whole spectrum, from pro players to complete beginners.
More Invested Long-Term Players
While there are more players churning through, CS:GO also has a dedicated core who treat it as a lifestyle game. Players pour thousands of hours into mastering it.
The free shift opened CS:GO to new markets of potential hardcore fans. People who would never normally pay $15 to try a game found their lifelong obsession for free.
Strong Esports Viewership
Pro CS:GO continues thriving with prestigious tournaments like ESL One and the Majors. In 2022, the PGL Major Stockholm peaked at over 2 million concurrent viewers.
Events are also seeing record live attendance like IEM Katowice 2022 bringing in over 175,000 fans. CS:GO as an esport remains in excellent health.
CS:GO vs. Other F2P Shooters
Now let‘s compare CS:GO to some other popular free-to-play shooters:
Epic‘s Fortnite Battle Royale popularised the f2p model starting in 2017. As a battle royale, it offers massive 100 player last-man-standing matches with building mechanics.
Monetization comes from optional skins and a seasonal Battle Pass. While also f2p, Fortnite focuses more on casual players with cartoonish visuals and accessibility.
Apex Legends is a hero based battle royale with a high skill ceiling like CS:GO. It launched free in 2019 and monetizes via cosmetics and a Battle Pass.
As a BR, matches have 60 players and emphasize mobility, team synergy, and outmaneuvering opponents. Apex is harder than Fortnite but easier than CS:GO.
Riot Games‘ Valorant combines CS:GO style gunplay with hero abilities. It also launched free in 2020 and sells premium skins.
Valorant directly competes with CS:GO for the hardcore tactical shooter audience. It reduces certain complexities but remains highly competitive.
Game Modes and Mechanics
For players just starting out in CS:GO, let‘s break down the core game modes and mechanics:
Defusal (Bomb Scenario)
This is the classic competitive CS mode and the main focus at higher levels. Two teams of 5 compete to either plant or defuse a bomb at target sites. It requires coordination and situational awareness. Matches are first to 16 rounds.
A secondary competitive mode where teams rescue hostages from the other team or prevent the rescue. Having only one hostage slows the pace compared to Defusal. First to 8 rounds wins.
A respawn mode where players race through a sequence of weapon upgrades by getting kills. The first to get a kill with the golden knife wins. Good for aim practice but lacks the depth of Bomb/Hostage modes.
Straightforward free-for-all respawn matches with random weapon spawns to quickly practice aim and reflexes. You respawn immediately after each death. Great for warmup and raw mechanical skill.
CS:GO‘s battle royale mode where you start with just a pistol and gather equipment while fighting to be the last survivor. Has unique CS mechanics like hostage rescue and purchasing weapons.
Round-based matches where teams take turns playing as Terrorists trying to plant bombs or Counter-Terrorists trying to prevent plants. There is no buy phase and you just respawn when you die.
Weapons and Economy
A huge part of CS is money management. Earn money for kills, plants, defuses, and round wins. Spend money between rounds on weapons, armor, and gear. Mastering the economy metagame is key.
The depth comes from learning complex maps like Dust2, Mirage, and Inferno. There‘s an entire meta around smoking, flashing, mollies, and nades. Use utility properly to take sites and outplay enemies.
This covers most of the essential things new players should know getting into CS. The nuance comes from practice and experience.
Improving as a New CS:GO Player
Here are some tips for new players to get better at CS:GO:
Practice aim – Use Deathmatch to build muscle memory with various guns. Go for headshots.
Learn spray patterns – Every gun has unique spray patterns. Go in empty servers to practice spraying walls.
Work on crosshair placement – Keep crosshair head level at common angles as you move around maps.
Use utility properly – Learn pop flashes, smokes, and molotovs. But don‘t waste grenades.
Play objectives – Play Bomb scenarios and go for plants and defuses. Don‘t just hunt for kills.
Review your games – Watch your own matches to analyze mistakes and spots for improvement.
Find friends – Queueing with reliable teammates improves coordination tremendously.
Watch pros – Study what professional players do from their positions and strategies.
Have patience – Expect to struggle initially. Growth comes slowly over hundreds of hours.
Stick with it and continually critique your own gameplay. Over time, the complexity becomes natural.
CS:GO Player Count and Revenue Charts
Here are two charts that help visualize CS:GO‘s growth since going free-to-play:
Monthly Active Players
This shows the surge in monthly active users after late 2018 when CS:GO went free:
Player count dipped after the initial spike but found stability between 20-30 million monthly players. Being free drastically increased CS:GO‘s reach.
Revenue Over Time
Annual revenue spiked after 2018 partially due to more Prime upgrades. It leveled off but remains significantly higher post-f2p:
More players and Prime purchases ultimately earned Valve more money despite the game now being free.
Perspectives from Pros and Community Figures
Here are some thoughts on CS:GO going free-to-play from prominent pro players and community members:
s1mple (Pro Player):
“More people can try Counter-Strike now and see if they like it or not. More talent is going to come. There are a lot of talented people that just don‘t have the money to buy the game"
n0thing (Pro Player):
“Given that CSGO went free to play, it only made sense that they added a BR mode to generate revenue. However, Valve‘s choice to make CSGO entirely free is still mind boggling! It‘s increased the player base and interest tremendously."
Phillip Aram (YouTuber):
“The learning curve is going to be more difficult with a much wider skill gap between new players and veterans. But it‘s the most newcomer friendly CS has ever been with the Trust system and Prime matchmaking.”
Launders (Twitch Streamer):
“No doubt the cheating problem has gotten worse with it being F2P. But danger zone is a super unique take on battle royale and I‘m glad it brought in so many new players to enjoy the core game.”
The overall sentiment seems positive. There‘s acknowledging downsides like cheating, but going free has been good for CS:GO.
CS:GO transitioning to a free-to-play model on Steam in 2018 has unequivocally been a success. It has dramatically increased the player base and revenue while providing full access to one of the highest skill ceiling FPS games ever made.
New players can jump in to experience CS:GO‘s famously deep gunplay and tactical gameplay at no upfront cost. While Prime matchmaking, cosmetics, and more provide options to enhance the experience if desired.
With a thriving pro scene and dedicated community, CS:GO is stronger than ever thanks to the shift to free-to-play. And with the base game being free indefinitely, anyone reading this can download and start playing right now! The only thing left to lose is sleep as you become hooked on mastering this legendary title.