OPINION: Valve’s Counter-Strike ‘open ecosystem’ changes come with dangers

Production of the BLAST Premier Spring Groups 2022. Image credit: WePlay Esports

Valve, in quintessential Valve fashion, announced changes that will fundamentally overhaul how Counter-Strike is structured as an esport via an impromptu 200 word blog post.

The black box that is the developer behind one of the world’s preeminent esports titles said that, come 2025, Counter-Strike tournament organisers cannot have preferential business relationships with certain teams, meaning a major esports shakeup is inevitable.

The changes are as severe as they were sudden. Although Valve is reported to have been discussing these changes with leading tournament organisers for quite a while behind the scenes, the lack of detail (Valve even admitted these were just the ‘broad strokes’) and inexplicit statements from stakeholders when the news broke seemed to indicate Valve has not granted many the courtesy of clarity.

Nonetheless, Counter-Strike (CS) tournaments are going to be changing, for better or for worse — and just about everyone has an opinion on whether it’s better or worse. Whether it’ll be good or bad from a competitive gameplay standpoint is not the subject of this piece, though I think you’d be hard pressed to find many people arguing the latter, save for concerns over Valve’s ranking formula.

Rather, the defining question from an industry perspective is whether or not it’s good for business — and it really is a defining question, given the scope of the changes and Counter-Strike’s eminence in the industry.

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Opening up the ecosystem to eliminate franchising, and forcing tournaments to use objective rankings or open qualifiers, means more teams get to benefit. Rather than the limited handful of teams who put up the capital to buy slots in ESL’s and BLAST’s semi-franchised leagues, a vastly widened pool of teams have a realistic shot at regularly attending S-tier events.

That, in turn, means more teams have access to more opportunities, more exposure that they can then sell to brands, larger prize pools, a better shot at in-game item revenue, and other league revenue sharing schemes. The effect is already being seen: Guild Esports explicitly credited Valve’s ecosystem changes in its recent decision to sign a Counter-Strike team, citing lower entry costs.

It spells good news for small and medium sized organisations, many of whom are at greater mercy of the so-called ‘esports winter’ than the bigger names. Indeed, many such organisations have welcomed the news with open arms. It has unsurprisingly been the teams who aren’t in partnered leagues that have publicly expressed their delight.

Yet I’d hasten to call it good news for the industry — at least just yet — because there’s still a revenue problem.

Even under the current semi-franchised models, where the vast majority of revenue is concentrated in the hands of the partner teams, most of those organisations are unprofitable.

Now, the same amount of revenue will be spread thinner. Modest, consistent revenue for the few is to be replaced by sporadic, unpredictable revenue for the many. It’s all well and good that more teams have access to the pie, but the pie has to grow as a result.

CS:GO is known as one of the more financially stable titles for esports teams thanks to its pedigree, established fanbase and in-game item revenue sharing for Valve’s Majors. Yet if leading teams can’t even achieve profitability under what is essentially franchising under a different name, diluting already modest revenue streams could spell bad news for sorely needed efforts to balance the books.

“If you’re making money from CS esports, prepare to make less. If you aren’t making money from CS esports, you probably still won’t make any money,” Alex ‘Mauisnake’ Ellenberg, a popular Counter-Strike broadcast talent, quipped on Twitter (X).

More revenue needs to come from somewhere, whether fans, tournament organisers — or Valve, the ones actually commanding change.

Valve could sell more revenue-sharing in-game esports items, it could implement Dota-style crowdfunded prize pools, or find other ways to throw a bone to teams using the inordinate wealth and resources it extracts from the game.

It may be quixotic and depressingly futile to believe Valve will come to the rescue. But ultimately, if it wants to dictate how teams and tournaments need to operate in the scene, shouldn’t it have a hand in making sure they can survive? The developer’s sudden switch from its usual laissez-faire approach of doing and saying nothing — and the upcoming launch of Counter-Strike 2 — could offer a glimmer of hope that it might.

Valve is king. The esport moves at the click of its fingers. But if you want to play king, you have to keep your subjects alive, especially if you make changes that may threaten their existence.

Jake Nordland
Jake has worked at Esports Insider as a journalist and editor since early 2021. Now ESI's Media Manager, he continues to act as lead editor of print magazine The Esports Journal, and contributes his words to the website from time to time.