It’s no surprise to long-time fans of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive that the game’s developer and publisher, the Valve Corporation, has something of a distant relationship to its 2012 shooter. Most developer-publishers, such as Riot Games or Activision-Blizzard, exercise an iron grip on their intellectual property which extends into its professional esports scene.

In contrast, Valve has always been fairly blasé in its approach. The company largely stays uninvolved in the competitive gaming sphere aside from sponsorship and regulation of Majors, the biannual events that function as CS:GO’s world championships.

For all the benefits afforded by Valve’s hands-off approach, that freedom does have its own cost. Despite contributing massively to the game’s popularity and longevity, Counter-Strike as an esport often feels ignored in favour of other projects or goals.

Agents and the Esports Industry’s Reaction

“Agents” are custom player models available for players to unlock through mission completions as part of the event Operation Shattered Web. Introduced on 18 November 2019, Agents allowed players on either the Terrorist or Counter-Terrorist side to individualize their look.

Freedom of player expression is nothing new. Plenty of games allow character customization to some extent, and CS:GO contributes greatly to Valve’s Steam Marketplace that allows players to trade or buy weapon customizations from each other.

However, weapon skins were largely unintrusive to the game’s competitive balance. Altering the colors of an AK-47 didn’t change the gun’s distinctive firing sound or silhouette or visibility. If anything, most skins made the weapons even easier to spot, popping out that much more against the muted browns and greys of CS:GO maps.

Altering player models is a much trickier question as it affects visual clarity of the most important part in a first-person shooter: the enemy players who are your targets.

Swapping the outfit of the default navy blue of a Counter-Terrorist to a brighter tan like that of the NSWC Seal agent is more than just a minor cosmetic swap. The ability to blend in better against the background affords players those precious microseconds of an advantage as opponents must take longer to recognize the blotchy outline as a threat.

The slipshod introduction of Agents received a negative reaction from the esports industry at professional, casual, and fan levels. Notable tournament organizers ESL, ESEA, and FaceIt all imposed bans on the custom player models from use in competitive play shortly after the Agents’ introduction. All three cited the Counter-Strike Professional Players’ Association (CSPPA) as a source of feedback, indicating that the players’ dissatisfaction extended beyond social media griping.

The Latest in Many Unwanted and Unwarned Valve Interjections

The primary frustration for players whose professional careers and livelihoods depend on the game’s stability is that out-of-the-blue updates that majorly affect the game’s competitive balance for the worse are inconveniencing, frustrating, or possibly even ruinous. Potentially losing out on a championship and the accompanying prize pool due to a rapidly-implemented change with no period of adaptation or feedback is fair grounds for complaint.

So, one would think that one instance of this kind of upheaval would be enough. For Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, however, this is merely the latest in a chain spanning back over the near-decade since the game’s release. Notorious among them are the buffs to the AUG and then later the Krieg 552 in 2018, and reaching further back were the original game-altering nerfs to the AWP in 2015.

The general stance is not that Valve should refrain from making any changes whatsoever, but should take more care and be more considerate in what, when, and how they implement updates. The addition of a pre-release test server to showcase and experiment with updates, as is done in other games such as League of Legends, Overwatch, or Rainbow 6: Siege, would at least provide a grace period between unveiling and release of changes.

The most common, reasonable complaint towards Valve’s handling of its esports tends to revolve around the lack of transparency. With the addition of the CSPPA to act as a collective front of communication between the professional players and Valve, perhaps there may be a change in the future that assuages some of the frustrations.

This, however, would rely on likewise increased transparency and notification from the CSPPA to represent the interests of all players and communicate with them effectively.

Whether 2020 will see an improvement with new competitors, such as Riot Games’ Valorant, to galvanize the CSGO developer team into action, or whether it will merely be yet another year of more of the same lackadaisical attitude from the Valve corporation is a question that only time can answer.