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How do Counter-Strike: Global Offensive skins work?

Long story short, they’re casino chips

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive screenshot 1536
Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, the popular first-person shooter from Valve, has been in the news a lot lately — and not in a good way. Following a report this past spring about Global Offensive players essentially using the game to gamble, a scandal came to light in which a couple of well-known Counter-Strike YouTube personalities were outed as owners of a Global Offensive betting website that they promoted in their videos.

How did it come to this? How did a video game become a gateway to gambling for its players, many of whom admit to being under the legal gambling age in the U.S.?

The answer centers on "skins" in Global Offensive, and no, the term has nothing to do with the expression of "having skin in the game." Let us explain.

What is a skin?

In general, a "skin" in a video game is an alternate outfit of some kind, whether for a character or item. In the particular context of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a skin — also known as a "finish" — is a unique visual design for a weapon, whether it’s a firearm or a knife.

What does a skin do?

Literally nothing. Except look fabulous, that is.

A skin in Global Offensive is a purely cosmetic item, meaning that it only affects the look of a weapon, not its firepower. The P90 submachine gun, for instance, behaves exactly the same way in the game regardless of whether it comes in the Leather or Sand Spray skins.

How long have skins been in CS: GO?

Valve introduced skins into Global Offensive with the game’s "Arms Deal" update, which the company released in mid-August 2013. The update featured more than 100 skins split into 10 themed "collections," such as Assault, Office, Dust and Aztec.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Arms Deal update weapons artwork 1794

What kinds of skins are there?

You might want to get comfortable, because this is going to take a while.

Global Offensive offers hundreds of skins from the realistic to the absurd. Many of them are finishes that can provide a tactical advantage — the aforementioned Aztec skins feature camouflage that would help the guns blend into a jungle environment. But there are plenty of outlandish skins, too, like Akihabara Accept, which is literally an assault rifle with an anime magazine cover imprinted on its side.

"Although we started off thinking military camouflage was really cool," said Bronwen Grimes, a technical artist at Valve, during a talk at the 2013 Game Developers Conference, "it turns out what our community really values are finishes that look more like paintball guns."

Skins are available in a number of quality grades, which signify a skin’s rarity — and therefore, its value. In order from lowest to highest rarity, we have: Consumer Grade (Common), Industrial Grade (Uncommon), Mil-Spec Grade (Rare), Restricted (Mythical), Classified (Legendary), Covert (Ancient) and Gold (Exceedingly Rare).

Another differentiating factor is a skin’s exterior quality, which indicates the freshness of the weapon in question. In order from least wear and tear to most, we have: Factory New, Minimal Wear, Field-Tested, Well-Worn and Battle-Scarred.

Finally, skins are marked as Normal, StatTrak or Souvenir. A weapon with a StatTrak skin will keep track of how many kills you rack up with it, although the number will reset if you put up the skin on the Steam Market and it transfers ownership. Souvenir skins are ones that dropped during Global Offensive esports tournaments, and their description will mention the event in question. Some Souvenir items are incredibly rare, as you might expect, selling for hundreds of dollars.

How do you acquire skins?

You’ll receive skins as rewards for playing Global Offensive, whether on official or community servers, in loot drops that occur on a regular basis. You’ll also occasionally receive "weapon cases" as loot drops or rewards for certain missions. Cases can only be opened with keys, which can be bought from the in-game store for $2.50 or acquired — via a purchase or trade — from the Steam Community Market. Another way to get skins is, of course, to buy them or trade for them on the market.

All transactions on the market are conducted with Steam Wallet funds, and Valve takes a 15 percent cut of all Global Offensive-related purchases on the market. However, it is impossible to withdraw money from your Steam Wallet; otherwise, Steam could qualify as a banking institution, and Valve would likely be subject to all kinds of regulations that online marketplaces avoid. Valve maintains a limit of $500 on Steam Wallet funds, and a maximum sale price of $400 for any one item on the Steam Market.

That’s why a lot of Global Offensive transactions take place outside of the Steam Market. Valve’s Steam API allows for third-party services to hook up with players’ Steam accounts. That means that trades and purchases of Global Offensive skins — with no price maximums, mind you — can occur on websites like CSGOShop and OPSkins, both of which allow customers to cash out funds received from skin sales to services such as PayPal.

OK, I get all that. But where does the gambling come in?

Ah yes, there’s the rub.

Global Offensive currently has millions of active players every month, and much of that popularity is driven by the game’s presence in the esports scene.

The skins may be virtual objects, but they have a very real monetary value associated with them that is determined by the Global Offensive economy. It’s not quite a free market, since Valve influences the rarity of items such as Souvenir skins. But it’s a market nonetheless, with values fluctuating over time; the Steam Market page for each Global Offensive skin even displays a graph that tracks its median sale price over a certain period, à la the stock market.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive price graph 948
The lifetime median sale price of a Classified StatTrack AWP | BOOM sniper rifle skin with a Factory New paint job

In esports, as in the world of athletic sports, spectators enjoy betting on games. And a number of websites have sprung up around Global Offensive, taking advantage of the Steam API to allow people to gamble on esports competitions with Counter-Strike skins. Many of these sites, such as CSGO Lotto, CSGOBIG and CSGO Lounge, trade on Global Offensive’s name to attract customers.

When you place a bet with skins, they’re moved over to a bot-controlled Steam account owned by the third-party service you’re using. (This appears to be a violation of Section 4 of the Steam Subscriber Agreement.) If you win, you get your skins back — along with, of course, the skins that the losing players wagered. Then you can turn around and sell those skins, either on the Steam Market or an outside website, for a profit.

In essence, the skins serve the same function as chips at a casino.

Yikes. How widespread is this practice, though?

It appears to involve a nontrivial segment of the Global Offensive user base. If you load up CSGOBIG’s website, the first thing you see is an overlay with figures for the number of deposits in the last 24 hours (more than 60,000 as of this writing) and the total winnings over the last 24 hours (more than $1.69 million).

What’s worse, these sites require users to declare that they are at least 18 years old, but don’t verify that in any way. And a recent Bloomberg report on the Global Offensive gambling scene quoted a 16-year-old Dutch player who said he was turned on to the practice of betting on matches by a friend. In a poll of over 10,000 players in Reddit’s Global Offensive community last year, 42 percent of respondents said they were under the age of 18, while 63 percent said they were under 21.

Bloomberg cited data from the research firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming that put the worldwide esports betting market in 2015 — that’s all games, not just Global Offensive — at $2.3 billion and more than 3 million players.

Please excuse me. I need to go check on my kid — he watches a lot of CS: GO on Twitch.

Yeah, you might want to do that.

Correction: Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has millions of monthly active players, not approximately 350,000. We've edited the article to reflect this.

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