clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Valve deserves more of the blame for Counter-Strike’s disgraceful gambling scene

While community personalities have abused the system, Valve let it happen

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive screenshot

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is one of the most popular multiplayer shooters in existence, and its passionate players have found many ways to show off their love for the game outside of the game itself. There’s esports. There are dozens of forums and an extremely active subreddit.

And there’s also a growing portion of the community that uses Counter-Strike as a means of gambling.

That sketchy gambling scene has been in the news a whole lot this week. It’s a mess, and aspects of it may well be illegal. Right now a lot of the attention is on certain Global Offensive community personalities who have, at the very least, misled their audience and abused their power.

But the spotlight also deserves to be shined on Valve. We wouldn’t be in this mess if not for them.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive screenshot

Where did CS:GO gambling come from?

If you’ve missed the many headlines about Global Offensive gambling from the past week, the initial idea may strike you as bizarre or even laughable. How are people turning a multiplayer shooter into a casino?

It all goes back to 2013’s "Arms Deal" update for Global Offensive. In this huge patch, Valve introduced the ability for players to get skins for their weapons by purchasing weapon cases or keys to unlock them.

Randomized loot dropped via boxes is nothing new or surprising for games. It's the same system that Blizzard's popular new shooter Overwatch uses, for example. You can certainly make the argument that these addictive design elements and microtransactions are insidious, but they are also, at the least, very common.

What’s less common, and what has allowed this strange gambling subculture to build up around Counter-Strike, is this: In Global Offensive, you can also trade and sell the skins you unlock. Spend a couple bucks opening a crate, and if your skin is rare enough, you can turn it around on Steam and make a profit. The rarest skins sell for hundreds of dollars, with some going for well over a thousand bucks.

The most expensive Global Offensive skin on Steam is currently priced at over $300.

The rarest skins sell for hundreds of dollars

How does this lead to gambling? Valve has made it easy to connect your Steam inventory to third-party websites and services. Once you hook up your account to one of these services, you place bets using your skins rather than real money. The skins are traded over to a bot-controlled Steam account owned by the third party and, if you win, you’ll get your skins back along with whatever skins the losing players bet — skins you can then sell for real-world money via Steam.

Some sites focus on letting players place bets on actual professional Global Offensive matches, the same way one might bet on an NFL game. Others simplify the skin betting into coin flips or slot machines against other players. Either way, it breaks down to people putting real money into getting skins, betting with those skins, and then having the option to cash out with them by selling them on the Steam marketplace.

The legality of this practice is questionable. Betting on sporting events is illegal in most U.S. states, and doing so online is illegal everywhere in the country. The virtual coin flips, if honest, would fall under games of chance. Whether those are legal online is still debated in court based on somewhat vague laws. Global Offensive gambling sites try to avoid this debate altogether by focusing on the fact that players are not betting "real money"; they're betting skins.

In this strange online gambling world, Global Offensive skins basically serve as casino chips — something flashy and colorful to help mask the fact that money is changing hands.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive screenshot Valve

Why is this such a big deal?

Let’s set aside for a moment how this weird underground gambling scene has allowed some of Global Offensive's most popular video personalities to mislead their community. Last month, one player filed suit against Valve itself, claiming that he lost money from Global Offensive gambling as a minor.

In most of the U.S., you must be 21 to gamble. Some states allow you to partake in some forms of gambling at the age of 18; none allow for gambling before that age. Some of the biggest Global Offensive gambling sites include language in their terms of service prohibiting players under a certain age from using the sites, but there are no actual provisions in place to prevent this. And, more importantly, these sites are pulling on a base that they know includes underage players.

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. An EEDAR esports consumer survey from last year reported that Global Offensive had the third youngest average age among its player base compared to nine other popular esports titles (though that study still placed the average age around 25).

as a teenager, I would have been stupid enough to be intrigued by the gambling

Neither of these sources provides enough data to give us an accurate picture of the age makeup of Global Offensive's audience. I wouldn’t argue that this is a particularly kid-friendly game, nor one that Valve specifically targets toward teens.

Valve may ask players to confirm that they're of a certain age before using Steam or viewing the page for certain games. However, there’s no denying that people below the age of 21 (and even 18) play Global Offensive in large numbers. Hell, I started playing the original Counter-Strike when I was 15. Had I been born 15 years later, I would have been in the prime position to get heavily invested in Global Offensive. And as a teenager, I absolutely would have been stupid enough to be intrigued by the game’s gambling scene.

Whatever your stance on gambling generally, there’s little debate that gambling at an impressionable young age can lead to major problems as you grow up.

According to the New York Council on Problem Gambling, "children and teenagers aren’t prepared to balance emotion and logic to make healthy choices." In a very literal sense, the brain is still developing at this age, and it is difficult if not impossible to hone the capability to ignore your impulses and stop gambling once you’ve started.

Likewise, the National Council on Problem Gambling reports that somewhere around 5 percent of youth aged 12-17 have a gambling problem, while another 10-14 percent are at risk of developing an addiction.

Many gambling organizations have long held that video games in general can push younger players in the direction of gambling. I haven’t been convinced of that, but when a game that we already know is popular with teenagers has such an open, easy-to-jump-into gambling subculture? I have no doubt this is pulling some kids into a world they aren’t ready for.

Why is this Valve’s problem?

We don’t have the exact numbers of the age range of Global Offensive players, but Valve likely has a closer idea. The company knows how many people under the age of 18 are playing, and it must have a strong sense of how many kids and teenagers are watching popular Global Offensive YouTube and Twitch personalities, who have devoted dozens of hours of time on their channels to gambling.

Let me be absolutely clear: In no way am I suggesting that folks like Trevor "Tmartn" Martin should be off the hook. All available evidence suggests that several prominent Global Offensive personalities knowingly misled their audience to promote the gambling site they owned and to make money. If that’s true, the Federal Trade Commission should go after them with all it's got.

Valve is the only party in all of this who has all of the information

However, within the flurry of accusations and anger at these personalities, I don’t think we should forget who has allowed this gambling scene to flourish in the first place: Valve. Valve is the only party in all of this who has all of the information. Valve knows the general age range of the audience. Valve knows how many trades and sales are taking place every day. Valve knows how popular Global Offensive gambling sites have become.

And the company has apparently decided that it's fine with all of it. Because ignoring it is in Valve's best interest financially.

It’s not just a Counter-Strike problem, either. While Global Offensive has the biggest and most well-known gambling scene, other Valve titles with similar loot systems, like Dota 2 and Team Fortress 2 have gambling sites of their own. All of them operate from a Steam inventory system that allows for easy interaction with third parties, with no real oversight.

Valve may never outright approve of these sites, but the company has made security changes to Steam that are specifically built around preventing scamming through sites of this kind. Some administrators for Global Offensive gambling sites even claim that individuals at Valve have contacted and worked with them directly.

Maybe you don’t care. Maybe in your mind, it’s a free market situation; Valve is just allowing people to do what they want, and if some jerks abuse that freedom, it’s not Valve’s fault, you might argue.

That point of view falls apart when you begin to examine the reason Valve hasn’t stepped in to stop these sites. That is: Valve makes a massive profit from Counter-Strike: Global Offensive gambling.

According to a report earlier this year from Bloomberg, as much as $2.3 billion worth of Global Offensive skins was used for betting in 2015. If and when those skins were cashed out by way of selling them on Steam, Valve collected 15 percent of every skin sale. Even if you're doubtful that as much as $2.3 billion in skins was ever sold, it’s reasonable to assume that Valve made bank.

Yesterday, we spoke to Jasper Ward, one of the attorneys involved in the previously mentioned lawsuit against Valve. Ward called Valve’s actions in relation to this budding gambling scene "unconscionable." Obviously he has skin in the game, so to speak, but the more I think about Valve’s role in all of this, the harder it is to disagree.

Perhaps the most damning part of all is how Valve has simply refused to comment on anything involving Global Offensive gambling. Now that litigation is involved, it’s even less likely we’ll hear a word.

Silence isn't new for Valve. It's a notoriously quiet company, slow to speak to press and fans alike. But with a situation this big, where some of Valve's loudest supporters — many of whom are underage — are being taken advantage of, the silence is deafening. Valve needs to make a case for why it hasn't acted in its audience's best interests. Right now, that inaction looks indefensible.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon