One video game’s virtual weapons are now a currency for gamblers
▶▶Teens and others are betting billions on video game matches ▶▶“Nothing about Counter-Strike is about the game anymore”
The video game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, in which players break into teams of terrorists and counterinsurgents to shoot one another, is a favorite of the pro gaming circuit. A tournament that concluded on April 3 sold out its 10,000 seats at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, where the NHL’s Blue Jackets play, and generated 71 million online views over four days. In May, TBS and WME/IMG will launch their own league for CS:GO, as the game is called, streaming matches online and broadcasting them on TV on Friday nights.
Valve, CS:GO’s developer, owes the game’s success to “skins,” decorative virtual weapons bought through a lottery-like process run by Valve and traded among players or sold for real-world cash. Valve added skins to CS:GO in 2013, about a year after its release, and the game’s popularity soared. (It’s sold 21 million copies, taking in $567 million in revenue, since its debut.)
Zynga, Riot, and other game makers also sell virtual goods for use in their games. While those companies have put up barriers to prevent people from cashing them out for real money, Valve has created software that helps independent websites facilitate skin trading and sales. Whenever CS:GO skins are sold, Valve collects 15 percent of the money. Partly as a result of Valve’s support, the skins have become the currency of choice for a thriving gambling market. A slew of independently run websites now exists to let people wager skins on the outcomes of pro CS:GO matches or on casino-style games and lotteries.
“Nothing about Counter-Strike is about the game anymore,” says Moritz Maurer, head of e-sports integrity at gambling watchdog SportIM. “It’s all about betting and winning.”
Researcher Eilers & Krejcik Gaming estimates that more than 3 million people wagered $2.3 billion in skins on the outcome of e-sports matches last year. Unregulated gambling on sports is illegal almost everywhere in the world, and some lawyers say this certainly qualifies. Valve didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.
At any given time, there are about 380,000 people playing CS:GO. Sven, a Dutch 16-year-old, is typical. He and his friends play and watch pros play online. Sven says he tried skins gambling after a friend told him people were making tens of thousands of dollars doing it, and his interest in CS:GO has shifted. “Ever since I have been betting, I have been playing less, since I want to follow the matches,” he says. “You’re really hyped and hoping that your team will win. Every kill they get, every round they win, you get way more excited.”
Sven gambles skins on an independent website called CSGO Lounge, which Web analytics company SimilarWeb ranks among the 700 most popular websites in the world. (Thirty-eight million people visited the site in March, almost five times the traffic of popular betting website Bovada.lv.) Like most skins sites, CSGO Lounge provides scant information about its owners, user protections, or how it complies with gambling laws. Sven says he’s unperturbed. “I fully trust this site since everyone in the community uses it,” he says. “It’s even been recognized and helped by Valve.”
Based in Bellevue, Wash., Valve
“Ever since I have been betting, I have been playing less, since I want to follow the matches.” ——Sven, 16