How Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’s Economy Works

In Pop Flash, a series of insights into Counter-Strike: Global Offensive [official site], Emily Richardson looks past the amazing clutches and crushing defeats to understand the culture and meta of Valve’s everlasting competitive FPS.

Counter-Strike’s weapon skins are as numerous as they are glamorous. The very best in tactical fashion, they’re bright, they’re weird, they’re occasionally very expensive. Some of us don’t care for them, but many more do. They’ve been a phenomenal success, so much so that the rarest knives sell for more than the Steam wallet’s cap of $500, and betting and trading sites are springing up all over the web.

I’m gonna be straight with you now; I love the weapon skins. I wish I didn’t – I’ve spent more money than I’d like on stupid digital keys for stupid digital boxes. Some people know the CSGO economy and play it well. They make money on rare knives, withhold crates until they’re discontinued and spike in price… they know what they’re doing, basically. Me? I’m not one of those people. I just want a very pink, very ‘80s-disco’ style Karambit Fade so I can look cool. Or rather, so I can imagine I look cool.

Counter-Strike’s cosmetic economy is an intriguing thing. A week ago, I opened a case and it dropped a knife. My first thought was that I could trade it up with my old knife and get an improvement. I’m always wanting to get something better, something rarer. Why?

A while back I saw a fantastic talk by Bronwen Grimes, a technical artist at Valve. In it, she discusses how the small CSGO team implemented the item economy with weapon skins. She spoke in depth about how players value items and what Valve learned during the process. The first half is mostly a technical dissection of how they made the skins but the second half is about player value and how the economy’s shaped itself. It even details what they considered for customisation before weapon skins.

For example, the team looked at player model customisation, entirely new weapons and cosmetic mesh changes for existing weapons (so, being able to reshape the gun barrel, or the grip or the butt, etc.). They ruled out each of these. In Dota 2, you can always see your hero, so having a customisable character model makes sense – you get to appreciate it. But for Counter-Strike, only other players get to view your character and the team found that lots of changes to the models caused confusion. There were visibility problems and team-identification problems. The more skins were made, the more severe the problem would get. Entirely new weapons would cause major balance issues and push veteran CS players away from the format that they loved. And though the team got quite far with the weapon mesh changes, they realised that the silhouettes became confusing and hard to identify. Weapon skins, however, seemed promising.

We know now which weapon skins sell for astronomical prices and which don’t. We tend to like the same items, the ones that are flashy and colourful, and thus we drive the prices of these cosmetics up. But that’s not what Valve initially predicted.

In the beginning, Grimes’ team worked on recreating hydrographic camouflages because they’re fairly easy to do as a starter skin, and they imagined the CSGO community would value realistic-looking weapons more than, well, tacky-looking ones. I don’t use the word ‘tacky’ to be mean – I’m the proud owner of a Blood in the Water scout, so y’know. Tacky, in this context, works. And that’s what Valve realised.

Grimes goes on to describe how the team studied a vast array of source material, hoping to make realistic gun skins, like camouflage paints. Looking at the nitty-gritty details, they realised that there were loads of different ways to style a weapon.

Then came the revelation. As Grimes puts it, “In the course of gathering reference we discovered that… in the real world, people make things we found unattractive.”

She continues, “it begs the question, what do our customers want? The game’s art style is grounded in the real world and we’ve already gone down the road of replicating real-world finishing techniques. But there’s a really broad range of service providers in the real world catering to a broad range of tastes. In our game world, we’re the only suppliers and our taste might not match demand. So we needed to focus less on what we personally liked and more on creating a broad range of variety in order to measure people’s reactions.”

And that’s what they did. The first Arms Deal release featured an incredibly varied array of skins – from the deep green of DDPAT camos to the ridiculousness of the AWP Lightning Strike (a personal favourite). Grimes says that, if you only have one skin for a weapon, nine times out of ten you’ll equip that skin. However, some skins are disliked so much that people would rather use the default black weapon. These skins, Grimes notes, are all camouflage skins that look like the original hydrographic inspiration.

“So although we started off thinking military camouflage was really cool…” she says, “it turns out what our community really values are finishes that look more like paintball guns.

“We needed a reminder that although Counter-Strike is military inspired, it’s not a military simulation. It’s a sport. When our customers play, they don’t aspire to be soldiers, they aspire to be elite Counter-Strike players. So maybe it’s not that surprising that the closest real-world analogue we’ve got to our preferred aesthetic comes from a sport.”

This is a sentiment that, when asked, economy specialist and online marketplace researcher Dr Vili Lehdonvirta agrees with. “I used to play CS and I know that it’s a very competitive game,” he says. “I also used to play paintball, which is likewise competitive. Many paintball players spend a lot of money on cool looking gear, and nobody thinks that’s at all odd or inconsistent with the competitive nature of the game. Google some professional paintballers – those people look like peacocks compared to CS avatars. The same goes for cycling, sailing, motorsports, etc. Esports still have ways to go in this area.”

“If you looked at our content,” Grimes says in her talk, “you’d assume that we understood this from the start and decided to put the bright, visually salient items into the top of our quality tiers because we knew they had high value. But actually it was a risk-mitigation strategy. We were genuinely worried that people wouldn’t like the bright items. So instead of thinking of these as being sorted by value, we originally sorted them by risk. If you got an item from the top tier, you’d be happy because it was rare, even if you didn’t like the look. And other customers would be happy because they didn’t have to see bright items very often, since there were so few of them.”

So, why are some items so expensive they’re sold on external sites, away from the Steam wallet cap? Well, Vili thinks that people value items in games just like they value things in real life, and I’m inclined to agree. Logic would argue that a skin does nothing to benefit you, but there’s the same feeling of satisfaction involved that comes with obtaining something nice in the real world. And hey, a lot of real-world items don’t benefit you either. Consider how rare a knife is in CSGO, and then how rare some knives are compared to other knives. If you get one of those spectacularly rare ones, you have something valuable and unique that very few other players have. Not only that, but each skin is generated with a wear quality and even a unique orientation or pattern to the skin. This is where you see people on trading sites citing that their knife is “70% purple, 20% pink, 10% yellow”, has “great webs” or “looks factory new”. How each individual skin fares when compared to its siblings has a profound effect on its worth, creating a greater value disparity between weapons with the same sought-after skin. And this is something that happens across all economies.

Valve explicitly state that the best way to develop a flourishing economy is to have lots of different factors making a single item more or less desirable. For CSGO, these factors include rarity, aesthetics, wear quality, pattern orientation and whether the gun is StatTrak. Even novelty and nostalgia play into how players value a gun. Perhaps most important, though, is the weapon itself. Skins for the AK, M4s and AWP are most valuable because they’re shown on high utility weapons. This all contributes to an economy that fluctuates as different players value different qualities within a single item.

Meanwhile, other expectations were quashed, too. The CSGO team underestimated how many weapon cases players were going open and as a result the different quality and rarity tiers were thrown slightly off-kilter. For example, the Red Laminate and the Black Laminate AK-47 skins. The Red one drops from a case, the Black drops in-game.“The Red is two quality tiers above the Black,” Grimes explains. “Aesthetically speaking they’re very similar. If anything, the Red Laminate is more striking, making that two ways in which we would have expected the Red to have a higher value. But due to the volume of cases opened, there are actually more Red Laminates in the world than Black ones. The Red Laminate AK-47, which we expected to have a high value, is consistently around four dollars cheaper [at the time of this talk] than the Black. Exacerbating the effect is that the Red Laminate is listed at a higher proportion relative to the total number of them in the world. If you own a Red Laminate, you’re twice as likely to list it on the marketplace as the Black. Scarcity’s influence on price is pretty extreme. It’s one of the clearest predictors of value that we’ve got.”

It’s this valuable scarcity we’re all hoping for when we open a case in CS. “The crate and key mechanism of distributing loot is just basic gambling psychology,” says Vili. “A variable-rate reinforcement schedule, a slot machine. To my knowledge, it first appeared in a Chinese MMO ZT Online in 2006 or 2007. Today, it’s of course used in a wide variety of games as a tacit way of introducing a revenue-generating slot machine into the game that’s at least slightly integrated with the core gameplay. But as a developer you have to be mindful of gambling laws if it becomes possible to convert the winnings into real money.”

I’m not the type of person to enjoy a casino or slot machine. The idea of gambling money in a casino-style environment doesn’t appeal to me at all, in fact. But I do regularly throw money at CSGO’s crates. £1.69 for a key doesn’t seem very much, when you’re buying them one at a time. Besides, there’s always the chance you’ll get a knife and make your money back, right? Well, I’m not sure. I had a friend who played CSGO for just a couple of weeks and one of her very first crates dropped her that ever-desirable, perfectly curled Karambit Fade knife. Most of us aren’t that ridiculously lucky, though. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably just avoiding the ‘money spent’ statistic altogether.

So I have to wonder, could the cases be particularly bad for people who are more likely to form a gambling addiction? Lars Olson, a neuroscientist at Karolinska Institutet, gave me his thoughts on the subject.

“Some people are more susceptible to any and all forms of addiction,” he says, “be it alcohol, drugs, or behaviours, than others. This is because we’re genetically different, and in some the genes of importance for the reward system in the brain are such that the reward system becomes more easily “kidnapped” by rewarding experiences such as gambling. […] The problem is when we are exposed to drugs or behaviours that are even more pleasant than natural pleasures, because then the reward system rebuilds itself so we will want that even stronger pleasure more than the naturally available ones.”

He hasn’t played Counter-Strike, so I do my best to explain the crate and key system before asking if the relatively low set key price would have any effect on luring more susceptible people in. “It is of course more tempting if the keys are cheap in relation to the value of the items you find,” he says. “It seems you can ‘win’ something that is about 200 times more valuable than the price you pay. This, on the other hand, is less than in some lotteries. How addictive it might be has to do with many things, such as how fast the reward comes after your payment. The shorter the time between action and reward, the more addictive. Also, if the reward is coupled to additional sensations, such as sound or visual events. And how often there are rewards. This has been well studied scientifically for slot machines.”

It gives us something to think about. Personally, I find the current system enjoyable and fun within the context of the game and I can totally stop any time I like. Honest. With regard to external betting sites, like CSGO Lounge and CSGO Jackpot, I’m not sure whether they’re better or worse. On the one hand, you’re betting with weapon skins and not real money, but on the other, some of those skins are worth a lot. I got my first knife by betting four dropped Dreamhack Winter 2013 cases on the grand final between NIP and Fnatic and winning around £50 worth of skins. I traded the majority of them directly into a Gut Knife Night called Slippy. Where Slippy is now, I have no idea. Probably several players further along the trade route to obscurity and inevitable oblivion. After all, there will come a day when none of these skins are worth a dime.

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  1. Premium User Badge

    heretic says:

    Interesting, have difficulty grasping how people can spend so much money on these – but then you look at the Star Citizen madness and you realise that’s what it is, MADNESS.

    • Nereus says:

      People spend $600 on an iPhone when it offers very little real functionality over a $100 phone for what most people use it for. We all make arguably poor decisions with our money and at least this way landfills don’t get filled up with plastic and precious metals.

      • Xzi says:

        Good point-counterpoint, but I’d like to add that nobody needs either of those things.

        • orionite says:

          I’d argue that in today’s world you need a phone. Smart phone? Maybe not, but even that is getting to be barely optional, depending on your walk of life.

          • Xzi says:

            Well, specifically nobody needs the iPhone. The iPhone 82 or whatever ridiculous number they’re up to now especially.

          • Otto says:

            Nah, nobody needs a phone. I speak from experience.

            – Sent from my iPhone

      • Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

        Yes but an iPhone is a useful tool. You can organize, listen to music, take half decent photos, videos and even slow motion vids all on one device. All of which (except maybe the slo mo) I use on a regular basis.

        All a weapon skin does is change the color of something that isn’t even real.

        • Cinek says:

          Whoever buys these skins – is also using them on a regular basis. Very likely he spends more time using them then you spend taking photos and videos. And these are as real as your photos or videos. So really: there is little difference.

          • ButteringSundays says:

            Keep telling yourself that buddy.

          • Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

            I’m sorry, but you’ll never convince me that a different colou0red gun in a game is a useful tool. My phone is, many times over, more useful. I’d be more willing to liken these skins to people spending hundreds of dollars on cases that are different colours, which is still fucking barmy in my opinion.

          • Andreasrogles says:

            Are u maybe making money with your Phone maybe but the guns in this game is actually money worth some of them is ALOT of money worth… U can actually make money on “those guns” or what u wanna call them all im saying is that money people gets alot of money by opening those Crates in this game some maybe not but alot of people are ;)

        • fenghuang says:

          The fisherman living on an island who spends his whole livelihood fishing would value his wooden kayak more than your iphone.
          Try to see from the perspective of others who have other interests instead of just yours.

          • ButteringSundays says:

            Well obviously. I’m not really sure what that proves, is anyone here willing to debate the inherent value of a canoe? I’m certainly not. A digital paint job on a weapon in a game, however, can only have value applied to it.

          • Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

            This is a foolish comparison. A kayak will keep a fisherman alive. A Phone can help run your life for you, and generally augment your existence in the 21st century. A gun on a game that’s a different colour does nothing other than look good.

          • fenghuang says:

            Switch the kayak with a Wilson coconut then. Does that satisfy your pedantic nature? Or are you still unable to see that “One man’s meat is another man’s poison?”

        • fenghuang says:

          Switch the kayak with a Wilson coconut then. Does that satisfy your pedantic nature? Or are you still unable to see that “One man’s meat is another man’s poison?”

          • Jacksknife says:

            Buying a painting from a local painter is the same thing. You decide what the value is. If you find it pretty you hang it up your wall even though there is no real value there.
            The same goes for money. Money doesn’t have real value. It is an continuous exercise that determines the value of money. Furthermore it is only guaranteed by your government that there is value there. link to

    • secuda says:

      Can you really compare SC to cs skins? SC is crowdfunding and they need every dollar they can get to complete the game. so its not a matter of buying ships more then giving the company money in order to let it stay floating.

  2. BattlePsyche says:

    I really love articles that dig into the virtual economies of video games. Virtual markets are an important, but often overlooked, factor of gaming today and something I’ll use as a pro or con when investigating the purchase of a video game. Not that I’m inclined to make a killing from sales (I’m terrible in MMO-land with money) but a healthy virtual market usually seems to correlate to a healthy user base.

    At any rate, seems with CS:GO the closer a gun is towards a NERF gun in appearance the more popular and pricey it may be. I wouldn’t have predicted that at all, but then again, I don’t play CSGO!

  3. Gibster says:

    A similar conversation could easily be applied to TF2 or any number of other Free-to-Play multiplayer games that have a cosmetic system. We envy what others have that we don’t.

  4. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Very interesting article – always wondered why CSGO items dominate the Steam marketplace. Fascinating to see what people will spend their money – of course, its based on our personal value metrics.

    As an example, I recently spent a large sum of money on an antique map. Of course, from a functional point of view the map is useless and seeing an archaic rendering of the SW section of England framed on the wall brings me no practical benefit whatsoever. Most people would thinks this a waste of money. But to me, it has immense value in the satisfaction I get in owning and viewing such a beautiful and historic document. So I consider it money very well spent :).

  5. kwyjibo says:

    These skins are awful and no one has any taste. Just like the gaudy plastic bullshit people insist on covering their already oversized phones with.

    I wish you could disable skins from the game.

    • Jalan says:

      Running TF2 in DX8 mode will disable display of weapon skins. If there’s a god at all, the same applies in CS:GO.

      • Phasma Felis says:

        TF2 doesn’t have weapon skins. Do you mean it shows the original weapon model instead of equipped weapons? That must look weird for a Huntsman/Jarate sniper.

        • Jalan says:

          Actually, it does have weapon skins with the update they recently pushed (Gun Mettle). Any weapon from the Gun Mettle collections will appear as the stock counterparts if the game is running in DX8 mode.

    • banananas says:

      You’re absolutely right. Sometimes it seems to me that most people avoid formal purity and cleanness at all costs, or don’t (want to) see the beauty therein. Dieter Rams, former head of design at Braun (a German electronic goods producer), once proposed 10 rules for “good design”, one being “good design is as little design as possible”… which means “less is more”. Boiling something down to the absolute minimum, to the essence, taking away instead of adding onto, reveals the functionality of, and the interplay between all the necessary parts.
      But still, the majority adores garish colors and useless clutter, and keeps spending shitloads of money for it. Making people producing the useless clutter very, very happy.

      It just hurts my eyes when I have to look at all those Pikachu or Hello Kitty themed AWPs and I would be deeply thankful to Valve if they would allow some kind of console command to block the skins altogether.
      And that’s just my opinion, man.

    • LexW1 says:

      Thank god I’m not the only one seeing it like that.

      I thought that perhaps even basic good taste/restraint was dead (probably to a 720noscopeheadshot from an AWP) in a ditch somewhere. This shit is just plain tacky.

      I mean, I get the desire to look good, and the desire to stand out. I can understand spending money on cosmetics – most people do in real life, so why not here? Hell, myself I’ve bought cheap/minor cosmetics in games like Warframe.

      But none of this looks good. It doesn’t look cool, or classy, or well-designed or otherwise awesome. It just looks like tacky-ass shit that, yes, as the article mentions, people involved in paintball or motorbike off-roading might wear. So declasse. I mean god, I hate to drop my monocle in my tea on this, but really, aren’t there skins which just look awesome?

      What’s really odd is that visual taste levels in general in society seem to be rising. More people look decently dressed than ever, websites are more attractive than ever, TV in general is looking a bit classier and so on (I think we can thank Apple and Google in part for this). But here, in CS:GO? Apparently it’s some rogue ghetto of ultra-terrible taste. Or maybe the sort of mostly nerd young dudes (sorry Emily, still clearly the vast majority here in CS:GO land) who play these games just naturally are at the nadir of the taste spectrum.

      It’s not even like action movies these days aren’t stylish/classy. Just look at all the recent spy movies. Why don’t these crazy kids (I am so old) want to look like that? Why do they want to look like they just got done robbing the off-road motorcycle clothing shop?

      • Otto says:

        I’d have to agree, I always loved the camo skin submissions from the Source community years ago. When CS:GO started accepting custom styles made by other players, I had high hopes for really freakin’ awesome MARPAT camo sets and innovative black multicam patterns. Instead they’re full of cartoon colours and stickers. I’ve played the game a lot, never bought a thing, but there are some REALLY detailed skins and nicely crafted camo patterns:
        link to
        link to
        link to

        …it’s just that the average player would disagree.

      • banananas says:

        Ugh, touché! I see what you did there…

        Of course, it’s useless to have any kind of argument about aesthetics, especially over the internet, because it is all coming down to subjectivity in the end. I sometimes forget that.

  6. Xzi says:

    Interesting. I may have to play some CS:GO just to get one good bullpup skin and one good deagle skin.

  7. OmNomNom says:

    I will never understand how people waste money on shit that isn’t actually improving their game experience or unlocking content it’s bad enough in MOBAs and Hearthstone. I just don’t get it. It never seems to be the people that can really afford it either :/

    • Premium User Badge

      Awesomeclaw says:

      But it is improving their game experience. Weapon skins allow you to customize your avatar (which people enjoy doing), and people like to have and collect rare things.

    • Falcon says:

      I would much rather have access to the entire game and support the developers by buying cosmetic items (e.g. Dota 2) than be gated from content that requires hours and hours of playing or multiple purchases to unlock (e.g. League of Legends). I’ve played thousands of games of Dota 2 over the past several years, so I have no qualms spending money to support Dota and the scene as well as supporting a game without (in my opinion) abusive business practices. I refuse to spend money on and support games which gate content, have terrible mobile-style energy mechanics, etc.

      The cosmetics actually do increase my enjoyment of the game. Sure, I could have played this entire time without spending a dime, but when I have the expendable income then I have no problems spending it on entertainment, whether that’s an outfit for a character or going to see a movie or going out to a restaurant. None of those things are necessary expenses. I could eat cheaply at home for every single meal. However, spending money on those things allows me to get more enjoyment out of life, so why not?

  8. OctoStepdad says:

    I just skipped to the comments to say there are skins more expensive than what the steam marketplace has.

    I know when the Doppler bayo came out it was worth around 800 USD.

    I couldn’t tell you any of the off the market items now, I have been out of the skins game for awhile, but I still buy a key once and awhile.

  9. melnificent says:

    Seeing the rarity aspect within CS is interesting as valve have clearly tried to replicate the same thing within the marketplace (emoticons, backgrounds, etc). However they haven’t taken off to the same extent.
    I can go on my account now and pull up two emoticons and a background that are so rare they don’t even show on the marketplace or external sites. Yet they’d still only sell for a pound or two.

  10. Ringwraith says:

    Things being beyond the Steam marketplace cap is mentioned at least twice or so.

  11. Radiant says:

    Gaming Couture

  12. Premium User Badge

    alms says:

    those people look like peacocks compared to CS avatars. The same goes for cycling, sailing, motorsports, etc

    I’m inclined to write this off as utter BS. People want to wear the kit of a real team because they’re fans, or because, as that American Beauty character would argue “one must project an image of success”. Not because of the actual damn colors.

    Ultimately, they just want to project on themselves the emotional core brand values or whatever the marketing guys say it is, same reason why people want to drive BMWs or whatevers, because they think it make them look cool or part of a something-something club instead of just whatever-they-are on a 10-yo, second-hand BMW or whatever.

    I’m sure people do like their bright silly colored skins in CS:GO, but if you’re trying to sell me a parallel you need to make sure it actually matches reality somehow, do the legwork instead of just going “the bright silly colors, sports, sports, see?”

    • Premium User Badge

      Awesomeclaw says:

      It’s not the fans that are being talked about here, but the actual sportspeople. Look up some images of paintball tournaments: the majority of players wear brightly coloured and patterned outfits. The same goes for a lot of professional cyclists

      • Premium User Badge

        alms says:

        It’s not the fans that are being talked about here, but the actual sportspeople. Look up some images of paintball tournaments: the majority of players wear brightly coloured and patterned outfits. The same goes for a lot of professional cyclists

        This post is about ordinary people buying skins and their preference for bright colors over military/RL inspired camo and colors, which to me sounds fully understandable as the looks of military stuff are functional and not cosmetic, and skins are 100% a cosmetic thing.

        It’s the money they’re spending that makes up the economy.

        OTOH cycling pros and sailing teams are being paid to wear certain kits, ultimately by the sponsors. Same in motorsports, with some exceptions, vehicles typically use a livery based on the team’s sponsor’s colors.

        I don’t know one thing about paintball or paintballers so, for all I know, his logic might be correct up to that point, but it breaks as soon as he tries to generalize to those other sports.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Grizzly says:

    … I wish the TF2 team came to the same conclusion.

    • Premium User Badge

      Grizzly says:

      Oh dear, let’s try that again:
      But for Counter-Strike, only other players get to view your character and the team found that lots of changes to the models caused confusion. There were visibility problems and team-identification problems. The more skins were made, the more severe the problem would get. Entirely new weapons would cause major balance issues and push veteran CS players away from the format that they loved. And though the team got quite far with the weapon mesh changes, they realised that the silhouettes became confusing and hard to identify.

      I wish the TF2 team came o the same conclusion…

  14. Mat Burt says:

    Really interesting article, thank you. The consideration which goes into value-altering variables in a digital economy is fascinating.

  15. sabby says:

    after reading this article I took a chance on a few chroma 2 cases & popped open a karambit damascus steel. ww but still…. steam price says £203. I’m roughly 170quid up on my purchase price, a few keys and skins i’ve bought previously.

    From this perspective it’s a huge win – although I can see how people can get sucked in.