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The first-person-shooter game pits terrorists against counterterrorists and was played by an average of , people at once in Its biggest tournaments, such as the ELeague Major scheduled for Jan. While other titles such as Call of Duty offer similar gameplay, one distinctive feature has helped fuel Counter-Strike's growth: collectible items in the game called "skins.
Users can buy, sell and trade the skins, and those used by pros become hotly demanded. Some can fetch thousands of dollars in online marketplaces. Valve controls the skins market. Every few months, it releases an update to Counter-Strike with new designs. It decides how many of each skin get produced and pockets a 15 percent fee every time one gets bought or sold on its official marketplace, called Steam. Valve even offers stock tickers that monitor the skins' constantly shifting values.
But Valve also leaves a door open into the programming of its virtual world, one that allows skins to move out of Steam and into a murky constellation of gambling websites, where they're used as currency. Here, the games are simple, the action is fast and new sites open as soon as others close. Plenty of adults visit these sites, but with virtually no age restrictions, kids are also able to gamble their skins -- often bought with a parent's credit card -- on slots, dice, coin flips or roulette spins.
At least one site even has pro sports betting. None of this could happen without Valve, a privately held company run by its charismatic co-founder, Gabe Newell. As they sipped cocktails in the Hollywood Hills that day in , Martin and Cassell decided that as long as the casino was open, they would get their cut. Counter-Strike shook up the world of first-person-shooter games when it was introduced in Unlike other war titles made for PCs, it emphasized a striking realism.
Its designers slowed the game's pace so the conflicts had more tension. And it emphasized teamwork, allowing players to become skilled at working together. In its earliest form, Counter-Strike limited gamers to a menu of nine weapons and a handful of maps. But as fans began suggesting improvements and game technology advanced, Valve added rocket launchers and grenades and more elaborate plots.
Counter-Strike became the company's most visible title as well as the anchor for Steam, which opened in A decade after its introduction, though, what was once novel had become commonplace in a crowd of first-person-shooter games. The following is an edited version of a piece from the Spring issue of Howler, a quarterly mag about soccer. Elijah Ballard was in sixth grade in St. Louis when he used his father's Visa card to open a Steam account and download the game in But now players could buy new decorative covers for them, known as skins.
The idea wasn't original; Valve had similar items in an earlier game, Team Fortress 2. But the way these skins were won was new and exciting. Thousands of skin variations now exist. During the course of play, gamers can get access to locked cases with as many as two dozen skins inside. It's easy to come away with a common one that might be valued at a few cents, but some are so rare they can fetch thousands of dollars.
Using his father's credit card, Elijah started buying keys in the hopes of getting a skin for his Tec-9 gun called the Nuclear Threat. Valve doesn't technically sell its skins for cash. Instead, every dollar deposited to a player's account gets converted to Steam credits, which can then be traded on the site for skins, other games or ancillary products.
Once dollars become credits, the company does not convert them back. That trade-off was fine for most. But it became frustrating for players who wanted to cash out their gains for real money. Here, some saw opportunity: Valve operates Steam on what is called an "application programming interface," a bridge that lets third-party developers engage with a platform. Facebook's API, for instance, allows outside companies to design the myriad apps that link into the service. It's referred to as an "open API," meaning that the programming code is publicly available and accessible.
While Steam's open API allows users to do positive things -- many suggest new skins or maps or avatars -- it also leaves the door open for mischief. Outside sites can cross Valve's bridge to insert "bots," or automated programs, which allow gamers to transfer their skins from their Steam accounts to the other sites. There, they could be cashed out for real money. OPSkins, for instance, is an eBay-like peer-to-peer platform where users can freely buy and sell to one another.
With the open door in place, the skins market outside of Steam is free to set whatever prices it wants. Tom Cassell, 23, left and Trevor Martin, 24, right rocketed to fame as teens by streaming themselves playing video games and now are two of the most recognized gamers on YouTube. All this free-market buying and selling made CS:GO white-hot. Seven months after the arms update was unveiled in August , Valve had , users playing it at once -- a sixfold increase from a year earlier.
The skin trade meant a river of new revenue for Valve, which profited from game sales and the fees it collected, not to mention new visitors to Steam. But it also created opportunities for entrepreneurs who were imagining other uses for skins -- namely, betting. Since he already had a Steam account tied to his father's credit card, it was simple enough for Elijah to open a CSGO Lounge account and transfer his skins into it. If he lost his bets, he could buy more skins on Steam and move them back to the gambling site.
And since Elijah kept his wagers small -- five bucks of skins here, 10 bucks there -- his father, Grady, shrugged when he started seeing a few minor charges from a company called Steam on his Visa bill. Figuring he should catch up, he created a program to track the number of skins being bet on tournaments and tabulated their values over a few days.
What he got back perplexed him. Grove tracked the site for an entire week. It showed the same thing. What Grove hadn't yet grasped, though he soon would, was how much of that money had already moved past sites like CSGO Lounge, where gamblers were betting skins on the outcome of Counter-Strike matches and tournaments, to websites that offered far more addictive games. In the prior year, Elijah had made the jump to the new casino-style websites. Who in his right mind would have thought he was compulsively gambling?
In early , after he turned 14, he set his sights on two knife skins that he saw a professional player use on Twitch -- a Karambit Doppler and an M9 Bayonet Doppler. He billed the remaining cost of the skins to his father's credit card. Elijah expected that "all my friends would see I had those skins and be like, 'Wow, dude, you're cool. When Grady Ballard saw the charges on his credit card begin to rise, he asked Elijah what he was spending the money on.
He yelled, "You can't just charge things to someone else's credit card! No extensive research has been done into skins gambling, much less how many of those who are hooked on it are minors. But Counter-Strike's popularity with kids undoubtedly puts many of them at risk. Timothy Wayne Fong, the co-director of gambling studies at UCLA, says that skins are a highly effective tool for hooking those predisposed to addiction: "These are available and affordable, and they're part of a highly rewarding activity.
Kids are "becoming gambling addicts at 13, trying to get [the rarest] skins," says Ryan Morrison, a New York attorney whose firm specializes in digital media and video games. In an effort to supervise Elijah's spending more closely, his mom, Brenda, opened a joint checking account with him. Elijah promptly created a PayPal account, linked it to the checking account and made it his new method of payment on Steam.
Brenda, who runs an animal rescue charity from her home office, rushed to the bank to cover the shortfall. Another time, after U. And it never, never was. At one point, Brenda called PayPal because it kept trying to bill their bank for the same charge, causing multiple overdraft fees. Brenda says that when she explained that her son was trying to buy skins, the customer service rep was sympathetic, saying: All the kids are doing it.
Along the way, Elijah became adept at manipulating his parents. But then, if I didn't immediately give him my credit card or bail him out, he'd get filled with so much anger that I worried he was going to break something. Once it became clear to Elijah that he needed more money, he began sneaking into his parents' wallets while they were asleep and taking photos of their other credit cards.
He figured that if he spread his charges across several cards, no one would notice. He did that on six occasions. On his seventh try, a cashier got wise and said she was going to talk to her manager. An estimated 26 million copies of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive have been downloaded since its debut. Illustration by Tavis Coburn. The sites that Elijah frequented all had relatively small pots. He could afford to visit others only as a spectator.
Cassell streamed himself playing a coin flip game called Duel. When it came up his way, he leaped out of his seat and gave a double middle finger to his computer screen in apparent glee. Martin seemed even more audacious. When four of the bars turned his way, he ran into another room, screaming, "Oh my god. Woooo, hooo, hooo, hooo! Despite an odds counter that showed him with an His reaction was earsplitting. Three months later, a computer programmer in Toronto saw it too.
He had barely 1, followers. But he'd been tracking a rash of recent reports -- including a widely read one on Bloomberg. In light of the news reports he had just read, he decided to look more closely into the new site on the scene. After a few keystrokes, he stumbled onto his own jackpot: Incorporation records online showed that Martin and Cassell were the owners of the Orlando-based site.
That night he made a video laying out his findings. He accused the high-profile YouTubers of peddling gambling to children and ended with an impassioned plea: "These kids, man, they look up to you. But we all know that's not true. Let these kids go to school, man. Martin was in his Orlando home when he filmed a video response.
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