Why Are Digital 'Counter-Strike' Items So Valuable?

Everything you need to know about the game’s multi-billion dollar market.

Gaming
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For decades, Counter-Strike has pioneered the first-person shooter genre on computers. From a mere Half-Life mod in 1999 to now dominating the Steam charts with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) averaging upwards of a million average active players on Steam, the franchise has held a special place in the hearts of millions. With the long-awaited sequel to CS:GO slated to release this summer — Counter-Strike 2 — a new set of eyes have been exposed to not only the game, but also its lucrative multi-billion dollar market that backs its digital collectibles.

The Ins and Outs of Items

CS:GO offers players the opportunity to customize their loadout — an array of guns, gear and accessories — with everything from highly-detailed weapon looks to music kits that replace the standard soundtrack. What’s unique about nearly all of these items is that they can be traded peer-to-peer or sold through Steam (the game’s distribution service) to other users for Steam credit, an asset kept within the Steam ecosystem. As a result, a player who shies away from a $20 USD costume in Fortnite may jump on the opportunity to spend tenfold on a digital item in CS:GO, knowing that they can resell it later. To understand the intricacies of the game’s marketplace, it’s important to know what items are, how they are acquired, their transactional uses and what exactly makes one more valuable than another. At its core, many elements of the market parallel real-world collectibles such as sports cards and sneakers.

Operating entirely digitally, CS:GO items are led by a few key categories: skins, special rare items, stickers and containers. Skins are special looks for specific weapons, such as an AK-47 with a serpent painted on it. Many of these designs are submitted by fans, with Valve — the game’s developer — selecting around 15 items for each collection it introduces. While every firearm has common skins, special rare items — namely, gloves and knives — are in a league of their own. Adding to the complexity, each skin, including knives and gloves, is given a permanent “wear value” that corresponds to one of five levels — Factory New, Minimal Wear, Field-Tested, Well-Worn and Battle-Scarred — and indicates how many flaws it has.

In addition to these designs, stickers can be applied to firearm skins to further customize them. For each of the game’s major tournaments, a new set of tournament stickers are released with designs of teams and players on them, while only being available for a limited time. Outside of these collections, general release stickers feature everything from cultural references to sought-after graphics. The primary way of acquiring skins and stickers, other than participating in secondhand dealings, is by opening special “containers.” There are various types of containers, each of which offers items from the collection it correlates to.

Acquiring New Items

With these elements outlined, let’s walk through the process of unboxing a fresh skin and equipping it for use. After completing a match, there’s a chance that the game will give a “case” — a type of container — to the player. Upon acquiring one after playing, a corresponding “key” to open the case can be purchased for $2.49 USD via the in-game store. In this example, if the player were to open the new Revolution Case, they would need the Revolution Case Key.

When opening this case, the game spins through a wheel of options that highlight the Revolution Collection’s 17 firearm skins, with a 0.26% chance of landing on its rare special item — in this case, gloves rather than knives. For the remaining 99.74%, there’s a 79.92% chance that it’ll be a blue Mil-Spec item, 15.98% chance of a purple Restricted skin, 3.2% odds of a pink Classified level and a 0.64% chance of a red Covert weapon look. On top of this, there’s a 10% chance the item will be equipped with StatTrak, another rarity level that tracks and displays in-game kills made by the owner.

In this instance, luck wasn’t on the player’s side and they pulled a commonly found Mil-Spec SG 553 | Cyberforce in Field-Tested condition. Fortunately for them, its specific “float value,” which determines the wear level, is relatively low and results in a darkened, but only slightly-scratched look. Now, the player can purchase a general release sticker to place on the Cyberforce skin in one of several designated places. If desired, it can be partially scratched-off to give it a worn-in look to match its Field-Tested condition.

With a skin acquired and a sticker added for extra customization, it’s ready for use in-game. It can be equipped for use on the Terrorist (T) side, as it is a weapon exclusive to that faction. With players only on the T side half of the time, as teams swap sides at halftime, and the SG 553 receiving select usage due to player preference typically favoring the AK-47 for its prowess in short range encounters, the skin is unlikely to see much action. However, if Valve updates the game to improve its efficiency or weaken the AK-47, the SG 553’s usage will rise and so will the popularity of its skins.

For many collectors, the beauty of these digital items is that, unlike real-world goods such as sneakers, you can use the skins countless times and it’ll be just as clean (or dirty) as when you first acquired them. So, by using this new SG 553 | Cyberforce, the player doesn’t have to worry about any consequences to its value.

Marketplace Activity

If the player wants to exchange the skin for another item, there’s a myriad of options that create what’s known as the CS:GO market. The most simple transaction for users is selling the item via the Steam Community Market. This expansive marketplace is a hub for users to buy and sell items from various Steam titles, however, CS:GO is the leader in the space. Alternatively, the item can be traded by connecting with another user and either sending a trade offer, receiving one or negotiating a deal in real time. Lastly, various third-party websites offer services that range from cashing out for real-world currency to unregulated gambling. However, these platforms have faced much scrutiny over the years for less-than-pleasant practices, resulting in countless scandals.

Circling back to the hypothetically-opened skin, the player can visit the Steam Community Market and look the specific item up. Currently, over 2,000 listings of this item in its Field-Tested condition are available starting at $0.17 USD, while over 169,000 purchase requests start at $0.16 USD. Operating as a middleman, Valve takes a cut of each sale, resulting in a list price of $0.16 USD converting to $0.14 USD in Steam credit.

Noting that third-party websites center around higher-end items, they may tap into various trading-oriented discussion groups across platforms such as Steam, Reddit and Discord instead. In this instance, if the player finds themselves using the AK-47 on the T side more than the SG 553, they may seek a similarly-valued AK-47 skin, in this case, the Safari Mesh in Field-Tested condition. After some time searching around, they may locate an interested trader with the skin and make the swap securely through Steam’s trading feature.

Factors of Value

What is it that makes CS:GO items a multi-billion dollar market? To better understand the value of skins, let’s take a look at one of the game’s crown jewels. In April 2023, a sale of a whopping $500,000 USD for two skins took place with both carrying the same finish: Case Hardened. The first is what’s known as a “Blue Gem” StatTrak AK-47 | Case Hardened in Minimal Wear valued at $400k USD and it was accompanied by a “Blue Gem” ★ Karambit | Case Hardened in Well-Worn condition knife.

This six-figure price is the result of a perfect storm of market elements. First, there’s the skin itself. The AK-47 | Case Hardened only appears in the original CS:GO Weapon Case, which first released in 2013. As a pink Classified item with one other Classified skin in the case, there’s a 1.6% chance of unboxing one. That’s not even mentioning the difficulty of even getting one of the cases it comes in. The original CS:GO Weapon Case is almost impossible to acquire from play nowadays and currently fetches over $100 USD per unit on the Steam Community Market. Considering that the playerbase is now magnitudes larger than in 2013, with over forty times the average concurrent players when comparing the case’s release date to today, the remaining supply is vastly outweighed by the demand, resulting in this hefty price.

Looking at the AK-47 | Case Hardened with StatTrak technology and a Minimal Wear condition, there’s roughly a 1.5% chance of it being this quality or higher. As a result, the starting price for a StatTrak AK-47 | Case Hardened in Minimal Wear exceeds $500 USD. Still, that’s a fraction of the item in question’s valuation.

Upon generating a new skin, a “PatternID” value is another element that is determined in addition to the float value. When identified, the PatternID dictates which portion of a texture appears on the actual skin. Only certain skins are affected by this value, however, with looks such as the Case Hardened series, it makes a world of a difference. Looking at the texture pattern of the Case Hardened — the template that is drawn from to create each pattern — the majority of it appears in a rusty gold, with various groupings of blue hues covering a smaller portion of the pattern. Most collectors favor the baby blue finish, though it only appears as the dominant hue for a small portion of PatternIDs. With this particular AK-47 | Case Hardened, a PatternID of 661 was generated, making it the “Blue Gem” that is commonly referred to as the best possible pattern.

That’s not all that this grail possesses: four ultra-rare stickers were placed across the skin’s upper. They’re a quartet of identical stickers from the Katowice major tournament in 2014 that see the Titan team logo in holographic form, a team that has been defunct since January 2016, thus no longer appearing in new tournament collections for over seven years. Each one is now extremely rare, appearing in an almost-extinct sticker container that was only sold during the event. Sales of this sticker in unused form are particularly sparse, with one fetching over $60k USD in May of this year. While rarely valued anywhere near the unused price once used, the tasteful application of these stickers on a true “Blue Gem” gives the total valuation a significant boost.

On top of the complexities involved with this particular look’s rarity, the AK-47 is a staple weapon of the game, though only purchasable on the T side. Beyond this, the reputation of a “Blue Gem” Case Hardened skin precedes itself as one of the game’s original treasures, before things such as float value and PatternID were discovered. Adding to the madness, influencers are known to do special unboxings and hunts surrounding this particular skin and other Case Hardened weapons, boosting its visibility and perceived status.

The Culture and Its Future

At the end of the day, a CS:GO skin is the digital clothing of a player. One can stick to the basics or hunt down the world’s rarest pieces, whether it be for their own satisfaction or to showcase wealth.

With the CS:GO market continuing to trend upwards in size across its ten year run, rare items have attracted unsavory behavior and significant outside investment that has noticeably impacted players.

Internet scammers run rampant in the modern digital world, and online communities like CS:GO’s operate as honeypots for these unscrupulous individuals. There are countless examples of ways one trader may trick another, from not following through on an unsanctioned cash for skins transaction to hijacking entire Steam accounts. However, Steam has fought back over the years by adjusting trade restrictions and minimizing the presence of automated accounts. Despite this, various manipulation techniques continue to surface, taking advantage of desperate or novice traders.

Counter-Strike Digital Item Market Breakdown cs:go cs2 counter-strike 2 global offensive skins cases stickers rare investing analysis blue gem special rare items ak-47 karambit factory new gambling steam community market valve release date

Sales of the AK-47 | Fire Serpent via Steam

As for the game’s investor culture, it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, players have seen the value of their inventories skyrocket over the years. Even if a player had only saved up the basic drops given to them, previously-common items such as the Chroma 2 Case have climbed from a market minimum of $0.03 USD to over $2.70 USD in less than five years. On the other hand, it has encouraged players of all ages to gamble on cases in hopes of landing a valuable item, despite the abysmal odds. Beyond this, some players are heavily invested in what is a speculative and volatile market, engaging high levels of risk that could have significant negative consequences if the market collapses to a significant degree like the crypto market in 2018 and 2022.

Moving forward, Counter-Strike 2 (CS2) looms as a key release of the summer that will result in the active playerbase skyrocketing. Thankfully for collectors, they have made it clear that inventories will carry over from CS:GO. As a result, many are anticipating skin prices to surge once again, though the market has already corrected for this and the actual outcome will be determined by how many players stick with CS2.

Valve has successfully created an ecosystem that feeds it a constant stream of cash, though each adjustment made now holds crucial consequences that require much forethought. No matter whether the world cares about a “Blue Gem” in 20 years, the Counter-Strike market has shaped a generation of gamers that has involved many living out their fantasies of making money by playing a game that they love.

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