CS:GO in-game leadership is one of the intangibles that is the hardest to quantify in CS:GO. It encompasses a wide spectrum of different skills whether that be motivational, tactical, or structural. None of those qualities can be transcribed into stats. There hasn’t been a structured way of breaking down what an in-game leader does in the game. I’ve considered various systems in which to analyze and break it down. After careful consideration, I think one of the most applicable models to analyze CS:GO leadership is through American Football and how the play-calling works in that sport.
The Basics of How American Football Offense Works
American Football is divided into offense and defense. I’ll give a basic structure of the offense as that’s the only bit that is relevant to our interests. There are roughly three different roles: The line, the quarterback, and the backs. There is a set amount of time before each play where either the coach or the quarterback calls a play. They then set the line of scrimmage and then run a play either by running the ball or passing it. At that point in time, a few things can happen. The offensive line can analyze the formation of the defense, and can then call for an audible or go with their initial plan.
Likewise in CS:GO, the in-game leader is generally given the credit for making the calls on the T-side. Before each round, they call for a default they want to run. After that, they execute their plan, or get info and do a mid-round call. I’ll now unpack the different areas in which I see similarities so that we can see how American Football play-calling can help us model CS:GO play calling.
Line of Scrimmage and Defaults
The first thing we have to look at are the initial defaults and how they are called. In football, this is called the line of scrimmage, in CS:GO we call it the a default. The term default is used interchangeably to mean one of two things. It can either mean the most standard and safe setup that the T-side can call or it can just mean a spread out set that is demarcated by the how the team is split up (5 man default, 4-1 default, 2-1-2 default, etc.) The important thing to note in both games is that every setup has its own set of benefits and drawbacks.
In football, each formation allows for different avenues of attack. If there are more players on the line for an offensive team, then that could mean a run through the middle. If there are less players on the line, then that can mean that there is more offensive power with an additional receiver, but that also decreases the defensive the line’s ability to keep the quarterback safe from a sack.
This tradeoff is similar to CS:GO team defaults. To see why, I’ll take a look at some of Astrali’s defaults on Mirage. At a glance, Astralis run somewhere between 11-14 types of defaults. For now I’ll focus on the ones where they have players spread across the map. Here is a list of 10 of their defaults:
*Note: B is short for B halls. Mid is short for players sent towards mid. T is short for the T-connector area into the a-site. Pa is short for palace. The numbers in front of each letter shows how many players they send to that area
Looking at the numbers alone, it’s easy to figure out that each default has a specific attributes. If Astralis want to force pressure in B halls and potentially get a pick, they run with 3b-m-pa. If they want to take control of mid, they can run a b-3m-t. If they want to do an explosive hit onto the A-site, they’d go with m-t-3pa. The important thing to note is the amount of players in each position as the more players there are, the stronger the fundamental trading is.
Fundamentals of the line and trading
The first thing to do when looking at a line of scrimmage in an NFL game is to see how many players are lined up near the line on the defense. The more players there are, the more likely it is that the defense is going to call for a blitz. A blitz is when the defense tries to swarm the quarterback so that they don’t have the time to throw the ball. The effectiveness of the blitz is the defensive team’s ability to hide their intention of a blitz and by doing so, get a man advantage in the situation. If the offense reads the defensive formation wrong and doesn’t bring in the extra man to block, the team can get overrun.
In CS:GO, the idea of a man advantage is critical as CS:GO teams understand that trading or revenge-fragging is the most effective answer for power play situations. If the Ts can get a pick early, they they’ll set up a situation where they have the highest chance of trading into a site. For instance, at IBP Masters, Ghost Gaming played against FaZe. In one of the rounds, they got an early pick on Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer in B halls. They then converted the 5v4 into a B hit as they understood that all they needed to do from that point on was play their trade advantage to secure the round.
In general, the well-structured teams will revert to trade scenarios and setups after getting the man advantage as that’s the most advantageous play. In a neutral 5v5 situation, this still works. For example, Furia at the Americas Minor often did a 4 man mid stack on the CT-side of Mirage as their opening ploy as to counter the typical default of Ts sending three players mid to take control of the area.
This concept is critical to note as trading does come with it’s disadvantages. The primary one is a lack of info. For instance, one of the potential defaults that I didn’t list for Astralis’ T-side is 4b-m. In that situation, they’re primed to be able to trade into the site, but in return they have far less information as to what is happening across the rest of the map. The other disadvantage is that you decrease the amount of individual 1v1 duels your players can get across the map. This is important to note if a team has a high level of skill across the board.
The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd options.
In a majority of football plays, there are three receivers that are likely to get the pass. In this scenario, after the play is called, the quarterback has to set a priority on who is his first, second, and third options in the passing route. He has to figure out who has the highest probability of catching the ball based off the routes they are running, the defenses formation, and their individual matchups.
Likewise in CS:GO, each default has a priority list of actions that each team wants to take. You can either look at it in terms of the macro element or the individual element. For instance, in an Astralis 3b-m-pa, the flow chart often works like this. They take B halls and setup dev1ce to look for a pick first. The second priority then has the team move towards underpass and middle to take control of that area and from there they can have Dupreeh lurk into connector or be boosted into window and look for an opening. In both scenarios, Astralis is trying to get a man advantage as they know that their standard execute should win out in a 5v4 on either site. If both the first and second priority moves fail to get that pick, they then move onto a third priority plan, which can either be: an A split, B split, B exec, Fake, or a 4-1 with Dupreeh lurking in mid.
In terms of individual priority, Vitality’s Mirage is worth looking at. One of their defaults is a 3b-2m-d default. In this default their strategy is to look for favorable duels with their players. So they have each player set in priority in terms of who gets first, second and third contact. Their first point of contact is Mathieu “ZywOo” Herbaut. Vitality send him to B halls to look for a pick. Their second priority is Dan “apEX” Madesclaire who pushes up connector and tries to look for an opening if ZywOo wasn’t able to find one. Their third contact is Nathan “NBK-” Schmitt. Should either of the other players fall in their duel, NBK will look for a revenge frag by either looking for a duel from palace or lurking into the A-site from Tcon.
By studying the tendencies of a team over and over, a consistent pattern emerges of how a team likes to prioritize their strategies and tactical options that is similar to how a quarterback may prioritize their types of plays or receivers.
The Audible and Mid-Round Calling
After the line of scrimmage is set, a quarterback is allowed to kill a set play. If they see something they don’t like, they can kill the play and this notifies the rest of the team that they are going with plan B. In the case of CS:GO, this is most similar to what we call the mid-round call.
Unlike the NFL, there is a clear fog of war in CS:GO and players can get eliminated from both sides of the server in ensuing duels. In the ensuing chaos, the structured plan can fall apart and now it comes to the adaptation, reaction, and game sense of the players on the server. In this scenario, teams can often call a pause to whatever they are doing and regroup.
A good example of this was at DreamHack Winter 2013. CompLexity played VeryGames in the group stages and in the 30th round of the game, they called for a B execute. The hit came to a stand still and Braxton “swag” Pierce did a mid-round call where he told the team that they should go A as it was likely that most, if not the entire VeryGames team had rotated B. It was an epic call that completely caught VeryGames off guard and secured compLexity’s ticket to the finals.
Not only is that a good example of what a mid round call is, but it also shows that mid-round calling can be done by players that aren’t the in-game leader as the leader of that team was Sean Gares. In that sense, CS:GO is different to the NFL. In American Football, only three people are responsible for a mid-round call, whereas in CS:GO it is generally far more opaque as to who is making the mid-round calls at any specific moment.
Creating Favorable Matchups
There are times in a NFL game where it’s clear that there is a discrepancy in positions. Perhaps the running-back is faster than any of the defenders on the other-side or the receiver just can’t be covered by the cornerback. In those instances, the team will try to abuse this to its maximum effect.
This crosses over in CS:GO as players have varying degrees of skill. If there is a clear whole in the defense, then teams will exploit it. The most obvious example of this in 2018 was Na`Vi’s Mirage. On that map, Danylo “Zeus” Teslneko played on the B bombsite. He’s a fairly low skill player, especially compared to the top level of players in CS:GO, so many teams exploited the B-site of Na`Vi’s Mirage. To counter this, Na`Vi started to rotate Oleskandr “s1mple” Kostyliev into the site and punish teams that did this and created a gamble situation where if they blindly went B, they could just die to s1mple.
This is something to note as while most teams play more towards their own strengths and identities as a team, some teams do try to abuse discrepancies in matchups. In some cases they can find ways to antistrat specific player tendencies or defaults that the other team often use.
A majority of plays have tells. Key signals or moves that give away what the offense or defense is planning to do. In Football, that’s generally figured out through advanced scouting and the formations of the players. In CS:GO, it’s a bit more difficult as there is fog of war. So in CS:GO, every round starts with a battle of information.
An example of this in the early round is Nuke. A majority of teams generally throw the yard smokes, regardless of whether or not they want to send a player down secret that round or not. If they only did it on rounds where they did send a player there, then the defense could immediately read what their plans are and rotate accordingly.
Each sound cue, nade, and shot is a piece of information that the defense can read and extrapolate information from. Some players on the same team have different habits when playing against a smoke. Some spam through it, hoping to do some damage, while others play it more passively. By reading these tells, a leader can figure out who is playing behind that smoke, extrapolate the likely setup the CT is running and then abuse it. Finn “karrigan” Andersen revealed that he did just that against Astralis back in 2017.
In order to not give away information, leaders are focused on timing. Some good examples of this are Astralis and Mathias “MSL” Lauridsen. In 2018, Astralis often used set nade timings when they were on the T-side and then had a variety of different plays they could execute behind them so there was no single way to hard-counter what they were doing. In MSL’s case, he devised multiple executes that were all set to hit the same early timing on cobblestone. By doing this, it made it hard to read which site he was hitting and disincentivized teams from gambling one site or another.
Opening Up the Field
In both football and CS:GO, in-game leaders are trying to constantly manipulate the opposing team’s tendencies and setups. In a game of football, the easiest way to do this is to make a successful run play. By constantly making successful run plays, the defense will have to shift more and more of their defense closer to the line. This in turn opens up more space in the back for receivers to catch the ball.
Likewise in CS:GO, every successful tactic or individual play can force or alter the setup of the opponent in the following round. The overpass of Astralis 2017 worked on this principle. Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander devised a B execute on that map that was incredibly powerful. He has used this weapon to constantly force opponents to focus their defense on the B-site. This in turn allowed his team to take extra risks when taking control of mid, toilets, and the long area as so much attention had been forced onto the B-site. Astralis could also do the reverse. They had structured and safe ways of taking map control on the A side of the map and executing on the A-site. By doing this multiple times, they’d eventually force the CTs to commit more to the A-site, which opened up for an almost guaranteed round victory for Astralis when they switched to their patented B execute.
In football, each play is made in such a way that no single defense can counter them all and by reading how the opponent is adjusting their defense to counter one thing, the quarterback or coach can call for a counter to that counter. In CS:GO, the same thing applies. Tactics can continue to attack one area so that in a subsequent round, a different part of the map is open.
The in-game leadership and tactics of Counter-Strike have immense depth to them. It is one of the intangible aspects of CS:GO that doesn’t show well on the scoreboard. A leader can call a good half, but have the team be on the losing side of the scoreboard. This can happen for a variety of reasons from: bad timing, individual misplays, economy, or individual outplays from the enemy team. On the flipside of that, a leader can score a winning half, but call a bad half. For instance, they could call an A hit on Inferno without realizing there is a 4 man stack there, but win out anyway because everyone on his side hit their shots.
As that’s the case, analyzing and reflecting on the qualities of in-game leaders and how their playboks work has been an esoteric subject in CS:GO. By comparing and contrasting an NFL offense to a CS:GO offense, it creates a basic structure from which we can analyze and appreciate the depths of CS:GO.