Ever fancied yourself as a Counter-Strike master? Ever thought about going pro? There's a lot to consider, even once you're among the best players around. Professional gaming's no easy gig, and there's far more to it than simply knowing how to aim a crosshair at an opponent's face. As such, we've been chatting to Elliot Welsh, aka. 'wez' of leading competitive gamers Team Dignitas, to find out his ten top tips for moving up the ranks in the world of professional Counter-Strike.
1. Get your hardware sorted
If you want to compete on an even playing field, the last thing you want is a dated rig or sloppy internet connection holding you back. In a game whose combat is as finely balanced as that of Counter-Strike, just a slight framerate drop can be catastrophic. "Low fps can affect your recoil, bullet registration and smoothness of your game," says Elliot. "If you're stuck with a terrible computer, you don't really have much chance online against someone with a top-end machine. Also, a good computer and connection will be the same conditions you'll be playing on when you turn up to a tournament, so you won't have to adapt to different conditions when you set up on the day."
2. Find a team you get along with
Sometimes in life we're all thrown into a situation where we have to work with people we aren't so fond of. Like at PC Gamer, for example. Bloody scoundrels, the lot of them. But there's no doubting that getting on with your team mates is going to make things a whole lot easier down the line. In fact, it might even be better to pick friendly souls with potential to improve than switching in the cream of the crop without knowing them well. "Playing with people you get along with will make you enjoy the game much more, and undoubtedly be more likely to stick together," says Elliot. "Changing your lineup every month won't do you much good, even if you're replacing a player with someone slightly better."
3. Practice your tactics in the best environments
If you're considering competitive Counter-Strike, the chances are you'll already spend a fair number of hours playing the game. But practicing in the right environments is key to your continual improvement. Deathmatch servers are a good place to start - "You respawn as soon as you die, so you're constantly shooting and it's a good way to improve your gunplay," Elliot explains - and clan war practice is pretty much essential. Use a chat program such as mIRC to search for practice games against other teams, and try out all the tactics you've been mulling over in your head. "I'd advise having ten minutes after each match you play to assess what you did wrong, what you did right, and how you could improve," adds Elliot.
4. Watch demos of other players
Practice might make perfect, but there are numerous intricacies to Counter-Strike play that you may be able to pick up from others. Watching demo videos of other players is a great way to assess their mad skills without fear of being gunned down if you take too long to stop and stare. Professionals will have various different ways of moving, aiming, shooting and reacting to different situations. Just make sure you try out your own moves as well: "All players have different styles," warns Elliot, "and one player's style may not be suitable for you or your team." Demos from Dignitas' players can be found on their website.
5. Forget the rest, play against the best
It's always nice to win, so it might be tempting to select weaker opponents for practice matches. But this can be counter-productive. Unless you're playing at the highest level you're capable of, there's not a great deal of compulsion to improve - and certainly less you can take away from both victories and defeats. "Although playing against people below your own ability will still benefit you in some ways," Elliot explains, "playing against top teams will give you an insight into the level of professional play, and allow you to learn from high level players."
6. Communication is key
As with all team-based games, but perhaps even more so with Counter-Strike, it's important to be in good contact with your team mates throughout a match. A lack of communication can be the difference between a decisive victory and an embarrassing, crushing defeat, so talking to each other is tremendously important. But simply maintaining contact isn't enough: it's imperative to be efficient with your communications. "It's best to keep your calls about what's happening short and quick, and explain everything you know, such as how many enemies you see, if you see the bomb carrier, and what weapons they have," says Elliot. And be sure to get hold of a voice chat program such as Ventrilo or Mumble to utilise during practice: they allow you to speak to your team mates whether you're dead or alive, an advantage not afforded by Counter-Strike's in-game chat system.
7. Embrace the community spirit
You might be tempted to pour all your spare hours into improving your game, but there's more to being a professional Counter-Strike player than simply playing Counter-Strike. Your team could consist of the best players in the world, but if no one knows who you are, you're probably going to end up going nowhere fast. "Playing an active role in your country's Counter-Strike community means that there is more general interest, which means there will be more tournaments and therefore more oppotunities to practice in competitions and under pressure," says Elliot. "Also, it allows you to make friends to casually play with when your team may not be online, so you can still practice even if your team mates aren't around."
8. Master the three pillars of skillful combat
Elliot flags three key things to master in Counter-Strike combat: recoil, flashbangs, and smoke grenades. Counter-Strike's recoil patterns are very different to many shooters, and it's imperative to master the technique: "For most professional players, the general technique is to spray at close range, tap fire at medium range, and tap slightly slower at long range, all while moving in between taps to make you a harder target to hit," suggests Elliot. Meanwhile, good grenade use can make all the difference. "Again, watching a professional player's demo will give you some useful tips," says Elliot, "but it's always best to join an empty server with your team mates and practice them for yourself."
9. Financial advice
Counter-Strike isn't all about the combat tactics. It's also a game in which managing your money is key to high-level success. At a professional level, you'll need to make sure your finances are in check whether you're winning or losing, because ensuring your team is finely in-tune and well-timed with quick purchases is essential. Elliot's top tip? "If you find yourself short on money after - say - losing the pistol round, the best thing to do is save your money by not buying anything for one or two rounds, so you can save up enough cash to purchase a rifle and armour."
10. For goodness' sake, stick with it
It might sound obvious, but the only way you'll reach the dizzy heights of top-level professional gaming is to keep plugging away until you're good enough. It's a lot of work, and something you'll need to treat like a real job as much as play - even during those inevitable times when morale reaches rock bottom. "A lot of dedication is needed to become a professional," says Elliot, "and there will be times when you and your team are trying to improve and results may not always go in your favour. If this happens, the best thing you can do is stick together, and keep playing through it."