Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

After teasing us for months about CS:GO eventually getting updated to use the “Panorama” interface that Dota 2 has been using since its Reborn update in June 2015, Valve has finally released a public beta of CS:GO with the new UI up and running. This was one of our big wishlist items for CS:GO in 2018, and I’m happy to report that it's pretty darn good.

Admittedly, the bar has been set pretty low for Panorama, as the existing CS:GO interface is nothing to write home about. It’s looked more or less the same since the game’s release in 2012; a ton of game features and their respective menu options have been added since then, but the overall look and feel of the UI has remained pretty static. Big structural issues, like the fact that you can’t navigate any of the inventory or loadout options while you’re in a lobby with your friends, have been left unaddressed for years, and aesthetically it’s about what you’d expect from a game released in 2012.

There are also a couple stylistic choices that seem a bit questionable, and not being bugs, they seem unlikely to be changed.

Fortunately, those days appear to be behind us, as the Panorama update is a complete overhaul that replaces virtually every UI asset. Going through the menus in the public beta, it’s hard to spot much of anything that hasn’t gotten the Panorama treatment, which is a good thing, since the end result is a much more modern-feeling game.

The visual facelift isn’t the only thing Panorama has to offer either. It also introduces some clever new features, like a landing page that shows you recent news posts (a common and useful element in most recent multiplayer games), some new explanatory tooltips, and a handy table that shows you what your teammates have equipped themselves with when you’re in the buy menu. You can now navigate the various pre-match menus while sitting in a lobby with your party.

It’s worth reiterating that this is just a beta, and as such, not all the kinks have been ironed out yet. A bunch of the console commands don’t work properly, there are a couple actions that will get you stuck on an inescapable menu screen, and there’s something a bit weird going on with the way your crosshair is rendered. There’s a big thread full of bug reports on the CS:GO subreddit, so it may be a little while yet before Panorama is ready for primetime. Valve has already released its first patch for the beta version, however, and seem keen to get it ready for final release in short order.

What's not to like

There are also a couple stylistic choices that seem a bit questionable, and not being bugs, they seem unlikely to be changed before the update goes live unless the community gets extremely up in arms about them. Foremost among these annoyances is the background treatment for the new scoreboard; in the old UI, the scoreboard simply darkened the area of the screen it occupied enough for you to see the white scoreboard text, allowing you to see through it fairly easily. The Panorama version applies a blur effect instead, making it largely impossible to see your crosshair or any environmental details in the middle of your screen. For players who tend to compulsively check the scoreboard during the round, this is a big downgrade, and looks an awful lot like Valve trying to fix something that wasn’t broken.

Another head-scratcher is the inclusion on the main landing page of a big, animated player model right in the middle.This format has become pretty ubiquitous of late, perhaps due to its appearance in DayZ and PUBG, but it makes little sense in a game with, at the moment, virtually no cosmetic character customization to speak of. Surely there are more fruitful bits of information this screen real estate could be used for in CS:GO.

Minor quibbles aside, Panorama has survived the migration from Dota 2 to CS:GO remarkably intact. Given how enormous of an upgrade it is over the dated UI we’ve been using until now, one gets the impression of playing a whole new game upon first sight of the new main menu.

It’s a breath of fresh air to see Valve taking big steps like this to modernize CS:GO. One of the longtime complaints of the Counter-Strike community has been that despite boasting similar player numbers to Dota 2, it never feels like CS:GO gets nearly the same amount of love from its developers, and I suspect an update like this will help assuage that bitterness in the hearts of Counter-Strike’s crustiest detractors.

Here’s to hoping Valve can continue shipping substantive, high-quality updates like this going forward, and we can all stop reading snide HLTV comments about how Counter-Strike is a dying game.

Dota 2

In April, a study of loot boxes by the Netherlands Gaming Authority concluded four out of ten videogames considered fell foul of the country's gambling laws. And while specific games were not named at the time, the regulator body warned that "enforcement action" would be taken against any games that failed to meet legal requirements by June 20. 

That's today, of course, and it now appears loot boxes in both Valve's Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2 have been deemed illegal. As reported by tweakers.net (via Reddit), players of both games were met today with a message from Valve detailing the sanctions. 

As posted by Reddit user hollandje, here's the message in full:

Dear Counter-Strike: Global Offensive customers,

In May, we received two letters from the Dutch Kansspelautoriteit, stating that Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2 contain ‘loot boxes’ that violate the Dutch Betting and Gaming Act. The Kansspelautoriteit accusation is different from how other countries think about loot boxes, so we hired Dutch legal counsel, looked at the recent Study into Loot Boxes published by the Kansspelautoriteit, and learned more about Dutch law. We still don’t understand or agree with the Kansspelautoriteit’s legal conclusion, and we’ve responded to explain more about CS:GO and Dota 2.

In the meantime, we have a threat from the Kansspelautoriteit to prosecute Valve if we don’t implement a remedy by June 20. The letters don’t tell us how to do that, but the Study into Loot Boxes does contain one rather simplistic statement:

"Loot boxes contravene the law if the in-game goods from the loot boxes are transferable. Loot boxes do not contravene the law if the in-game goods from the loot boxes are not transferable."

So for now our only practical alternative is to disable trading and Steam Marketplace transfers for CS:GO and Dota 2 items for Dutch customers. We apologize to you for this inconvenience. We hope that, after more engagement with the Kansspelautoriteit, they may refine their legal demands and we can find a solution that is less inconvenient.

This move follows Belgium's loot box injunctions, whose Gambling Commission also ruled against loot boxes in Overwatch, FIFA 18, and CS:GO in April. A deadline was not set in this instance, however it will be interesting to see how Belgian authorities proceed in light of the above.

Image credit: tweakers.net

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive got a major visual update today in the form of the new Panorama UI. Valve described the overhauled interface as "the most substantial change to the look and feel of CS:GO since the game was released in 2012."

"From the Main Menu to the Scoreboard, the entire experience of interacting with the game has been updated," Valve said. Unfortunately, it's not actually finished, and so this release only supports the "practice with bots" option, either solo or with a friend. 

As Dot Esports pointed out, this is actually the second game to get the Panorama treatment: Valve gave Dota 2 a Panorama update last year. In order to check out CS:GO's hot new look yourself you'll have to opt in to a beta depot, which you can learn about here

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

The long story of Counter-Strike is a series of minor but meaningful changes. Track the last few years of patches, and between hundreds of weapon skins, you see subtle but serious modifications to map layouts, recoil behavior, and anti-cheat. If you time-traveled a CS player from 1999 two decades into the future to play CS:GO today, they'd find it familiar enough: the AK-47 is still the workhorse of the T-side arsenal, the Nordic countries are still better at the game than everyone else, and de_nuke is still in the active map pool. 

If things continue along their current trajectory, however, that last staple of Counter-Strike’s identity may be the next casualty of its ongoing evolution.

Of the seven maps in the current “active duty” map pool—that is, the maps available for players to choose from at big tournaments—Nuke is by far the least popular. So far in 2018, 214 matches of CS:GO have been played at high-level tournaments, and of all those matches, only nine have been played on Nuke. The next-least-played map sees over double the usage, with 20 appearances in high-level games over the same time period.

These numbers didn’t used to be quite so grim. The map saw more play back in 2014, when 15 of the 111 games played at major tournaments were played on Nuke, placing it firmly in the middle of the pack compared to the other active duty maps. Since then, its popularity has waned sharply, despite a graphical overhaul and substantial redesign in early 2016.

What happened to Nuke?

Radioactive

When I pose that question some of the game’s top-tier professionals, I learn that there’s not much of a consensus on why the map has fallen out of favour. Opinions range from believing that it’s a great map and that people just aren’t bothering to learn the unique tactics required to be successful on it, to believing it’s a fundamentally flawed map that can’t be fixed without completely reinventing it.

French pro Nathan "NBK-" Schmitt, currently of G2 Esports, finds himself close to the first position. “In general I think Nuke is a very underrated map,” he says. “I think it’s a very interesting map [due to] its layout, and that it's very different and unique compared to other maps.”

Questioned further, NBK- offered a hypothesis. “The main thing, I think, is that teams are either very good at it, or average-to-bad on it,” he explains. “So those teams that are average or bad on it are going to be 70-80% of the teams … and the teams that can play very well on it will get the map banned because it’s gonna be a 100% win against teams that are a bit lower.”

There are serious issues besetting Nuke from all sides.

In other words, it boils down to how large the skill disparity is between the teams that actively practice Nuke, and those that don’t bother to focus on the map because it doesn’t see much play at major tournaments. The nature of the CS:GO tournament format is that each team gets to ban at least one map from being played during any given match, so for the teams that don’t practice Nuke, it’s a no-brainer to ban it when playing against a team that’s known for their Nuke play.

Nuke's uniqueness exacerbates this problem, too. The more ways in which the map differs from the rest of the active pool, the more bespoke strategies and map-specific knowledge are required to do well on it, and the more time a team would need to dedicate to practicing it if they wanted to catch up to the teams who already know what they’re doing on it. Nuke, with it’s unconventional bombsite placement and total lack of a traditional mid configuration, finds itself on the extreme end of the spectrum as far as divergence from the status quo.

The end result is that no one ever gets to play it except in the event that two of the few teams who do bother to practice Nuke happen to run into each other in a tournament bracket. Of course, this means that the map is stuck in a bit of a negative feedback loop. Because no one plays it, teams aren’t incentivized to practice on it, and because no one practices on it, no one wants to play on it when it comes time to pick maps during major tournament matches.

Vent

There are also criticisms to be made about the design of the map itself, from those with a less enthusiastic view than that of NBK-. Jimmy "Jumpy" Berndtsson, the current coach of Fnatic, finds himself in this camp.

“When they made a change, when they added the outer catwalk and everything,” Jumpy says in reference to the changes made in the early 2016 update, “I felt it was a bit messy in a way, because as CT you can hide in so many spots, and as T you can [attack] in so many spots.” This abundance of choices, he says, led to a higher degree of randomness in high-level play, because it became harder for players to know where they should be looking.

He’s more enthusiastic about the latest version of the map that was released in February, saying “With the new changes now, I really like the update … I think it’s more balanced in a way, you can push yard now and the CT can’t hide everywhere, and Ts can’t exploit going outer catwalk really fast.” It’s unclear whether these tweaks will be enough to break the aforementioned feedback loop.

There s room for more communication between Valve and the pro scene.

Another issue raised—one that will be far more difficult to fix with minor balance updates—relates to the overall layout of the map. On a normal Counter-Strike map, the two bomb sites that the T side must attempt to reach are generally on opposite sides of the map from each other, with enough distance between them that it will take a player a bit of time to run from one to the other. Nuke, however, is unique in the regard; its bombsites are stacked one on top of each other, occupying more or less the same footprint, but on two different storeys of the same buildings.

“Because of the levels, you can go down under and you hear them from up top, sometimes you’re just really confused, like ‘Am I hearing him down under, or is he above me, or is he to the right or the left?’ I think that’s the most confusing part,” says Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander, current captain of Astralis.

There are serious issues besetting Nuke from all sides. Some have to do with the nature of the map itself, and some to do with the nature of competitive Counter-Strike and how the map pools and tournament formats work. None seem to have an easy solution.

Fission

The good news is, in contrast to the widely varying views from the pro scene on what’s wrong with Nuke, their answer of what to do about it is surprisingly unified.

“I guess three or four times a year we should just sit down with Valve and talk about what we could do better at the different maps, and especially Nuke, because there’s a lot of people not liking to play that map,” says gla1ve.“If they’re planning on introducing a new map, [I’d like it if they] released it a bit before the major, let people try it out, then just have a meeting with all the final teams at the major and talk about the new map and what their plans for it are,” Jumpy echoes. “I know they approach some people, but they don’t have like a big meeting, just to talk through, to let teams open their opinions. I think they can learn a lot from the players, and I think the players can learn a lot from the developers.”

Even NBK-, who has few grievances with the current design of Nuke, feels like there’s room for more communication between Valve and the pro scene. “I think [it’s] important for the players to talk with Valve and tell them what is not possible on a map,” he says. “For instance if they take something out of a map, or they add something, or they change something, if most of the pro players see it as a problem, I think that should be where Valve decides to change things and listen to the players.”

The consensus is clear: Valve still needs to do more to gather feedback from the highest-level players of their game, and use that feedback to make improvements that will increase the calibre of play at the top level. Whether that will be enough to save Nuke remains to be seen, but the pro scene believes that it will be a net good for Counter-Strike in general, and has at least some chance of being able to revitalize one of the game’s most iconic locales.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

Bully Hunters was unveiled last week as a program aimed at combating the harassment and abuse of women in online games, a worthwhile idea that raised eyebrows with its methods. It was billed as a "vigilante in-game hit squad" made up of elite women gamers who would "beat bullies at their own game." Basically, players encountering abuse in CS:GO were encouraged to contact the Bully Hunters, who would then send one of their players to "infiltrate" the game and deliver righteous justice through a righteous ass-kicking.   

Noble goal, dubious process, and unsurprisingly it all went about as wrong as it possibly could have. Following allegations of toxic behavior by Bully Hunters members themselves and the resurfacing of tweets by representative streamer Natalie "ZombiUnicorn" Casanova containing homophobic and abusive language, sponsors and supporters quickly pulled out, the Bully Hunters website and social media pages went dark, and today the company behind it pulled the plug on the whole thing. 

"BullyHunters pitched us with a simple idea - let’s work together to fight online harassment. And because we believe that’s a noble cause, we supported it," Steelseries said in a statement announcing the end of its partnership with the group the day after it debuted. "It’s now clear that we didn’t do a good job in understanding exactly what we were supporting. And we’re sorry for that." 

Vertagear issued a similar statement, also on April 14, saying that anti-cyberbullying efforts are a worthy cause, and that it had hoped to draw attention to the problem and encourage the growth of a less toxic gaming environment for everyone.   

"However, the information that we received before the start of the campaign not only contradicted the execution of it, but we discovered after the fact that it was sorely lacking," Vertagear wrote. "Our biggest mistake was not thoroughly vetting the details of the campaign to ensure that the execution would be up to the proper standards expected, and we apologize for that and the horrendous results of this event." 

The Diverse Gaming Coalition weighed in as well, citing Casanova's Twitter history as specifically problematic. She has previously used what could charitably be called "combative" language in tweets, and a clip of her using a homophobic slur during a livestream was also shared to Twitter.     

"Various tweets show wrongdoing by host, Zombi Unicorn, which are actions that Diverse Gaming Coalition does not condone, although she was not solely to blame for the Bully Hunters initiative as a whole," The Diverse Gaming Coalition wrote. And while it was under the impression that the Bully Hunters would continue, it "does not align with our mission and vision statement as a non-profit. Because of this, we are deciding as of now, we are dropping as a partner from the Bully Hunters initiative." 

Casanova addressed her use of toxic language in a statement in which she said that, "due to the overwhelming amount of harassment, toxicity, hate & threats," she would be stepping away from the project.   

She also suggested that she too was misled by the campaign, specifically with regard to the statistics about abuse that it quoted. "Projections based on market size estimate of 32.7 million female console gamers in the US by YouGov, and 9.6 percent reported that they quit playing a certain game permanently because of harassment as reported by International Business Times," she wrote.

"Those statistics were extrapolated by Bully Hunters to express a point that sexual harassment has negatively effected more women this way. I used those stats from their posts and was told the sources would be listed on the site. I also didn't feel qualified enough to discuss them in depth, so I noted to watch the event to hear the licensed psychologist and guests discuss it better."

The cumulative effect of the damage was simply too much to overcome, and marketing agency FCB Chicago, which launched the program, told Polygon that it is over. 

"As this effort did not live up to our high standards, we decided to end this program, but hope the conversation it has raised around ending harassment in gaming continues," global chief communications officer Brandon Cooke said. He added that other involved organizations provided no financial support or sponsorship.

"In most cases they were just supporting the cause. SteelSeries helped connect us with a few gamers and provided some headsets for the live event. That’s all," he said. "One [host was paid], but the other was not."

Despite the outcome and the deluge of personal harassment she's experienced as a result, Casanova defended the goals of the project, if not the way it went about achieving them. "Love it or hate it, it did its job," she said. "It’s brought a lot of attention to this. It’s opened up the discussion to more people. Yeah, it’s brought a lot of trolls, but it’s opened the discussion."

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

The Time's Up movement that caught fire in the wake of #MeToo and allegations of sexual misconduct against notorious Hollywood scumbag Harvey Weinstein has now made its way to videogames, in a distinctly gamer-esque fashion. Beginning on April 12, a self-styled A-Team of "elite female gamers" calling themselves the Bully Hunters will offer their services to victims of harassment and bullying in CS:GO by infiltrating games and beating down offenders "through the sheer force of their unmatched skill." 

"The time for harassment in CS:GO is finally up," the group said in an announcement. "A collective of gamers, brands and organizations have teamed up to create a first-of-its-kind global tool that connects victims of in-game harassment with gamers who want to help, called the Bully Hunters. The Bully Hunters are a vigilante hit squad of elite female gamers who have banded together to end sexual harassment and abuse in the popular game CS:GO."

The campaign is backed by some high-profile supporters, including Twitch streamer ZombiUnicorn, a spokesperson for the campaign, as well as SteelSeries, Vertagear, CyberPowerPC, the Diverse Gaming Coalition, and the National Organization for Women. The members themselves have chosen to remain anonymous, however, in order to avoid the ironic but entirely-too-predictable likelihood of harassment and abuse, although a rep said—optimistically, I think—that team members will do their best to keep the heat on the field. 

"The Bully Hunters are prepared for the possibility of retaliation and are putting measures in place to combat that. They will not purposely incite or encourage additional harassment or abuse, and will only engage with harassers through gameplay, eliminating them from the game using their skills and talent," a rep explained. "Additionally, there will be a ratings system within the global tool which will allow both hunters and victims to rate their experiences, therefore reducing the chances of trolls infiltrating the system." 

Dunking on online jerks is great, but the real point of the exercise is drawing attention to the problem of sexism and abuse online. The Bully Hunters claim that more than 21 million female gamers have reported in-game sexual harassment, "including extreme threats of sexual violence and death," and while that number is an estimate, the prevalence of abuse obviously is not. Yet all too often it's brushed off as mere trash-talk: Inevitable, but harmless.   

"[The Bully Hunters] hope that through more conversation, fewer online gamers will tolerate this behavior and work to put an end to it. They are also calling on software companies to take action to no longer tolerate sexual harassment and discrimination in their games," the rep said. 

The Bully Hunters is meant to be a "long-term initiative," and they're looking to expand their presence beyond CS:GO, although which games they may move into next is still being decided. Naturally, they're also looking to grow their numbers. Signups will be taken at the Bully Hunters website, but they were clear that they won't take just anyone. 

"To become a Bully Hunter, a gamer’s statistics will be evaluated to ensure they can compete at a high level to eliminate harassers," the rep said, without delving into exactly what "statistics" will be examined, or how. "Additionally, their history of play will be reviewed to ensure they haven’t been reported for any type of in-game harassment with other players." 

The goal of the campaign is laudable, but since abusive behavior is Bully Hunters' Bat-signal, you can see the group itself being a magnet for abusers—especially since at least some of the action will be livestreamed to the world on Twitch. But maybe that's part of the point—to draw negative attention away from average gamers and let them know they're supported.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

An update to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive that makes a significant change to trading dropped last week in an attempt to minimise scams and fraud. Since then, a petition demanding a reversal of the changes has amassed over 100,000 signatures. 

While trading is used by all kinds of players, whether for profit or because they just really want a pretty gun, outside of the CS:GO community we typically hear about the worst elements, like automated Steam accounts or influential YouTubers endorsing gambling sites without disclosing their involvement.

“Steam trading was created to allow customers to easily exchange items with each other, and each day we see thousands of customers using Steam Trading in this way,” reads Valve’s blog post on the change. “Recently we’ve been looking into ways to reduce some negative unintended uses of trading in CS:GO (such as fraud and scams), with the goal of preserving trade between players.”

The change comes in the form of a seven-day cooldown. Trading on the Steam Community Market already comes with this cooldown, but now it will affect trades between individuals as well. Valve thinks that this will mainly prove to be an obstacle for these automated Steam accounts that mimic players, as “a given item moves between actual players no more than once a week in the vast majority of cases.”

Judging by the reaction to the update, quite a few players disagree. 

“Our whole community would like the trading rules to be completely reverted to what it was before the most previous CS:GO update on the CS:GO blog,” writes the individual who set up the petition. While one random player can’t claim to represent a whole community, the petition is still sitting at 115,376 at the time of writing. The update, according to the petition, “destroys trading interactions”. 

The tweaks to trading are still subject to change, however. “[W]e realize today’s change may also be disruptive to some players,” writes Valve. “We’ll continue to evaluate trading policies as time goes on.”

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

Valve tinkered with Counter Strike: Global Offensive's trading rules this week, and sections of the community are ticked off about it. Under the new rules, added in an update, any items you receive through trading will have a seven-day trading cool down, which stops you moving them on to another user quickly. 

The aim is to stop automated Steam accounts from trading items very frequently through third-party services, Valve said in a blog post. "Unfortunately, some of these third-party services have become a vector for fraud or scams. Unlike players, these services rely on the ability to trade each item very frequently. In contrast, a given item moves between actual players no more than once a week in the vast majority of cases," it said.

It acknowledged that the change would be "disruptive to some players", and the response of the community suggests it was right. A petition that says the rule change "destroys trading interactions as a whole", and that it should be scrapped, has amassed more than 90,000 signatures. The change has serious implications for CS:GO skin gambling, as well as for players that just want to do a lot of trading.

Prominent traders and pro players have also spoke out against the update, including Astralis AWPer Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz. He said on Twitter that the update would do nothing to stop scamming. "The only winner of this update is Valve and the money the market will generate from this."

What do you think of the change?

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

Look familiar?

Far Cry Arcade's map-making tools have already been put to good use. Mythic Counter-Strike map de_dust2 now exists in Far Cry Arcade's competitive multiplayer map pool, an impressive recreation by user Izoolee. Have a look for yourself in the video below, in which YouTuber Widdz plays a match on the custom map. You can see him look for the usual sightlines and, impressively, most of them are there. 

While you can't play the usual bomb-defusing objective mode, team deathmatch with Far Cry's showy arsenal turns de_dust2 into a much more lighthearted romp. Still, scream 'Rush B!' to your heart's content. Dust 2 just isn't the same without it.

If you're away from your PC and want to try the map for yourself later, you can save it to play for later from any web browser. Just head to the de_dust2 level page, log in, and hit the' Favorite' icon. 

Counter-Strike

All popular multiplayer games fight never-ending battles against cheaters. But as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive rose in 2014 to become the most-played FPS in the world, a few things made it particularly susceptible to hacking. 

As the 10th game released on Source (and the third mainline CS), there were already piles of knowledge on how to tamper with Valve's engine. Hacks built for ancient stuff like Half-Life 2: Deathmatch could, with a few minutes' tweaking, perhaps function in CS:GO (although Valve says they'd be trivial to detect). Design-wise, the traits that make CS:GO a skillful game of angles and accuracy also make cheats more effective. Weapons are highly lethal, so putting those guns in the hands of aimbots makes them even more devastating. And CS:GO's focus on information and stealth means that knowing the location of your opponent is invaluable—fertile ground for wallhacks.

CS:GO's fight against hackers is "important, valuable work" according to Valve, but if you've played the FPS, you may have noticed a couple years ago that things were beginning to get dramatically better. Not only did Reddit complaints and frustrated replay clips of cheaters seem to circulate less frequently, but the perception of cheating—as hazardous as anything to a competitive game's health—seemed to dissipate. We published stories of high-profile bans, along with news of thousands of cheaters getting banned in single waves. How was Valve purging most of these jerks?

"Cheaters didn't get the memo we were doing it, and players were super happy and we were just busting cheaters left and right. It felt so good."

John McDonald, Valve

In one of the only in-depth moments of transparency on this topic, Valve programmer John McDonald spoke at the Game Developers Conference last week in San Francisco about how he and Valve used deep learning techniques to address CS:GO's cheating problem. This approach has been so effective that Valve is now using deep learning on "a bunch of problems," from anti-fraud to aspects of Dota 2, and Valve is actively looking for other studios to work with on implementing their deep learning anti-cheat solution in other games on Steam.

Solving CS:GO's cheating problem

While between projects sometime in 2016, McDonald noticed that "The only thing the community was talking about was cheating," based on online discussion and a private email address that received mail from CS:GO pros. "It was this, just, deafening conversation," he says. The uptick in VAC bans around this period, McDonald says, supported what Valve was hearing.

To combat the issue, Valve and McDonald looked to deep learning, a solution that had the potential to operate and adapt over time to new cheating techniques—attractive traits to Valve, which has historically elected to automate aspects of Steam rather than hire hundreds of new employees to tackle issues like curation. What Valve created is known as VACnet, a project that represents about a year of work. 

VACnet works alongside Overwatch, CS:GO's player-operated replay tool for evaluating players who have been reported for bad behavior. VACnet isn't a new form of VAC, the client and server-side tech that Valve's used for years to identify, say, when someone's running a malicious program alongside a game. VACnet is a new, additional system that uses deep learning to analyze players' in-game behavior, learn what cheats look like, and then spot and ban hackers based on a dynamic criteria.

"Our customers are seeing fewer cheaters today than they have been, and the conversation around cheating has died down tremendously."

John McDonald, Valve

McDonald says that "subtle" cheats remain difficult to solve, but in building VACnet, Valve decided to target aimbots first because they present themselves at specific, easily-definable points during rounds of CS:GO: when you're shooting. This allowed Valve to build a system that captured the changes in pitch (Y-axis) and yaw (X-axis)—degree measurements in a player's perspective—a half a second before a shot, and a quarter second after. This data, along with other pieces of information like what weapon the player is using, their distance, the result of the shot (hit, miss, headshot?) are the individual 'data particles' that together form what Valve calls "atoms," essentially a data package that describes each shot. 

VACnet can't necessarily spot a cheater based on one atom, though. "We need a sequence of them, what we actually want is 140 of them, or at least that's what the model uses right now … We just take the 140 out of an eight round window and we stuff those into the model, and we're like, 'Hey, if you were to present this sequence of 140 shots to a [human] juror, what is the likelihood you would get a conviction?'"

Pretty good, as it turns out. Both players and VACnet report players for judgment in Overwatch. But when VACnet reports a suspected cheater, they're almost always a cheater.

"When a human submits a case to Overwatch, the likelihood that they get a conviction is only 15-30 percent, and that varies on a bunch of factors, like the time of the year, is the game on sale, is it spring break. There's a bunch of things but the point is human convictions are very low," says McDonald. "VACnet convictions are very high, when VACnet submits a case it convicts 80 to 95 percent of the time." 

A slide from McDonald's talk: a model of the relationship between Overwatch and VACnet.

That doesn't mean Valve plans to phase out its cheater theater, Overwatch. Both systems work together: VACnet learns detection techniques from Overwatch, McDonald says. "Because we're using Overwatch and we didn't actually replace all player reports, we just supplemented them, that means that the learner [VACnet] is getting the opportunity to evolve along with human jurors. So as human jurors identify new cheating behaviour, the learner has the opportunity to do the same thing."

McDonald adds that when VACnet has been recently retrained with player data to spot a new cheat, the conviction rate might be nearly 100 percent for a short period before cheaters adapt to it. When Valve quietly rolled out VACnet to CS:GO's 2v2 competitive mode earlier this month, McDonald says "the conviction rate for that mode was 99 percent for a while, it was great. Cheaters didn't get the memo we were doing it, and players were super happy and we were just busting cheaters left and right. It felt so good."

Large Hacker Collider

To bring VACnet to life, a server farm had to be built that could handle CS:GO's millions of players, loads of data, and grow as CS:GO grew. Right now there are about 600,000 5v5 CS:GO matches per day, and to evaluate all players in those matches Valve needed about four minutes of computation, amounting to 2.4 million minutes of CPU effort per day. You need about 1,700 CPUs to do that daily work.

So Valve bought 1,700 CPUs. And 1,700 more, "so we'll have room to expand," McDonald says, hinting at Valve's intention to bring VACnet to other games. Conservatively, Valve had to have spent at least a few million dollars on that hardware: 64 server blades with 54 CPU cores each and 128GB of RAM per blade. That's a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated $120M CS:GO brought in off of game copy sales alone in 2017, but it probably represents one of the beefiest anti-cheating farms built for a single game. 

The work continues, but from McDonald's perspective, VACnet is kicking ass, and has potential application not only in non-Valve games, but in other stuff on Steam. "Deep learning is this sea-change technology for evolutionary behaviour," says McDonald. "We think that it is really helping us get developers off of the treadmill without impacting our customers in any way. Our customers are seeing fewer cheaters today than they have been, and the conversation around cheating has died down tremendously compared to where it was before we started this work."

Early December 2017 brought a new milestone for the system: VACnet started producing more convictions than non-convictions in Overwatch. "The system works great," says McDonald.

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