IEM Katowice: Games explained

Watching a new esport might seem intimidating, especially if you haven’t played the game. However, that initial intimidation can be countered easily; most esports titles are deceptively intuitive and simple to understand. By breaking through that initial intimidation and watching a new esport, a whole new world can be opened up. Both CS:GO and StarCraft II feature epic storylines, incredibly high skill ceilings, and here’s the best part: you only need a basic understanding of the game to be able to enjoy both.

Let’s begin that journey. This is all you need to know to get lost in the world of CS:GO and StarCraft II.


Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is the definitive tactical first-person shooter (FPS). The game mode for the esport has barely changed since the first Counter-Strike tournaments more than twenty years ago.

That game mode, called ‘defusal’, features two teams of five with the Terrorists (Ts) attacking the Counter-Terrorists (CTs). Each map consists of a best of 30 rounds, meaning the first team to reach 16 rounds wins the map. Teams ‘swap sides’ after fifteen rounds, with the Ts becoming the CTs.

The objective for the terrorist side is to plant the bomb at one of two bomb sites. But to do so, they have to get past the CTs, who win the round if a) the 1:55 round timer runs out, b) the bomb is defused, or c) all five terrorists are eliminated. The Ts, meanwhile, can win the round by killing all five CTs or if the bomb goes off.

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The first twist - and what differs CS:GO from other tactical 5v5 shooters like Call of Duty’s Search & Destroy mode or Rainbow 6 Siege - is the game’s economy. But don’t panic: it’s not that complicated. We’ll walk you through it.

The basic idea is that the more powerful the item, the more expensive it is. The two most common assault rifles, the T’s AK-47 and CT’s M4A1-S, cost $2700 and $2900 respectively. The one-shot-kill sniper rifle, the AWP, is available to both sides and costs $4750 - meaning each team’s designated sniper either has to save additional money in advance or sacrifice utility.

Money is awarded for round wins, round losses, kills, and bomb plants or defuses, and is used to buy armour, weapons, and grenades. The vast majority of a player’s balance, though, comes from round wins or losses, with the rest as supplementary income. This emphasises the team nature of CS:GO - a player can get four kills in a round but if his team loses, he will earn less money in that round than an opposition player who made no contribution.

Each player starts the half with $800, forcing them to pick between purchasing a different pistol, a few grenades, or some body armour. Players start with 100 health, and damage is fixed until the next round. There are no respawns or health regeneration - if you lose half your health in an engagement, you are weakened for the rest of the round. This makes armour the only purchase that can directly save your life, which is why the majority of players purchase armour in a pistol round. Yet, a helmet costs $1000, so a ‘headshot’ is nearly always fatal for the unarmoured or half-armoured players in the pistol round. Because of this, and the fact that in professional play most kills are headshots anyway, there will always be a few players who might buy ‘utility’ in a pistol round, such as grenades, or a defuse kit (that halves the time it takes for the CT to defuse the bomb from ten to five seconds).

There are four grenades that professionals use: smoke, molotov, flashbang, and high explosive frag (HE). The HE delivers direct damage to a player. For anyone who sees the flashbang detonate, the screen will turn white for a few seconds, just long enough for a player to take you down which is why you might see pro players look into a wall or backwards. Molotovs set the floor on fire for five or so seconds, dealing small amounts of damage to anyone in them.

This leaves smoke grenades, which are the most important of all. They last around fifteen seconds and are mostly used to block choke points on both sides. For CTs, they can cut off the entrance to an area, forcing the Ts to wait behind it as the clock goes ever lower. The Ts can go through the smoke, but they are at a disadvantage because their screen stays grey for a millisecond - meaning the CT sees them first. For Ts they fulfil the same purpose, blocking lines of sight.

Here’s an image of a typical smoke the Ts throw. It lets them run into the bombsite with their back to the smoke, only worrying about what is in front of them. This blocks what is called a ‘crossfire’, where two players are holding the same angle from opposite sides, so their opponents will always have their backs to one of them, making it an easy kill.
Returning to pistol rounds, they are arguably the most important of a match because of the economy. This is because the pistol round’s victors are awarded more money, meaning in the next round they can afford far better equipment: more grenades, more powerful guns, and a helmet to go with their body armour. Meanwhile, the losers will only have enough for a pistol.

Therefore, teams will often decide to save their money for the next round, when they can compete with equal weaponry. So, barring a miracle - and miracles do happen - the pistol round results in a 2-0 lead for its winner, and a much higher bank balance. The losers, in round 3, have to then invest all of their cash into equipment to have a chance of matching the other side. So, if they lose again, they are forced to save their money and accept a 4-0 deficit. The pistol round’s winner, meanwhile, should have built up enough of a balance thanks to winning the first few rounds to be able to invest into the next even if they lose.

The economy, despite seeming like a strange thing to include in a shooter, is what gives CS:GO matches their ebb and flow. Momentum shifts from team to team as the half goes on, with economic disparity ensuring each round is different. The economy also helps balance the two sides; terrorists have cheaper equipment and access to funds that the CTs do not. For example, if the terrorist side plants the bomb but loses the round, each T is awarded an extra $800. This means that, in some very specific scenarios, the Ts can have as good a buy as the CTs despite losing the round prior.

This is balanced out by the fact that it is, generally, easier to be a defender on most maps. They start with control of the all-important bombsites and can aggress ahead of the traditional battle lines, meaning the T-side have to be cautious around every turn. Most rounds of CS:GO will start with the T-slide attempting to get ‘map control’, with the goal of pushing the CTs back to their bombsites, picking players off or pinning them back ready for a final assault as they try to plant the bomb. The CTs goal is to stay alive, force the Ts to waste time and gather as much information as possible so they are ready for that final assault.

This makes each round a tactical battle of cat-and-mouse, as each side takes space and tries to predict the next move of their opponent. Just how this micro-chess game occurs is a lesson for another day, but we have already given you everything you need to know to follow a CS:GO game.

Our final tip? Watch the game, and listen to the commentators and analysts. You’ll be shocked at how quickly you can pick up all the nuances and factors that go into a CS:GO match.

And if you don’t fancy going any deeper, that’s fine too. Just sit back and enjoy the headshots, the storylines, and the roar of the Spodek. It really is as easy as that.

StarCraft II

StarCraft II is, on surface level, all about strategy. Like Counter-Strike, it is an esport steeped in tradition - its prequel, StarCraft: Brood War was one of the first and most successful esports.

The RTS (real-time strategy game) requires a unique combination of rapid decision-making and enacting those decisions. Professional players regularly hit 300+ ‘actions per minute’, meaning they are issuing 300 separate commands to their units or buildings every sixty seconds. These professionals are not spamming buttons randomly like kids playing Super Smash Bros - each move requires remarkable speed on the keyboard and in their tactical decision-making.

But that is just the surface level, the first impression. Like every esport, the true heart of the game is in the players themselves, and the stories their journeys create. The story of soO is just one example. But, as true as it is that you can enjoy the storylines without game knowledge, knowing a little bit definitely helps. With that in mind, here’s a crash course.

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The first characteristic to note about StarCraft is that it is an individual esport: 1v1. Each victory and each defeat is entirely on you, meaning mental strength is fundamental to combatting that pressure.

StarCraft is a war game. In its most simple terms, the game depicts two players, with bases on opposite sides of a ‘map’, gathering resources to fund buildings and units, and eventually using an army to attack your opponent. Victory comes by eliminating the other player, although most esports matches end in a resignation.

Another feature unique to RTS is that, rather than taking turns as you would in Sid Meier’s Civilisation, the two opponents make decisions simultaneously in StarCraft, hence the ‘real time’ element. This is where all those actions per minute come in, you have to create your plan whilst trying to keep your opponent as distracted from his own plan as possible. This makes it a game of incomplete information, almost like poker - you have to make decisions based on predicting what your opponent might be doing, and if you lose that mind game the consequences can be catastrophic.

The mind games begin before a match has even been played - professional players all specialize in one of StarCraft’s three playable factions, or ‘races’,: Terrans, Zerg, or Protoss. Terrans are humans, Protoss technologically advanced humanoid aliens, and Zergs arthropodal aliens that form a ruthless ‘Swarm’. Most professional players play with the same race their entire career, giving them unparalleled efficiency with their chosen faction.

The three are asymmetrically balanced, meaning there are pros and cons to each. But, at the start of the game at least, there is symmetry. All races start with a main building and twelve ‘workers’ that can construct buildings. Workers also harvest Minerals and Vespene gas (the more scarce and hi-tech of the two), ‘resources’, which are then used to fund buildings and more units. By building more workers and more bases, players can increase their access to these resources.

The third resource in StarCraft that will be on your HUD is ‘supply’. This is the limit of the size of a player’s army, with more powerful units taking up more supply. Once the supply cap is reached, players cannot build any more units. Supply is increased differently for each race - Terrans and Protoss have buildings, while the Zergs have a unit in the ‘Overlord’. Speaking of units, all races have access to different units, but they do share similar categories - melee, air, ranged, stealth, support, special and so on. Variety in an army is key, as different units can cover other’s weaknesses or complement each other’s strengths. Units can then be upgraded with weapons and armour, which are displayed in the bottom right of the HUD.

Like we said with CS:GO, it’s hard to explain much more nuance without going super in-depth. And there’s a bucket load of nuance in StarCraft. So we’ll let you go now, and leave you with the same message we gave earlier: listen to the commentators. They know what they’re talking about, and can get you up to speed on all the storylines and complexities a new viewer might not pick up themselves.

Other than that? Good luck - and happy viewing. We know you’ll enjoy these two esports as much as we do.