Is the modern AWPer really too passive?
The accepted narrative says that AWPers in 2022 save more, re-peek less, and go for fewer opening duels than their predecessors. But do the stats back this up?
The AWP is the most powerful weapon in Counter-Strike. It always has been, and chances are it always will be. Throughout the game's lifespan, no matter the unique style of the gun's wielder, the gist of AWPing has remained the same: It is so expensive that buying it necessitates reward.
How a player extracts that reward has varied, with the likes of Jesper "JW" Wecksell, Kenny "kennyS" Schrub, Ladislav "GuardiaN" Kovács, and Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo each defining their own styles of AWPing in the first five years of the game. But it was Nicolai "device" Reedtz, under the tutorship of Danny "zonic" Sørensen, who gave us the first glimpse into what modern AWPing would become.
One aspect of this was how studious device was, famously using heatmap data to kill FalleN nine times on Overpass in the PGL Krakow 2017 quarter-final. The Dane was all about efficiency, his style visibly less flashy than what had come before; every position device took was designed to give him the easiest shot possible. He also was one of the first to play the probability game cautiously, regularly choosing to save his AWP.
Of course, device was not the first AWPer to use a safer, passive style, but he was the first true superstar to play in such an efficient manner. His perfect positioning became just as, if not more, important as his already plentiful mechanical skill — how often do you see device have to flick to hit a target? This became a blueprint for future AWPers who operate within their side's system rather than above them.
And you can see why. Utility usage is so good in modern Counter-Strike that many of the superstars of old's popular peeks and angles are now obsolete. Any position where you cannot fall away from once flashed is now simply a bad position. Re-peeking has become a sin, and losing your AWP cheaply by dying doing so is even worse.
Even superstars like Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev and Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut tend to re-position rather than re-peek and risk losing their life and their weapon. In fact, the AWP is so valuable in today's economy that the likes of device's style, one that is considered passive by many, pales in comparison to the passivity of those that followed him. Opening kills are no longer a requirement for AWPers, with broky and Dmitry "sh1ro" Sokolov earning MVPs purely on mid and late round impact.
That is how the narrative goes, anyway. And, if you watch a demo of broky or sh1ro, it is a convincing one. Entry fragging is just not their role in their team’s incredibly well-oiled systems. They are their teams' closers, dishing out clutches and multi-kills in late round scenarios for fun but happily saving if trades don't go their way. They do not avoid opening duels out of a lack of skill, as watching any broky highlight proves; it is a deliberate choice to deploy their firepower more carefully.
This is illustrated in the chart below: broky and sh1ro cluster to the left of the scattergram, attempting far less than 20% of their teams opening kills. The chart also shows just how s1mple and ZywOo transcend the meta, both posting similar success rates but in far higher volume.
But this narrative still needs greater exploration — can we really say the 'modern AWPer' is passive when the two best AWPers in the world are aggressive rotators in s1mple and ZywOo, even if they rarely re-peek?
Taking all AWPers (defined as players with more than 35% of their kills coming with a sniper over the calendar year) with more than forty maps played on LAN in each year, there does seem to be a trend upwards. 2013 and 2014 suffer from a small sample size, but from 2015 onwards there is a steady but noticeable climb from an average of 35% rounds survived (or a DPR of 0.65) for AWPers towards the 40% mark (a DPR of 0.60).
An increase of just 4% might seem small but 2021's figure (which takes into account more than 20 players) for all AWPers is 38.6% — about the same as ZywOo's figure in Big Events throughout his whole career. The 2015 average of 34.7%, meanwhile, compares to Owen "smooya" Butterfield's figure in Big Events, a player who has been criticised for being too aggressive recently.
Among the very best AWPers — those that make it into HLTV's top 20 list — the trend is even more pronounced, with the six primary AWPers that made it onto the 2021 list surviving, on average, 42.17% of rounds. And that number of six, for the record, is the highest amount of AWPers on a top 20 list ever.
Over a wide sample size then, AWPers do seem to be surviving more in 2021 than in years gone by, so the data matches the eye test. Going in deeper, other breakout AWPers in top 20 teams such as Ilya "m0NESY" Osipov, Ádám "torzsi" Torzsás, and Aleksei "El1an" Gusev all have high survival rates (39-41%) and less than 20% opening kill attempts on LAN in 2022. Passive AWPing, it seems, is here to stay.
But why has AWPing gone this way? One factor is the online era, with its saving meta flattering some players' surviving statistics. But this does not make the data invalid — it is actually the whole point of the measure. Saving is a direct consequence of the increase in value placed on an AWPer's life.
Another factor might be the dominance of the AWPer in the upper echelons of the CS scene. For a while, it seemed like teams could get by with four strong riflers and their IGL as the primary AWPer. Mathias "MSL" Lauridsen's win at DreamHack Stockholm was ultimately the outlier for his North team but Nick "nitr0" Cannella's Team Liquid made the AWP-less team composition stick en route to an Intel Grand Slam.
Nowadays, an AWPing IGL must frag; Heroic and Virtus.pro's successes have correlated with strong performances from their captains. Heroic in particular have struggled against the AWP of s1mple, the Danes having last beaten Natus Vincere in 2019 when GuardiaN was still on the roster. nitr0 has returned to Liquid but it is Josh "oSee" Ohm who will wield the Big Green.
The lesson learned from G2 and Nikola "NiKo" Kovač's many grand final defeats to Natus Vincere is that s1mple (and ZywOo) cannot be countered by pure rifle firepower. In July 2021, after the departure of device to NIP, Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander said that "since we don't have [a consistent AWP player] I don't see us taking the No.1 spot for quite some time."
Since then, he has been proven right. Whether new signing Asger "Farlig" Jensen is that consistent AWP player they have missed remains to be seen, but his signing, as well as that of oSee, m0NESY, Rafael "saffee" Costa, and torzsi, reflect a scene that is pivoting back towards squads having a central sniper.
For this new generation — though maybe not to the extreme of sh1ro, broky, or Dzhami "Jame" Ali — dying remains the worst-case scenario. The modern AWPer values their weapon as highly as their life. Their preparation is extensive, and their risks calculated. To even have a chance to showcase their mechanics, they must fight pixel perfect utility explicitly designed to thwart them.
To return to the original question, are modern AWPers too passive? I would argue no: Passivity is an inevitable consequence of teams getting better at playing against the AWP. Countless factors, notably better utility usage and the fragility of the CT economy, mean that placing an almost unreasonable amount of value on your life is simply the most effective tactic available to AWPers.