When do Counter-Strike players peak?
Age comes for us all, even the very best players. So we thought it was time to see if there is a pattern...
CS:GO, you might have noticed, is not a traditional sport. It does not require elite aerobic performance or huge levels of physical strength. Yet, physical factors like reaction time still align with the psychological demands of maintaining motivation to ensure that performance, eventually, starts to decrease – even for esports players.
A 2014 study found scientific basis for this, discovering that the average casual StarCraft player's "cognitive-motor function" begins decreasing at the age of 24. But is this true for professional Counter-Strike players? Nick "nitr0" Cannella recently told Dust2.us that he "honestly [doesn't] think age matters anymore […] I don't see any signs of [Richard "shox" Papillon] going down downhill. I think you just play until you feel like you can't play anymore basically, and age is just a number."
So what do the stats say? Is nitr0 right in believing that age really is just a number? Or is there a defined 'sweet spot' for professional players?
Many of the graphics in this article were inspired by The Athletic's Tom Worville
First, a bit on methodology: Most of this article uses the careers of HLTV Top 20 players, who are generally teams' star players. This was done for two reasons: to reduce the sample size to make data collection feasible, and because measuring the impact of the star players who tend to make the Top 20 list is far easier than the intangible-heavy support and in-game-leader roles. KPR is preferred to Rating 1.0 to offer an undiluted measure of fragging power, while the Top 20 filter is crucial for excluding years like Tomáš "oskar" Šťastný's 0.76 KPR in 2021 for Sinners (he drops to 0.69 vs Top 20). It does mean we cannot use the data for the best players of 2012-14 (and most of 2015), but that is a necessary sacrifice to avoid results in tier two skewing the data.
Taking every HLTV Top 20 player in CS:GO history's KPR vs Top 20 teams from 2015 onwards then, there is a clear trend downwards with age. At the top of the leaderboard, with an average of 0.74 KPR, are the 20-year-olds. The worst performing age with a sample size of more than 8 is the oldest, 29, coming in at 0.65 KPR.
This is in line with what we might expect, though players peaking at 20 is a bit earlier than you might have thought. In terms of sample size (i.e. the number of players who recorded 25+ maps vs Top 20 opposition at each age), we see a more satisfying rise and fall, almost like a Bell curve, with it peaking at 24: The exact age the StarCraft II study implied our cognitive motor-function starts to decrease.
Using this we can establish a (very general) period of peak performance between the ages of 20 and 24 and look at some famous examples:
The careers of Christopher "GeT_RiGhT" Alesund, Kenny "kennyS" Schrub, Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer, and Marcelo "coldzera" David seem to fit with this idea of a 'sweet spot' in your early 20s. kennyS turned 25 in 2020, and it was also the first year he dipped below a 0.72 KPR. For olofmeister, it was the year of his 26th birthday that he fell from a 0.73 KPR to 0.66. coldzera's peak lasted one year longer, falling to 0.67 in the year he turned 27.
There are exceptions: Players like Nemanja "huNter-" Kovač, Rafael "saffee" Costa, and Valdemar "valde" Bjørn Vangså arrive in tier one well into their 20s, while Markus "Kjaerbye" Kjærbye had already been Dignitas' star player for a year, got his big move to Astralis, and then won a Major MVP before his 19th birthday. Patrik "f0rest" Lindberg defied age longer than most, maintaining his status as one of the world's best for more than a decade and never recording a 'poor' KPR.
Abay "HObbit" Khassenov seemed to be fading into obscurity after winning a major with Gambit but has returned to form as the experienced member of a new era for the organisation. Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev has never dropped below a 0.8 and doesn't look like he will any time soon.
But, ultimately, these players are just that: Exceptions. f0rest is the only player to record more than a 0.70 KPR against Top 20 opposition in his 30s in our sample. No player has made the Top 20 list after hitting the age of 29; the only two to do so at 28 were f0rest and Filip "NEO" Kubski, two of the greatest players of all time.
Of course, this does not mean that players suddenly lose all ability on their 25th birthday. More often than not it's a slow decline — but it is a steady one. And given that Nicolai "device" Reedtz is 26, Nikola "NiKo" Kovač 25, and s1mple 24 this brings into question how long our superstars can maintain their superhuman level. device's 2021 – aged 26 – was his worst to date and the evidence for the majority of players suggests it is a decline that is hard to reverse.
Still, it would be foolish to assume that device has entered a decline, or to predict when his superstar companions might begin theirs. device could very well bounce back from his caveat-filled 2021 to be the next f0rest, competing at the very top in star roles well into his 30s. Ultimately, though, not everyone can; motivation is finite, as is skill. For the vast majority of players, it seems difficult to maintain star power into their late 20s.
Something I have failed to mention so far is what happens when this decline begins. GeT_RiGhT and f0rest went into soft retirement with Dignitas once they could not justify their star roles in Ninjas in Pyjamas, but this is not the only route. The transition from star to support is another route, followed to great effect by olofmeister who won seven trophies in FaZe from a more supportive role and nitr0's own teammate shox. coldzera, Dan "apEX" Madesclaire, and Robin "flusha" Rönnquist have all gone down the other obvious path, towards in-game-leadership. Richard "Xizt" Landström is now Heroic's coach.
A decline in fragging power does not necessitate a decline in impact, even for those players who are used to being at the top of the scoreboard. What it does indicate, though, is that as players age, for whatever reason, most players cannot maintain the high standards of their mid-20s and are forced to find impact outside of pure fragging. This process of star players transitioning to different roles is crucial for a healthy scene, as veterans pass their expertise along generational lines. Looking at today's Top 20 teams, including the less frag-heavy parts of a team, we see the effect of this:
In-game-leaders, as we'd expect, average out older than our Top 20 player 'sweet spot', with Marco "Snappi" Pfeiffer and Finn "karrigan" Andersen as good as ever despite being in their 30s. 20-year-old Vladislav "nafany" Gorshkov bucks the trend, but across the whole group age is less of a factor in a role where fragging is secondary to experience. Today's riflers and AWPers reflect the same trend observed in the star players of years gone by: A cluster around their early-to-mid 20s.
When it comes to team composition, this has some interesting ramifications. Natus Vincere's team composition sits perfectly in the 'sweet spot' of 20 to 24-year-olds, as do Outsiders. Heroic's riflers are all in the 'sweet spot' with in-game-leader Casper "cadiaN" Møller outside it, which might be an even better way to build the 'ideal' team.
Naturally, this is not an exhaustive analysis; age does not equal experience, after all. Heroic and Players' COVID-induced LAN inexperience suggests that their star players are at the beginning of their peaks rather than the middle that this chart suggests. Players like huNter- and NiKo, on an eye test, seem slap-bang in the middle of their peak years. The best team in the world, FaZe, combines the LAN and stage experience of Håvard "rain" Nygaard and karrigan with a trio of stars in their early 20s, which is arguably an even better style of composition than Heroic, who seem to suffer under pressure and on stage.
Another thing to consider is that players younger than 20 generally perform just as well if not better as their elders across a year — though we might see different results if we apply a 'playoffs' filter. That caveat, and the small sample size (see the first chart), is the reason for the 'peak age' to start at 20, given that most teenagers do need to wait until their 20s before getting their big break on a Top 30 team or cracking into the HLTV Top 20 list.
But, for the likes of Valeriy "b1t" Vakhovskiy, Ilya "m0NESY" Osipov, and Shahar "flameZ" Shushan who are already star players in the professional circuit, it is not a given that they will keep improving as they age. Other players who burst into tier one in their teens generally haven't: Jesper "JW" Wecksell's 2014 was his best statistical year by KPR, as was Kjaerbye's 2016. 'Peaks' are inherently unique; we are only trying to establish a general framework for the majority of players.
That does not mean, however, that we should be happy with an imperfect model. A possible solution is to look at how long a player has been 'active' in tier one CS, rather than age. It's fair to expect that a player's motivation — and hence performance — is going to dip after five years of high-level competition, whether they're 22 or 29 when they reach that mark.
As we can see, our Top 20 players start retiring after a minimum of five years in tier one competition (the orange dot on three years is Jere "sergej" Salo, who has dropped out of tier one but is not really retired). However, just as many players continue their careers beyond the five-year mark as those who retire and are good enough to stay in tier one. For players like shox, dupreeh, and apEX, 2022 will be their 10th year of tier one 'activity' in CS:GO; they are past their 'peak' in terms of fragging but remain motivated — and, more importantly, good — enough to keep a slot in a tier-one team.
These veterans, though, represent a minute sample size. As notable as these exceptions are, we should not assume it is the norm; every career is unique, each year taking a different toll on each player. Because of this, we must be careful when talking about 'motivation' in simplistic terms. As Elliott Griffiths has pointed out, a decrease in performance is just as likely to cause a loss of motivation as the inverse. It's all a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario, making it hard to argue years of activity are any better than age as a metric.
Returning to age, we can now look at age including teams' in-game-leaders and role players. When taking only the best rosters, those who have won a major, the mean age of the lineup is 23.11, and the median 22.79. Just 12.5% of major winners had passed their 26th birthday when they raised the trophy, with a whopping 75% aged between 20 and 24. Age may be a crude yardstick but we can clearly see the trend towards the early 20s in the best teams of all time, even when accounting for experienced in-game-leaders in the mean.
Counter-Strike is still a very young game, at least compared to traditional sports. The introduction of better player welfare and more efficient practice schedules very well might reduce burnout and extend the average player's career by a few years. apEX recently told 1PV that in his prime it was "impossible not to have 100 hours in the past two weeks," a workload that is surely unsustainable in a decade-long career.
Ultimately, though, quality of life improvements only delay the inevitable. We may not know when, but we won't have peak s1mple, Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut, and NiKo forever. Age may just be a number, but it is a number that gives us a reasonable benchmark of when players decline. Whether it is caused by indirect factors like motivation, or direct ones like a reduction in reaction time, it is too much of a coincidence that all the best players in CS:GO cluster are in their mid-20s, and have done so since the game's inception.
There will always be late bloomers and young upstarts, but that does not mean that age is irrelevant. In fact, it only makes the exceptions more impressive; f0rest staying at the top for so long is rightly celebrated, but even he eventually had to take a step back. The same fate will come for the stars of 2022 no matter how professional their regime or pristine their work ethic, but one thing's for sure: It'll be a while yet.