In recent times, PUBG has made history, thanks largely to Chinese players, by becoming the most played game on Steam.
In recent times, PUBG has made history, thanks largely to Chinese players, by becoming the most played game on Steam. This, in turn, brought up arguments about other games on Steam, especially how they don’t count players from China. We saw two prevailing arguments that seem to come up again and again. First, Chinese players use a special launcher that does not count players. Second, how come there’s no spike in CS:GO player numbers during the recent “Hello China” event? In our examination of this, we try to prove that those arguments are true.
Before we dive in, a word about SteamSpy. It’s a great tool that offers amazing insights, but it has its limitations. SteamSpy uses the country shown on the player’s profile as the data source. Steam users can optionally set that in any country they want, and it’s disabled by default. This creates self-selection bias and participation bias that simply render the data unrepresentative. As such, we are going to exclude it from our analysis and rely only on hard numbers.
China’s CS:GO and Dota 2 launchers
China is known to have standalone launchers for CS:GO and Dota 2. The region is walled off like an island, but is ultimately part of Steam. Look.
The Chinese launchers are a stripped-down version of your regular Steam Client. Both the CS:GO launcher and the Dota 2 launcher are available for everyone to download.
What may not be clear is that they are absolutely not necessary to access the perfect word/Chinese region. The normal Steam client can be used by simply adding “perfectworld” to the launch options for CS:GO or Dota 2. Any Steam account can log in through the launcher or the regular Steam client. There is absolutely no difference we can find in the way the client works. These launchers are fully managed by Valve, and the binaries are also signed by Valve. Both sites provide instructions on how to use the regular Steam client, as seen on the official CS:GO site.
Dota 2 players and regions
Moving on, we focus on Dota 2 since, unlike CS:GO, it provides a trove of information about its players and matches. One of the main differences between the two Dota 2 versions is the available regions. The Perfect World flag and the launcher limit the regions to only Chinese servers. Without the flag, the closest servers become Southeast Asia (SEA), located in Singapore.
Let us take a look at the entire history of Dota 2 matches broken down by regions. The data was collected via the Steam Public API.
We can see when Dota 2 launched in mid-2013 and, in less than a year, reached 500,000 matches per day. Initially, SEA matches made up around 40% of matches, while today SEA makes up between 70-80%. The overall number of matches remains roughly the same.
If we take a leap and assume a major chunk of the SEA player base is Chinese-speaking, we can add the numbers. On any given day, the SEA and China numbers account for 50–55 percent of all matches.Additionally, looking at the number of players searching for a match, we can see similar numbers of 50–55%. These numbers seem to roughly align with the percentage from the Steam hardware survey. This seems to make sense as the SEA player base is large, but none of the languages besides Chinese shows a high enough number on the hardware survey.
There is no doubt that Chinese players have launched PUBG to the top of Steam. As such, we can use the player numbers as a comparison to Dota 2 and CS:GO. We can see the peaks between PUBG and Dota 2 align perfectly. The player dips around 10:00–11:00 UTC, which is likely around dinner time. If the Chinese or SEA numbers were hidden, then that would not be the case. CS:GO, on the other hand, has a small hump. We can only think of two explanations for that. Either the player numbers are hidden or the player base is small.
CS:GO players and regions
The next piece of the puzzle fell into place thanks to the CS:GO dedicated servers, which allowed us to enumerate the numbers of players in each region playing on official matchmaking servers. They unsurprisingly include Perfect World servers in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Tianjin, which also match up with regions shown by the Steam Web API and visible on steamstat.us.
As can be seen from the chart above, the entire Asian region at peak time accounts for less than 50,000 players. In comparison, the EU North and EU East each have over 70,000 players. To top this off, CS: GO is free in China, only requiring users to verify their identity.
Streaming is big in China, and this will be our final stop to put all these numbers into perspective. The picture immediately becomes clear, even without the help of Google translate, just by looking at the game directories of the popular streaming platforms.
As can be seen from the links above, Chinese streaming sites are primarily dominated by local games during peak hours, with a focus on microtransactions. Tencent’s CrossFire alone was bringing in nearly 1 billion USD in profit for Tencent and is still holding strong. If you have not heard of the game, we invite you to check it out. Exploring the top games, we can see how CS: GO simply does not quite fit, even as a free game.
It was an interesting exercise to dive into the world of gaming in China. Ultimately, we were unable to find any evidence that Chinese player numbers are filtered for Dota 2 or CS:GO. The player numbers are there, but the player base is not. During our investigation, we came across numerous news reports claiming the numbers are hidden, including a recent interview with PLAYERUNKNOWN on the h3h3 podcast. Most of these places seem to display the same misinformation based solely on the fact that there is a launcher. We hope our findings will put this myth to rest.