2019-06-24 Update: We've had a Valve employee confirm that Steam APIs and websites report all Steam users in player counts, there's no reason for certain regions to be excluded. See this tweet.
In recent time PUBG has made history largely thanks to Chinese players by becoming the most played game on Steam. In turn this surfaced arguments about other games on Steam, specifically how they are not counting players from China. We saw two prevailing arguments that seem to come up over and over. First, Chinese players are using a special launcher that does not count players. Second, How come there is no spike in CS:GO player numbers during the recent "Hello China" event? In our investigation of this, we attempt to prove that those arguments are true.
Before we dive in, a word regarding SteamSpy. It is a great tool that provides amazing insight, but it has its limitations. SteamSpy uses the country displayed on the players’ profile as a data source. Steam users can set that optionally, to any country they want, and by default is unset. This creates self-selection bias and participation bias that simply makes the data non-representative. As such we are going to exclude it from our analysis and rely only on hard numbers.
CS:GO and Dota 2 launchers in China
|CS:GO Launcher||Dota 2 Launcher|
What might not be obvious is that they are absolutely not needed to access 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 login via the launcher or the regular Steam client. There is absolutely no difference that we can find in how the client operates. These launchers are completely managed by Valve, and the binaries are also signed by Valve. Both sites provide instructions about using the regular Steam client as seen on the official CS:GO site.
Can you play Dota 2 on the Perfect World servers with
-perfectworld launch option? Yes. Why would any Chinese player use the launchers instead of the regular Steam client? Steam comes with a huge number of features, while the launchers come with a couple of settings and "Start Game" button. From what we can tell, a large chunk do use the regular client. This seems like a no brainer. How else would they play PUBG? It doesn't have a special launcher for China. Unfortunately, we are not aware of a way to gauge exactly how many use the launcher versus the regular Steam client.
In an attempt to find the difference between the launcher and regular Steam client we tricked launcher into pretending to launch a completely different Steam game. One that had no active players, and we were not surprised to find out that the active player numbers went up to match. That seem sufficient to close the case, but let move to numbers.
Steam Hardware survey
We checkout the Steam hardware survey, which among numerous hardware stats has client language stats as seen below. While writing this post we’ve noticed that numbers for December’s language breakdown changed twice, Chinese was initially 49%, a couple of days later 68% and then 63%.
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
-perfectworld 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 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. SEA and China numbers together make up 50-55% of matches on any day. 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 make sense as the SEA player base is large, but none of the languages besides Chinese show 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 dip 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 comes in 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, entire Asian region at peak time accounts for less than 50,000 players. In comparison, EU North and EU East each alone have over 70,000 players. To top this off, CS:GO is free in China only requiring users to verify their identity.
We ended up creating a tool to track the region breakdown for Valve’s matchmaking servers. This also includes Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead, and Left 4 Dead 2. Check out the new servers page.
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 target on micro transactions. CrossFire alone was bringing in near 1 billion USD 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 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 for Dota 2 or CS:GO are being filtered. The player numbers are there, but the player base is not. In our research we came across numerous news pieces claiming that the numbers are hidden including a recent interview with PLAYERUNKNOWN on h3h3 podcast. Most of these places seem to echo the same misinformation that is based solely on the fact that there is a launcher. We hope that our findings will put this myth to rest.
Huge thanks to Rossen for helping with the research that went into this post.