The Mind-Boggling Science and Success of the Tactical-Timeout

A look into the historical importance of timeouts in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

OCT 03, 2017
David Scott
The Science

In the summer of 2016, the concept of Counter-Strike timeouts changed forever. It was during this time that Valve unleashed a set of guidelines which would totally alter the way players and coaches communicated mid-match. To counter the “issue” of players being able to be over-guided by coaches in-game, Valve introduced an entirely new timeout system; from there going forward teams were allowed four, 30-second long timeouts that would act as the only time coaches could interact with their players. Previously teams were allowed a single, one-minute pause per map, forcing teams to be extra-cautious when to and not to take their pause, with hopes of making the most out of it.

The original single minute “tactical-timeout” had undoubtedly been a staple of success in the modern gameplay of the professional Counter-Strike scene. Time and time again, games turned in the blink of an eye, allowing for 3-12 half point deficits to turn into mind-boggling victories. But how did the presence of a simple pause in the game create havoc for teams that had substantial leads and allow for a literal flip in the outcome of games, or even series? Before we can take a look back at some of the most astonishing results of the one-minute game changer, let’s break down the idea of the fairly old concept in the CS scene.

The one-minute timeout was most properly used when attempting to slow the momentum of your opponent, giving time to a team to restructure their soon-to-be gameplay. It’s always been fascinating how a minuscule break in the game can relieve pressure off of players, giving them a chance to regroup with each other and hit their brains reset switch. And with that, it should be noted that the idea of using a timeout to slow momentum isn’t just a Counter-Strike concept. In fact, there is a huge science behind how pauses can slow your opponent’s psychological momentum. In numerous psychological studies performed by separate science departments at both the University of Groningen and the University of Montpellier, when an opponent has an abundance of this “psychological momentum”, it vastly increases their incoming perceptions, the way they communicate within a group, and can seriously influence their mental and physical efficiency.

To give you a fair comparison that stands outside of CS, we can look upon the art of professional basketball. In the midst of a game, when a specific shooter is consistently making valued shots, one-after-another, they are typically labeled as “hot”, or “in the zone”. This phenomenon is mostly referred to as the “hot-hand theory”. The theory has a much stricter and well-built definition, but to keep it simple for the sake of my keyboard’s key-stroke life, it simply states that streaks and patterns of completed shots for any given player is a direct result of psychological momentum. Now let’s switch back to CS. I could name a thousand and one different scenarios where a team has built so much momentum on any one side of the map that the rest of the game seemed nearly impossible to overcome for the losing side. This was simply due to the opponent’s capability to string impressive executions and shots one-after-another, creating a phenomenon that could be labeled as Counter-Strike’s very own “hot-hand” pattern.

One of the only ways to stop this from occurring is identifying the perfect point in the game to present a timeout. It was WAY too often that we saw teams dig themselves into inexplicable holes, and either forget or wait way too long to take their pause opportunities. It also wasn’t uncommon to see teams use them TOO early, hindering their own momentum, and allowing their opponent to re-build their own.

A general rule of thumb for igniting a timeout was the “third gun-round rule”, (I really don’t think it has an official name, but let’s pretend it does). This occurs when teams lose the introductory pistol rounds, as well as the following two full-buy rounds. The most standard scenario for this would end up with a 7-0, or 8-0 score-line. Calling the timeout sparks new ideas and structure to flow for the third full-buy round, typically bringing your best chance at success for the remainder of that half, or game. In fact, almost every single study on timeout success through all types of competitive sports comes to a very similar conclusion. Taking the timeout at the correct time is heavily based upon the opponent’s short-term success. When a coach calls a timeout at the correct point in the game, it consistently puts a stop to opponent’s short-term positive momentum, as well as hindering negative momentum for his or her team. Using the timeout effectively to address recent mistakes, reinforce strategy and team structure, and attempting to improve motivation will surely assist in a more positive outcome of the game, and can solidify long-term success.

A Success Story

Over the recent years as Counter-Strike has been at its peak in audience reach and pure value of entertainment, us pundits and fans have been blessed with the opportunity to watch some of the most miraculous series of CS we’ve ever seen before. And for a lot of teams, failure comes prior to success, backing the overwhelming need for the tactical timeout.

My most vivid memory of the originally-structured timeouts is one in which literally turned around the outcome of a Championship. Sure, it’s undoubtedly difficult to keep my love and bias for Team Liquid CS:GO out of this, but the two timeouts taken during the Columbus 2016 Semi-Finals nearly spoiled my ability to ever watch Counter-Strike again. The tournament was so inordinately significant to North American Counter-Strike fans as the location for the event, Columbus, Ohio, would mark the first time a Championship would take place in NA. With that, fans nearly lost their minds when TL, who was pre-eminently marked as underdogs, made it out of groups, climbing the ladder to a point where they were one step away from making the Finals. Keep in mind, the TL:GO squad at major was still very young, unbalanced, and surely immature. There was no JDM to run the AWP, EliGE and nitr0 were still young and impulsive, and instead of Zews standing behind TL as he does today, he was coaching their opponent—the Brazilian Luminosity. Not to mention the team was at a constant unbalance for whom would play the role of IGL, and the addition of s1mple made things even that much tenser.

Nevertheless, the veto process went extremely well for Liquid, as Mirage was picked by the Brazilians, a map that Liquid was actually quite proficient on, and continued to use their pick pick on Cache--leaving Cobblestone as the randomized third choice. Let’s get this clear from the start, Liquid dismantled the Brazilian’s attempts at setting the pace for the first half, only allowing Luminosity to score 8 rounds on a historically T-Sided map. Liquid struck back with a gorgeous 4 round start during the second half, completely resetting Luminosity’s economy, forcing them to take a timeout. Yes, you heard me--the Brazilians took their timeout at 8-11, which looking back at it, was absolutely genius. They were at a crossroad whereas Liquid could have the opportunity to double reset them, and be on their dandy way to match point. The round after, Luminosity threw a quick and quiet uppercut, winning an eco and allowing themselves back in the game (this is where everything goes wrong). Liquid regain their footing, snapping back and taking it to match point--an unexpected outcome after the Brazilians successful eco-win, and an efficient use of a timeout. However, the timeout allowed them to regain momentum, re-build their confidence and show the Americans how Counter-Strike is played down south of the equator.

Coldzera began his campaign in demolishing the American’s morale with several jumping AWP no-scopes at B apartments, and shortly after, FalleN began re-hitting his historically ridiculous shots. Everything that followed would completely break down Liquid’s chance at a first map victory, bringing the game into overtime, and winning out every single round from then on forward. Liquid had lost map one, and team-morale seemed to be non-existent. But of course, what can we expect out of NA Counter-Strike players other then unpredictability.

The second map of the series, which happened to be Liquid’s map pick of Cache, started as if the first map never even occurred. Liquid looked flawless. The beginning pistol and first rounds went in their favor, allowing them a 5-0 start on CT side. The following rounds though tested Liquid’s solidity as Luminosity’s economy slowly began to build and challenging site re-takes became more and more familiar for TL. Foolish peeks and impulsive actions by Liquid cost them cost them several rounds in their first half, but with a seriously impressive AWP’ing stint by s1mple, Liquid managed a 9-6 half over the previously victorious Brazilians; a comeback was in reach for the young NA squad.

The reach of a third-map for Liquid was so painfully close for Liquid, that the second half was LITERALLY, by definition, flawless—Liquid managed to win every single round up to match point. Luminosity seemed to lose all momentum until they were given an extremely stern reality-check. If they couldn’t slow down Liquid on their current map, Cobblestone would be a bloodbath. TL had every bit of momentum and team-velocity in the world, and the Brazilians knew it was time to take action. Slowly and surely, they held site lines against every attack Liquid would attempt to perform, out-fragging them upon site entrance, defusing armed bombs, and tossing Liquid into a economical pit of despair.

Here’s where the counter-intuitive factor of Counter-Strike timeout science comes into place. Liquid had nine different round opportunities to seal the deal and win out over Luminosity, but instead were dismantled by several unexpected and well-coordinated CT-sided holds by the Brazilians. I’ll say it now: what killed Liquid’s chance at taking the second map of the series was how poorly it was decided to take their naturally given map pause. We didn’t see Liquid take the map-pause until the 15-12 scoreline which COMPLETELY overturns the science behind a successful tactical timeout. Liquid’s economy leading up to the timeout was shattered over and over again thanks to multiple impulsive force-buys, and limited utility rounds. The nature of the timeout is to take it with enough time to allow for short-term success, and Liquid needed all but one simple round to end the map (which is as short-term as it goes). Taking it at 15-12 did more good for the Brazilians than TL and here’s why: If Liquid had taken it earlier on in the second half, they would've allowed themselves time to restructure incoming site takes and round-coordination. But instead, after rounds of economic loss and a consistent build up of negative psychological momentum, the chance that the timeout would produce short-term success was miniscule. All the timeout did for the American’s was provide hard-evidence of poor decision making as well as allowing Luminosity to prolong their own positive outcome to the game.

The rounds that followed went as expected, and just like the first map, Luminosity prevailed in the seemingly impossible overtime session for Liquid. The Brazilians were the clear victors in a glorious campaign to the finals of an American Minor Championship, and Liquid would go home provided with a clear learning curve. The American’s were two-round wins away (in a literal sense) from a 2-0 semi-finals victory but instead were bogged down by youth, indecision, and faults within their overarching game plan. The victory that took place on that early spring day would spark the entrance of a historically noble Counter-Strike era--the age of the Brazilians.

Photo Credit: Major League Gaming