From Concept to Culture: Minh Le Reflects on 20 Years of Counter-Strike

October 19, 2023

By Deborah Acheampong

Minh Le created Counter-Strike in 1999 at the age of twenty-one while still an undergraduate student at SFU Computing Science. Since its release, the game has become one of the most successful games of all time. Acquired by Valve in 2000, the game has seen three iterations while maintaining its core gameplay: Counter-Strike: Condition Zero (2004), Counter-Strike: Source (2004), and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (2012). Over 20 years since its first release, Counter-Strike continues to influence a generation of gamers, fostering a community dedicated to team-oriented first-person shooter games.

We caught up with Minh Le ahead of our 50th-anniversary celebration to find out about his journey to inventing Counter-strike and how he feels about the game's continuing legacy in the gaming community.

What inspired the invention of Counter-Strike?

I have played games since I was eight years old. However, my passion for creating games started in grade 12 when the first-person shooter game, "Doom," was released.  Doom came with an editor that allowed amateurs to create game values. I jumped at this opportunity and started making modifications (mods) for "Doom" and other games with this feature. Playing and making mods for first-person shooter games inspired the creation of Counter-Strike. I watched many action movies like Airforce and was interested in counter-terrorist forces. I found the level of sophistication in weaponry and tactics in these movies exciting and wanted to capture them in a game. I wanted something my players and I could resonate with, thus the birth of Counter-Strike. What contributed to the success of Counter-Strike was taking a computer animation course during my undergraduate studies at SFU. The course required me to create animations inside a 3D Studios Max. I used many of the characters and animations in this class and created Counter-Strike.

What are some of the early challenges of creating Counter-Strike?

My early challenges were balancing my academic work with developing the game. I was in my third year when I started working on Counter-Strike. I had to excel in my schoolwork while not giving up on my dream. I was successful at both because of the flexibility at the School of Computing Science, which allowed me to take fewer courses per semester. Towards the end of my degree, I took three to four courses instead of the standard five to six. This flexibility helped me balance my workload, enjoy my time at SFU and create Counter-Strike.

Counter-Strike has fostered an incredibly dedicated player community. How did you envision the game's reception, and how does it feel to witness its lasting impact on gaming culture?

I was young and had little expectation of the game's success. I had previously worked on other games, which did well, but they never achieved success like Counter-Strike.  In the initial stages, I sought a small gaming community to play the game with me and was surprised at the exponential growth when the first version was released. After 20 years since the first version was released, it is a great feeling to know something that started as a passion resonates with people and has many people still playing and enjoying the game.  I am excited to see the lasting impact of Counter-Strike on the gaming culture.

How has Counter-Strike adapted to and embraced recent technological advancements over the years?

The game mechanics have not changed much since its inception in 2000. The visual improvements to Counter-Strike have been modest. The company that acquired it, Valve, has been cautious in further developing the game over the past two decades. Valve recognizes that the appeal of Counter-Strike is its ability to be played by many players in various parts of the world. So, maintaining the game's mechanics, accessibility and ease for gamers is the right thing to do. 

Where do you see the future of the Counter-Strike franchise?

I think Counter-Strike will continue to evolve. Valve will probably not modify it too much but will continue introducing new features that will keep gamers liking Counter-Strike. For instance, ten years ago, they introduced the concept of creating game schemes for the game weapons. These enhancements were widely accepted and resonated with players. To this day, gamers love to select different game schemes and guns, adding an exciting experience for players.

How do you envision the game's continued relevance amid ever-changing gaming trends?

The gaming industry has certainly changed over the past 20 years. The space has become competitive with the surge of many game developers. The advent of free-to-play games has altered how people develop games. It is tough to attract game responses and monetize your game; owing to that, you will need to keep gamers engaged in playing your game over extended periods. Counter-Strike does not need to rely on game responses to make any profits because it is an established game, which is one of the most significant advantages of the game. It has a large gaming community, which continues to grow. Valve will continue refining the game and stick to what they know works for the game lovers.

What inspired you to study Computing Science, and why did you choose CS at SFU?

My dad influenced my decision to pursue computing science. He was a computer gamer, which put me around computers growing up.  Going into high school, I took a course in programming and was intrigued by the concepts, which further sparked my interest in the field. It was thus a natural and easy choice for me to pursue computing science at the university.  I chose SFU to pursue my undergraduate studies because SFU has a renowned computing science department.

What was the Computing Science program like when you were a student?

I came to SFU computing science in 1996, and the curriculum was still evolving. Even though those were early days, the curriculum covered advanced technologies in Artificial Intelligence and Computer Vision. The courses I took in my third and fourth years were valuable to my career. I am happy that the School has kept to the vision and the current curriculum is up to date with modern technological changes. Faculty members continue to churn out innovative research, boosting the image of the School. Outside the classes, I loved being part of the student society.  We had the chance to study, play games and go through the challenges of university life together.

What is your greatest professional achievement?

Inventing Counter-Strike is my greatest professional achievement. It came at a time when the gaming industry was still young, and there were few games to play. I did not expect the vast success Counter-Strike gained on its first release. It just came out at the right time. To see Counter-Strike live up to this day and have gamers enjoy the game 20 years on makes me proud.

What advice would you give to current CS at SFU students?

Take part in extra-curricular activities and join the student association. My biggest regret as an undergraduate was not spending more time interacting with my classmates. Finding a balance between schoolwork and social activities can be challenging, but it is important not to overburden yourself by taking too many courses in the semester. Your colleagues are your networks; start building connections with them now. 

What do you hope to see from CS at SFU in the next 5 years? The next 50 years?

I loved how SFU allowed me to be flexible with taking courses.  Being able to take three or four courses instead of the standard five per semester was an excellent opportunity for me to find that balance between studying and pursuing other areas of interest, like the gaming industry. I hope CS will continue to offer students the flexibility to explore and pursue interests outside academia and better enjoy their school experience.

What was the meaningful thing you took away from your time at SFU?

I enjoyed many of the professors and my CS courses. However, my friendships with my colleagues were my most meaningful things.  Studying and growing in the computing science field together was an invaluable experience. My association with colleagues helped me socialize and collaborate better in my job.

If you could have lunch with any SFU Computing Science Faculty member, who would you choose and why?

I would love to reconnect with all my professors from my undergraduate days, but if I could have lunch with anyone, it would be my classmates. Those were the people that I formed the closest bonds with, and those are the ones that I share the most memories with.  A reunion to catch up with them and see how they are doing today would be amazing.

SFU Computing Science: Celebrating 50 Years of Innovation