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When I first started playing Grand Theft Auto Online the very minute the servers went live back on Xbox 360, it was a totally different game. Driving around the open world you would find players hanging out at clothing stores, going to the bars and clubs, and just messing around in its open world.
For years whenever I’ve played GTA Online I would think about all these 29 other players sharing this fictionalized version of Southern California. Where were the most popular spots? And were there any locations players avoided or completely ignored? And as money has become more important in GTA Online I’ve noticed player behaviors and patterns changing. For some time now I’ve wondered: Has the community changed the way they play GTA Online?
To answer these and other questions, I spent nearly three weeks logging into GTA Online and taking screenshots of different lobbies. Using these screenshots and a map created by GTA fan Damon Pollard (strung together from various Rockstar assets), I was able to create a heatmap of where players lingered in GTA Online. My heatmap consists of data from over 130 individual GTA Online lobbies. These screenshots were taken on PS4 and were taken at different times in the real world, both during the day and at night. I also made sure to log in on weekends and weekdays. The end result of all this work and data is a giant heatmap showing where players regularly hang out and play in GTA Online. This data also confirms something I have long theorized: GTA Online's updates over the years have changed the way players interact with the world.
Looking at the entire thing you can probably already see some patterns and hotspots, but let's zoom in on some key spots and really dig into this massive pile of data.
The City of Los Santos
The most obvious takeaway from this heatmap is that a lot of players spend a good portion of time playing GTA Online in and around Los Santos. But even within Los Santos we can zoom in and find some massive hot spots and interesting areas.
Vespucci Beach, located on the west side of the city, is a really popular spot, but rarely did players hangout in the same area. There is one spot where some players could regularly be found, but that is due to a unique mask shop found near the beach. I can't explain what all these players were doing on the beach, but it is GTA Online. Sometimes you just want to relax, shoot some other players, or do donuts on the sand. Not everything can be explained.
This hot spot, found towards the east side of Los Santos, is popular mainly because of a relatively cheap and convenient car storage facility located here. These garages are used by players who own a lot of cars and need some place to store their collection. You can also find a small and slightly hidden skate park underneath the highway, near the garage. So some players might be here just to hit the ramps with their BMX bikes.
The Most Popular Spots in GTA Online
These two areas were easily the most popular spots in all of GTA Online. Nearly every lobby I joined had a few players at one or both of these spots. These two places are popular because of its apartments.
Apartments in GTA Online became very important once heists were added to it in 2015. That's because the only way to launch a heist is to have an apartment that contains a heist room. There are a couple of apartment buildings and multiple players can purchase an apartment in the same complex. So certain buildings became very popular due to their pricing, location, and apartments containing heist rooms.
The most northern hot spot was at one point in time where some of the highest end apartments in GTA Online were located. When I first made enough money, it was the place I bought. It was a status symbol in some ways. My guess is a lot of players have never sold it and moved to newer apartments. It also contained a heist room, allowing players to start their own heist missions.
More to the southwest is the biggest hot spot in all of my data. This area is the location of an apartment building that has become popular due to what’s located around it. Near this apartment is a CEO office, biker club, weapon shop, and garage. These apartments also have heist rooms as well. It really is a fantastic location to live. I would know, as this is where I’ve been living in GTA Online for just over two years.
Also that other big hot spot to the right, located just east of Rockford Hills, is a Los Santos Customs shop where people can modify their cars. If you are looking to avoid trolls and annoying players who like to blow up cars, go somewhere else. This shop is nearly always busy and often has players stalking around the block.
Los Santos has always been a popular area in GTA Online, but over the years it seems like players are spending more and more time in this urban jungle. When I first started playing GTA Online, I remember seeing people out in the country and mountains, and now most players I encounter are in the city. Past updates have added more in-game businesses and missions into Los Santos and it's how players are making money in GTA Online. And as updates continue to raise prices on cars, weapons and other items, money has become one of the main driving forces behind where players spend their time.
Northern San Andreas
The northern section of the GTA Online map isn’t filled with many huge hot spots, but I still found some places worth taking a closer a look at because they’re barren and rarely visited.
Some of the biggest empty spots up north in GTA Online are actually mountains. This is the biggest mountain, Mount Chiliad. Long ago when GTA Online was first released, you would often find a lot of players up here messing around, even driving buses off the top of mountain. But as time has gone on and updates have pushed players away from random free roaming fun, the mountains have become more desolate.
In Paleto Bay, located just north of Mount Chiliad, you can find the two most popular spots in this section of the map. These two areas aren’t random: they're the locations of the cheapest bunker and underground facility. These are businesses and safe houses used to complete new missions, such as The Doomsday Heist missions. For many players who wanted to save money, including myself, these were popular purchases. But be warned: many missions involve driving all the way to Los Santos which can take a long time.
The Roads and Highways of GTA Online
When making this heatmap I was surprised to find many roads and highways barely used by players, but it makes sense that certain roads are less popular. GTA Online players rely on a GPS navigation system to guide them to objectives and locations. The GPS looks for the shortest route, so some stretches of pavement are ignored—like these two highways located just outside of Los Santos. Both highways eventually merge, but most players take the shorter route marked with a blue arrow over the longer route, marked with a red arrow.
Another stretch of road near Paleto Bay and Mount Chiliad is also rarely driven on by players. This stretch of road is underused because it’s almost never needed by GTA Online fans. For people wanting to go to Paleto Bay, they can just take the western highway. Far up in northeastern portion of San Andreas there isn’t much to do or see, so most players never cross this stretch of road once they arrive in Paleto Bay.
The Empty Locations and Lonely Players
South of Chiliad near Bolingbroke Prison, there's a dirt bike track. These days it is almost always a ghost town, but in two different sessions I was surprised to find two players enjoying the short dirt track. Some of my favorite spots on this heatmap are actually these lone dots; players all alone in the world doing who-knows-what.
GTA Online has a massive map and is updated nearly every week with new content and events. But even after years of new content being added to it, the map is still rather empty and there are still large portions of it where players might never visit unless they decide to go exploring. Finding lone players in these empty places is always interesting. What are they doing? Why are they hanging out alone in the middle of nowhere?
As you can see below, I found another lonely player near the rocky shoreline east of Los Santos. I’ve played a lot of GTA Online and I’m not sure what reason a player would have to hang out over here. Maybe their plane crashed or they’re idling while they wait for a friend to get online.
Way up north, at the very top of the GTA Online map, one player hangs out alone on the rocks dotting the northern coast of San Andreas. I can’t remember anything important or exciting up there, so maybe they just wanted a break from all the action and explosions. Looking at the data, they picked a perfect spot. Nobody ever goes that far up north.
These quieter locations are an important part of GTA Online. While they won’t help you earn more money or unlock a new fancy weapon, these quiet areas help make its world feel realistic. You can spend large portions of time in GTA Online without encountering other players. With 30 players running around the map armed with dozens of weapons each, these quiet and empty areas become buffer zones. A way to keep the chaos of GTA Online manageable. Some players have even moved into these quiet locations, building communities in the quiet pockets of GTA Online.
After spending weeks gathering data and creating these maps and images, I’ve gained a better understanding of the current state of GTA Online. It's more popular now than ever before, and every lobby I joined was nearly full and filled with activity. But it feels like so much of GTA Online has become focused entirely on the grind for money. Nearly every hot spot I discovered in GTA Online was tied to a way to make more cash. I've been guilty in the past of grinding in GTA Online, but I also miss the days when it seemed like the world of GTA Online was a big playground. I guess I just liked the days when GTA Online was a bit more fun and little less work.