Match fixing, doping, and the dark side of esports
Corruption in esports threatens its future, but might the newly formed ESIC provide salvation?
Esports as a part of video game culture has grown significantly in recent years, expanding from small and isolated groups of competitors to huge events across the world. Offline and small scale online competitions have been available for as long as video games have been around, however, South Korea saw a huge growth in esports in the late 1990s. After the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis large broadband networks were built alongside rising unemployment, meaning more people looking for things to do with their time turned to the internet and online gaming. Also helping to spread esports in South Korea was the prevalence of internet cafes and LAN gaming centres, known as PC bang. So large was this growth that the Korean e-Sports Association was founded in 2000 to regulate it. Arguably, this was when competitive gaming really started its ascent into what we know it to be today.
The 21st century brought with it a huge increase in competitions, rising from 10 large tournaments worldwide in 2000, to 696 in 2012. These included tournaments and events like Major League Gaming, Dreamhack, Evolution Championship Series, Intel Extreme Master and Apex, all gathering not only players by the thousand, but also spectators. Esports has grown, then, not only in terms of competitors but also viewership, and its growing popularity through televised competitions and online streaming means that the industry is now worth a huge amount in terms of prize money, not to mention the fact that betting on matches is also increasingly popular. Tournament prize money for Dota 2, for instance, has a combined value of over $64 million, making it the most valuable game in esports, followed by League of Legends with $29 million, StarCraft II with $19 million, and Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) with $15 million. That's big bucks whichever way you look at it.
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This year alone there are hundreds of tournaments being contested, with highlights including Capcom's Pro Tour (with Street Fighter V as the centrepiece) and the Call of Duty Championship, which has a $3 million dollar prize pool. Others include BlizzCon, an event which hosts a variety of tournaments while also being a convention for Blizzard fans, with many other ongoing tournaments and leagues being scheduled for the future. One such competition is Dota 2's flagship event, The International, the qualifiers for which take place now ahead of the main event between August 3 and 11. Ongoing leagues like the Rocket League Championship Series are also in progress, with the live finals taking place on August 6 and 7 in Avalon, Hollywood. Not only is esports then integral to the current competitive gaming scene, but also to the marketing strategy of developers who seek to target esports as a thriving market.
However, with the introduction of money and profit, there also comes cheating and corruption, both of which are present in esports at all levels. StarCraft is one game that has had its fair share of scandal. Back in 2010 there was an incident that received a lot of attention involving the fixing of StarCraft matches in Korea, a situation resulting in the permanent pro gaming ban of 11 players and extensive fines, rehabilitation and probation. 2015 saw more allegations of match fixing rock the StarCraft community and even this year more accusations of match fixing have emerged, one including the former world champion Hyun "Life" Lee who allegedly threw a match in the KeSPA cup for a payment of 70 million won (an amount which equates to around 50,000 euros), not a small payment by any means.
Another game that is no stranger to controversy involving match fixing and other offences is Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (and its predecessors). A famous incident in 2014 was the fixed match between two CS:GO teams by the names of iBUYPOWER and NetcodeGuides where the former purposefully lost the match to profit from betting on it in a deal worth more than $10,000. Texts from one player by the name of Derek "dboorn" Boorn showed that he got another player called Duc "cud" Pham to place bets on the team's behalf through the CS:GO Lounge, an act which aroused suspicion immediately. Seven players received bans by Valve for this, and quotes surfaced from players like Cloud9's Shahzeb "ShahZam" Khan detailing how NetcodeGuides founder Casey Foster "made it very clear the match was going to be thrown" when Khan bet against iBUYPOWER. This case study is not an isolated one, but it is a high profile example that shows just how easy it is to make money from fixing matches, especially as the CS:GO Lounge allows players to bet skins freely, which is exactly what Pham did using separate accounts.
Just last week there was another scandal involving YouTubers TmarTn and Syndicate Project. The pair uploaded videos which showed them winning big prizes in CS:GO lottos but they failed to make it clear that they in fact are presidents of the company. Although not as corrupt as some schemes, this incident just shows that morality in esports is still dubious and questionable in all areas, with the behaviour of the YouTubers being branded as dishonest by some, despite TmarTn saying "there is nothing wrong with it. I am 100% honest". Syndicate Project, real name Tom Cassell, did apologise "to anyone who feels mislead," saying that he will be more transparent in the future.
It's no secret that the world of esports has this corrupt, darker side. Match fixing is one of many issues, with doping using stimulants like Adderall also a problem. A professional Counter-Strike player by the name of Kory "SEMPHIS" Friesen admitted last year that all of his team were using the substance during a major tournament. "We were all on Adderall", he casually admitted, with the interviewer Mohan "Launders" Govindasamy even saying "just throwing that out there for the fans, that's how you get good". Adderall, like other stimulants, allows players to focus for longer periods of time, effectively giving them a performance boost where other players would get tired or lapse in concentration. Although not specifically banned by any esports tournaments, very few players go on the record to admit taking the drug and players often feel like those taking it have an unfair advantage over those that do not. These performance enhancers, along with cheating and hacking, mean that esports is not always the fairest place for players, and many worry that this will affect the reputation of esports going forward.
There are several reasons why corruption has developed. Possibly the most obvious factor is the remarkable growth of esports betting, with 75-80 companies offering betting on esports right now, as well as lounges allowing players to gamble with skins which can be redeemed for money. Skins betting is dubious in itself as you can redeem them for money, which may make them illegal, especially seeing as this is also open to minors. Simply put, money and profit makes some players consider cheating, especially when rare skins can be worth thousands of dollars. Top players receive a comfortable salary - last year League of Legends team Ember released details of their team members' salaries, with the top player Greyson "Goldenglue" Gilmer earning $65,000 with a further $27,000 in performance and signing bonuses. Most League of Legends' player salaries are not made public, however. Lower level players don't earn this type of money and without the higher income, some of these players are eventually drawn to immoral and/or illegal methods in order to win (or lose, as is the case in match fixing), especially when the rewards can be so lucrative. Winning can also lead to potential endorsements as well, which can in themselves be worth thousands of dollars, giving players even more of an incentive to bend the rules.
Another reason there is so much corruption in esports is because the regulation around it is severely lacking. In lounges where skins betting can take place, for instance, deals are not regulated and there was a suspicious amount of activity in 2015 alone. These are quite often the places where corrupt deals can take happen, as in the case of the iBUYPOWER match where players used other 'smurf' accounts to bet skins. There's speculation that some developers even turn a blind eye to illegal happenings in the community in order to ensure people keep buying and playing their games. One CS:GO player is currently suing Valve for just that, claiming Valve are facilitating a black market with skins betting through the CS:GO Lounge.
On Tuesday, July 5, the Esports Integrity Coalition was announced to try and bring some regulation and fairness to the world of esports. The ESIC is an organisation which is committed to fighting corruption across all esports and in all areas, including but not limited to doping and match fixing. Supported by various organisations like Intel and ESL, they claim they will work worldwide to combat corruption and try and regulate esports as a whole. The Integrity Commissioner for the organisation, Ian Smith, said that he aims to "erect barriers around eSport that make corruption very hard to get in".
A lawyer and previously the Legal Director of the Professional Cricketer's Association, Smith is someone who has had to deal with match fixing in cricket, and there are startling similarities between the 2006 scandal involving the Pakistan team and the scandals of today in esports. Smith noticed that, like esports, cricket players were betting on matches in order to throw them, and this is one of the reasons why he has come in to become the Integrity Commissioner. It could be a difficult time for esports in the coming years, especially if, as Smith warns, the black market continues growing.
This ESIC is not the first organisation to be established for this purpose, however. As mentioned, the Korean e-Sports Association was created in 2000 and that has experienced success in Korea. In 2014 they announced a new policy towards esports players which allowed professionals a minimum salary as well as introducing minimum one year contracts between players and teams. They also responded to the 2010 scandal swiftly, issuing fines, bans and charges where appropriate. Although there was a minor dispute with Blizzard over intellectual property rights in 2008, KeSPA has been effective in regulating and controlling esports thus far.
This year another initiative called the World Esports Association was announced as well. WESA will work closely with ESL to ensure that a standardised code of conduct is put in place across esports, much like the IAAF for athletics, providing what it claims to be a structure to the esports ecosystem, also aiming for integrity and transparency as ESIC does. WESA also has a player council that helps decide what the organisation does and how it operates, working alongside WESA operatives. All decisions made by WESA have to have three quarters approval from the members before coming into being. WESA will affect not only WESA-sanctioned tournaments and events but also others as well, extending its reach alongside the ESL.
It's not just regulators that are working to clean up both the image and the conduct of esports, but technology is also working to do the same. A device called the Game:ref was suggested last year, for instance, which detects if players are using an Aimbot (a cheating system which locks automatically onto players' heads). It involves plugging the player's mouse into a device that correlates whether the movement on screen matches that of the mouse. This device also cannot be tampered with due to its connection to the internet at all times. This Game:ref is one of many technological steps towards reducing the corruption in esports, software also playing its part too. Valve Anti-Cheat, for instance, is a system that detects cheaters in games and bans them, the player in question given no notification over the time of the offence or the cheat used. This has been effective so far, with an estimated 2.2 million accounts being banned as a result of the system. Many other anti-cheat systems exist as well, with one recently being rolled out for Ubisoft's The Division as well as other famous ones like nProtect GameGuard and PunkBuster. With the rise of boosting websites for games like CS:GO including Boosting.Pro (among a whole host of others), players have a right to be wary of the dubious methods some use to obtain success in-game.
There are plenty of ongoing attempts to reduce corruption and regulate esports at a time when it's clearly and very publicly corrupt in a multitude of ways, but there is a debate to be had about how well these will work. Since these initiatives are very new, it's hard to say how effective they will be, although what they claim to implement will certainly be a step in the right direction. Standardised codes of conduct and rules across all esports, for instance, allow no room for confusion when it comes to what is and is not allowed, especially when these organisations are working to educate players about the rules they should follow. This applies not only to cheating but also to what punishments will be in store for those who choose to break the rules; ESIC is offering clear process diagrams to show what measures will be taken with those accused of corruption. ESIC's Anti-Corruption Code in fact is the only mandatory part of their organisation and others like the codes of ethics and conduct come after it, showing that fair play comes before all else. Another optional ESIC code is regarding Anti-Doping, which details what is meant by doping and the punishments that can be put in place for those offending the code.
What also bodes well is the focus of both WESA and ESIC to communicate with players, making it clear that their voice is integral to the future of esports regulation. Both say that they will listen to what players want and that these rules are being put in place for their benefit and so they should have some say. WESA's care for players also extends to mental and physical wellbeing, offering support in regards to the pressure of competitive gaming so as to combat those who feel desperate enough to try and cheat. ESIC places emphasis on developers and bookmakers as well, so both organisations seem to place esports before their own interest. ESIC being a not-for-profit organisation also seems a positive thing as well, with Ian Smith saying that "every time you mix commerce and integrity, integrity loses".
In regards to doping specifically, both WESA and ESIC are implementing tests in competitions to see if players are using prohibited substances, something that has been neglected thus far. ESIC will use saliva tests as a comfortable measure of testing players as well as ensuring all players know the banned substances from a list tailored to esports specifically. WESA and ESL have also started testing players at competitions in response to admittance of drug use by previous players too, as well as blasé attitudes to drugs in the past from ESL.
For now the esports community will have to wait and see whether these measures will work or not. WESA, for example, is rolling out its policies in the ESL Pro League for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive first, before moving on to other competitions. It is particularly significant that Counter-Strike is being tested first as these measures may not have come into place had it not been for several high profile cases of cheating, match fixing and doping within the competitive field for the game. ESIC is also growing as well, recruiting more members, interacting with players and analysing data to try and improve their anti-corruption campaign as much as possible. It will take time, Smith says, but they are committed to reducing corruption as much as possible.
If these measures aren't put into place then Ian Smith warned that esports will only become more corrupted as it becomes more valuable. It is estimated that the black and grey markets for gambling could grow in excess of $200 billion dollars in value by 2020, and so that is why it's so vital that these regulations are adopted now so as to anticipate the larger problems which could await them in years to come. This also gives them time to adapt and evolve since these are all new initiatives that need to be moulded and tailored specifically to esports. All of these organisations will continue to work and coexist in order to regulate and improve the esports community. However, it looks like it will take a fair while to come into full effect, and time will only tell if they are effective in tackling corruption in this increasingly popular and competitive arena.