The Battle for Integrity within Esports

Integrity-within-esports

Many young adults and adolescents have shifted their attention from regular sports to esports, an industry subject to rapid growth. According to Newzoo, it experienced 14,5% YoY growth from 2020 to 2021 alone. This has caught the attention of advertisers, sportsbooks and media publishers alike. Everyone wants a part of the esports pie. However, where there are skyhigh viewership numbers and revenue projections, there are unsavoury actors who want to take advantage of the lack of structured regulatory systems. This doesn’t only harm the individual players or teams, but could also affect the integrity of the esports industry as a whole. 

The credibility of esports is instrumental for the industry to eventually achieve mainstream acceptance. Otherwise, it might continue to be stigmatised in the eyes of the public. More importantly, high integrity is essential for esports to keep flourishing and growing, as it relies on funds from sponsorships, sportsbooks and advertising. When news of nefarious activities such as match-fixing, doping and cheating make headlines, it threatens the credibility of the entire esports industry. Immediate and sustained action is needed from all peers to combat and prevent these issues.

The Structure of The Esports Industry

The lack of integrity within esports is often attributed to the fact that there is no regulatory body within the industry. A regulatory body which could oversee the state of the industry, rules of the games, regulations, and their enforcement. However, the task itself comes with its own set of challenges.

Game Publishers and Regulatory Frameworks

Esports is largely seen as a subcategory of sports, when in reality it’s more of an umbrella term for several competitive games. Regular sports aren’t owned by anyone, as anyone can pick up a ball and play soccer and basketball without repercussions. In contrast, esports games such as League of Legends, Overwatch and CS:GO are all IPs of the game publishers. This means that anyone wanting to stream, host tournaments or even play a game needs permission from the game publisher first. In fact, it’s not uncommon for the game publishers to be the tournament organisers of their games themselves. This gives them exclusive rights to decide the fate of their esports. Therefore, it can be difficult for one organisation or regulatory body to become big enough to be able to make a real difference. Everything has to be approved by the game publishers on some level. 

There are organisations working actively with tournament organisers to combat nefarious activities. Most notably, the Esports Integrity Commission (ESIC) and World Esports Association (WESA). They are cooperating with major tournament organisers such as ESL and Dreamhack to combat match-fixing, doping and cheating incidents. However, what they have in connections they lack in funding. ESIC alone gets hundreds of match-fixing reports each day, but isn’t able to handle all because of the sheer amount. Therefore, the integrity-problems of esports prevail.

How match-fixing, doping and cheating affects the integrity of esports

Match-fixing

Match-fixing occurs within esports when professional players get paid or pressured by illegal betting syndicates to intentionally lose or “throw” games. 

Even if match-fixing happens in regular sports as well, esports might be far more susceptible to the issue. The combination of a young industry, lack of regulation and revenue disparity between leagues, makes it a seemingly lucrative opportunity for certain myopic actors. While the majority of esports games are fair, that doesn’t mean match-fixing isn’t a widespread issue. Incidents have been reported in both higher and lower tiers of play, across most of the biggest esports titles. 

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Picture Credit: Blizzard

Perhaps the most infamous match-fixing incident covers a 19-year-old Starcraft 2 (SCII) player in South Korea, Lee “Life” Seung Hyun. He was said to be one of the greatest proteges in SCII in 2015. By winning several high level games, he stood second to the best player in the world, MVP. However, he had a gambling problem and subsequently squandered his highly anticipated career in 2016, by taking money for losing games on purpose. This sentenced him to a lifetime ban and 18 months in jail. 

To understand the decisions that led up to the ruin of Life’s career, one can look at two aspects; the financial incentives and gambling problems. Life might have been considered well off when his total earnings from SCII amounted to 476,000 dollars in 2015. Nonetheless, he still found match-fixing more lucrative. Life received 62,000 dollars for throwing two games. It was six times the amount he got for winning the Kespa Cup, a prestigious SCII-tournament in South Korea. The money, combined with a gambling addiction and his lack of experience, explains the somewhat tragic ending to his promising career. It also shines a light on the big sums involved in match-fixing affairs.  

Even though the scandal occurred in a high level tournament, smaller leagues are the ones standing to lose the most. The flow of money in the industry often converges around the major tournaments. There, individual players can easily earn hundreds of thousands of dollars. Minor leagues on the contrary, tend to be ill-funded, leaving the professional players with less income. This makes them more susceptible to the financial incentives of match-fixing, as they get paid significantly less than their counterparts in bigger leagues. 

Moreover, the esports player base tends to skew towards being young. There are a lot of professional players under the age of 18. This can be troublesome as fraudulent actors might take advantage of the lack of experience of the young players, trying to persuade them into fixing games. This is commonly achieved through both financial incentives, as well as threats. Therefore, it falls to the industry to provide much needed education, protection and information to prevent additional cases.

Doping

Esports tends not to come up in conversations surrounding doping. Nevertheless, the lack of a central governing body in esports presents the risk of players using performance enhancing substances going unnoticed. 

There are a lot of cases where professional players have been caught using Adderall, which is otherwise commonly used for the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The drug helps players concentrate and focus, which is naturally one of the most important aspects of competitive esports. The outcome of the game often depends on the player who has the fastest reaction time in predicting the opponents moves and reacting accordingly.

Cheating

Cheating in esports is especially prevalent in first-person shooter games. Common types include so-called aimbots that help players aim and wall-hacks that allow players to see through walls. Another way of cheating is leveraging bugs, something 37 high level CS:GO coaches got banned for during 2020. They used a bug in the game to effectively see the opposing team in parts of the map where they otherwise could not, giving them an unfair advantage. As the scandal ranged over many professional teams, it shook the competitive CS:GO scene as well as all stakeholders in the industry.

Cheating also occurs in MOBA games such as Dota 2 and League of Legends, but instead through scripting. Players run scripts to reduce reaction times or increase the speed of successive combination clicks to inhumane levels. These cheats do not affect the game as much as aimbots or wall-hacks, but need to be addressed and removed nonetheless. They can be detected more easily by simply accessing the server log files, tracking reaction times and measuring the click-speed.

Efforts to reduce cheating

There are two different types of cheating, cheating while playing for fun and cheating on a professional, competitive level. Hence, the efforts to combat cheating are split in two; the efforts of the game publishers, and the efforts of the tournament organisers. The game publishers tend to focus their efforts on players who cheat to ruin the game for others. This is often accomplished by mandatory anti-cheat software and acting on reports from players. While these measures are in place to make games fun to play for the masses, tournament organisers focus on cheating in professional games. The work to detect cheating on this level includes more advanced measures. That includes reverse engineering cheats, computer vision algorithms and having professionals look through all games live. All to ensure that no cheating attempts slip through the cracks of technology. 

Protecting the Integrity of Esports

One of the most crucial ways to fight corruption in esports, is by providing the right education. Both for the teams and the players, but also for the tournament organisers, sportsbooks and game publishers. The esports industry is a complex ecosystem. Thus, all parts need to work together to minimise the impact of bad actors. Abios, among other companies and organisations, work to enlighten the industry about different aspects of the problem and about different solutions. 

There are several ways to detect cheating and match-fixing. One of which, is to monitor punter data to find irregular patterns in early stages. Another example is to monitor games through server data to find player behaviour out of the ordinary. For instance, historical data can tell us how humans play video games. If someone uses cheats which in many cases are run by a computer, the anti-cheat algorithms can detect when there are actions too fast for a human to make, which leaves that the person is cheating. Additionally, viewers and officials can manually watch and keep an eye out for suspicious behaviour and actively report it to tournament organisers and openly communicate over community channels such as twitter and reddit. 

Regulations

To combat match-fixing, several national governments have imposed regulations on betting operators. These are against betting on games where the players are under the age of 18. The regulations aim to protect the younger players against match-fixing, since they may lack the education and experience to tackle it themselves. 

However, the esports players often go under other names than their own and sit in different countries. Thus, making it difficult and time-consuming to find the correct information about player ages. This makes it harder for sportsbooks to keep their markets open. In order to address this, Abios has created a solution to help sportsbooks stay compliant as they navigate the esports market.

Read more about how to stay compliant as a sportsbook

The esports industry may suffer from growing pains. However, it’s important to note that integrity-related issues are only a small part of an otherwise thriving ecosystem. These problems could increase if unchecked. Therefore, it’s important for all the stakeholders in the industry to take their part in creating a sustainable future for esports.