Fair play and fixing: The growing pains of eSports

As the money ramps up, has fair play and honor taken a backseat? Red Bull investigates.
Fair play and fixing: The growing pains of eSports
Fair play and fixing: The growing pains of eSports © Red Bull
By Alan Martin

International eSports is becoming serious business, and with serious business comes serious money: last year the biggest prize pot ever of $1.42m went to a Swedish Dota 2 team.

But with this explosion of interest comes a cautionary tale of how eSports rose and fell in what is still its biggest market: South Korea. Almost overnight a match fixing scandal destroyed the fledgling sport. “Between 2007 and today, eSports in Korea went from being the NBA to being the professional poker,” says TK Park, who runs the Ask A Korean' website and wrote extensively about the rise and fall of eSports in the country there.

So what happened? Match fixing on an unprecedented scale. The nation’s high speed cable networks back when narrowband was the norm elsewhere made it the perfect environment for competitive multiplayer games to flourish. In the decade that followed the release of Korean favorite Starcraft, popularity skyrocketed (Park states that as many as 100,000 people would attend live tournaments) and two cable channels launched dedicated to televising live matches.

© OnGameNet

But in 2010, allegations of a match fixing scandal emerged, implicating almost a dozen players, alongside a several brokers and former league officials. This was complicated by the fact that gambling itself remains illegal in South Korea, but that it was tangled up in such a popular sport magnified the scandal. Completing the combo was the involvement of one of Starcraft's greatest ever professional players: Ma Jae-yun (known with the in-game handle of sAviOr).

Park compares this to discovering Michael Jordan involved in a match-fixing scandal. In the end, eight people (including sAviOr, Starcraft’s Jordan) were found guilty of gambling and match-fixing to various degrees (from one player betting on himself to others selling practice footage and throwing matches), and the sport has yet to recover. For Starcraft it was truly the end of the line in the region, although Blizzard couldn't really complain, given it sold 4.5m of its 9.5m total copies in South Korea.

© OnGameNet

To date, the rest of the world hasn’t had any rule-breaking on anywhere near the scale of the StarCraft match fixing, but the discipline is still in its infancy. Despite this, a couple of examples of underhand tactics have been made public. In the closest Western parallel to the scandal, Dota 2 player Alexey ‘Solo’ Berezin was handed a lifetime ban for allegedly earning $322 on a bet against Rox.KIS - his own team - with what was described as “a suspiciously horrible performance”, while three team-mates were handed shorter 12 month bans.

Elsewhere, in the 2012 League of Legends World Championship, a seemingly simple oversight in the live venue allowed members of Azubu Frost to sneak a glance at the opposition’s map using the big screens for the live audience. After an investigation from League of Legends developer Riot, the team were fined 20 percent of their winnings and other players were given a warning for unsporting behavior.

Perhaps the most infuriating way of bending the rules however is ‘splitting the pot’, where friendly teams who reach the finals privately agree to divide the winnings evenly, removing much of the drama for fans of the sport, or teams making any informal agreements before a match that are seen as unsporting. Major League Gaming confiscated the prize money from two teams found to have colluded in some way - Team Dignitas and Curse NA - in the 2012 Summer Championship. Still, to date there has been no legal action like in South Korea: “There generally aren’t lawsuits in the US because of the Wild Wild West nature of eSports and while most teams have professional contracts, not all of them are at the same level you’d see in professional industries,” explains Rod Breslau, a journalist with eSports site onGamers.

© Riot Games

As the money grows, so could the temptation to cheat. Breslau doesn’t believe it’s too big a concern at this stage: “In North America and Europe I really don’t think it has affected our mentality too much. No journalists or owners or teams I talk to has match-fixing in their head.”

But the worrying thing is that with the exception of the screen peeking (which was initially denied by the referee that day until screen captures of live feed proved wrongdoing), these cheating methods are hard to detect, and even harder to prove beyond reasonable doubt. Aimbots, money hacks and other conventional cheats are relatively trivial to patch out, and near impossible to pull-off in live arenas where PCs can be screened, but in most cases the ‘suspiciously horrible performance’ mentioned above would be just that - suspicion.

Sean ‘Day 9’ Plott - a caster and dedicated Starcraft 2 regular - believes that the eyes of the hardcore fans is a massive deterrent: “eSports fans devote countless hours every week to following every match across every continent. Any slightly suspicious behavior is brought up and discussed in public forums”, he explains. “That level of accountability almost makes match fixing more difficult than learning to play well and winning.”

Park, having seen the scandal emerge in South Korea, is a bit more skeptical: “It would not be super obvious to the spectators - a player can simply do everything just a fraction of a second slower and that will be enough to throw a game.” Indeed, the match fixing examples above - like in the world of sport - were exposed by following the money trail and internet sleuthing, rather than anything a match official could prove beyond reasonable doubt. There’s an almost unlimited list of reasons for a poor performance: lack of sleep, a bad day, being put off by the opposition - even a sticky mouse.

With that in mind, there are limits to what the developers can actually do, beyond simple balancing issues and patching out game breaking exploits. Outside of the big tournaments, game hacks can potentially ruin the fun of the game, and the developers are quick to act to ensure people get into the games and become interested in the professional game. Valve especially has gone above and beyond expectations in ensuring the community is a happier place by reforming rude and obnoxious players.

Breslau is confident that the developers would get further involved to defend the integrity of the game should a Korean style scandal erupt again. “If a major League of Legends or Starcraft 2 player was caught match fixing I’m 100 percent certain Blizzard or Riot would ban them for a very very long time,” he sats. “They want to be seen to be doing something, but they can’t prevent match fixing because it’s unpreventable stopping some player not playing as well.”

It’s just as well the developers are keeping an eye on this, because without intervention there’s the risk of a PR nightmare. When Riot initially denied there was any screen peeking in the League of Legends Championship despite video evidence, a lot of cynicism crept in. You only have to look back to the South Korean scandal to see the damage a big match fixing scandal could do the game, where Park draws a parallel between the safeguards in place in eSports and athletics: “It's somewhat similar to the way Americans handle performance enhancing drugs in baseball - everyone sort of believes in the measures taken to clean up the game, but no one is completely confident that it worked.”

League of Legends
League of Legends © Riot Games

In the west, Breslau doesn’t feel that much cynicism has crept in on the MOBA (Multiplayer online battle arena - the genre encompassing Dota 2 and League of Legends) side of things. “It’s probably not really on their mind when they’re watching a game. I can’t remember the last time a top player lost when it was more than ‘wow, that player played badly’ or ‘wow, that was a real upset’.”

What about other strands of eSports? The fighting community has something of a reputation with pot-splitting, which it is acting upon, introducing yellow and red card systems for infractions. “In the fighting community, if it’s the final of the tournament and it’s the usual people and they’re all friends, chat and Twitter will explode with ‘here comes the pot split’,” Breslau says.

Plott, on the other hand, believes the South Korean scandal has actually had the positive side-effect of increasing transparency in the modern game. “Players, teams, and tournaments are more willing to provide transparency, to stream themselves playing, and to permit more watchful eyes on players.” This has built plenty of trust, he argues, and the resentment of cheating actually increases the respect for players who play openly: “Though fans detest those involved in the match-fixing scandal, they've deepened their support of their other favorite pros. It's actually been quite heartwarming.”

As the money ramps up, is there a risk that openness and good sportsmanship will fall by the wayside? Even in the hyper-competitive world of eSports, good grace and fair play certainly has its place. In one well known incident, a Starcraft 2 player who inadvertently found out about his opponent’s build agreed to a deal  here the pair of them revealed more and more information about their own strategy in order to restore balance.

Will we see that sort of thing again? Breslau certainly thinks so: “Even with prize money going up, there is a good amount of respect between competitors and fairness is important to them. They want to say ‘I beat this player legitimately’. Some of that old school mentality is still there and players will have a good amount of gamesmanship to them. I think that’s very admirable.”

Some argue that cheating and match fixing undermines the serious mainstream breakthrough eSports have had in the last few years, and see it as a barrier to being taken as a serious sport, but it's possible that the opposite is true. Perhaps the handful of eSports scandals we've seen in the last few years put this right up there with the baseball and football: after all, there wouldn't be a temptation if the tournaments weren’t becoming serious business.

Ultimately, Plott gives a very real convincing argument as to why even if cheating were a big issue, it shouldn’t worry the fans too much: “The fact of the matter is that the top 1,000 players are still better than the top 10,000 players with maphacks.”

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