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Behind the screens - Integrity concerns in esports

By Josh Hunt / 18 December 2018

In our previous article, we explored the global explosion in popularity of esports and highlighted the key growing pains it faces as it gains legitimacy as a sport. Yet, behind all the excitement and bright lights of the esports screens lie concerning issues that, although prevalent in mainstream sport, are only exacerbated by the absence of a single recognised governing body and sufficient regulation in the industry.

As esports teams compete across multiple games (each potentially a different esport), in different leagues and in different tournaments, governing bodies such as the World Esports Association (WESA) and the Esports Integrity Coalition (ESIC) have only limited reach. 

Putting aside the inherent commercial and legal issues facing esports that we previously mentioned, there are growing concerns around integrity that have continued to plague the industry since infancy from both a viewership and  competitor’s perspective. The industry needs to shine the spotlight on these issues and regulate accordingly.

Match-fixing and live betting

ESIC has previously highlighted match fixing and betting fraud as the biggest threats to the adoption of esports. Previously, the industry had to tackle issues with underage and “skins” betting, but now with the uptake in esports coverage and the increasing number of betting operators available in the space (including William Hill and Bet365) ESIC believes the industry is not yet prepared to effectively govern it.

Generally a response by players who are not earning a lot of money, esports has seen a rise in match fixing scandals since Aleksey Berezin received a life-long ban from prominent Dota 2 network Starladder TV in 2013 for betting against his own team and losing on purpose. Even the most competitive and highly paid games (including League of Legends and Overwatch) have experienced match-fixing. These have included high profile incidents such as the prosecution of world champion Lee Seung-Hyun for throwing matches on purpose in 2016,  and more recently with Leonid “Sonic” Kuzmenkov and Dmitri “Ax.Mo” Morozov of Dota 2 team Dx both receiving two year bans from future Uprise Championships Cup tournaments after being found guilty of match fixing for betting purposes.  

Historically, match-fixing has been inextricably linked with live betting and esports is no exception. This issue is now heightened with esports betting operator, Unikrn, recently obtaining a licence to offer spectators the opportunity to bet on live major tournaments and also skill-based bets. This allows gamers to wager on themselves by linking the game they are playing to their Unikrn account. ESIC has voiced concerns on how live-betting can be verified and regulated, with ESIC Commissioner Ian Smith commenting that he is not certain the technology exists yet where the platform can properly identify the person playing the game is the same person who runs the betting account.  This undoubtedly exposes esports to manipulation and could impact the industry if audiences get the impression results are illegitimate. WESA and ESIC are now focusing on education and improving fraud detection systems to combat this issue, but more will need to be done as the industry grows.

Doping

In a push to improve the perception of esports, ESIC has encouraged international anti-doping organisations to provide more support in the battle against performance enhancing drugs. In the esports world, drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin and Selegiline have been used to assist players by increasing concentration, calming nerves, reducing fatigue and boosting reaction times. This issue first gained mass media attention when Kory “SEMPHIS” Friesen, formerly of team cloud9, admitted he and his team were using Adderall during a major tournament in 2015 from which they won US$250,000 in prize money. Following these comments, the Electronic Sports League (ESL) released a banned substance list in an effort to combat these types of occurrences, while the World Anti-Doping Authority issued warnings that any esports competitors caught using banned substances would be punished. However, the enforcement has so far been relatively non-existent. This comes as no surprise when the industry has so many different independent regulatory bodies, each with their own anti-doping codes, instead of having a single recognised body enforcing a uniform policy across all esports platforms.

While the industry continues to grow, albeit without a recognised governing body, different esports tournaments have begun implementing drug testing at major tournaments, especially those with significant prize money. For example, in early August 2018, the 02 Arena in London hosted the FIFA eWorld Cup in which the winner was awarded prize money of US$250,000. The finalists were all tested for performance-enhancing substances and FIFA ensured that the players signed up to the code of ethics, which includes sanctions for match-fixing and doping.

Misconduct

In light of a handful of cases where professional players have been fined or suspended for using racist or homophobic slurs, the past year has seen misconduct in esports escalate. Only this week, game publisher Valve officially banned professional Philippine esports player Carlo “Kuku” Palad from competing in the upcoming Dota 2 tournament held in China after allegedly making a racist taunt towards several Chinese players.

This is not an isolated incident, with misconduct being a major issue in esports since the recent high profile cases came in December 2017 when NRG Esports terminated the employment of team manager, Maxwell Bateman after allegations of sexual assault. Again, earlier this year, the Overwatch team Boston Uprising terminated the contract of 21 year old Jonathan “dreamkazper” Sanchez for alleged sexual misconduct with an underage fan. Although in both instances the respective esports organisations took a zero-tolerance approach, again, the lack of a single governing body and code of conduct makes it difficult to establish a standard of behaviour or an appropriate and enforceable response. 

In some sense, the industry is self-regulating with the respective teams or game publishers having to take action against the misconduct. This fragmented approach undoubtably causes division and uncertainty in the industry. However, a recent scandal saw ESIC stepping in to punish professional player Nikhil “Forsaken” Kumawat who had been found guilty of cheating during the ESL India Premiership in early October 2018. ESIC were able to issue the player with a five-year ban from all esports related activity with any ESIC member organisation pursuant to Article 2.4.4 of its Code of Conduct (as India ESL is a member of ESIC). This harsh action taken by ESIC is pleasing to see as it not only acts as a strong deterrent to future misconduct, but it also gives the industry a shot of confidence in knowing that these regulatory bodies do have the necessary teeth to enforce strict punishments when the league is a member organisation.

Going forward

It is only logical that, if esports is to be truly recognised as a legitimate sport, then it needs to be regulated in a similar fashion. Therefore, in order to have the necessary teeth to enforce integrity principles across all esports platforms, a single governing body needs to be recognised for all esports leagues and competitions, so that the member players and organisers fully acknowledge the standards that are expected in the industry.

For more information or discussion, please contact HopgoodGanim Lawyers’ Leisure, Sport and Entertainment team .

Authors
Josh Hunt
Partner
Josh is a Partner with specialisations across Digital Assets, Resources and Energy and Corporate Advisory and Governance.
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