Cracking the Code

What can Match Fixing tell us about the Difference between eSports and sports?

  • Keven “AZK” Larivière is one of the eSports gamers implicated in a match-fixing scandal, investigated by video game developer, Valve. Photo Brandon Johnston

Last August, eSports journalist Richard Lewis published an article that implicated top North American Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team iBUYPOWER in a match-fixing scandal. Match fixing is nothing new to the eSports community, having already been a major point of controversy in the Starcraft II professional scene.

However, in the CS:GO community, evidence of a secret match-fixing underbelly to the well-established pro scene became a catalyst for the discussion of broader issues in Counter-Strike. If people pointed to match-fixing in Starcraft II as a point of similarity between eSports and “real sports,” the match-fixing scandal in CS:GO began to show important differences between the two.

One such difference is the existence of in-game economies and their undeniable chemistry with professional matches. Indeed, many argued that the roots of match-fixing in eSports went all the way back to video game developer Valve’s “Arms Deal” update for CS:GO back in August 2013, where “weapon skins” were made available for players to trade, buy and sell through Steam, Valve’s digital distribution platform.

Sites such as csgolounge.com and opskins.com were quickly created to avoid some of the regulations of Steam’s “Community Market.” On the latter site players were able to avoid the Steam wallet restriction and sell their skins for real money, while on the former players were able to bet their skins on professional CS:GO matches. This site made it all too easy, some argued, for professional players to be tempted into throwing unimportant games. However, some would take the argument further.

The problem for these players wasn’t just an easily accessible betting site, but rather the skins themselves and their detraction from the complex mechanics of the game in favour of something purely aesthetic and frivolous. A red line had now been crossed: not only were the developers and the player base engaging in such activity, but professionals were too.

This is important, since to the active Counter-Strike community the professional scene embodies the competitive aspect of the game in a way the monetary interests of developers and the easily-appeased masses can’t. While the developers and player base can change or play the game without a competitive dimension in mind, the possibility of professional players fixing matches indicated the intrusion of frivolous aspects into the complex mechanics that made CS:GO an interesting eSport in the first place.

There is a “competitive spirit” that eSports shares with sports. The comparison can be justifiably made, since CS:GO itself has the same depth and complexity as any sport. At the top level of play it requires the same conceptual tools and time dedication to improve, as well as an extremely high skill ceiling.

However, the view that the “competitive spirit” of CS:GO was being corrupted by skins was far from the opinion of the majority. Indeed, fans of professional CS:GO would purchase skins to enjoy spectatorship in a new way, while those looking to increase the value of their in-game inventory began to watch and enjoy professional CS:GO.

The introduction of these new ways to experience CS:GO as a player, a spectator and economic actor indisputably contributed to a massive increase in its player base, which rose from approximately 40,000 concurrent players when the Arms Deal update was released (nearly a year after the game itself was released) to its current peak of approximately 525,000 concurrent players. The last international major tournament, ESL ONE Katowice, was estimated to have approximately 1 million viewers. Importantly, this was not achieved by simply mimicking physical sports, but rather in diverging from them.

“Nothing was regulated, there were no rules in place…” – Keven “AZK” Larivière

It would seem then that these novel institutions within CS:GO contributed to both its major successes and some of its turbulence as an eSport. But the in-game economy is not the only factor at play here.

Months after the original article was published, when it seemed as though the CS:GO match-fixing controversy had been forgotten, more incriminating evidence was released about the iBUYPOWER players. This prompted Valve to keep them home from the MLG Aspen tournament to run an investigation into these allegations.

Shortly thereafter, Valve made a post on its official Counter-Strike site which announced that four out of five ex-iBP players were now banned from Valve-sponsored events (i.e. all international majors) indefinitely. Other leagues were swift to follow with their own bans. This was the first time Valve had banned players for non-cheating related issues. But rather than clarify Valve’s role in its eSports community, the developer appeared as ambiguous as ever. Valve was now simultaneously James Naismith and the NBA—the creator of the game as well as its regulator at the professional level.

It’s this former role that makes eSports fundamentally different from sports. While there are widely accepted rules to soccer, basketball and hockey at the top level of play, eSports is unique insofar as the game itself changes regularly. When a patch is released that changes a map, movement speed, or a specific weapon’s damage, it changes the game in a way that sports haven’t experienced in decades. Part of being at the top level necessitates the skill and conceptual tools to adapt to these changes.

While Valve is familiar with issuing adjustments to the game, when CS:GO began to expand from smaller league tournaments to international majors, a void was formed that organizations like FIFA and the NBA fill in, i.e. the regulation of professional play. This institutional evolution was awkward, to say the least—forcing a few “uncompetitive maps” in majors here and there, as well as the occasional pro player cheating ban without a word—and this would become even more obvious with the match-fixing incident.

Things started off on the wrong foot when Valve remained characteristically opaque about its decision to ban the iBP players. When speaking of Valve’s investigation, one of those players, Montreal’s own Keven “AZK” Larivière, said, “I never really had a talk with them…for two or three weeks we didn’t receive any words.

“Nothing was regulated, there were no rules in place…it’s just something that’s never happened before and I know they’re using us as an example for everyone,” he continued.

While hardly anyone would argue that punishments weren’t needed, Valve began appearing inconsistent and ambiguous, performing legislative and judicial functions simultaneously.

“I think that they handled everything in a strange way, because another team got banned for the same thing as us—Epsilon, a team from France…and theirs was a year ban,” said Larivière.

Many of these thoughts are similar to those discussed by the original article’s author, Richard Lewis, immediately after the bans.

There are other ways in which eSports are similar to their sports counter-parts, but as recent match-fixing dilemmas show us, using the institutional models that sports provide can only create further issues, as one organization ends up taking on too many roles at once.

While many articles try to legitimate eSports by pointing out their similarities with physical sports, it should remain clear as eSports grows that it’s different and doesn’t need to be ashamed of it. This difference is the source of many of eSports’ successes, and understanding this can lead it to overcome its growing pains.

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