How do we tackle corruption in a multifaceted esports ecosytem?

Despite its accelerated growth over the past decade, the esports industry is still in its infancy. The infrastructure and common practices that are taken for granted in traditional sports have yet to fully develop in esports. Players’ unions, agents and lawyers for sports contracts, and government-enforced regulations are examples of areas in which esports are beginning to develop but still have a long way to go. Scandals regarding nepotism, corruption, match-fixing and unregulated gambling are tainting the industry on a regular basis.

Nepotism and Corruption in esports

In the esports world, both corruption and nepotism are almost impossible to prove or brought to justice. Conflicts of interest, player poaching, favoritism, unjust rulings and down right bad practice are commonplace across the industry. In most cases, the evidence is circumstantial and involved parties let things slide way too often.

Nepotism is hard to even define in an esports environment. Many esports organizations are created by players themselves and through the company growing they recruit friends, ex-teammates and relatives. Its purely common for friends to get coaching positions or even siblings recruiting eachother to teams, as was the case with Chipsa being recruited by the Overwatch Team Fusion which his brother coached.

More recently, Doublelift suddenly moved back to TSM. His move screams nepotism, conflict of interest and poaching especially since his girlfriend AileenaLeenaXu is the president for Team SoloMid. Yet, building a nepotism case extremely hard. Especially given Doublelift’s profile as a player and recent under performance in Team Liquid.

Nepotism of some scale will continue forever. Blatant examples will become rare-er as organizations change generations. Meaning the owners and managment are not recent players with heavy ties to the community on a personal level. At some point, friendship and relationships will not get into the way of business.

Multi-Team Ownership

Multi-team ownership is another hot topic when it comes to competitive esports. Riot Games was the first company to “outlaw” it and even forced big organizations like the Golden State Warriors, Team Liquid and Cloud9 settle their ownership affairs before they are allowed to compete.

Other esports are slow to follow however. Valve only recently made the decision to crack down on conflicts of interest. Reportedly, five-month ultimatums were handed to seven CS:GO teams to resolve team ownerships that threatened the integrity of the Valve-sponsored Majors. The move centered on the Brazilian team known as Yeah. The ownership of Yeah is tied to players or coaches of three different teams: Epitacio “TACO” de Melo and Ricardo “dead” Sinigaglia of MIBR, Marcelo “coldzera” David of FaZe Clan, and Wilton “zews” Prado of Evil Geniuses.

MIBR, FaZe Clan and Evil Geniuses all compete within the same North American competitive landscape, including qualifiers for Valve’s CS:GO Majors. The possibility of the Yeah players playing against their team’s owners in an official match was a major cause for concern regarding fair match outcomes that Valve needed to address.

The Danish organization RFRSH Entertainment was given an order to divesting itself of ownership of three Danish teams: Astralis, Heroic and GODSENT back in 2018. They were also “forced” to split up RFRSH Entertainment the company behind teams Astralis, Origen and the Blast Pro Series into two companies. This followed after Astralis won several Blast organized tournaments which made the whole thing a bit unsavory.

Although there have not been scandals regarding conflicts of interest at CS:GO Majors as of yet, these actions show that Valve is concerned about the pervasive ownership conflicts that have long gone unchecked.

Other esports are yet to follow especially Dota 2 and PUBG. Valve has not made a definitive judgment call about Dota 2. Its commonplace for the same organizations to have multiple Dota 2 rosters. Most recently TI Champion OG had to disband their second team OG.Seed due to conflicts with schedule and competition. Third-party organizers enforce the multi-team rule and were stopping both OG squads to compete in the same events.

Overall, multi-team ownership has not caused extreme havoc in competitive play, but there’s always the possibility of higher-ups to force one roster to win over the other which would be considered match-fixing.

Unfair contracts, Griffin scandal and player abuse

Esports corruption is not limited to CS:GO. One of the largest scandals in the world’s biggest esport, League of Legends, occurred in 2019 and centered on player contracts, player abuse, and player exploitation.

The case focused on South Korean esports organization Griffin. According to reports, Griffin personnel were guilty of verbally and physically abusive behavior to players, mishandling contract transfers of and threatening underage players, and offering unfair contracts to players. The accusations against Griffin led to an investigation by Riot Korea, the Korean branch of League of Legends developer Riot Games. In the aftermath, Riot Korea fined Griffin and indefinitely banned the accused personnel. Griffin later allowed its players to terminate their contracts and become free agents. Griffin’s ownership company, STILL8, dismissed key members of the company’s executive management and appointed a new CEO of Griffin.

The “Griffin scandal” was an example of just how bad things can get inside an organization. Legendary team Ninjas in Pyjamas was in hot water some years back over unpaid dues to their CS:GO roster and deliberately hiding facts and figures from the roster. The incident was resolved with a simple “release” of their CEO. 

Miss handling of players at the highest level is commonplace in many organizations especially in the B Tier and Amateur scene. Players are rarely represented, unionized or have any protections in their endeavors.

Match-Fixing on the rise

Match fixing scandals are few and far apart in the esports scene. They do however cast a long shadow over the industry. From esports earliest scandals in Starcraft, through Counter-Strike, Dota and League of Legends, match fixing does not discriminate in its title of choice.

Especially in 2020, where all competition has moved online, match fixing and odds fixing has seen a serious uptick. Measures against match fixers are rare and far apart. The perpetrators get caught or brought to trial only once every 5 years.

Back in 2010 a massive Starcraft scandal shook the world as 11 professional players were pilloried for potential match fixing. It was one of the biggest busts in competitive play, resulting in financial penalties, bans and potential jail time. In 2015, CS:GO related match-fixing was discovered resulting in “the iBUYPOWER match-fixing scandal” of 2014-2015. The accused players, in that case, received a lifetime ban from CS:GO developer Valve that banned them from Valve-sponsored tournaments.

Earlier this year in May, the Australian police officially laid charges against five men. It is a landmark case in the country’s first investigation into esports that began last year. Detectives from the Victoria Police Sporting Integrity Intelligence charged the men with offenses related to match-fixing. The penalties could incur up to 10 years’ imprisonment. The five men were semi-professional players in the Australian Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) scene. CS:GO is one of the world’s leading esports, and is in particular an industry leader in esports betting. Multiple websites support betting on CS:GO matches, with buy-ins and winnings involving both highly-priced virtual items and real money. This raises concerns that players are placing bets on their own team and then intentionally throwing matches.

For every case where actions are taken, there is a multitude of matches in lower divisions that are being “fixed”. The motivation behind the widespread incentive of match-fixing is mostly based on player contracts and low salaries. Richard Lewis gives some interesting insight and points in the following video.

Countering Corruption and Moving Forward

Esports corruption occurs across the globe at all levels of play, from amateur online match-fixers to multi-million dollar ownership groups. Developers are taking steps to check against these flaws and to penalize perpetrators. We have not even covered the issues of doping, gambling and casinos which are a completely separate pandora’s box of trouble.

Developers’ vigilance is commendable, however, it is not enough. There are inherent concerns regarding conflicts of interest when the developers simultaneously function as the producers of the game, holders of the game’s intellectual property, producers of the esport, and the governing regulatory body. As esports gain legitimacy, governments will pursue corruption cases in esports more vigorously. It is important for the health of the esports industry that these cases be isolated to individuals’ abuse of their positions and not a systemic problem that makes multiple parties guilty by association.

Ideally, developers, teams, tournament organizers, and players should establish a third-party governing body, perhaps with governmental assistance. This body would form as an impartial counter-balance that checks against corruption in any sector. Hopefully, without over-reliance on any one party that could lead to impaired judgement. This kind of governing body would require a greater investment than any previous effort. It would require not only a monetary investment, but also an investment of time and effort, and all three on a scale that does not yet seem feasible.

What is most important is that the esports industry gets ahead of and clamps down on corruption. It will inevitably happen as the industry continues to grow. The only question is if it will be done by responsible, ethical endemic esports insiders, or if it will be forced upon them by increasing government supervision.

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