How match-fixing could derail esports growth
Legal Sports Report

The Cautionary Tale For US Sports Betting In Esports Match-Fixing Struggles

Esports have been fighting to gain a foothold in the American entertainment market for a number of years. Recently, their efforts have been rewarded with numerous high-profile individuals and brands seeking to be involved.

The rise in investment has also brought increased attention on an industry that is still very much nascent in the North American market and is experiencing growing pains.

As Legal Sports Report reported last week, the NBA 2K league recently dismissed Basil “24k Dropoff” Rose as a result of purported conversations between him and an NBA 2K league bettor.

The Rose scandal is the latest in a string of high-profile gambling-related issues surrounding 2K league. That includes the game’s loot box feature, which looks quite similar to a slot machine, despite the game lacking a mature rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board video game rating agency.

While NBA 2K league’s issues are the most recent, just last month a major scandal swept the Counter-Strike: Global-Offensive (CS:GO) realm when six people were arrested in Australia and charged with match-fixing related offenses.

An old problem in a new medium

According to Samuel Horti of PC Gamer, Australian police arrested six professional CS:GO players between the ages of 19 and 22 years old. The gamers allegedly arranged to lose sanctioned matches and then profit by placing wagers against themselves.

How was the match-fixing discovered?

The match-fixing was purportedly discovered by gaming operator Sportsbet, who reported suspicious activity to the police. It is likely the quick action of Sportsbet and a few other betting companies who took the information to the police that allowed for the successful arrests.

Interestingly, Australian police credit cooperation between the Organized Crime Intelligence Unit, the Sporting Integrity Intelligence Unit of the police force, and the operators for helping to bring a stop to these acts. Absent from mention are any integrity-monitoring companies or esports leagues themselves.

Match-fixing issue not new for CS:GO

CS:GO has been no stranger to match-fixing, with the game being the site of one of the most significant match-fixing events involving North American esports. In 2014, iBUYPOWER were ranked as favorites over Netcodeguides.com, but lost 16-4. Shortly after the stunning upset, information began to surface that members of iBUYPOWER had placed wagers on the match at esports betting sites.

The result of the actions of the players were indefinite suspensions, which would eventually be lifted in 2017.

Esports’ history with match-fixing

Esports have had a number of significant match-fixing incidents in their relatively short commercial existence. The most famous scandal, likely occurring in 2010, when one of the top-Starcraft players was alleged to have thrown numerous matches to inferior competition at the request (or demand) of gamblers.

The 2010 scandal would prove to be the first of many involving esports match-fixing. In 2016, Lee “Life” Seung Hyun, who was expected to become an esports superstar, was convicted of throwing two games and profiting $62,000. Life would eventually be sentenced to 18 months in prison (the sentence was suspended) and forced to pay a fine of 70,000,000 South Korean won.

Esports has been a target of match-fixers for some time and virtually every esports title of significance has been the victim of match-fixing, including League of Legends and Overwatch.

Match-fixing in esports has purportedly followed two patterns, according to Ian Smith, the Integrity Commissioner for the Esports Integrity Coalition:

  • Activity at lower levels where individuals see an opportunity to benefit themselves; and
  • More sophisticated activity where organized criminal syndicates are conducting the fixing

Esports’ future

Esports has a bright future in the U.S. but faces a number of significant legal obstacles. Amongst the greatest threats to growth is continued match-fixing. Following the 1919 Black Sox scandal, there were fears that baseball would be irreparably harmed. Professional baseball responded by creating the Office of the Commissioner to protect the integrity of the game.

Esports has attempted to implement some changes, but is still struggling to put a stop to its fixing problem. Until that happens, there will continue to be questions from those who look to have esports classified alongside basketball, football, and baseball.

What can be learned from this?

There are important lessons to be learned from the recent incident in Australia, as well as ongoing match-fixing problems that have plagued esports for the last decade. Chief amongst them is that corruption does not sleep, and given the opportunity, corrupters will seek to influence the outcome of anything that will increase their profits.

Fighting match-fixing is something that regulators, leagues, and sportsbooks should all be on the same page about. The first step is requiring that law enforcement be brought onboard to investigate suspicious activity.

For some unknown reason, recent legislation has largely chosen not to mandate the involvement of law enforcement. Only law enforcement has the power to make arrests and conduct investigations with individuals under oath, thus rendering other actions that do not require the involvement of law enforcement questionable in their efficacy for protecting integrity.

John Holden
- John Holden J.D. / Ph.D. is an academic. His research focuses on policy issues surrounding sports corruption.
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