ESI Gambling Report: The Counter-Strike effect and preserving integrity online

Esports and integrity harbor a complicated history with one another; and more recently this dynamic has become increasingly tangled.

On August 31st, tournament organiser ESL announced a competitive ruling which shook the industry’s core. The statement identified three Counter-Strike: Global Offensive coaches of prominent organisations to have abused a bug in the game during a professional match. In consultation with CS:GO developer Valve and the Esports Integrity Commission (ESIC), ESL issued each player a temporary competitive ban between six months and two years length.

While startling in it’s own right, it was merely the beginning of what would evolve into a progressively dark narrative; bringing to a head serious questions of managing competitive integrity through an entirely online infrastructure, and with big money on the line.

To better understand the scope and magnitude of the recent integrity flares, as well its possible implications, Esports Insider will explore the topic in this edition of the ESI Gambling Report, presented by Oddin.gg.

The Counter-Strike effect

The incident traces back to June when veteran Counter-Strike referee and league operations specialist Michal Slowinski was made aware of the in-game glitch. In essence, the bug enabled coaches to have a bird’s-eye view over an area of the map, and was later found to be exploited in competitive environments.

Although it’s widely considered impossible to be definitively proven, the spectator bug is rumored to have existed in CS:GO since 2016. The basis of which has escalated the possible severity of this exploit and set the tempo for a large-scale investigation launched by ESIC.

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On September 4th, following its issued sanction outcomes, ESIC opened an extensive historical inquiry into the spectator bug exploitation. The scope of which would analyze approximately 99,650 CS:GO game demos, equivalent to roughly 15.2TB of file footage provided by HLTV and ESEA, dating back to 2016.

ESIC provided an update into its ongoing inquiry on September 28th, identifying 37 coaches guilty of deliberately triggering the bug during an official match. The issued sanctions, enforced across all ESIC member organisations, will prevent affected coaches from joining official match game servers, communicating with players before and after a match, and participating in the map veto process. The volume of implications was steep, and provoked a series of subsequent statements from organisations relieving those snagged in the investigation from their rosters. Concerningly, the update was provided only after reviewing approximately 20 percent of the available game demos, suggesting there is more to come.

Apprehension surfaced in tandem with reports of foul play, questioning the liability of players participating in compromised matches; the nature and circumstances of which heavily imply information was exchanged with those abusing the glitch, and thus complicit. It’s a situation ESIC Commissioner Ian Smith acknowledges to be “a little bit nuanced,” and one that must be based on pragmatic evidence, and not speculation.

“There’s a big difference between what I think personally and what you can prove even on the balance of probabilities for a regulatory case against a player, particularly given how serious the implication is,” Smith told Esports Insider. “You’re looking at serious cheating and bans, and we would never take something like that lightly.”

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In order for ESIC to impeach guilty players, the investigation would have to shift from examining how the bug was used to analyzing in-game voice channels. The undertaking would vastly deepen the scale and complexity of the investigation, notwithstanding the actual mechanical means of retrieving this data.

That’s not to say player misconduct will go unpunished. Once results from the initial inquiry are processed, ESIC will begin reviewing compromised matches for player complicity. Adding for ESI that despite being a tall, labor-intensive order, it’s all “constantly under review.”

Amid the bug exploitation probe, ESIC announced it would additionally audit 15 Mountain Dew League (MDL) matches for suspected match fixing. The ongoing case, which the organisation considers to be of “significant concern to the industry,” has added another grim layer to the current state of affairs.

Impact

As tension continues to build, so does speculation over the possible implications on Counter-Strike and the esports industry at large. Although the impact is unclear, it’s certain the outcome of these investigations will influence the space in one way or another.

Valve will refrain from taking action until getting “a complete picture” into the extent of bug abuse, but said it would “consider limitations to coaching,” in a statement.

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“At a minimum, we expect that players and coaches will play by the rules, and immediately pause the match and alert tournament admins if they know of an issue that may give them (or an opponent) an unfair advantage,” the developer said. “Mid-match coaching will always be a tempting opportunity for some teams to violate the integrity of the match. So we may also consider limitations to coaching.”

At the time of writing, it remains to be determined how Valve will get involved and to what degree.

More unsettling is the potential breadth of tournaments, many of which are partnered with betting operators, that were wagered on with subverted outcomes. The fast-growing esports betting handle has had a breakthrough year, riding the dovetails of traditional sport league cancellations, increasing its volume and awareness globally. Despite showing off its best performance yet, these incidents, as well as future integrity mishaps, will cause esports to deviate away from adoption in the gambling market.

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Eilers & Krejcik Gaming partner and gambling industry analyst Chris Grove commented on the subject for ESI: “American lawmakers and gambling regulators were already widely skeptical about esports betting. These sorts of scandals will make it even more difficult for esports to gain traction in the regulated U.S. sports betting market.”

While sports betting at large is being rushed into existence in the US following the repeal of PASPA, esports gambling is growing very incrementally. In New Jersey, a bill permanently including esports in the state’s legal sports betting industry was advanced to the Senate for approval. It’s a bright step forward in the Garden State, but one that may not see the light of day if lawmakers can’t ensure esports matches are played in a fair and safe manner.

Online sportsbook Rivalry is but one operator caught in the toil and trouble of this ongoing investigation. The bookmaker has a betting menu built around esports, and as an ESIC member has opted to fund the investigation on its own accord, as well as provide data useful in the assessment from its platform. As an entity handling real-money transactions wagered on esports, Rivalry CEO Steven Salz admits it’s “deeply disturbing” to hear of events which infringe on match integrity, adding that it affects the “broader ecosystem,” as well.

“It certainly now will cast more doubt over the perceived integrity of esports betting, which at this stage of growth is frustrating,” Salz told ESI. “Betting and viewership is quite correlated, and this is across all sports, so it also impairs the broader ecosystem. If fans feel they aren’t watching fair play it degrades interest in the fan experience.”

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Indeed the novelty of esports has seen it constantly under the microscope of the global gambling industry. While esports are generally protected at the highest competitive level, these wounds reaffirm the doubts of betting industry stakeholders who are teetering on the edge of its adoption.

In lower divisions of play where salaries and incentives are vastly disparate, the temptation to match fix becomes even more tantalizing. A bane of the esports betting handle may very well be found on the point spreads of semi-professional matches; and although the suspected match fixing in MDL is not an isolated case, it’s a reminder that integrity must be built from the top-down. 

“The criteria has been getting tighter over time as everyone has worked to only offer [wagers] on matches that meet a variety of integrity parameters, and many Tier 2 leagues were being weeded out at this point. The outcome will likely accelerate the rate at which this happens,” Salz added on the subject of semi-professional match fixing. “Everyone loses in these situations.”

Wading murky waters

The pandemic had stopped many industries in its tracks while esports accelerated. With the ability to pivot to an entirely digital infrastructure, competitive gaming shined like a beacon during this global emergency. Despite carrying on relatively unscathed, underpinning the demanding competitive ecosystem entirely online has brought its own set of challenges – the preservation of integrity, included.

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The short-and-sweet explanation is that live, in-person events are simply more controlled settings. Generally in online matches, players are less supervised, event operators have less oversight, and of course the risk of internet reliability becomes vastly exasperated. These vulnerabilities are even more hazardous as major international tournaments with big money on the line shift to online structures in wake of the pandemic.

The inaugural Call of Duty League Championship in August exhibited just how disastrous this can get. Most notably, a series of disconnections ejected players from their matches, forcing teams to play down and influencing the outcome of fixtures. Though complicated to prove, the possibility of an outside actor tampering with player networks could not be entirely ruled out. 

Dismissing the speculation, gaps in what actually occurred here leave a lot to the imagination and highlight potential weak points in this fully-digital framework. Especially in the case of the Call of Duty League, which was approved by the Nevada Gaming Control Board for wagering in April, and more jurisdictions working diligently to follow suit.

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“The move to online has given rise to a bunch of problems that may well have existed prior to COVID, but the intensity and all pervasive nature of online play across all of esports has really highlighted a bunch of problematic issues,” Smith added. “This all may seem like doom and gloom, but we also have to realise that this period has driven incredible innovation and upscaled the professionalism, certainly of tier-one competition, a great deal.”

It would be inappropriate to say the transition to online play has been an unmitigated disaster, because it’s far from that. Integrity flares will still however continue to affect the broader esports ecosystem, turning away sponsors, viewers, and ancillary businesses like bookmakers which support the industry at large. Especially as esports continues to bake in the global gambling market, friction caused from foul play will become increasingly precarious.

These affairs will continue to perpetuate doubt around the legitimacy of esports, but are growing pains the industry needs to feel and be accountable for. Esports is still an incredibly young industry, and it will continue to evolve in considerable ways, and be influenced by key cultural moments in its history, for the foreseeable future. How these cases will be unpacked and dealt with in the industry at large as well as its betting handle is still to be determined.

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