Spend enough time playing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and you'll spot a cheater. At the least, you're guaranteed to hear other players complain about cheaters.
"That guy's using an aimbot!" is a common accusation. It means a player is running illicit software on his computer that will automatically point his gun at another player's head. A triggerbot, a feature that most cheat suppliers package with aimbots, will automatically squeeze the trigger for you so you can't even screw up the timing.
David Titarenco, a "twenty-something" software engineer in Los Angeles who previously contributed to the anti-cheat software used by CAL (the Cyberathlete Amateur League), thinks he can put an end to this seemingly endless problem with a small device that sits between your mouse and your computer.
The Game:ref, as he calls it, runs on a tiny Arduino platform and has two USB ports, one where your mouse plugs into the device, and another from the device to the PC, which passes the mouse data. It also connects to the internet via ethernet or wifi, which is how it makes sure nobody tampers with it or its data. Basically, it captures how you physically move your mouse, compares it to the movements on screen, and if the two don't match exactly, you're busted.
"Online gaming has always been near and dear to my heart," Titarenco said. "I played competitive Counter-Strike Source professionally for a few years. It tends to hit close to home when you play for money or when the community is tight knit."
Titarenco is approaching esports event organizers in hope that they'll connect a Game:ref to every computer that's being used in an official match to insure that nobody's using an aimbot. Technically, a player could connect another device that fudges the data between the mouse and the Game:ref, but that would be impossible to pull off in a public setting.
Esports, and Counter-Strike especially, are in dire need of this type of guarantee.
Late last year, Valve, which developed Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, rocked the professional scene when it banned a number of high-profile players for using aimbots days before the biggest esports event in the game's history, DreamHack Winter 2014.
Three pros who were about to compete for a prize pool of $250,000 were banned, calling into question every qualifying match that led them to the event.
This by extension makes both fans and players question every game, past and future. If three high ranking playing got away with it for a while, what's to prevent others? If you can't guarantee fair play, you can't have competition, and if you can't have competition, esports will go nowhere.
Something like the Game:ref can help restore some trust, but it won't solve the problem of cheating in online games in general.
The hardest to detect cheats are ring 0 or kernel-level cheats, meaning they operate on the deepest, most protected layer of your CPU. You can to choose run ring 0 cheats because the PC is an open platform, but other programs including anti-cheat software can't just go in there without permission, snoop around, and see that you're up to no good in Counter-Strike.
Anti-cheat software has other ways to catch cheaters. Statistically, anti-cheat software can tell that there's simply no way you made that shot based on previous data. Anti-cheat software can also rely on the community, allowing players to file complaints, then view video of a potential cheater's previous games. It's a cat and mouse game. Cheaters rarely do much damage, but they never go away either.
The Game:ref wisely sidesteps this whole process by removing the anti-cheat software from the computer and into its own device. You'd have to physically mess with the chip to change anything, and you can't do that because of the internet connection, but there are other issues.
First, as Titarenco admits, one could invent another device that sits between the mouse and the Game:ref. It would require time, money, and effort, but unlike with public esports events, at home cheaters would have all the privacy they need to pull it off. It will also raise the cost of cheating overall, but seeing as how paid cheat providers make millions of dollars a year, there's plenty of incentive to pursue it.
The device doesn't tackle "wallhacking," the most widely used cheat in Counter-Strike
More critically, the Game:ref doesn't tackle the most widely used and hardest to detect cheat in Counter-Strike: wallhacking, or ESP (extra sensory perception). It allows cheaters to view every other player in the match through walls, and if you're careful and don't make it obvious that you have that information, you could get away with it for years.
Again, this wouldn't be a problem at public events because everyone can see your screen. If the Game:ref catches on at Counter Strike events, Titarenco is confident that it can be used to stop cheating at Dota 2 and League of Legends events, where cheaters could conceivably use software to execute several keyboard strokes in an instant.
"My goal is to first approach events and organizers and lans in particular and see how they do there and then I'd like to contact end-users [regular players]," he said. "I feel that both hardcore as well as casual gamers would like this. Nobody likes to be cheated against, no matter if you're playing at the highest levels or the lowest levels. It just sucks when you're playing against a cheater."
For now, though, Titarenco is keeping his day job.