Team iBUYPOWER in action.
Calling competitive video gaming "esports" is a double-edged energy sword. Comparing them to traditional sports lends itself to both tedious and often confusing comparisons (every discussion about their validity eventually points to golf), but also gives a context in which making money for playing a game makes sense to most people. And now, sports are a handy way to contextualize esports' latest gambling scandal.
In esports, just like in baseball nearly a century ago, relatively low wages created an environment that doesn't excuse throwing a match, but does help explain why someone who is paid to play a game for a living would also have a dubious side hustle. And unlike European teams, the top-level American Counter-Strike Global Offensive team iBUYPOWER doesn't provide any salary for its players, who are expected to make money through ads on streams of their games on Twitch TV and winnings. They took it upon themselves to also make money from losing.
Earlier this month, The Daily Dot uncovered evidence that iBUYPOWER threw a major Counter-Strike tournament against Netcodeguides.com back in August. The team wasn't exactly subtle—they lost pretty substantially, played really puzzlingly, and laughed all the while—actions that they attributed to being unfamiliar with the map and jet-lagged.
The Dot's story left no doubt, though: they uncovered incriminating texts and a digital paper trail on betting site that traced nine different sock-puppet accounts back to one user, Duc "cud" Pham, whose bets added up $10,000 worth of in-game items, the betting currency at CS:GO lounge.
Valve announced this week in a blog post that the company "can confirm, by investigating the historical activity of relevant accounts, that a substantial number of high valued items won from that match by Duc 'cud' Pham were transferred ( via Derek 'dboorn' Boorn ) to iBUYPOWER players and NetCodeGuides founder, Casey Foster."
Valve then banished them from the temple:
All together, the information we have collected and received makes us uncomfortable continuing any involvement with these individuals. Therefore we will be directing our CS:GO event partners to not allow any of the following individuals' participation in any capacity in Valve-sponsored events:
Duc "cud" Pham
Derek "dboorn" Boorn
Sam "Dazed" Marine
Braxton "swag" Pierce
Keven "AZK" Larivière
Joshua "Steel" Nissan
All and all, this esports gambling controversy is still one person and $90,000 short of being just like the 1919 World Series. Eight players for the Chicago White Sox were caught throwing the series to the Cincinnati Reds for $100,000 in the first World Series following the First World War. Back then, baseball players also all seemed required to have snappy nicknames: "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, Claude "Lefty" Williams, George Daniel "Buck" Weaver, Arnold "Chick" Gandil, Charles "Swede" Risberg, and Oscar "Happy" Felsch. They were even managed by William "Kid" Gleason.
Just like their Counter-Strike counterparts, the cheating Black Sox were caught and thrown out of their league. The resonance between the two scandals cuts both ways, though.
Some people believe that the White Sox were driven to gambling because their then-owner Charles Comiskey paid them so little, paying his players in, basically, tiers, averaging around $6,000 and $15,000. Adjusted for inflation these seem like pretty good wages—in the $82,000 and $200,000 range—but athletes, even then, had short careers, and that disparity between the two groups of players bred resentment among those making less.
It's easy to see how people giving up years of their lives would want remuneration, especially as peers on other teams or in other esports get paid for their time. Because afterwards, well, what then?
Esports athletes have even shorter careers than baseball players—I once talked to a Starcraft player who was retiring at 19—and even fewer opportunities to make money after the game. At the very least, former baseball players can coach baseball, because baseball's rules are pretty much set. Esports on the other hand are still coming and going, and after an update or two, the game may be changed fundamentally.
I'm not trying to justify either group of players for throwing their respective matches, but it's useful to consider the conditions in which they chose to do so. As more money pours into a sport, esports players might find it instructive to follow the lead of their baseball, football, and basketball forebears, all of whom have unionized to give the players more bargaining power. Because, as different as they are, esports and regular sports are more alike than you might think.