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eMatch-Fixing: Why Poverty and Chaos is Driving Pro-Gamers to Risk Everything

When pro-players gain the fame but not the fortune, it's easy for their heads to be turned by rigging matches.

by Gareth Platt
04 March 2015, 11:05am

Photo from Intel Extreme Masters, Poland 2013 via

"I felt like absolute trash. I was really, really upset. How do I explain this to my family and friends? I've spent so many years sacrificing so much for this, whether it be going out with my friends, moving to Europe... It took its toll on me but I wanted to play in the high-intensity matches. It was never about the money.

"How do I tell people close to me that all this that I worked so hard far, that I love doing more than anything else in the world, is over? And how do I explain to them that I did match-fixing?

"I wouldn't say I was suicidal. But I didn't want to do anything, or talk to anybody. I had no energy, I was self-destructive. It's hard to describe how shitty you feel."

If you follow sport, this account might take you back to the South African cricketers convicted of throwing games in the early 00s, or the snooker player Stephen Lee, found guilty of the same offence and removed from the sport's world rankings a few months ago. But this testimony doesn't come from snooker, cricket, or any other physical sport. It comes from one of a new breed of fallen heroes: the eSports match-fixers, professional video gamers whose lives have been ruined when they are barely out of their teens.

The name of this particular fall guy is Joshua Nissan, or "Steel" to give him his eSports handle. Just over six months ago he and his iBUYPOWER teammates were feted as the best Counter-Strike players in America. The team name may have left a bit to be desired, but these guys were on their way to becoming gods of their sport, their gung-ho play style and charismatic personae attracting legions of fans.

On 21 August 2014, iBUYPOWER were due to play a tournament match against the even more catchily named NetcodeGuides.com in Philadelphia. Steel and his comrades were knackered, having just flown in from Cologne. There was nothing on the game as both teams were already in the play-offs. Steel's captain, Sam "Dazed" Marine, owned both teams. If you wanted to seduce someone into fixing a match, you couldn't have wished for better conditions.

Having checked the odds, Marine and his players started plotting. They asked a friend to place multiple bets against them online using "skins", in-game accessories that could be sold for real money elsewhere. Gamblers are only allowed to bet four skins at once, but this proxy had numerous accounts. The players reckoned they would make $1,200 each.

"WE THOUGHT IT WAS THE PERFECT SCAM"

Many insiders have accused Marine of manipulating his charges, but Steel insists otherwise. "All of us agreed to it. He did raise it, but it's something that every player's been tempted by. He was the one who was serious about it. The rest of us were like, 'Ah, what could happen?'

"Of all the games we could have done, this made the most sense. It was a regular season, the win/loss had no effect on either team, and it was a map we hadn't practised because we'd been overseas. We thought it was the perfect scam."

When the match started, iBUYPOWER were atrocious, launching kamikaze forays one minute, then hanging back with the opponent at their mercy. Some have suggested Marine's team were laughing as they lost, but Steel denies this, claiming the approach was more subtle.

Recalling the tactics his team employed, Steel says: "You do plays that aren't textbook. You peek when you shouldn't, you hide when you peek, you don't push a bomb when you're supposed to. It's basically a positional and timing thing."

iBUYPOWER might even have got away with it, too, despite all the innuendo, were it not for The Daily Dot, which obtained screengrabs of a pre-game chat with professional player Shahzeb "ShahZam" Khan, who knew Marine's guys and predicted the fix. Subsequent texts posted online by the girlfriend of Steel's colleague Derek "dboorN" Boorn corroborated this, and eventually Counter-Strike developer Valve banned all seven iBP players from any of its future tournaments. In effect, this finished their careers.

Valve's punishment has ruined the lives of seven young men, all still in their twenties, and has been widely hailed as tough but fair. Yet, in reality, this is just the latest in a slew of scandals to tarnish the burgeoning world of eSports, which have snared some of the biggest players on the planet and brought about appalling real-world tragedies.

SHOCK AND SUICIDE

In April 2010, a cabal of 11 professional Korean StarCraft players received life bans for conspiring to rig matches. The dirty almost-dozen included Ma "sAviOr" Jae-yoon, reputedly the best StarCraft player in the world. This was like Michael Jordan or Lionel Messi being outed as crooks.

Last year another Korean superstar, League of Legends player Cheon "Promise" Min-Ki, revealed he had deliberately killed his character in the Champions Spring 2013 tournament. Creaking under the weight of his shame, Promise tried to kill himself for real, jumping 12 stories out of his building and only surviving because he landed on a sheltered recycling area.

Sadly, it seems the problems are actually getting worse. Just a month ago, in the wake of the iBUYPOWER scandal, Valve suspended a further 19 Counter-Strike players, across three European teams. The Filipino eSports community has been stained by allegations of match-fixing against a pair of Dota 2 teams, and Korea's StarCraft II scene is a fixer's paradise according to revered manager Olivia Wong, who suggested the problem was rooted in the proliferation of smaller competitions offering paltry prize money.

Wong's diagnosis appears to cut to the core of the issue. While audiences for eSports can be huge – the final of a 2013 League of Legends competition pulled in 32 million viewers – this is rarely matched in player earnings. Marquee stars such as Carlos Rodriguez, recently described as the "David Beckham of eSports", can boast annual earnings approaching seven figures. But most earn a pittance, and there have been several examples of start-up teams going bankrupt and withholding payment from the players who have dropped everything to join them.

Steel, who began playing professionally in 2008, claims he earned somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000 in prize money during his eSporting life, and had to sleep on friends' couches when his team went bankrupt in 2012. One of those friends was Daily Dot journalist Richard Lewis, who, with caustic irony, ultimately played a major part in breaking the match-fixing story.

Lewis says: "That's one of the saddest parts of the story for me personally, that I knew the player it was going to affect. I had seen Josh at several events and he'd been rendered homeless and had nowhere to go, I felt compelled to put him up on my sofa.

"It was really sad for me to have to do that to him because he's already been through so much, chasing that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I think it's fair, but still sad."

"YOU CAN DIAL IT DOWN BY 2%"

Lewis, who's been covering eSports since the late 1990s, says fixing taints all kinds of eSports games. The precise method of fixing will vary according to the game, from a brainless foray on Counter-Strike to an open goal miss in a soccer tournament. But the core principle is the same: just play to lose, and, unlike the iBUYPOWER crew, use your professional prowess to ensure it isn't obvious.

"There are two principal ways to achieve the fix," Lewis says. "The safest way is to simply say, 'Let's play badly and lose, no need to tell anyone, we just play badly and say we've had a bad day.' The other way is when you get two teams, you have a conspiracy and share the proceeds. That can be a bit more dangerous because the more people that know, the more potential for a leak. But, in both cases, if you're a really adept player, you can just dial it down by 2%, and that's enough."

Sometimes they bet using skins, like Steel and his teammates. In other games, they use real money; this is particularly prevalent in Dota 2, a game whose fanbase is concentrated in Russia and Eastern Europe. Often, the fix is conceived by the players themselves, but not always. Fallen League of Legends icon Promise claimed he was forced to fix by his unscrupulous manager, while sAviOr and the StarCraft 11 were approached by illegal betting websites.

Like Olivia Wong, Lewis believes financial hardship is a major reason why so many players cheat, and even sympathises with them to some extent, suggesting they are often employed in conditions of virtual serfdom.

"Where does match-fixing thrive in football?" asks Lewis. "It thrives in leagues where you have two things. The first is poverty. If you are a professional athlete and not making a lot of money, you'll always be tempted to make a little bit more through nefarious means.

"The other factor is disparity of wealth. The average Premier League wage in football is something like £80,000 a week, but in the Championship it's £8,000, so these Championship players get told, 'Look, you're never going to be Wayne Rooney,' and that's how they tempt them (as happened when five League Two players were found guilty of betting against their team).

"In eSports these people, in a lot of cases, make next to nothing. [iBUYPOWER] were considered the top team in the US and yet they weren't even salaried. How can you expect them not to want to make money on the side?"

The average age of an eSportsman is seriously young; the majority of players start at 17 and are on the scrapheap by their mid-twenties. Lewis says, "You've got such a short amount of time, the attitude is 'Grab what I can, when I can'. And that makes you more susceptible. You've got to think 'me, me, me', all the time."

"THEY CAN'T HAVE EYES EVERYWHERE"

But, if the lure of match-fixing is so powerful, why is it not more effectively policed?

It seems that the eSports world has almost outgrown itself. What began as a cottage industry is now a fully fledged global enterprise, and the administrators are unable to keep up. This is reflected in the sheer number of competitions: there are almost 1,300 tournaments for League of Legends, and over 2,200 for StarCraft II. Yet eSports still doesn't have its own codified set of rules, or its own regulatory body. There's no eFifa or eIOC.

Lewis says: "When you create a computer game you have no idea, even as the developer, how popular it's going to get, or whether people will host their own tournaments. In most cases there's no licensing required – the developers actually want people to create their own tournament, because it draws attention. A lot of them rely on volunteers.

"There are some structured leagues. Riot Games has the LCS, ESL has lots of leagues and ladders, and they even have the Pro Series, which runs in every country. They used to have the Major Series, the equivalent of the Champions League. But when you've got such a huge organic community, they can't have eyes everywhere.

"It's always been a very competitive industry, and because it's a fledgling industry everyone was looking at everyone else. There was no opportunity to have a regulatory body and so all of these smaller leagues get to operate with complete autonomy. If they don't have the resources to monitor what's going on properly, they will get caught out."

The other side of the problem is the sheer number of websites used to place bets. The site used by iBUYPOWER's proxy was perfectly legal, and agreed to help Valve with its inquiry. Yet it seems there are also swarms of back-alley bookmakers scrambling for a slice of the pie.

Lewis admits there's no way to measure the number of websites, adding: "I've come across a few private ones, particularly Korean ones, because obviously all forms of gambling are illegal there. How do you even know what's going on? [The iBUYPOWER] incident is probably the tip of the iceberg. There's probably people who are getting away with bigger sums of money."

"HOW DO YOU FIX HUMAN GREED?"

Thankfully, it seems eSports will soon have its own regulatory body. Preliminary roundtables have taken place between key stakeholders, with a view to setting up a global body capable of imposing a uniform set of standards on a world currently hamstrung by its commitment to autonomy.

Lewis is playing a key role in these discussions. However, he doubts that a global regulator will be able to police the entire eSports realm effectively.

"We haven't grown enough as an industry to really figure out how [the global body] would be funded, how it would work, what sort of powers it would have. And you'd have to have a reason to cede to the power. If you're a small league and want to operate outside the overseer, there's no way they could be forced. A lot of people don't want to lose autonomy over their business.

"Eventually we'll get there but it won't be able to govern everything. I don't necessarily think the problems will get worse, but how do you fix human greed? You can be as proactive as you want, but there'll always be people who slip through the crack."

When I ask Steel for his advice to would-be fixers, he is unequivocal. "Don't do it. Not because of the punishment, but because it's wrong. Just because you think you can get away with something doesn't justify anything. Don't piss away your dreams."

But will the cases of players like Steel, the stories of career ruin, remorse and even suicide, wipe out match-fixing in eSports? If you were a betting man, you wouldn't put money on it.

@gazplatt49

Previously:

Powder Play: The Making of 'Alto's Adventure'

The Internet Has Responded to a Game About Rape as Only the Internet Can

In the Mouth of the Moon: A Personal Reading of 'Majora's Mask'

Tagged:
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Joshua Nissan
Match Fixing
steel
Gareth Platt
iBUYPOWER
professional players
Sam Marine
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Carlos Rodriguez
Richard Lewis
Olivia Wong