There is a dark side to esports' financial boom: more money means higher risks of cheating, doping, and match-fixing. Enter the Esports Integrity Coalition, or ESIC, a new organization aiming to curtail those elements.
The only problem is that we've heard this pitch before. The World Esports Association, or WESA, promised to give players a voice within the industry when it launched two months ago, but the organization has barely uttered a peep since. Shortly thereafter, the British Esports Association emerged. Indeed, it can seem as though a new organization pops up every week, and it remains to be seen whether ESIC will just add to the acronyms or if it can be the unifying force the industry needs.
In 2015, people wagered around $250 million in legitimate, regulated esports betting markets. That's a pittance compared to traditional sports, but Forbes projects that figure will rise to $23 billion by 2020. According to Ian Smith, ESIC's newly appointed commissioner, this means the illegitimate gray and black markets could reach up to $300 billion. Smith and ESIC's goal is to get in front of this expansion, "in anticipation of a problem that is undoubtedly coming."
Except the problems already exist. Last year, evidence of match-fixing emerged after one of the biggest American Counter-Strike teams, iBuyPower, lost a relatively easy match, 16-4. And last month, gaming YouTubers Thomas "ProSyndicate" Cassell and Trevor "TmarTn" Martin were revealed to be the owners of a CSGO gambling website they had been promoting without, it appears, disclosing that conflict of interest. Both men, as well as their site, have been added to a class-action lawsuit against Valve Corporation over the gambling surrounding CSGO.
Then there's doping. Last year, the Cloud9 CS:GO team admitted to using the performance-enhancing drug Adderall during a tournament. The Electronic Sports League has since introduced anti-doping measures, but more regulations need to be brought in across all games and tournaments.
So, Smith has his work cut out for him. It's a tall task for someone who has only been in the esports industry for nine months: Smith's background is in cricket, including a nine-year stint as legal director of the Professional Cricket Association.
His first task on the new job—and one he's still formulating an answer to—is establishing ESIC's regulatory authority over game publishers and event organizers. Right now, membership in the coalition is voluntary, with a tiered system for annual fees starting at €50,000 and going up to €200,000 based on how many matches need to be monitored. (The coalition is not for profit, and won't be accepting any commercial sponsorship money, which should add an extra layer of defense against corruption or favoritism.)
That is not an insignificant amount of money, and it stands to reason that game publishers or event organizers might be reluctant to pay it, especially if they believe they can police themselves well enough on their own. More cynically, a league in crisis might not want to fork over cash to have its flaws highlighted and its credibility tarnished. In that regard, Smith believes that the community surrounding those games and events will have a part to play in keeping them honest.
"Things can happen in any game at any tournament, and if they're not a member I can do absolutely nothing about it," Smith said. "But the spotlight is on this kind of behavior. They may think they're perfectly able to self-regulate, and I'm happy with that. However, I suspect that's not the case. All I can try and do is persuade the stakeholders to agree with our principles. If they choose not to, the community will judge how effectively they deal with integrity."
ESIC has plans to curtail the use of performance-enhancing drugs, too, with mandatory independent testing and a verification process for therapeutic use exemptions. Of course, testing for banned substances is among the most basic measures, and already accepted across many esports organizations. Smith, however, insists there isn't overlap with other organizations.
"The league that WESA has sanctioned, the ESL Pro League, is covered by ESIC, because ESL is a member," he told VICE Sports. "So when that league kicks off its new season, the code of conduct under which the players participate, the anti-doping policy, and the anti-corruption policy, is the ESIC code. WESA isn't trying to do the same thing as ESIC, and in fact they've embraced ESIC."
If ESIC and WESA can indeed come together to work through these problems, esports will be better for it. But if they end up getting in each other's way, it'll be back to square one.
In Smith's view, education is just as important as regulation for the future of esports. ESIC is dealing with young players who simply don't know or understand best practices for the industry. In other words, it's possible for corruption to be a byproduct of ignorance as much as bad intent.
"There are two principle elements to the education," he said. "No. 1 is face-to-face presentation to the players. In Katowice recently for example we had a hundred-plus Counter-Strike players, League of Legends players, StarCraft players, whoever was there. There were two sessions in a row, and we'd do a presentation, we'd play games with them. It's about showing them what the dangers are, and what the rules are.
"We also have more intimate sessions. In Cologne this week for example, I fully expect to be sitting down with individual teams and chatting in a smaller room. We also have plans to launch an interactive online session for everybody. There will be video tutorials, questions, a 30-40 minute test, at the end of which you get a certificate, and I get a notification saying the player has done it. We will shortly tie that to registration for events. You won't be able to play until you've done that."
If nothing else, ESIC has demonstrated that they want to succeed and that there's some kind of plan to get there. Considering the gaming status quo, that represents a victory of sorts. Esports need strong regulation before corruption gets out of control. ESIC is the latest, and perhaps best, hope to fill that role, but the failures of its predecessors are damning by association. For now, it seems, we have to wait and see some more.
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