Last weekend, Freddy “SmAsH” a disgraced Peruvian Dota 2 player posted a long, open letter on the Dota 2 subreddit, petitioning Valve for his reinstatement into the game’s professional scene, and an end to the ban he received as a result of a match-fixing scandal. To make his case, he details the squalid conditions in which he and his teammates lived, and how their destitution left them with little other choice than to bet against themselves.
“I know that this letter won’t make all the hatred disappear,” SmAsH concludes, “but I hope that those who hate us blindly at least question their feelings before doing so.”
If you haven’t been keeping score, here’s the situation: SmAsH, along with several teammates on Elite Wolves, were found guilty of matchfixing during a minor tournament in February 2016. Were SmAsH to have won that tournament, he stood to earn around $100 USD. By throwing one series, however, his “guaranteed” earnings through third-party betting sites were upwards of $600.
But the deception was found out within a week, and though Elite Wolves initially denied any wrongdoing, an investigation by Valve determined that they were at fault. SmAsH received a lifetime ban from Valve events, a death sentence in Dota 2. Barred from competition, SmAsH turned to Twitch as a kind of afterlife for his career. Most evenings, you can find him streaming to a few hundred viewers, haunting Dota 2 like a ghost.
SmAsH’s open letter is worth reading in full because it’s a revealing look into playing conditions for Dota 2 players outside the game’s glitzy upper crust. Dota 2 gets a lot of press about its eye-popping prize pools, but that’s often a smokescreen obscuring the deep inequalities that grip the game’s global competitive scene. SmAsH’s letter is a vivid illustration of the chasm between the “haves” and “have-nots” in Dota 2, and what that gap forces players to do to survive.
“Many days, we were unable to fulfill basic necessities,” remembers SmAsH. “There were even days where my teammates and I had no food to eat and no place to sleep.”
[On Elite Wolves], I had a salary of $90 [a month], which was quite a lot at the time,” he continues. “Back then, a Peruvian pro player earned between $30 and $90 month … Sadly, we could not even cover the basics, especially regarding food. Most days, we ate cold cereal or whatever we could muster.
It's worth noting that even at his highest income, SmAsH was only making around a quarter of the average Peruvian wage, according to data from Peru's central reserve bank. SmAsH also describes an episode in which he and his teammates attempt to leave an organization that wasn’t supporting them sufficiently, only to be cajoled into to paying back what prize money they had earned as penance for mucking up the team owner’s “investment into them.”
Heart-wrenching though SmAsH’s story is, the reaction from Dota 2 writ large has been a shrug. Most commenters have responded with sympathy for SmAsH’s plight, but stop short of taking his side. As one writes: “I understand that man, but [another pro] Febby didn’t even have a house for a year and he didn’t match fix. Iirc rave only ate eggs and didn’t eat when they didn’t win tournies and I didn’t hear them cheat. It’s just not acceptable behavior. Good luck though.”
You can read through the others if you’d like, but they all boil down to the same message: you were in a bad situation, but you made your choice. Now, go do something else.
This response lacks both empathy and any sense of history. SmAsH’s plea for redemption is a human story, sure, but it’s also a political one.
Esports often goes out of its way to distance itself from politics, but cases like that of SmAsH are a reminder about how global inequalities shape the conditions through which progamers work. Though we sometimes imagine otherwise, cyberspace was never another world, merely a well-disguised reflection of our own. It reproduces, in altered form, the same inequalities that plague us here on earth.
SmAsH writes that Peru’s “terrible and unstable internet” forced them to play at a structural disadvantage against wealthy American teams, making near-impossible the very thing (winning) that might have given them a chance at a more stable sponsorship. How are we to talk about this without also talking about why the telecommunication infrastructure in Peru is so uneven? That’s a historical question, not a personal one. It demands talking about how the inequalities of the past shape those of the present.
What’s more, Valve’s laissez-faire approach to managing Dota 2 exacerbates and exacerbates these problems. As the political economist Daniel Joseph points out, “videogames idealize and structure experiences of individual freedom and self-empowerment, while themselves being the product of the exploitation of labor made possible through deliberately uneven global development.” He’s talking games in general, but goes for esports too.
Through Steam, Valve pushes the burden of managing professional Dota 2 onto everyone but itself. This includes not only the unaccountable tournament organizers and shady managers, but the cottage industry of lecherous betting sites and ELO boosters (where people pay more skilled players to improve their matchmaking rank on their account) that exist like leeches on Dota 2’s professional scene—and it’s worth acknowledging that SmAsH has been accused of taking part in ELO-boosting schemes as well. In theory, the free market should “take care” of these things in time. But free markets, like meritocracies, never really work like that; the rich get richer, and the poor face impossible choices.
Article continues below
“There were many things that motivated our team to match-fix,” writes SmAsH. “There’s a point when you are close to shutting down due to desperation that you start to make bad decisions. Some people in the team had no money for food, or to live on, and what little we had to share was not enough to help them.”
A system in which players often live marginal, precarious existences amid bad actors and predatory management threatens the integrity of competitive Dota 2 far more than the actions of a destitute 18 year-old. By the time a young player living in squalor is forced to make a choice between matchfixing and eating, doesn’t integrity feel beside the point? The trouble with assigning blame to an individual, as most of the Dota 2 community has done, is it absolves the system of any responsibility for laying the foundations for that individual's supposed moral failings.
The reality is that for much of the game’s competitive audience, Dota 2 is a game of leisure and entertainment. For many aspiring pros around the world, it's potentially food on the table and a roof over one's head. That difference in context changes the significance of the "integrity" of things like competition and matchmaking rank.
Valve could help address this by looking honestly at the ways this system fails the disadvantaged. Instead, one of the most profitable companies in the world hands down draconian and capricious punishments against some of its poorest players, to applause from a community that often doesn't understand the choices and pressures of poverty, but has heard a little bit about it, and thinks SmAsH should have just gripped his bootstraps a little tighter.