Fair play

Can new es­ports ini­tia­tives tame the videogame in­dus­try’s wildest fron­tier?


Can new es­ports ini­tia­tives tame videogam­ing’s wildest fron­tier?

Af­ter years of be­ing un­der­stood as a niche phe­nom­e­non within the game in­dus­try, pro­fes­sional gam­ing is now bet­ter un­der­stood as a new form of busi­ness en­tirely. De­spite re­cent high­pro­file in­vest­ments by ma­jor pub­lish­ers – no­tably Ac­tivi­sion and EA – a sub­stan­tial amount of es­ports’ growth has oc­curred out­side the aus­pices of the com­pa­nies that de­velop the games in­volved. This part of gam­ing cul­ture was born with the player com­mu­nity, and the in­ter­na­tional showrun­ners that now dom­i­nate it – com­pa­nies such as ESL, DreamHack, Fa­ceit and MLG – all orig­i­nated out­side of the tra­di­tional game de­vel­op­ment ap­pa­ra­tus. If any­thing, Ac­tivi­sion’s re­cent ac­qui­si­tion of MLG demon­strates that gam­ing’s tra­di­tional stake­hold­ers have been pushed into a re­ac­tive pos­ture by the rise of es­ports.

The ad-hoc and un­planned de­vel­op­ment of pro­fes­sional gam­ing has re­sulted in a di­verse in­dus­try with dozens of points of in­ter­nal divi­sion: philo­soph­i­cal, nat­u­ral, per­sonal, in terms of spon­sor­ship mod­els adopted, games played, and spec­ta­tors at­tracted. In ad­di­tion, es­ports is still strug­gling to find its place in the wider world. There is a strict gen­er­a­tional gap be­tween this new form of spec­ta­tor sport and tra­di­tional sport, which im­pacts the way es­ports are re­ported on by tra­di­tional me­dia (if they are at all) and the de­gree to which they’re un­der­stood by tra­di­tional sport­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions (if they are at all.) Even the game in­dus­try, used to see­ing it­self as a young and mis­un­der­stood, is guilty of mis­un­der­stand­ing this younger form.

This is gam­ing’s fron­tier, for bet­ter or worse. Es­ports’ rel­a­tive iso­la­tion and its lack of in­ter­nal con­sen­sus, cou­pled with its stun­ning growth in pop­u­lar­ity, makes it ripe for ex­ploita­tion. Some of this is be­nign and car­ries the stamp of le­git­i­macy – out­side com­pa­nies swoop­ing in to ‘own’ parts of the scene.

In other cases, op­por­tunism takes the form of cor­rup­tion. In early 2015 Valve sus­pended five pro­fes­sional North Amer­i­can Counter-Strike: Global Of­fen­sive play­ers from team iBuy­power for match fix­ing, along with the man­agers of their op­po­nent, NetCodeGuides. Later the same year, CS:GO player Kory Friesen of team Cloud9 openly al­leged in a YouTube video that he and “ev­ery­one” in the pro­fes­sional Counter-Strike com­mu­nity abused the stim­u­lant Ad­der­all as a per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drug.

Sto­ries like this are be­com­ing more com­mon. In Oc­to­ber 2015, au­thor­i­ties in Korea – where es­ports are far bet­ter es­tab­lished than in the west – made a se­ries of shock­ing ar­rests of top-tier Star­craft II pro­fes­sion­als who had also been found to be fix­ing the re­sults of matches. Cheat­ing and cor­rup­tion are an in­ter­na­tional prob­lem that af­fects ev­ery es­port, a di­rect con­se­quence of the or­ganic growth of the in­dus­try and the lack of any form of cen­tral gov­ern­ing au­thor­ity. “There’s no cen­tre to the in­dus­try,” says Ian Smith, com­mis­sioner of the new es­ports in­tegrity ini­tia­tive, ESIC. “It’s a se­ries of is­lands, and some of them are linked by rick­ety bridges and some are not at all. Some have lots of traf­fic be­tween them and some have none.”

In­sta­bil­ity has a di­rect con­se­quence for the es­ports in­dus­try’s fi­nan­cial vi­a­bil­ity, Smith says. “If you look at the num­bers and de­mo­graph­ics in es­ports broadly, you would ex­pect at this stage that es­port would have about 30–40 per cent nonen­demic spon­sor in­ven­tory. Pretty high­end stuff: Coke, Pepsi, Visa, Toy­ota – that level. But you don’t see that, and across es­ports, the pen­e­tra­tion of non-en­demic spon­sors is less than five per cent.”

The prin­ci­pal spon­sors of the ma­jor­ity of es­ports teams and leagues come from within the game in­dus­try: hard­ware man­u­fac­tur­ers, re­tail­ers and so on. Even these have been stung from the lack of reg­u­la­tion within the scene: US PC hard­ware re­tailer iBuy­power, for ex­am­ple, now has its brand di­rectly as­so­ci­ated with one of the largest scan­dals in North Amer­i­can Counter

Strike. For smaller com­pa­nies within videogames, ex­po­sure to es­ports’ large au­di­ences is of­ten deemed worth the risk. For non-en­demic spon­sors, it isn’t.

“That level of spon­sor has been stung in the last cou­ple of years by scan­dals in foot­ball, ath­let­ics, ten­nis, you name it,” Smith says. “More or less ev­ery sport has be­come risky in terms of brand man­age­ment be­cause of bad things.”

This is a prob­lem that the en­tire in­dus­try now has to face: they have

“There’s no cen­tre to the in­dus­try. It’s a se­ries of is­lands and some of them are linked by rick­ety bridges”

the au­di­ences, play­ers and venues, but spon­sor­ship is bot­tle­necked by a lack of struc­ture. Es­ports gov­er­nance it­self now rep­re­sents an op­por­tu­nity to or­gan­i­sa­tions with a stake in the busi­ness, and the past few months has seen a rush of ini­tia­tives in­tended to build con­sen­sus, cen­tralise gov­er­nance, and boost prof­itabil­ity.

The World Es­ports As­so­ci­a­tion, WESA, was an­nounced in May with an ini­tial mem­ber­ship that in­cluded rep­re­sen­ta­tives from some of the most im­por­tant stake­hold­ers in Counter-Strike:

Global Of­fen­sive. Its found­ing com­mis­sioner, Pi­etro Fringuelli, is a lawyer with ex­pe­ri­ence in me­dia who has pre­vi­ously per­formed an ad­vi­sory role for the Ger­man Bun­desliga. WESA po­si­tions it­self as a con­sen­sus-build­ing body that seeks to es­tab­lish guide­lines for the in­dus­try as a whole on mat­ters rang­ing from con­sen­sus to dis­pute ar­bi­tra­tion to player con­tracts. It’s an am­bi­tious re­mit, made prac­ti­cal by the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s ini­tial em­pha­sis on CS:GO alone.

De­spite the need for bet­ter reg­u­la­tion, the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s an­nounce­ment was met with con­tro­versy. Its mem­ber­ship in­cluded only one tour­na­ment or­gan­iser, ESL, rais­ing ques­tions about its ef­fec­tive­ness among the many other leagues in­volved in the CS:GO scene. Then, only days af­ter WESA’s an­nounce­ment, mem­ber team Faze left the or­gan­i­sa­tion cit­ing the lack of trans­parency sur­round­ing WESA’s meth­ods. Since that time, WESA has com­mu­ni­cated al­most noth­ing about its on­go­ing work.

The rules-form­ing body ESIC, founded in July, has a more spe­cific re­mit: anti-cheat­ing and anti-cor­rup­tion. Smith was formerly the le­gal di­rec­tor of the UK Pro­fes­sional Crick­eters’ As­so­ci­a­tion, and has held roles within the Fed­er­a­tion Of In­ter­na­tional Crick­eters As­so­ci­a­tions and the Com­mit­tee of UK Anti-Dop­ing. He is san­guine about ESIC’s chances of ef­fect­ing pos­i­tive change within the in­dus­try, but con­scious that sim­ply an­nounc­ing an ini­tia­tive is not enough.

“The first an­swer is for the in­dus­try to ac­knowl­edge the prob­lem,” he says. “That big-pic­ture is­sue still has a long way to go. There’s still a fair amount of de­nial. There’s also a sort of avoid­ance of the topic – peo­ple recog­nise that it’s a prob­lem, but there are so many prob­lems, so many things to do, that this comes far lower down their pri­or­i­ties than it ought to.”

For anti-cheat­ing to be suc­cess­ful, Smith ar­gues, the in­dus­try needs to work more closely with play­ers. “You’ve got to ed­u­cate the par­tic­i­pants,” he says. “By far the best de­ter­rent to any kind of cor­rupt be­hav­iour is ed­u­ca­tion.” It’s here that es­ports en­coun­ters prob­lems dis­tinct from tra­di­tional sport. Many play­ers and spec­ta­tors are very young, and haven’t grown up in a ‘sport­ing’ en­vi­ron­ment in any sense of that word. The most toxic ten­den­cies of the gam­ing com­mu­nity di­rectly im­pact es­ports’ abil­ity to be gov­erned. “One thing that has struck me in con­trast with my ex­pe­ri­ence in tra­di­tional sport is the sheer vir­u­lence of so­cial me­dia and the chat­ter around es­ports,” Smith says. “It’s real WWE trash talk – but it’s nas­tier than that, be­cause at least WWE trash talk is part of the show.”

Play­ers’ re­sis­tance to au­thor­ity and pref­er­ence for hold­ing court on Red­dit and Twit­ter is an ob­sta­cle that es­ports have yet to over­come. Ma­tu­rity is needed, but this is a chicken-and-egg prob­lem: with­out a player as­so­ci­a­tion to en­cour­age a wiser cul­ture, the cul­ture isn’t wise enough to pro­duce a player as­so­ci­a­tion. In its ab­sence, the role of gov­er­nance falls to team or­gan­i­sa­tions and leagues – and this, Smith ar­gues, is a trap.

“In ev­ery sport ever, over the past 200 years of modern sport, teams and leagues will tell you that they look af­ter the play­ers and look out for their best in­ter­ests,” he says. “It’s the big­gest lie ever. Their in­ter­ests to­tally con­flict. The teams need the play­ers, and it’s far, far bet­ter if [they’ve] got those play­ers where they’re un­rep­re­sented col­lec­tively.”

In­tegrity is this new in­dus­try’s big­gest chal­lenge, a cor­ner that needs to be col­lec­tively turned. This will take a cul­tural sea change – one that ex­pe­ri­enced out­siders can foster, but not force. For play­ers, the stakes are high. The suc­cess of ini­tia­tives such as ESIC and WESA is de­pen­dent on their will­ing­ness to help them­selves. “At the end of the day,” Smith says, “the rules are for them. Let’s say there was a ma­jor fix­ing scan­dal in Dota 2, and

Dota 2 dies as an es­port. Does this af­fect DreamHack? Well, a lit­tle bit. Does Valve die? No. So who does it reg­is­ter with? Who dies along with [pro­fes­sional]

Dota 2? Dota 2 play­ers.”

“One thing that has struck me in con­trast with tra­di­tional sport is the sheer vir­u­lence of so­cial me­dia”

Com­mis­sioner Ian Smith from ESIC, the new es­ports in­tegrity ini­tia­tive

LEFT Es­ports events now reg­u­larly fill foot­ball sta­di­ums and con­cert halls. The au­di­ence is enor­mous, but non-en­demic spon­sor­ship is no­table for its ab­sence. ABOVE The process by which play­ers en­ter the scene is still highly in­for­mal, leav­ing them vul­ner­a­ble to ex­ploita­tion

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