With covid-19 shuttering both casino floors and traditional sports arenas, Nevada and other states have leaned into esports as a viable alternative to keep betting windows open. Though the move was mainly intended to keep coins flowing into sports book operations, the increased attention from Vegas and elsewhere could have a notable side-effect: an increased emphasis on curbing cheating and increasing the integrity of competitive gaming.
Instances of cheating and match-fixing have plagued esports events of all sizes, from older, established scenes around games like “Starcraft II” to more recent competitions in “Fortnite” and “League of Legends.” Moreover, unlike traditional sports where a player’s intention to throw a game could be more obvious, a malicious esports player can hide to a degree behind the game’s technological components — with a player’s actions filtered through a computer and a network before becoming visible on screen — to mask anomalous behavior or utilize cheating software. When reactions measured in milliseconds can decide the outcome of an esports event, it’s harder to determine if a player is throwing a match or just having a bad day.
New Jersey’s Division of Gaming Enforcement knows the road will not be smooth, but is still keen to adopt esports betting early. New Jersey Bill A637 (introduced prior to the covid-19 lockdown) by New Jersey Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling already embraced esports, with all the risks. Houghtaling recognized the need for “legislatures to make the seamless shift from traditional sports betting to esports betting.”
New Jersey, which has taken in more sports betting money since June 2018 than any state other than Nevada, is deeply interested in keeping that money coming in. While a seamless shift is the goal, Houghtaling noted that “there will be some problems that are specific to esports, but I am sure we are going to work our way through them.”
Pinnacle, a privately held online gaming company has been accepting betting on esports since 2010, one of the first companies to do so. Known for offering some of the best odds in the industry with the highest limits online, Pinnacle’s Director of Trading Marco Blume believes that “in the beginning, the esports industry was riddled with integrity issues like match-fixing.” However, Blume views the current landscape’s integrity ”as no better or worse than any other sport.”
Blume openly admits that “casual games” — those usually played on public servers more for fun — may still have a good amount of cheating. But he views the “professional level” in a different light.
“Since the pro tournaments are held offline, the ability to cheat is less,” he says.
However, since the pandemic, pro tournaments have moved online and the need for additional precautions falls upon the tournament organizers and developers. That doesn’t bother Blume, who says the developers and other stakeholders have a vested interest in maintaining competitive integrity.
“The early years of esports was the classic ‘denial’ stage for the game developers, but the last decade has pushed the developers into the ‘acceptance’ and ‘protect’ stages,” Blume says.
Tournament organizers, like ESL, have spent a good deal of time and money working with the developers to create anti-cheat software. Developers like Riot (owned by Chinese company, Tencent) employ their proprietary anti-cheat software in the newly release game, “Valorant,” which will soon feature regular grass-roots level competitions. Other companies partner with third-party vendors to achieve the same.
One such vendor, Kronoverse, has been working to solve cheating issues by taking a holistic view. Adam Kling, the company’s CEO and founder, says the “status quo of game developers overseeing the cheating without transparency will not work in the long haul.” Instead, Kronoverse’s platform solves this problem because it can ID a dirty player to a high degree of certainty, similar to how financial institutions do the same. This can include a player’s address, date of birth, IP address and confirm any changes made to an account via multiple ways.
In addition to a sophisticated process of identifying the cheater, this platform “can ban a cheater and not permit them to come back in under a different user’s name,” as well as “give each gamer a type of ‘integrity score’” (similar to one’s credit score) that monitors their performance. “This way, if a gamer’s accuracy goes up 20 percent and then drops 20 percent, the data alerts us to this change in behavior,” according to Kling.
The Esports Integrity Commission (ESIC) was launched in 2016 to help states “find their way.” According to Stephen Hanna, the Director of Global Strategy and Partnerships for the ESIC, “integrity is about protecting the sport from corruption in any form.” It is this pledge from the ESIC members that Hanna believes will bring stakeholders together to form universal standards and best practices.
Although ESIC has many esports stakeholders as members, game developers/publishers have not joined the organization, to date. Blume believes they need to get onboard, saying that their inclusion is the last piece of the pie needed to insure integrity.
“The industry is in need of the trifecta," according to Blume, and this means “game developers, state regulators and bookies must work together, educate the players/coaches, and provide a means for all to have access to the data being collected by all stakeholders involved.”
Perhaps the game developers might be moved to join the ESIC now that bookmakers have begun to embrace esports. For example, FanDuel, a daily fantasy sports bookmaker that was founded in 2009, just recently incorporated esports into its offerings. Cory Fox, vice president for government and products council for FanDuel, explained that "no matter the sport, we need to be certain that the underlying league/team is legit and not being influenced by anyone else.” In order to determine if an acceptable level of influence exists, Fox walks through a risk analysis that might include, “how long the league is in existence, who is running the league, how are the players paid and how much, and how many are watching for entertainment.”
Khaled Samirah, Research Analyst at Euromonitor International, a market research firm, believes the change might very well come from the players themselves.
“Players are reporting cheaters to the game developers because their livelihoods are at stake,” he says.
While anti-cheat software is often viewed as a “shield,” Samirah knows that it can also be a “sword.” For instance, “players don’t want to get banned from a game, so they view data sharing as a way to protect themselves as well.”
Jeff Ifrah, founder of Ifrah Law Firm (which specializes in gambling), sees this moment "as a turning point for all stakeholders in the industry.” Ifrah knows that “the public image of the game developers, players and betting platforms will need to stay at a high standard” in order for patrons to continue to bet on the games and “this will take a team effort, on and off the platforms.”
Lauryn Robinson contributed research for this article.
Ellen M. Zavian is a professor of Sports Law at George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @zavian.