As esports watchdog tackles widespread match-fixing, critics fear it can't do the job
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By Mikhail Klimentov
The Esports Integrity Commission, or ESIC, a nonprofit focused on prevention and prosecution of cheating in esports, issued a wide-ranging update Monday, including details on three professional "Counter-Strike: Global Offensive" players sanctioned for match-fixing related offenses. Appended to the update was a mea culpa of sorts, acknowledging but forcefully defending months-long delays: "The investigation must be completed with the time and attention required - no matter how long."
The update follows months of feverish speculation about ESIC's work. In March, the ordinarily tight-lipped Commission teased - informally, via an interview on a small YouTube channel - the pending publication of a sweeping report on match-fixing in "Counter-Strike's" Mountain Dew League (now called ESEA Premier), an amateur league that granted successful semipro players opportunities to play in the pro league. The highly anticipated report has yet to be released, though Monday's announcement alluded to that report being broken into 34 separate investigations into match-fixing.
Monday's release details ongoing sanctions against only two players: Sebastian "retchy" Tropiano and Kevin "4pack" Przypasniak, both banned for five years. A third punishment of an 111-day suspension, administered to Carson "nosraC" O'Reilly, had already run its course by the time of the announcement. The three players came to the public's attention after the publication of a transcript from a leaked audio recording, in which they discuss intentionally losing an upcoming game. Two players on the opposing team appeared to be involved in the scheme as well; they were ultimately not sanctioned in Monday's announcement. The match was never played when the team not heard in the recording forfeited the game.
To competitive players and fans, the recording, which was shared with ESIC in January and first publicly reported in April by the esports news site dust2.us, was seen as a prelude to a broader reckoning - a teaser for ESIC's omnibus match-fixing report. But then, the Commission went silent, issuing only sporadic, unrelated news releases.
ESIC works by partnering with government betting agencies, tournament organizers and betting websites, among other groups; after an investigation, findings are passed on to leagues and tournament organizers, which enforce them. Game publishers such as Valve, which owns the "Counter-Strike" IP, tend to follow ESIC's recommendations as well.
Behind the scenes, ESIC began pursuing a slate of upgrades earlier this year - in funding, partnerships, transparency and technology - to ensure it could continue working in a sustainable fashion, according to Stephen Hanna, ESIC's director of global strategy and partnerships. On Saturday, it launched the first of these initiatives, a registry on its website to track the status of open investigations. Also in the works: a real-time suspicious bet notification system leaning on ESIC's partnerships with data providers, which include a slew of betting websites.
But for most of 2021, ESIC's work has been hidden from public view. And in that time, public speculation has curdled into skepticism, and frustration with the once-vaunted Integrity Commission has begun to spill into the open. These sentiments have persisted in the wake of the update.
"The issue is that [today's release] basically tells me without immense help from the journalistic community they struggle to get anything over the line," said Jeffrey "Mnmzzz" Moore, the dust2.us writer who authored the article that exposed the players caught on tape. "I mean [suspending three out of five players speaking or mentioned on the call] is fine. But these guys aren't the prize."
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Moore started collecting evidence of match-fixing in March of 2020. In the Mountain Dew League, opportunities for advancement were limited. Players seeking to make a career playing the game had two legitimate options: They could either excel in a competitive setting or become content creators. Some, instead, opted to pursue fixing matches and betting against themselves.
Many in the community had long suspected players were engaging in such behavior, but hard evidence of wrongdoing was difficult to come by. A breakthrough came in December, when a whistleblower shared the leaked audio recording with Moore.
"I remember it was like 2 or 3 a.m. local time when I got [the recording] and I immediately was like, this is the magic bullet . . . this might be the thing that gets the ball rolling," Moore said. He immediately contacted ESIC to turn over the evidence he had acquired. The Commission, in turn, asked Moore to hold off publishing the story about the recording to give them time to button up their investigation.
In late March, Ian Smith, integrity commissioner at ESIC, announced in a video interview he was "optimistic" the report would release in early April - within 10 days to two weeks, in his words. Smith also revealed that the FBI was involved in a separate part of the investigation, which would touch on foreign betting syndicates organizing fixed games and making a killing on betting websites that tracked "Counter-Strike" matches. Monday's report indicated that the report now covered 34 separate investigations, but did not provide additional details.
"I feel like the natural inclination for people when they see this is to think that it's small fries, it's a bunch of pimple-faced 18-year-olds making 500 dollars by fixing a match in a video game where they go pew pew pew, nothing that adults should care about," said Moore, whose story published after Smith's YouTube interview. "But we're talking about people who are being paid in bitcoin for fixing matches, who are placing five- or six-figure bets on these matches on Russian betting sites that have no limits and no regulation, or they're placing bets on illegal betting sites in China and Southeast Asia."
Beyond financial considerations, there's also the incalculable effect of match-fixing on individual players - especially those not involved in anything untoward.
"I would say that almost every player in [the Mountain Dew League] was striving to be the best," said Belal "FGB" Ahmad, a former "Counter-Strike: Global Offensive" player. "I feel like it's just so messed up that people are throwing because you could have ruined someone's chance. Maybe because you threw you crushed someone's motivation to keep playing the game. That could've been the next best player, you know?"
Monday's announcement - the five-year bans for Tropiano and Przypasniak, 111 days for O'Reilly - felt like a false start to critics like Moore, and a bad omen for the 34 other ongoing investigations in ESIC's purview.
In the transcript of the leaked recording published by dust2.us, O'Reilly, says just one line - "I don't know if vek will agree to radar" - apparently referring to a player on the opposing team agreeing to surreptitiously share information about his teammates' locations to O'Reilly and his squad. ESIC, following a standard known as the balance of probabilities (usually referred to as "preponderance of evidence" in American English; ESIC's main staff operates out of the UK and Australia) found O'Reilly's comments about radar "inconclusive." It instead suspended him for failing to report the conspiracy to match-fix to the relevant authorities.
O'Reilly, for his part, told The Post he believed the audio recording of him and his teammates was "irrelevant" given that the match discussed therein was never played.
"ESIC further engaged in investigatory lines of enquiry to seek out any evidence of further involvement in any corrupt behavior beyond the recording. As at 22 July 2021, ESIC has concluded that there is currently no evidence that suggests that, unlike Mr. Tropiano and Mr. Przypasniak, Mr. O'Reilly perpetrated any other breaches," ESIC wrote in Monday's announcement. As such, O'Reilly's suspension is already over, concluding before ESIC communicated the findings of its investigation.
"[ESIC is] sort of pulled between these two worlds of working with Interpol and the FBI to put together these legally binding criminal cases, where their original mandate is more that they're supposed to work with tournament organizers to stop cheaters and match-fixers from playing [competitive] video games," Moore said. "We have evidence of people conspiring to commit match fixing, and while that wouldn't hold up in a court of law, I don't think from the perspective of a private company running esports events you need to reach that [standard] to protect the integrity of your game."
In a statement to The Post, Hanna defended the Commission's standards. "As a regulatory body, ESIC issues sanctions that have legal consequences while often also significantly impacting peoples' careers, aspirations, reputations and ability to earn a living," he wrote. "ESIC requires the achievement of a high evidentiary standard before it takes action. ESIC is also committed to the principles of natural justice and will not, therefore, make arbitrary decisions based on circumstantial evidence."
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For months, esports fans, players and journalists have been mostly deferential to ESIC. In September of 2020, the Commission garnered acclaim when it released a landmark ruling on coaches in "Counter-Strike" taking advantage of an in-game exploit. The Commission's report was the culmination of a months-long investigation by Michal Slowinski, an esports referee, and Steve Dudenhoeffer, a software development manager at ESEA. Pursuing a tip, the two pored over reams of data to pinpoint whether coaches had exploited a bug to appear in-game unbeknown to anyone else, thereby allowing them to feed useful information to their players during matches. The work took up the time of a second full-time job, according to Slowinski and Dudenhoeffer.
In the wake of ESIC's report, 37 coaches were banned in September of 2020 for periods of time ranging from just under four months to three years. For Slowinski and Dudenhoeffer, the bans were validation of their tremendous effort, though a second report, dedicated to other instances of possible cheating not covered in the first report, still awaited publication. It has yet to come out.
"There was supposed to be second part released and even third . . . but seems like ESIC completely ignored it all," Slowinski wrote in a Discord message to The Post. "They know there are cheating coaches out there and they are doing nothing about it. How hard is it to just publish someone else's work?"
In a statement, Hanna explained that ESIC was waiting to reach an agreement with Valve, the game publisher behind "Counter-Strike: Global Offensive," about sanctions before publishing the second report.
"ESIC has been working on determining a fair, proportionate and consistent sanctioning approach to what are, in the majority of these second batch of cases, very short instances of triggering the 'coach bug,'" Hanna wrote. "This is especially important in light of the fact that, following the first batch of sanctions, Valve imposed additional consequences on the coaches sanctioned by ESIC."
There's also the thorny question of cost for such investigations.
"ESIC's income is almost entirely consumed by investigative activity," Hanna wrote. "The coaching bug investigation cost ESIC approximately US$50k alone." A portion of that sum was paid to Slowinski, as well as three other employees working on the report, according to Hanna.
Critics describe the Commission, which employs five full time workers, as underfunded, a characterization ESIC did not dispute. "ESIC operates a similar caseload to the Tennis Integrity Unit and the Anti-Corruption Unit of the International Cricket Council on approximately 1/10th of the budget," Hanna wrote in a statement to The Post.
The glacial pace of the Commission's investigation, as well as its lack of communication, have been detrimental to the goal of rooting out bad actors in the scene according to some in the esports community.
"It's absurd," said Ryan Friend, the founder of Rush B Media, a site that primarily covers "Counter-Strike" and "Valorant" roster changes. Friend believes a number of players are repeatedly fixing matches and frequently tweets about the match-fixing report's absence. "But I can't come out and just be like, these people are match-fixers. Like, I know they are, but I can't do this. That's not my role."
Some alleged instances of match-fixing are viewed as open secrets, referenced casually in Twitch chat and YouTube comments. Some high-profile allegations have been documented in widely viewed YouTube videos that draw attention to suspicious behavior by ostensible professionals. The YouTube channel slash32, for example, on which ESIC commissioner Smith announced law enforcement's involvement in the match-fixing investigation, has several videos covering footage of matches they believe to be suspect, played by "Counter-Strike" players who have since made the jump to "Valorant."
Riot Games, "Valorant's" developer, confirmed in April it was "looking into" such allegations. "Riot Games has and continues to conduct investigations into allegations of match-fixing by players who have previously competed in other titles," a Riot spokesperson told The Post in April.
While ESIC's Monday announcement answered some questions about the work it has been doing, the online reaction the same day indicated a number of esports fans are still skeptical of the Commission's abilities.
"It just feels like we're honestly back to square one," Moore said. "It kind of kills my interest in the scene."
The Washington Post