Esports – A Ticking Time-Bomb for Match-Fixing

Esports is big business, representing more than a billion-dollar industry, with year-on-year growth over 26% and commanding a global audience of over 450 million that continues to rise each year. What is concerning, however, is that due to its recentness, esports does not possess the same 100 plus years of experience typically afforded by traditional sports like baseball or hockey as a groundwork to protect itself from the integrity issues related to gambling and match-fixing. Gambling already constitutes a significant part of the esports industry. The global esports betting market was valued at roughly $6.3 billion in 2018, mostly illegal, and is set to reach $13 billion by 2020. Even in its infancy, esports is not immune to match-fixing. In 2015, a dozen people, including players and coaches, were arrested as part of a match-fixing scandal in Korea that paid out roughly $37,000. In 2015, another 21 people were permanently banned. 

A recent survey by the law firm Foley & Ladner LLP found that 71% of professional respondents fear that esports gambling could lead to match-fixing. Some observers have attributed this to the pressures involved in competing in a profession where players are young, careers are short, and the competition is ultra-competitive. On top of this, relatively low wages have created an environment reminiscent to that found a century ago in baseball, in the notorious 1919 World Series scandal. In some cases, where teams are paying players very little, players are expected to make money through streaming, sponsorship, or tournament winnings. As a result, it might become apparent to a player that they could earn more fixing a game than by actually winning, as was recently the case of a top-level American team playing the game Counter Strike: Global Offensive.

In esports, the probability of detecting match-fixers is extremely low. As previously mentioned, traditional sports have the luxury of over 100-years of history to learn from. For example, during the 1919 World Series, people were suspicious of a fix because there were clear indicators like overthrows, hit batters, or missed catches. However, in esports, it is uncertain what these indicators are; this is partly attributed to its recency, but also because detection is difficult. In a competitive esports match, all a player needs to do to manipulate a match is to move their joystick or click a split-second too late. Also, some games are frequently updated, and it’s making detection all the more challenging. A perfect example of this is Fortnite, a game that provides weekly updates that quite often change the way the games are played. 

Furthermore, there are institutional weaknesses in esports that make it particularly susceptible to match-fixing. Esports is currently without a universal governing body to ensure the integrity of matches. One identified challenge facing governance is the fact that game preference changes over time, and some games fall out of favor, in effect making it difficult to create governance around a game. Much of the enforcement of integrity within a game is administered by the game’s publisher itself, as was the situation in the aforementioned Counter Strikeexample. In 2016, the Esports Integrity Coalition was created to provide the industry stakeholders with services to protect the integrity of esports competition. However, despite being the industry’s lead authority on integrity matters, the coalition is replete with problems like failing to attract publishers to become member organizations, and being understaffed and underbudgeted. Without embracing similar integrity standards found in traditional sports, it may be challenging to sustain growth. More so, integrity issues could jeopardize the roughly $900 million a year in revenue it attracts from sponsorship, media rights, and advertising, and it may also serve to limit how rapidly sportsbooks offer esports events.

Given these issues, the need for better player protection in esports is abundantly clear, yet there are no players unions. Players are incredibly young, some beginning to play professionally as young as 14 years old and retire by 19 or 20. Additionally, there is nearly limitless competition, resulting in near non-existent job security. Players are always under pressure to win, often playing between 8 and 19 hours a day at the highest level and relying on performance enhancing drugs such as Adderall to keep up. Unsurprisingly, mental health issue in professional esports is a pandemic.

Nevertheless, it is these types of conditions that attract players to corruption. While it does not excuse it, it does help explain why a player might be motivated to take advantage of an opportunistic situation. Despite the clear and severe need for player protection, the feasibility of creating a union is unclear. Unionizing is complicated for several reasons. First, because the nature of competition and compensation varies significantly across various titles. Second, given the industry’s diverse group, a labour relations board may not be able to find the requisite community of interest to constitute an appropriate bargaining unit.

Ensuring public confidence is crucial to any successful endeavour, whether it be government, the capital markets, or sports. This article is not to say that the industry is corrupt, but to highlight areas of concerns so that changes might be made to allow the industry to run efficiently and better ensure both public and investor confidence in this growing industry. After years of sustained growth and revenues quickly rising to traditional sports levels, esports is now on the precipice of becoming a legitimate major professional sports industry. However, one high-profile match-fixing scandal could potentially deflate everything. Yes, the difficulties surrounding detection will remain problematic, but other matters relating to labour security, compensation, and governance are manageable changes that may help dissuade potential match-fixers. 

Written by Alex Dumais