Can Esports Matches be Fixed?
From the NFL, to NBA, MLB, Boxing, Cricket Handball and Formula 1, match fixing has found its way into any sport with money on the line, and esports are no different.
What is match fixing? According to Wikipedia, "match fixing is when the outcome of a match in organized sports has been manipulated. The reason for fixing a match includes ensuring a certain team advances or gambling. Match fixing is seen as one of the biggest problems in organized sports."
Just like the aforementioned traditional sports, fixing an esports match is done much of the same way. A player or entire team cautiously plays poorly, knowing there is money again his or her team, and is rewarded from their own personal bets, or a third party which had put a substantial amount of money on the game. Just like traditional sports, to the untrained eye, it can be extremely difficult to spot match fixing in esports. If you're not an avid player of the game in which the fix is occurring, it's likely you would not even notice.
Notable Match Fixes in Esports
While long time gamers will say matches have been being fixed since before esports had the recognition and prize pools it has today, there have been a number of high profile fixes and accusations in the past ten years.
- 2010 - In what was arguably the first high profile match fixing scandal in esports, multiple professional Starcraft players were thought to be involved in illegal match fixing scandal. Ultimately, seven players were investigated, and two were arrested. Two well know gamers who go by the names Ma Jae-Yoon and By.CrocuS respectively were confirmed as working as a broker between the bettors and the gamers.
- In June 2013, a Dota 2 pro player Alexey "Solo" Berezin was caught match fixing. Solo bet $100 against his team and proceeded to intentionally throw the game. He supposedly won $322 from it.
- October 2014 - Two Dota 2 Pro players by the names of Kok Yi "ddz" Liong and Fua Hsien "Lance" Wan were both found guilty of esports match fixing. It was found that both their girlfriends had bet expensive quality items against their team; they proceeded to throw the match.
- January 2015 - Six Counter Strike: Global Offensive players and a team owner were banned for match fixing, in what was called the iBUYPOWER and NetcodeGuides.com match fixing scandal.
- 2016 - Lee Seung-Hyun, also known by the name 'Life', is widely recognized as one of the best StarCraft II players, was accused and convicted of accepting $60,000 to fix two different matches.
What can be done about Esports Match Fixing?
Unfortunately, this is a problem that will likely always surround esports, just as it does traditional sports. Below are four options to help mitigate esports match fixing, though likely all four will be necessary to combat this never ending problem.
As leagues continue to form, there becomes ability to ban players from significant amounts of competition, which can deter them from match fixing. One of the reason we don't see match fixing more often in traditional sports is that each sport has essentially one 'major league', in which the players earn their living. If an NBA player fixes a match, they're banned from the NBA for life, and would have to play oversees. Same with the NFL and the MLB. In the fragmented esports industry, their haven't always been these oligopolistic leagues in which players essentially need to participate to earn a living. This, however, is starting to change. If a player today is banned from all ESL or all League of Legends games, this can greatly limit how far they can take their career as a professional gamer.
Pay the Players More
With more money to be won by winning matches, there becomes less interest in match fixing. Why lose a match to win money, when you can win the match to win more money, and simultaneously setting your team up for future high paying tournament appearances?
The NCAA has run into this exact problem, because they do not pay their players at all. People can bet hundreds of thousands, even millions on college sports, and win enormous amounts of money, while the players don't see a dime. This dynamic creates an enormous amount of leverage for people trying to influence college sports. People can approach college players and offer hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix a match. These college players don't have the luxury of being able to earn money by winning, so this becomes increasingly tempting. A famous case of match fixing in college sports was 1981 Boston College basketball match fixing scandal, which was documented in ESPN's 30 for 30 series, titled Playing for the Mob.
As leagues collect more and more data and machine learning becomes more powerful, we're able to notice patterns in play which are out of the ordinary, and can help detect potentially malicious behavior.
Player Self Policing
As players dedicate more and more time to their craft, and their personal brands, many will not want to be associated with match fixing for obvious reason. If one player approaches the team with the idea to fix a match, they will need the entire team on board with the fix. If they don't receive full cooperation, the players attempting to win will likely move to remove the fixing player from their team.
Additionally, in concern over their respective careers and reputations, especially with all the off-screen endorsements which we're seeing enter the space and which are being increasingly profitable, there's reason to believe there is more value in playing the games the right way, and becoming a sustainable organization with multiple revenue streams. Match fixing is not sustainable. It is a way to cut corners and earn a quick buck, but like most avenues of organized crime, it is not a sustainable way to approach sports and esports.