The number of cases of suspected match-fixing in esports has more than doubled in 2020 amid fears that Covid-19 has contributed to a surge in corruption in competitive video gaming.
Criminal gangs – including mafia groups and Chinese triads – are among those orchestrating corruption in esports.
Esports – competitive video gaming, with matches live-streamed around the world – has surged in popularity, especially during the suspension of live sport earlier this year, leading to a spike in the amounts bet on games. So far in 2020, there has been around $18billion bet on esports through visibly trackable betting markets, and an estimated $200bn bet on untrackable markets worldwide.
The number of cases of suspicious betting identified by the Esports Integrity Commission, the body responsible for anti-corruption work in the industry, has soared from 46 in 2019 to 117 in the first 11 months of 2020. There have already been high-profile police investigations into esports fixing in countries including Australia, China and South Korea, with some players imprisoned.
“We’ve had a 2.5 times increase in suspicious cases since 2019 – and I think the pandemic accounts for 80 per cent of that increase,” said Ian Smith, the head of the Esports Integrity Commission. He said that, while fixing was less frequent than in the most popular sports worldwide, “we’re a lot worse than any Olympic sport you can think of other than football and tennis”.
Worldwide, 495 million watched esports online or on TV in 2020 – a 300 million increase from five years ago, according to Newzoo, a games and esports analytics firm. The bulk of viewers are from China and Southeast Asia, but interest in esports is also rising elsewhere, notably in the United States.
“This is gigantic,” Smith said. “It isn’t some weird fringe activity engaged by a few basement dwellers.”
More gambling companies now offer markets on esports, including traditional firms like Ladbrokes. The booming betting market has increased liquidity in the market, creating opportunities for corruption. Betting on esports is concentrated around three games: Counterstrike, which accounts for about 45 per cent of esports betting; Dota 2, which accounts for 23 per cent; and League of Legends, which accounts for 12 per cent.
Smith said that there are two types of fixing in esports. The most common is “opportunistic fixing,” with players betting against themselves and then deliberately under-performing.
“The players or the coach will decide that in a particular scenario they’ll make more money fixing the game than winning the game. It’s a typical low-level problem. Let’s say if it’s the quarter-finals and you know you could win $2000 if you win the tournament, split between five players. But if you bet against yourself and lose you’d win $5000 – so you do that.”
Smith also warned that “classic fixing” – players being paid by criminal groups to fix – is rising. There have already been instances of the South Korean mafia and Chinese triads orchestrating fixes in esports. This entails criminal gangs paying players to underperform, then betting on their opponents to win. Once they have fixed once, players can then be blackmailed or threatened by the gangs should they not agree to future fixes.
“Until 2015 there was no way you could make enough money – it just wasn’t worth enough time for organised crime or betting syndicates to fix matches,” Smith said. “As the market proliferated it became worth the investment.
“We’re seeing that increasingly, particularly in China, a lot of organised crime and triad activity in gambling.”
As with cricket and tennis, esports are vulnerable to spot-fixing – with players deliberately losing a particular game but still able to win the match overall. In this way, some players can simultaneously win prize money and make money from their fixing. Fixing can be as simple as players taking a few extra split-seconds to press their controller, making well-planned fixes hard to detect.
“In clutch moments, the fixing players just hesitate a quarter second or aim wrong or make odd decisions – like walking out into exposed positions and getting shot or staying in a combat situation just too long,” Smith explained. “With teams, it tends to be unusual or reckless strategic decisions that expose them to quick defeat.”
In 2016 the South Korean Lee “Life” Seung-Hyun, one of the biggest names in esports, was imprisoned for match-fixing two games, for a total of 70,000,000 Won (£48,000) on Starcraft, a science-fiction strategy game. Seung-Hyun and other players were bribed by a gambling syndicate to commit betting fraud. They were uncovered by a wider police investigation into illegal gambling, showing how criminal gangs have sought to exploit esports’s popularity.
By Tim Wigmore, December 20, 2020, published on The Telegraph