The arena brimmed with spectators.
Each of the 17,000 seats were filled with fans eagerly watching the video game battle play out on the big screen.
Sounds like a successful event, right? But there was one minor problem: the esports fans wanted more seats.
“When they announced that Berlin, Germany would be the location of the 2015 League of Legends World Championships, the esports community was quite upset because in previous years this event was held in arenas with significantly larger capacity,” said Brett Abarbanel, director of research for the International Gaming Institute at UNLV. “Fans knew that the tickets were going to sell out fast. They asked, ‘How are we going to be able to attend?’”
Abarbanel, an expert in esports and gambling, points to this event to illustrate how quickly — and massively — the esports industry has grown on a global scale over the last decade. The market size of the industry is expected to reach $1 billion in 2019, years ahead of earlier predictions.
But a phenomenon known as match-fixing — the purposeful intent to lose a competition, such as a soccer match or even an esports competition — has recently been identified as the most serious risk to the legitimacy and growth of the nascent esports industry.
Fans of esports, however, do not appear to be particularly bothered by the practice, Abarbanel found in a recent study. Nonetheless, she believes that this form of cheating to lose, and other forms of corruption, could chip away at the integrity of professional video game play.
“Fewer people want to participate in a sport when the credibility of that sport is damaged,” she said.
We sat down with Abarbanel, who shared four key takeaways from her latest work which examined consumer perspectives on match-fixing in esports, and the implications for game integrity in a rapidly rising industry.
Esports spectators are not very concerned about match-fixing:
In the study, we examined how fans approach gambling and match-fixing in esports, and we found they’re not too concerned about it, which was very surprising for us. Overall, spectators viewed purposeful cheating to lose as less of a threat to the game than cheating to win. We found that spectators were sometimes quite sympathetic to the professional, and especially financial, pressure of an esports career and were more forgiving of gambling-related bribery. Most esports fans consider match-fixing to be a relatively mild or invisible form of “cheating.”
Spectators view cheating to win, however, as much worse behavior. If you’re getting to the highest spot in a competition by cheating to win, through either software hacks or doping, you’re preventing somebody else — who’s doing everything honestly — from being the champion.
Consider the age:
A prime example of match-fixing in esports came a few years ago when Lee “Life” Seung Hyun, a Starcraft world champion, was caught throwing a game. His career was over almost as soon as it started. He was 19 years old when he was caught, and he subsequently received a lifetime ban. He had been playing at the highest levels since he was 14.
“Life” was bribed with a total of about $60,000 which isn’t that much when you consider it within the broader scope of bribery and scandal, and the size of certain betting markets: the esports betting market is estimated between $2 billion and $7 billion. When you’re younger, you generally don’t have as much experience with someone who might be trying to manipulate you, and you usually don’t have as much experience in the workforce, so the amount of money — $60,000 — might seem like a worthy gamble.
The age of participants was an important consideration for esports spectators when sharing their views on match-fixing. One respondent, for example, said that a bribed minor should be “let off the hook completely” and face no punishment. Respondents said that younger competitors were considered to be more easily influenced by their older peers and therefore hold a more limited perspective of the severity of corrupt activity and potential ramifications outside the game.
Punishments for match-fixing are also up for debate:
If you give somebody in esports a four-year ban as punishment, that’s basically a career killer. The game you’re playing is totally different after four years, and you’ve also aged in the process. The average age of retirement for an esports professional competitor is about 23 or 24, so a four-year ban is a long time in the world of esports.
One respondent, for example, wrote that “losing intentionally is not that serious, and there should be a reasonable limit to the ban for that.” Many respondents also believe that intentional losses are difficult to prove, especially when purposefully losing may be a strategic choice in particular contexts.
Can match-fixing impact the integrity of the esports industry?
Yes. Even if spectators don’t view match-fixing as serious an offense as cheating to win, it’s still a corruption of the game and the rules of the game itself. With sport and with competition, we set up the rules so that it is fair play for all of the competitors in that competition, and match-fixing is a breach of those rules. The purity of the sport won’t hold if match-fixing occurs.
The perception of cheating in esports could also corrupt the integrity of wagers, as gambling markets are heavily reliant on strong game integrity. In a match-fixing setting, fixers can make wagers at a more valuable price, due to knowledge of a predetermined outcome. This corrupts the market’s stability, and cheating is likely to become a greater concern as visibility, prize pools, and sponsorship all increase.
Education on match-fixing, and the rules and regulations surrounding wagering on esports competition, is needed not only for the players themselves, but also for coaches, spectators, and game developers. It remains likely that perceptions of match-fixing will continue to vary, and the industry will struggle to develop any kind of a unified front for player education through which the nature of these crimes might be further elucidated.
Abarbanel is an expert in global gambling and social science applications, and her research covers several topics including esports and gambling, and Internet gambling policy and behavior. She serves as the director of research at UNLV’s International Gaming Institute, with an affiliate position at the University of California, Los Angeles’s Gambling Studies Program. Abarbanel is also the co-executive editor of the UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal, which publishes internationally relevant gambling research.