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Is eSports Betting a Threat to the Game’s Integrity?

The explosion in popularity of eSports over the past two decades has largely been a positive for the sport and its industry. It hasn’t just been players and spectators who have benefitted from eSports’ expanding popularity and the huge increase in the money invested in the sport.

With eSports now a mainstream sport and form of entertainment, betting companies have also jumped on the bandwagon, with most online betting platforms offering bettors the opportunity to gamble on all number of games and tournaments.

According to Statista, the global market value of eSports gambling is forecast to reach $1.15bn by 2025. You can already find eSports betting on mainstream bookmakers like this one:

So, does gambling compromise eSports credibility?

Yet, when gambling is involved, so too is the presence of illegal betting markets, match fixing, and other unsavory activities that threaten the integrity of eSports and its players.

In the past decade or so, there have been several illegal betting and match fixing scandals that have rocked the world of eSports. In 2010, Ma Jae-yoon – better known as sAviOr, one of the greatest eSports players in history – was implicated in a match-fixing scandal along with 10 others. It was discovered that sAviOr and other players had been intentionally throwing games in return for large sums of money from illegal betting syndicates. The scandal almost destroyed eSports in Korea as fans lost trust in the industry and viewing figures plummeted.

Another high-profile scandal was uncovered in 2016 involving Lee Seung-Hyun – aka ‘Life’ – who was arrested and prosecuted for intentionally losing two matches. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison, suspended for three years, ordered to pay at KRW70,000,000, and banned for life from South Korea eSports.

There have been others: like Cheon “Promise” Min Ki who attempted to commit suicide after making allegations that his team, AHQ, had been created specifically to throw games; and Alexey ‘Solo’ Berezin, who bet against his own team, RoX.KIS, and was subsequently banned for one year.

As eSports has grown, so has the threat of betting fraud and match-fixing. “If you’re looking at sporting integrity … in eSports you’ve really got to look at betting fraud and match-fixing as the biggest threats,” Ian Smith, the integrity commissioner at the Esports Integrity Coalition (ESIC), told The Guardian in 2018.

Like most sports, the further removed from the top professional level, the more at-risk eSports becomes of betting fraud and match fixing. At the top level, players and teams are harder to influence given the money and fame they already earn and attract. There is too much to lose in modern-day eSports and not enough to gain from getting embroiled in such scandals. But moving lower down the eSports chain – where players earn less and are more accessible, the spotlight is smaller, and the regulations are less strict – that is where illegal gambling syndicates can strike.

There are parallels with professional tennis, another sport that has been engaged in its own battles against the scourge of illegal betting and match fixing. Whereas the top 100 players all earn comfortable livings, players in the second and third tier of tennis spend most of their careers scraping by, playing in tournaments away from the glare of spectators, the media, and regulators – and are therefore more susceptible and vulnerable to approaches.

“We generally have no issues with events that are run by the games developers themselves,” said Sam Gomersall, the sports integrity manager for online betting company Pinnacle. “We have seen a steady increase in suspicious wagering activity over the last few years, mostly due to the increase in our offerings among the lower level leagues.”

There are two key factors that have made illegal betting particularly difficult to govern in eSports: skins and a lack of an overall eSports governing body.

Skins are the virtual collectibles that usually serve a cosmetic purpose, changing the look of a character or weapon. Skins have evolved into a virtual currency, with the rare ones worth thousands of dollars. As such, an unregulated skins gambling economy has emerged which is much harder to track for regulators.

“Skin gambling is the epitome of why unregulated betting markets are really bad for sports,” said Moritz Maurer, head of eSports integrity at Genius Sports. “There’s no transparency, no player identification … there wasn’t Know Your Customer checks and there were minors wagering.”

Attempting to tackle illegal gambling in eSports – be it skins or fiat currency – has been additionally challenging by the lack of a worldwide governing body. Where football has FIFA, tennis has the ITF, and athletics has the ITTF, there is no equivalent for eSports which can unite the various global leagues and lead the action against illegal gambling, at least not yet.

Some of the larger eSports leagues, including the ESL which has partnered with the EISC to monitor and expose suspicious betting activities, are doing their part to drive such activity out of the sport, while other organisations are, according to Smith, doing “squat. Nothing.”

It must be said that the threat and presence of illegal betting within eSports is no bigger or smaller than other sports, but there are factors that make it more susceptible, chief among them the digital nature of the sport.

Yet, just like other sports, if eSports is to eradicate illegal betting and maintain its integrity, more needs to be done to stamp it out.

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