Gambling and the burgeoning world of esports has a rocky past, a turbulent present, yet hopefully, a prosperous future.
A nonchalant brag about a couple of ante-post bets from Allen Cook, an analyst for the Dota 2 squad that until recently competed under the Ad Finem brand, propelled talk of gambling to the fore. Once again, it was for all the wrong reasons.
For those that are otherwise unaware of the most recent furoré to grace esports shores; Allen placed two bets (pictured below) in the month preceding a tournament where the team he provided advice to, yet was not contracted to, were set to compete. He staked a total of £31.66 on Ad Finem each-way and £136.76 on OG each-way. As it transpires his predictive powers were spot-on. Of the sixteen teams competing, the two teams finished first and second respectively thus guaranteeing a payout on both bets.
Buzzwords of integrity and morality were, and continue to be, thrown around with Cook’s name being dragged through the mud. A number of personalities within the scene and publications seem to have been struck into a somewhat bizarre, myopic state of hysteria at the very thought that someone who may, in any way, be affiliated with a team had placed a bet ante-post on a tournament. Moral and ethical arguments are, by their inherent nature, completely subjective. What one person considers ethically just or morally sound can in another’s world be considered completely the opposite.
Media outlets across gaming were quick to jump on any semblance of a story, with this article from Bleedingcool providing arguably my favourite quote amidst the clutter:
“Call it the “Cook Rule”, kick him out of the eSport, and make a stand that betting by participants at any level will not be tolerated”
It continues: “It doesn’t matter what sport you’re playing either, there are just some things that you don’t do. One of the biggest rules that fall into this category: You Don’t Bet Whilst You’re In The Game”. The author of the article has called for the head of a man who he has never met and knows nothing about whilst spewing prose that makes little sense. The very definition of a rule is “one of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct or procedure within a particular area of activity”. There is no Valve regulation and thus, as it stands, no rules in place to prevent an analyst from betting on his or her own team. Furthermore, you only have to look at horse racing as an example of a sport where the owner of a horse is permitted to bet on their own horse to win the race.
Kotaku Compete ran an article that more eloquently tried to dissect Cook’s involvement and insinuated throughout that the analyst may have had an advantage over fellow bettors.
The article also points to “nascent policies” towards gambling that Valve has had, citing the banning of CS:GO and Dota 2 professionals for match fixing in the past. There have been no implications of match fixing in this instance; and it’s vital that in a space with little to no governance or regulation that each case is considered individually. The article seemingly heaps pressure on Allen, deeming his response to the issues as “squishy” and again implies that his moral compass is somewhat off. The writer also seems to doubt his statement that he was not contractually bound to Ad Finem by providing a screenshot of his LinkedIn where he states a role with the organisation. It’s another organisation painting Allen as some sort a pantomime villain whilst simply put; it’s his word against theirs.
The response Allen provided can be found here in full but here’s the part quoted in the aforementioned Kotaku article:
“Firstly, I don’t particularly regret having placed the bets in the sense that I know in my own mind that these bets were placed in good faith with no “inside information”. However, I wouldn’t do it again having said that as I do understand the confusion that can surround such a situation.”
The latter part, and the subject of further discussion, was Cook stating:
“I’m unaware of Valves rules to betting, and indeed have at no point had any contact with Valve about anything. I would be very happy to discuss this with Valve should they wish to open a dialog. One recommendation I would make is that when the emails are sent to individuals regarding their flights etc. that Valve would include their TOC for any event that would include things such as betting on their events etc.”
A YouTube video posted by a member within the Dota community was labelled a “professional esports ethics and insider betting” discussion. The final line of the video states “When your defence is Valve didn’t tell me I couldn’t, perhaps you should consider that it seems so obvious that they didn’t think they needed to tell you in the first place.”
Allen stayed true to his words, contacted Valve and received this email from Erik Johnson:
Thanks for mailing us.
Our advice for you would be to stay away from wagering in general as long as you are working directly with a team.
It’s difficult to build a specific set of rules around this issue because it comes down to proving a player’s intent on how they were playing, the intent of the person placing the wager, and the possibility of any promises between the two.
For us, that means we end up having to come in and be pretty aggressive with punishment, like lifetime bans without any appeal if we think someone is involved with gambling. It’s the only real approach we think makes sense, as brutal as it is. It’s also the approach that most major sports around the world implement.
You being affiliated with a team and being involved with betting, of any kind, is risky for you and your team’s long term involvement in Valve events. If I was in your shoes I’d probably not take that kind of risk.
It’s a less than firm statement and even seems to confuse match-fixing with gambling; they’re two very different beasts.
“If I was in your shoes I’d probably not take that kind of risk”
Probably not? Can we not just have a policy that simply doesn’t allow it if that’s the line that Valve wish to take?
The job of the media is to provide content that educates the readership and considers the wider implications of a potential story. What’s abundantly clear from the case in question is that certain people would rather work-up a frenzy and start a manhunt. The problem here doesn’t lie with the individual but with the wider industry. People that absolve Valve of any blame in this situation simply aren’t considering the fundamental problems that the industry faces as gambling continues its charred relationship with esports.
“The problem here doesn’t lie with the individual but with the wider industry”
As the letter from Valve shows, there is little to no pro-activity from game publishers in the gambling space. Historically the “nascent” policies are purely in reaction to community outrage and only arrive as solid evidence has been put on a plate for the respective publisher to later sanction punishment. ESL, Sportradar and the Esports Integrity Coalition have been working hard behind the scenes to educate players and the wider industry about these very challenges.
Ian Smith, Commissioner of the Esports Integrity Coalition told ESI: “When we spend countless hours investigating allegations of underperformance or match fixing, we’re solving and investigating a problem at our expense for the benefit of the whole industry.
We’ve now educated over 400 professional players in Dota 2, CS:GO, League of Legends and StarCraft II and we’re not doing it for a specific event organiser; we’re doing it for the industry as a whole.”
He continues: “The industry seems to think it’s not an issue and quips “Well, you’re building highways for cars that don’t exist” and as a result they spend nothing on it. This is my main gripe with publishers: not one of them is proactively seeking out betting fraud, monitoring the markets or has a vague plan of what to do should a suspicious bet arises – not a single one”.
“One thing I can guarantee is that betting will continue to grow and you can either have that happen in a safe and regulated environment or you can just throw it out in the wild”
Ian concluded: “We can probably avoid major scandals but we can’t avoid the fact that people will try and corrupt esports to commit betting fraud. One thing I can guarantee is that betting will continue to grow and you can either have that happen in a safe and regulated environment or you can just throw it out in the wild.
“That’s what really worries me about the approach and denial i’m witnessing. The “head in the sand” and let’s hope it goes away approach won’t work. The message is that gambling isn’t going away, it’s getting bigger and bigger, and whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to face it or you’ll have a problem”.
James Watson, Head of Esports at Sportradar added: “ Valve or the respective tournament organisers need to clarify or extend rules to cover those ‘associated’ with teams and not just those playing or managing. That would definitely make the situation and any consequences much clearer in all cases”.
The skin betting industry which many refused to bat an eyelid at was, and remains, unregulated. There is little to no age verification procedure and thus children well below the legal age to gamble were able to gamble. The figures are staggering.
“The skin betting industry remains unregulated and the figures are staggering.The only company with the power to put an end to it? Valve.”
A report from Narus Advisors estimated that before Valve took notice, the skin betting industry would take $7.4bn (£6.0bn) of wagers throughout 2016. A significant 45% of that would be in a traditional sportsbook sense, with bettors placing skins on esports matches. A whopping $414m would be staked on a “coin-flip” alone. The figures are breathtaking. Skin betting continues to occur, with many sites that had initial Cease and Desist orders from Valve continuing to operate; albeit in territories where they’re able to get away with it. The only company with the power to put an end to it? Valve.
Regulated gambling in esports is here to stay. Take GG.Bet as an example. The subject of ridicule on Reddit for an aggressive sign-up policy, they’re investing heavily in the space and helping sustain the explosive growth we’ve experienced to this day. Betway is involved with a huge six figure sponsorship of Ninjas in Pyjamas and have recently announced a new tournament series with Moonduck.
It’s about time that the esports community realised that the betting world is not necessarily a threat to esports.
ESIC’s Ian Smith put it best: “We’re not trying to advocate betting on esports, but we want to make sure that if you want to bet on esports you can do it in a safe, regulated space”.