Gaming the system

4 January 2019

Fears about integrity in esports abound but, writes Hai Ng, an understanding of how games really work shows the sector’s potential for even greater scrutiny than traditional sports

If sports betting takes the prize as gaming’s topic of the year, esports is definitely a contender for most confusing topic, possibly for the second year running.

Many casinos are looking at utilizing esports to help draw the elusive millennial audience, hoping the combination of sports betting and esports may be the one-two punch to launch the next renaissance for gaming.

Esports events are fast, action packed and ripe for outcome, in-run and a whole host of proposition bets. They are natively digital, bringing the potential for fast and accurate results and records, plus esports fans are young and tech-savvy while also being competitive and engaged.

They crave excitement – it’s no surprise that one of the first online bookmakers to embrace esports says it has become the fifth largest book on its portfolio, taking millions of bets and still growing.

But not everybody has found the magic. Adding esports to a sportsbook isn’t an automatic boost. Esports has shown itself to be an enigma to many outside the competitive electronic gaming world, and it’s only a subset of the much larger competitive electronic-gaming market.

This is the marketplace that has shown the world that a free-to-play game can make more than $300m in a month by selling non-performance enhancing digital cosmetic items and animated emotes. The same marketplace that brings more than 170,000 people for a February weekend in a small southern-Polish city where temperatures average 31°F.

It is a marketplace that can boast online viewers routinely exceeding 100 million, even without including some statistics from China (even seasoned esports experts roll their eyes at Chinese stats).

For many in gaming who want a piece of the esports action, one of the biggest ‘red flags’ is the concern over competition integrity. Esports is an unknown filled with contradictions, and we often fear what we don’t understand.

But competitive integrity is a real issue in any sporting event and esports is no exception; my goal here is to help ease some irrational fears and, importantly, emphasize the real challenges.

Can games be hacked?
The short answer is, “Yes”. From bots to malicious code to precision denial-of-service attacks, games can be skewed.

That is why key games at major esports tournaments are all done live, at controlled venues on private and/or local networks. They employ controlled and inspected equipment and software, continuously monitored by admins (esports-speak for referees), and full digital logging.

Foolproof? No but cheating can be mitigated effectively by proper rules and management, as it is in traditional sports when scuffed baseballs, under-inflated balls or illegal hand wraps get in the way of competition.

An important point to concede here is, just like traditional sports, not all tournaments are run to exacting standards. With esports being in a surge market the possibility of improperly run tournaments is certainly higher but sportsbooks won’t take action from smaller, less-reputable tournaments and the same logic applies to esports.

Code integrity?
One concern I often encounter is the question of whether the games are fair and what ensures their fairness.

When it comes to software-based games in the regulated gaming world, code and random number generator (RNG) certification are routine requirements. Some feel that the same should apply for the code of esports games before wagering on them is allowed.

However, no gaming regulatory board anywhere in the world takes any position to regulate or enforce the rules of any traditional sports game so that idea loses momentum quickly.

Like traditional sports, esports are skill-based games and do not feature a required wagering component as an element of the game or a factor of winning. More importantly, like traditional sports games, esports games pit competitors against competitors, not against the house; as such, deliberately skewing the game’s fairness doesn’t benefit the manufacturer or game publisher.

A malicious publisher could embed code in games to allow them to control outcome but that argument also fails when you understand how esports competitive games are played and revenue made.

Competitive games that rise to the level of esports are skill-based and incorporates little to no random behavior, even in games where random card-shuffling is an element of play (more of which later).

Competition isn’t the source of revenue for the publishers. They are a marketing endeavour, just as car-manufacturers use racing promote their product.

Electronic games are sandboxes. The permutations can be astronomical but every possible outcome is defined in the game’s code; if wind is not programmed to happen, there won’t be an unexpected breeze to affect a bullet’s trajectory. So if something unexpected happens, it is by definition repeatable; otherwise, it is probably a bug or hack. That’s when play and log analysis will get to the bottom of it.

Contrast that with traditional sports, where there is no way to replicate a questionable play and analyze every element of it. In this respect, esports has a unique advantage.

Yet bugs happen and players can use some of them to gain an unfair edge. But good publishers, pressured by customers, patch those bugs with crazy speed and efficiency.

For example, one of the most popular esports titles, League of Legends, is reported to clock over a billion hours played monthly. Each game runs about 30 minutes, so about two billion games played every month. If 1% of games are reporting issues, that’s 20 million reports a month.

Even without a bug, game publishers will analyze player behavior and ‘rebalance’ elements of the game to make it more challenging, not dissimilar to the NBA adding the shot clock to speed up the game and change tactics.

However, not all changes are embraced by players; gamers are a very opinionated bunch. Feedback comes faster and more furiously than in traditional sporting events (except, maybe, for how fast a bad call ended the NFL referee strike).

For instance, a non-esports game recently received a patch that incorporated a ‘stealth nerf’ – an undocumented change in a game’s mechanic that reduces the performance of something.

Within hours of its release, players who had discovered the change were all over Reddit and other channels venting their displeasure at the publisher. This happened with a game that isn’t a bestseller and is not played competitively; competitive titles get far more scrutiny.

While cheating happens, gamers don’t like cheaters. After all, the skill is in playing the game well; competing in exploiting bugs or writing cheat scripts is a different ‘sport’ altogether.

Need more? An often innocuous way of ‘cheating’ is to pay a great player to play on your behalf, ranking you up for bragging rights. This practice, commonly called boosting, is now illegal in South Korea and punishable by fines and suspended jail sentences.

If there’s a bottom line, it’s this: disruptive or not, games that don’t play fair don’t sell (even when they are free).

What about games that do employ RNGs?
There are good examples of esports games that do employ an element of randomness. Two are Hearthstone and Clash Royale, the latter being a mobile game featured as an event during the 2018 Asian Games held in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Both involve card decks that have a random draw order and parallels have been drawn between these games and Poker but there are significant differences that change the role chance plays in the game.

Even if we solely consider the performance of the RNG, as with the earlier example, the sheer number of plays that happen through routine play dwarfs any outcome testing repetition performed by many independent testing labs.

In addition, the top players in many of these games are masters at pattern recognition and spotting flawed RNGs is second nature.

Real challenges
There are many fears about integrity in esports. Some are driven by a lack of understanding on how a game really works, some simply stem from an inability to relate to or comprehend the behavior of gamers, especially the hard core and professional communities. And some are valid concerns.

It isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. There are real issues surrounding integrity that everyone in the esports ecosystem should be concerned about. Esports is still a very young competitive sport.

While it is growing up fast due to the pace of development and the order of magnitude of games being played compared to traditional sports, there are teething troubles.

The most important thing that any regulator or bookmaker should do is ensure that there’s a proper understanding of the subject – the games that constitute esports, how it’s similar to traditional sports and how it’s different – before assessing it as an offering.

As in other sports, it isn’t the gaming regulator’s place to regulate the integrity of an esports event; the determination should simply be whether an esports event passes the jurisdiction’s standard for a wager to be allowed.

There are great organizations such as the Esports Integrity Coalition (ESIC) that help direct traffic at the intersection of esports and sportsbooks. They not only employ and enforce best practices honed by traditional sports competitions but they are also staffed by people who understand games, gamers and game culture, good and bad. Those people are well-positioned to provide unbiased expertise when it comes to esports in the context of gambling.

We place mainstream sporting events on something of a pedestal when it comes to integrity and, while there may be multitude of justifications for doing so, it is essentially about trust.

But when you consider discoveries such as the 2011 EPL match-fixing scandal, doping in a multitude of sports and unsportsmanlike cheating being categorized as ‘gamesmanship’, trust becomes a more elastic concept and one that esports can more than match.