By R. Vikneswaran
KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 20 — Emerging as a big trend in the sports industry, electronic sports (esports) has found a place in international sports meets despite the negative perception of video-gaming activities.
Esports will be featured as a medal sport for the first time at the 2019 SEA Games and 2022 Asian Games. Organised as a demo sport during the 2018 Asian Games, efforts are now being taken to include esports in the Olympics although certain quarters of the conventional sports fraternity are unhappy over the move.
There are ongoing arguments that it is not fair for esports to be included in the Olympics considering that many popular conventional sports such as cricket — the second-most-watched sport in the world — squash and bowling are still fighting for a place in the biggest sporting event of the planet.
Esports consists of competitive video gaming at the professional level and was accepted as a sporting activity by the International Olympics Committee in 2017.
Despite criticisms that esports is not a “real sport” as it lacks the physical element, Malaysia has to embrace the new sport so as not to be left out of the advancement of new technology and, probably, a profitable industry with multibillion-dollar transactions.
Huge Prize Money
Competitive gaming resource www.esportsearnings.com reported that the highest prize money in esports history was US$34 million (about RM140 million) offered at the International Dota 2 Championship in Shanghai, China, last August.
Aware of the potential of esports, the Malaysian government, especially the Youth and Sports Ministry, continues to support the development of esports. In Budget 2020, RM20 million was allocated to esports, a 100 per cent increase from this year’s RM10 million allocation.
Besides the huge prize money, esports as an industry has also evolved in terms of hardware and software development, technological innovations and Internet streaming. Work is also in progress to enhance it with 5G networks, 3D athlete tracking and drone light show.
However, the booming sport is not spared from corruption and cheating, which have bugged conventional sports for many years. In fact, Malaysia and Singapore have been labelled as the “regional football match-fixing hub”.
Recently in late August, the Australian police nabbed six Counter-Strike: Global Offensive players aged between 19 and 22 for allegedly fixing matches during a tournament, the first major case involving esports down under.
Legal experts from the global sports law team of international law firm Withersworldwide, who were contacted by Bernama, said match-fixing in esports is extremely widespread. Match-fixing was first acknowledged as a problem in esports in 2010 and has since grown bigger, mainly due to the lack of regulations.
Withersworldwide’s Luca Ferrari (Global Head of Sports, London), Tan Spring (Partner, Singapore) and Paolo Macchi (Senior Associate, Milan), in a joint statement to Bernama, said match-fixing in esports was confirmed when South Korea’s world-renowned StarCraft player, Ma Jae-Yoon (also known as sAviOr), was imposed a lifetime ban for conspiring to throw (lose on purpose) a series of games.
“Other major incidents occurred in the following years, notably in 2016 when world-famous Lee Seung-Hyun (a StarCraft II player who used the pseudonym Life) was convicted of accepting US$60,000 (about RM251,500) to throw two matches.
“Seung-Hyun was sentenced to 18 months in prison, suspended for three years, and also fined KRW (South Korean Won) 70,000,000 (about RM250,300). The player was later banned for life from South Korean esports.
“As a matter of fact, the three most popular esports, namely CS: GO, League of Legends and Dota 2, have all been involved in some sort of match-fixing scandal. The problem keeps growing,” the Withersworldwide lawyers said in the statement.
Quoting the Esports Integrity Commission (ESIC), formerly known as Esports Integrity Coalition — an organisation seeking to safeguard esports against all forms of cheating — the lawyers said there are two patterns in match-fixing.
“First, lower-tier incidents where single players or esports teams see an opportunity to manipulate a specific outcome of a game/match in order to obtain financial gain for themselves, while the second one is the higher-level match-fixing in which gambling itself supports bribes (paid to) players.
“Historically, prior to traditional bookmakers getting involved in esports match-fixing, gambling occurred using ‘skins’. Skin gambling is the use of virtual goods, which are most commonly cosmetic elements with no direct influence on gameplay, as a virtual currency to bet on the outcome of professional esports matches.”
If left unchecked, match-fixing in esports has the potential to tarnish the integrity of matches. When fans lose interest, it will negatively impact the value of esports as a whole, while game developers and tournament organisers face revenue loss.
The lawyers said the “disease” must be eradicated by conducting specific investigations with the aid of technology and the large quantity of data collected during competitions.
The Withersworldwide lawyers said Switzerland-based Sportradar collects data from sports federations and tournament organisers and then supplies it to among others, bookmakers and media partners. The data collected, they said, is pivotal in esports match-fixing investigations.
“Our understanding is that, in addition to collecting data from federations and tournament organisers, Sportradar also collects data on odds movements from hundreds of bookmakers around the world.
“This means that companies like Sportradar are among the first to notice when something suspicious is going on in an esports tournament and can promptly report it to organisations like ESIC for the purpose of commencing an investigation.”
Meanwhile, Esports Malaysia Association (ESM) deputy president Afiq Fadhli Narawi said there have been no match-fixing cases in Malaysia so far, where the national governing body monitors all the tournaments sanctioned by the association.
“We can confirm that there have been no match-fixing incidents involving our players so far at the national level, as the prize money is also not that lucrative. But we do not know about small and privately organised tournaments.
“To enhance the monitoring methods and combat the crime, we will launch the esports development plan on November 21 comprising guidelines, rules and regulations, as well as responsibilities involving licensing, and also how the esports industry can create more job opportunities and so on,” he said.