Whatever it Takes: Cheating and Chaos in Esports

This blog post was written by Gorgon the Wonder Cow and originally published on the UNIKRN blog.

If esports were a nation, it would already be bigger than Ukraine. By 2017, Esports Nation would have the 29thlargest national GDP according to a newzoo analytics report and national figures from the International Monetary Fund.

Individual esports are becoming bigger than some traditional sports, yet many major tournament still don’t have publicly available comprehensive rulesets—the largest tournament in history, The International, included.

That sounds ridiculous, and it’s because it is ridiculous. When you try to find the full rules for that tournament, the closest you’ll get are the advancement protocols for the various stages, including how to solve a tiebreaker or which team gets to pick side or drafting order.

There’s no mention of which unsportsmanlike advantages count as cheating and what the punishment is, whether there are behavior requirements, whether or not teams should be made available to journalists, or what fines, disadvantages, or other deterrents may be in place for any number of possible situations.

Whatever it Takes: Cheating and Chaos in Esports
Dota 2 offers some of the biggest prize pools in esports.

A History of Trouble

The use of exploits have already caused controversy in 2013 when Na’Vi escaped The International elimination by heavily relying on an in-game exploit which made it possible to use an allied Chen and Pudge combo to teleport an enemy hero to their own fountain from anywhere on the map.

“That [Gyro] would have been impossible to kill with our five heroes,” then captain of Na’Vi Clement ‘Puppey’ Ivanov said of the exploit, stating explicitly that without the interaction they would have been eliminated from TI3. He denied that it was a preplanned strategy, but did admit that they were aware of the interaction. “In the end, we will do it if we have to win.”

“I would call it a bug,” Puppey also said. This bug was patched out of Dota at first opportunity after The International. “You take what you can get.” Valve made no ruling—if it exists in the game, even if it is an unknown or obviously unintentional interaction, it is legal by default.

For a tournament which literally locked player equipment away to preserve the integrity of the competition, The International seems to be surprisingly relaxed when it comes to actual regulations. Especially considering some of the most closely contested matches are not played over LAN.

Match fixing is, unfortunately, somewhat common across all esport titles. Collusion, often called ‘splitting’, in fighting games was at times a serious problem for the legitimacy of fighting game community tournaments. In a high-profile case, Mew2King and ADHD were banned from competition after ADHD agreed to give a ‘token of friendship’ equal to about 10% of the prize pool to M2K should he win.

MLG rules at the time stated that “Intentional forfeiting or conspiring to manipulate rankings or brackets” was illegal, but many questioned whether this incident qualified given that the game legitimately played, and although M2K had stated that he wasn’t confident about the match there was no evidence he had intentionally lost.

This incident is widely attributed as the reason MLG pulled Super Smash Brothers titles for their 2011 circuit.

In Dreamhack Winter 2014, Fnatic used a never-before-seen ledge stepping technique which allowed them to attack and read LDLC’s movements with impunity. This advantage allowed them to make a 3-12 comeback. Debates followed regarding whether or not this constituted a pixelwalking, an illegal activity which uses a glitch in a map to stand on a ledge so small it is invisible to players.

At first, Dreamhack declared the exploit legal both on stream and to press. Then they declared it was illegal, but not due to pixel walking, and claimed both teams used techniques to create invisible textures, determining that the final map of the series would be replayed. The next day, under significant community pressure, Fnatic’s management declared that they would resign from the tournament.

These extreme examples of controversy are rendered minimal in comparison to the multudes of small infractions, including teams showing up an hour or late more to matches when rules often give a theoretical forfeit after less time (often thirty minutes). It’s not good for admins or for advertisers to lose the viewership of a cancelled game, so instead the team that did arrive is often forced to wait.

None of these scenarios represent the clarity of a respectable major competition. Despite throwing hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in play, most esports tournaments are still playing Calvinball: they have a few rules in place and make up the rest as they go.

The Legal Standard

This isn’t an arbitrary issue of clarity; as esports continue to grow, it’s increasingly likely that disputes will exist between participating teams and league owners, especially as the possibility of collective bargaining agreements between players increases.

When all-star NFL quarterback Tom Brady was accused of intentionally deflating balls for a competitive advantage last year, he was given a four game suspension to begin this season. However, after legal arbitration a judge determined that the punishment must be lifted because, among other reasons, Brady had not been warned that deflating footballs could lead to a suspension.

Contrary to popular belief, this had nothing to do with whether or not Brady was guilty of cheating. If we want esports to be considered a modern contemporary to traditional sports, we need to be able to hold esports to a comparable legal standard of clarity.

Granted, there were other factors involved in the courts decision, but this alone shows the significant value in clarity when dealing with players and rules. Some major esports have extensive rulesets in place, including League of Legends which publishes a 60 page document each season outlining what is acceptable practice for players, employees, and gaming clubs as well as potential punishments for infractions.

Of course, League is also notorious for overwhelming reprimands based on non-cheating behavior; these punishments scale all the way to permanently banning professional players from any competitive activity. Included in this was a $30,000 fine to Korean team Azubu Frost which was determined to have been watching stage screens for competitive advantage during the Season 2 World Championship in 2012.

League administrators admitted this should never have been possible, but at least they had explicit rules in place to handle unforeseen circumstances. Players knew exactly what the risk of their behavior was, whether or not Riot knew the cheating was possible.

Esports are big-time money makers in some of the world's largest cities.
Esports are a big business across the world’s largest cities.

Standard of Confusion

Union Gaming was a perfect example of why these issues matter, and to some degree they are ironically to thank for much of the progress which has been made in Dota 2 tournaments.

During the dotaregions tournament, Union Gaming was found guilty of unsportsmanlike unpausing which gained a first blood advantage in game 4 of the grand finals. There was chaos to follow as nobody, including the tournament admins, knew how to handle the situation: after all, that incident by itself didn’t win uG that game.

“We did not have a rule in place at the time and our mod was not sure what to do,” Dotaregions declared in a public statement at the time of their ruling. In the end, they penalized uG 25% of their winnings and barred them from direct invitation to the next season.

None of these punishments, however, were consolations to eHug. Neither the fine nor the ban ended in reparations for the team.

Some tournaments took note of this incident and actively began increasing the specificity of their ruleset, including the Dota 2 Canada Cup. When Union Gaming was caught stream sniping for advantage against Team Fire, The Dota 2 Canada Cup had already added a rule prohibiting the use of any stream during match games.

The crime, the punishment, and the fallout had all been clearly labeled and made available to players. But it took several cases of misconduct in other tournaments for even the good admins to learn and adjust.

Problems like these are a disease threatening to undermine the validity of esports competitions. We’ve seen this story before.

In the nascent days of American Football 1900’s college football suffered from similar problems where non-explicit expectations of rules were routinely. In fact, referees were added specifically to address an increase in brutality and ‘less than legal’ game abuses popularized by Pop Warner. These included things like painting footballs the same color as your teams jerseys to make them difficult to see or giving teams elbowpads which looked like footballs to confuse opponents.

Yet the largest tournament in esports history doesn’t even have a rulebook. When asked about official documentation, multiple teams confirmed that they had been given none moving into The International last summer.

“There are a few emails with info about the event, some guidelines and code of conduct,” One manager responded to me, “But as far as specific rules for competition, [none] that I can recall.”

I reached out to the Dota 2 Team from Valve for a comment, asking if players or teams are given any rules, expectations, or lists of potential reprimands for infractions, but they did not return the request.

Prevention, Not Treatment

Rules need to be created in advance to address problems before they occur. Anytime a rule is added after the fact, damage has been done when it could have been prevented and confidence in the legitimacy of the game is devalued.

“[…] This sort of behavior shouldn’t have been possible in the first place, and we recognise that and have taken steps to ensure it doesn’t happen in the future,” Riot said of the ‘Azubu Frost’ incident. Mistakes happen.

As Puppey made clear, though, players do what’s needed to win—especially with livelihoods and glory on the line. It truly isn’t cheating if there’s no rule against it, and there is a lot of grey area—especially when most of the analysts are players or friends of players themselves, often with inside information. Collusion is an obvious mistake, but is it cheating to have a tournament’s statistician feed you insider information about an opponent’s draft proclivities? Is it cheating for teams to share scrim information, as Ritsu and others did against Digital Chaos last fall? Is it cheating if you are given preferable treatment for bracket design or scheduling by volunteer admins?

Every tournament, from big to small, needs to prevent cheating by defining it.

Not to mention that a global community will have wildly different cultural values determining what is and what is not acceptable conduct. Every competition needs explicit rulesets, but with the flagship Dota 2 major season rapidly approaching, Valve needs to get ahead of any potential issue.

This applies to both in and outside of games—what contributions, if any, teams are required to give to non-game activities, and what constitutes unsportsmanlike advantages should all be considered and made public.

If there are no rules, that is Valve’s prerogative. More than likely Valve draws the line somewhere, as their CS:GO team has recently confirmed a permanent ban for players found to have thrown matches. Nobody knew prior to the infraction what the punishment might be, and it took a year for the ruling to be set in stone. These players should not have engaged in match fixing, but they also should have had unequivocal awareness how harsh the punishment would be before temptation struck. If abusing major glitches and bugs is acceptable, Valve needs to make sure rules are blatant so all competitors have a level playing field. If performance-enhancing mental stimulants are acceptable, that should be stated as well.

If tournaments fail to be very clear regarding these issues, it undermines the validity of the entire culture not only among fans, but also among competitors and the outside world of which esports are growing to become such a large part.

Gorgon the Wonder Cow is a freelance writer and analyst wherever fine Dota content is hosted.