Valorant’s First Match-Fixing Scandal Reminds Us About the Importance of Competitive Integrity
It would not be unreasonable to assume that match-fixing has existed for just as long as any form of competitive sports. One of the first known cases of match-fixing in modern sports occurred in 1915 during a football match between Manchester United and Liverpool. Players from both teams of a match on 2nd April, 1915, where United took home a “free” win. Seven players were involved in the incident across both teams and the Football Association (FA) banned the players for life. Match-fixing has plagued competitive sports for over a century and it is ruining the integrity of various esports events as well. While it might not be a common occurrence at the highest stages of competition, it is still very much a problem that damages competitive integrity.
Valorant is one of the newest esports on the block and it has already had its share of match-fixing controversies in recent times. Former players from Team Resurgence, a Singapore-based esports organization, were caught manipulating the outcomes of competitive Valorant matches. It led to Riot Games banning multiple players shortly after former Paper Rex player, Jackie ‘calel’ Ee detailed the match-fixing scandal.
Valorant’s first major match-fixing scandal
Calel published a statement in April 2021, detailing an occurrence of match-fixing between BlackBird Ignis and Team Resurgence. It is unknown if Riot Games was already aware of the incident but the publisher banned the accused players in June 2021 after conducting an internal investigation. Riot’s competitive ruling implies that Resurgence itself was not involved in the match-fixing scandal and only its players were found guilty of trying to manipulate results during a competitive event.
Riot Games identified that the Resurgence versus BlackBird Ignis match during the VALORANT Ignition Series on 22nd Sept 2020 was compromised. The investigation revealed that Malcolm “Germsg” Chung and Ryan “Dreamycsgo” Tan coordinated to bet against their own team, Resurgence. Germsg initiated the scheme and Dreamycsgo provided the capital. Germsg then informed the rest of the Resurgence roster about his bet. Riot found that while the rest of Resurgence’s roster did not want to throw the match, they purposefully concealed the issue from their management and VALORANT Esports officials because they were concerned about penalties and the risk to their contracts with Resurgence.
Following the match in September 2020, which resulted in a 2-0 win for BlackBird Ignis, Germsg attempted to pay off other individuals in the Resurgence roster. However, Riot Games states that this was rejected by the other Resurgence players and after the team management found out about the incident, it immediately disbanded the roster. The organization has been inactive in Valorant since October 2020.
Riot Games stated in its competitive ruling that “maintaining the competitive integrity of our tournaments is our top priority and we take such matters extremely seriously. All players are expected to abide by the rules of fair play, agreed upon prior to participation in the tournaments.” The publisher reiterated that such incidents will not be tolerated in competitive Valorant.
Riot Games’ competitive ruling about match-fixing in Valorant
Both Germsg and Dreamycsgo were found to be in violation of Rule 7.2.1 and 7.2.4 of the VALORANT Global Competition Policy and were consequently banned from the Valorant Champions Tour (VCT) for 36 months. The ban is considered to have begun with the original suspension date on 22nd April 2021 and the players will be eligible to return to VALORANT in April 2024.
The rest of the Resurgence roster involved at the time will also receive penalties for participating in the match for being aware of the situation and failing to inform tournament officials and VALORANT Esports. The severity of these penalties were reduced for individuals based on the level of culpability and their cooperation with the VALORANT Esports investigation. Penalties for roster members at the time are as follows:
Justin “Boplek” Wong Chong Cheng and Sengdala “Jabtheboy” Jamnalong will be banned from VCT for one year.
Du Min “Mortdecai” Yeo and Benedict “Benaf” Tan will be banned from VCT for six months.
Du Min “Mortdecai” Yeo and Benedict “Benaf” Tan will be eligible to return to VCT in October 2021. Justin “Boplek” Wong Chong Cheng and Sengdala “Jabtheboy” Jamnalong will be eligible to return to VCT in April 2022.
Riot Games’ take on match-fixing and gambling
Here are excerpts from the official rules set by Riot Games for competitive Valorant esports.
“No Team Member may offer, agree, or conspire to fix a match or take any other action to intentionally and unfairly alter, or attempt to alter, the results of any game (or any play or component thereof).”
“Team Members are not allowed to (a) place, or attempt to place, bets on any esports competition (or any plays or components thereof), or (b) associate with high volume gamblers, or deliver information to others that might influence their bets.”
Are online esports events at higher risk of being fixed?
Ever since the global pandemic forced LAN events to become a thing of the past, online tournaments have become the norm. It would not be unreasonable to think that online events are at a higher risk of being manipulated. WePlay Esports’ head of esports, Eugene Luchianenco told AFK Gaming that even though most events take place online currently, the cases of match-fixing are extremely rare at Tier-1 events.
Luchianenco feels that participants understand the risks and possible consequences of match-fixing, so they are not interested in it. However, speaking about Tier-2 events, he admits that the “situation with violations is more difficult.”
He feels that it is quite a multifaceted issue that requires involvement and action not only on the tournament organizer’s part. The organizers, publishers, and community should all cooperate for the prevention of fake matches or foul play.
To minimize the damage from foul play, publishers should engage with the community and collect feedback related to bug fixing and software improvement needed, to identify the players who use prohibited programs or game errors. Luchianenco also feels that the “tournament operators and publishers should also cooperate to ensure that violations are severely penalized and the player or team is aware of wrongful actions' consequences. The responsibility for violations lies primarily with those who condone and make concessions to those who are interested in match-fixing.”
Why does match-fixing happen in esports?
While easy money might be the primary motivator for match-fixing, financial instability in esports can potentially drive players to such extreme measures. Luchianenco feels that esports players who violate the rules and engage in foul play on a regular basis are usually members of top-level teams and are skilled enough but don’t take part in Tier-1 tournaments — they just try to make a quick buck from it here and now. The majority of pro gamers understand the real risks of these activities and are ready to make sacrifices in order to achieve the main goal in their lives. He added, “It’s really sad that some of them become unwitting participants in scandals.”
Southeast Asia is one of the lower income regions with below-average purchasing power. Even though it is a part of Asia, the biggest region for esports in the world, the opportunities provided to the region are not on par with bigger regions like North America (NA) or Europe (EU). While games like Apex Legends have put the region on an even footing with NA and EU with evenly distributed prize pools being allotted for Asia-Pacific (APAC) and other regions for its Apex Legends Global Series, the same cannot be said for all other esports titles.
Valorant, for example, is heavily focused on the Valorant Champions Tour and while it has grown to be one of the most talked-about esports events in the world, the game’s esports ecosystem is very lackluster at the moment. There is a lack of tier-two events and any team that fails to make it to at least the VCT Challengers, is pushed out of the competitive scene completely. Southeast Asia had just one slot in Stage 2 of the VCT and teams that failed to make it had no major platform to showcase their skills and compete for prize money. Riot Games is going the Apple route by creating a closed ecosystem for its audience and it is hurting teams that fail to make it to the top.
While none of the above mentioned reasons should be seen as excuses or justifications for match-fixing, there is no doubt that the brutal nature of esports where players have to build a career and succeed before their early thirties does influence such incidents. With repercussions seldom extending beyond bans by tournament organizers, players or teams have a low-risk method of making a quick buck through match-fixing.
What steps are stakeholders taking to minimize foul play?
WePlay Esports revealed to AFK Gaming that it follows all the basic rules aimed at ensuring integrity and fair competition. In 2020, WePlay gained membership to the Esports Integrity Commission (ESIC) — an international organization working on the prosecution of all forms of cheating in esports. Together with the other members, the organization is trying to develop new control activities and improve the existing ones to improve esports integrity.
However, there are some difficulties that are faced by stakeholders. Luchianenco talked about how some esports titles have their own nuances. He mentioned, “CS:GO is more difficult to observe to some extent, but there are still control techniques suitable for it. It all comes down to legal regulation. If there are any known bugs in the game, they are all recorded in the tournament standing order.”
Most major events require players to have their webcams on at all times to see what is happening on the participant’s monitor. Organizers like WePlay also have the right to monitor all voice communication which can help prevent violations. Luchianenco believes that there are no real challenges faced by organizers and publishers at Tier-1 events, at least when it comes to legitimizing results. Teams are co-operative and work with publishers and organizers to ensure legitimacy of results.
Closing thoughts: How can the esports industry prevent match-fixing?
While it is up to the players and the community as a whole to uphold the competitive integrity of esports, publishers and tournament organizers also need to build an ecosystem where players aren’t incentivized to turn to such potentially illegal activities. Valorant in particular needs to build a tier-two and tier-three ecosystem where third-party organizers can help players showcase their skills at least at a regional level. It is up to both the players and industry stakeholders to take a stance and nurture a community where competitors’ interests are safeguarded.
There should also be more repercussions than just a slap on the wrist to deter match-fixing as players are likely to indulge in such practices repeatedly if there is little to no risk. One of the ways it can be achieved is through centralized institutions like the Indonesia Esports Association (IESPA) or the Esports Integrity Commission (ESIC) to ensure competitive integrity in all esports, even if it is at a regional level.
At the end of the day, match-fixing is by no means justified regardless of the motivators behind it. Players need to take a stance against it and uphold the competitive integrity of esports.