Drugs & matchfixing: is there something rotten in the state of eSports?

For many of those who can often be found with their faces planted firmly in the back pages of their preferred paper, the term eSports is more likely to elicit snorts of incredulity than intrigue. Although I personally see the term as a misnomer that has done the field more harm than good, whether the discipline is a sport or not is a debate that is far too well-worn to have here. Besides, after recent doping and match-fixing scandals, eSports seems to have garnered the requisite deleterious outward trappings of most mainstream sports.

The doping saga that hampered the eSports world last April would appear somewhat a little unfamiliar in practice to the likes of Gatlin and Armstrong. A widely known professional Counter-Strike: Global Offensive player by the name of Kory Friesen admitted offhand, and more or less unprompted, that his entire team, Cloud9, and most professional players, were doping. It was refreshing to come across a professional at such a high level being so truculently candour and at odds with the anodyne PR-friendly approach usually taken by sportsmen. Less encouraging was the culture of Adderall abuse, a medication prescribed to sufferers of Attention Deficit Disorder, Friesen purported to reveal as apparently prevalent in the eSports community.

These revelations led the Electronics Sports League (ESL) to indulge in some rather necessary soul searching, with spokesperson Anna Rozwandowicz saying: “We’ve known for some time that performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) would be a challenge we would need to face eventually as the professionalism and stakes increased across the board in eSports”. The ESL has since undertaken a partnership with Nationale Anti-Doping Agentur, Germany’s anti-doping agency, to create policy that combats the presence of PEDs, whilst “respecting the privacy of players”, and has enlisted the rather harried World Anti-Doping Agency in order to help roll out this policy across the globe.

Real-time strategy game Starcraft’s recent match fixing scandal is far more interesting than the usual workaday news you hear from a medium whose players are often (and often mistakenly) tarred with the perception of being indolent and diffident. This January, legendary 19 year-old Starcraft veteran Lee Seung Hyung, better known as “Life”, was arrested for participating in match-fixing in numerous professional tournaments. Starcraft is as much an industry as a sport in South Korea, with Life having netted £336,050 in prize money alone over his five-year career. The office that is investigating Life is the same that last year arrested the coach of high-profile Starcraft team PRIME and several of its members for match fixing.

eSports has the scandal, it certainly has the money (the collective prize pot of the International, the annual DOTA 2 tournament, came in at a healthy $18m) and it has the corporate interest. This January, the prosperous publishers of the Call of Duty series, Activision Blizzard, purchased tournament organiser and online streaming service Major League Gaming (MLG), hot off the hells of their acquisitions of Candy Crush makers King last November. This came after Activision announced the development of its new eSports division last October, and in fact hired MLG co-founder Mike Sepso. Although it should be noted that the $46m this deal cost Activision Blizzard is chump change relative to the $5.9 billion the King acquisition cost, Chief Executive Bobby Kotick’s desire to “create the ESPN of eSports” is symptomatic of the immense financial gain to be had in the eSports world. (Incidentally ESPN, already dedicate a sizeable amount of coverage to eSports, meanign that ESPN is the “ESPN of eSports”).

So if eSports is just as fettered by corporate money grubbing and scandal as the sports that usually grace the back pages, why does it not have the mainstream acceptance? The most obvious answer is accessibility: if you thought the BBC had a tough job explaining the rules of NFL every time they broadcast, you should see how hard it is for commentators on Dota (a multiplayer online battle arena game developed by Valve Corporation) to strike the right balance between commentary that plays to both veteran and newcomer.

When it comes to audience accessibility it is necessary to examine what is generally considered the greatest eSports moment in the discipline’s short history. It involved an unbelievably improbable last-ditch comeback by legendary Street Fighter player Daigo, at the annual fighting game tournament EVO in 2004. Spine tingling though the audience reaction is, the moment’s significance is utterly incomprehensible to the average viewer without a detailed explanation of the mechanics of high-level Street Fighter play. All that said, does eSports really need mainstream acceptance? Most fans of pro-gaming (who aren’t half as obsessive as you might think) would say no, and when approximately an estimated 71,500,000 people watched eSports in 2013 alone, it seems wilfully ignorant to call the discipline niche.

Professional gaming may be a sport of mouse-clicks rather than spot-kicks, but it is here, and nomenclature be damned, it looks to be staying a while.


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December 2021
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