Recent controversy over ESL’s clarification of its position with regard to VAC bans gives rise to a number of serious issues:
Criticism of any one tournament organiser or platform’s position on cheating misses the point, which is, simply, that the esports industry is inconsistent and uncoordinated across the board on the issue of cheating. ESIC’s position is this:
Cheating: There is no inherent moral difference between cheating to win (software, ISP attacks or doping) and cheating to lose (Match-fixing). There are, however, differences in the severity and consequences of cheating and differences in the culpability of cheaters. We would hope that it is accepted that a 15 year old cheating with a free download aimbot is not guilty of as serious an offence as a seasoned pro winning prize money matches using cheat software and they do not deserve the same punishment. Equally, a 17 year old semi-pro who deliberately lost an online match to win a few hundred dollars’ worth of skins is not in the same bracket as a top professional who throws a match at a major LAN for $10k. Both offences are heinous, but it would be equally heinous to treat them identically. In other words, every case should be treated on its merits using a fair process based on agreed rules.
Match-Fixing: On this issue it is worth making a separate comment: Match-fixing is, if you look at the punishments handed out across traditional sports, considered a more serious offence than cheating. Of course, people can disagree about this and esports should, as we expand on below, consult its own community for a bespoke view; but cheating in traditional sports (on the field of play) generally results in in-game penalties and relatively short suspensions in more serious cases – the most serious being doping violations, which now generally result in a four year ban or less for a first offence. Match-fixing, on the other hand, usually results in longer bans – 5 years and upwards even for first offences and, in a number of cases, jail time and criminal records. Consequently, the criticism levelled at ESL in particular in this regard was not fair when viewed against what happens in traditional sports.
Consistency: The only consistent measure (certainly with respect to CS:GO) is the VAC ban, but that does not mean it is fair. In every other context the CS:GO professional is subject to an array of rules, procedures and consequences. It is confusing, inefficient, inherently unfair and will lead to bad outcomes and controversy (as has already happened). It is to ESL’s credit that they have sought to clarify their position, but the reality is that the industry needs to resolve this issue collectively in consultation with the game community. Valve is the obvious vehicle for facilitating this, but the industry stakeholders need to get past their personal biases, entrenched positions and preconceptions.
Procedure: There are serious problems across the board with procedural fairness in esports. VAC bans and other sanctions can appear arbitrary and inconsistent and they often are. The CS:GO community (and every game community) desperately needs clear, consistent rules across the board and those rules need to be enforced through a fair procedure that complies with the principles of natural justice and is independent and trusted. Realistically, only Valve can force this agenda in CS:GO (and DOTA2), but ESIC is best placed to provide it through the ESIC Programme where we already have clear rules, a clear and fair procedure and an independent disciplinary panel to make fair, unbiased decisions and provide an appeal mechanism.
Reasonable Sanctions: Across the world of traditional sport there are a range of sanctions for cheating, but the position taken by ESL is far closer to the norm than the life bans historically issued by Valve. Life bans tend to be reserved for sports professionals guilty of heinous or multiple offences and are seen as the absolute limit of acceptable and then only for the very worst offences. Having said that, if the CS:GO community believes that a person who cheats should never play CS:GO again, then that needs to be taken into account. There needs to be a consultation and then agreement by the key stakeholders – the publisher, the tournament organisers, the teams, the players and the fans – as to what an appropriate range of sanctions are and they need to be applied consistently. In other words, banned players should not simply be allowed to open a new Steam account and carry on.
Appeals: At the very least a person found guilty of a cheating offence should have had a fair opportunity to present their defence or mitigation and the chance, at their own risk, to appeal a decision at least once. Anything less undermines the integrity and appeal of esports and makes us, as an industry and community, look unprofessional and immature and undermines any effort to be considered anything other than a fringe activity despite the amazing support, passion, revenue and loyalty we engender.
Conclusion: ESIC would urge the CS:GO community (and, of course, every other game community) to engage collectively and try to agree a set of consistent rules and procedures to deal with cheating, whether to win or lose (match-fixing). ESIC is willing to facilitate this as our Programme already provides the basis for consistent, clear Codes and a Procedure that is fair, independent and credible. The members of ESIC, including ESL, already subscribe to this system and it would be relatively simple to incorporate it into other stakeholders’ operations.
Next Steps: ESIC will facilitate the discussion by drafting a consultation questionnaire and reaching out to Valve for input. After that, ESIC will start community and publishers outreach to widen the search and evaluate the results.