Recent controversy with game-fixing and eSports gambling could put Valve in legal hot water. Ramifications could have dire implications for eSports.
Let’s start with the broad strokes. If you follow competitive gaming even a little bit, I’m sure you’ve stumbled across betting sites. I myself have visited a few of these to get the odds on lesser known teams. It’s a decent way of evaluating whether or not certain games are worth watching. And I know what you’re thinking, this isn’t one of those “my friend visits these sites” sort of situations. I’m not some kind of online gambling Moriarty. Our editor here at DireDota HQ does a pretty good job of coordinating friendly bets between staff. I may or may not owe Samantha Richards a pizza after StarSeries S2. But that’s besides the point.
Point is, potentially since 2011, an enormous gambling market has blossomed in the shadow cast by Valve’s digital marketplace, STEAM. Skins and in-game items can be sold for STEAM dollars, which seems innocent enough since you can’t withdraw the money. But the rise of third-party trading and selling sites has created the perfect loophole for gambling to flourish. On these third-party platforms, your digital inventory can be turned to cold, hard cash.
A public spectacle
This controversy first came to my attention when reading an article on how online gaming is “turning teen gamers into serious gamblers.” That quote is taken straight from the article’s headline. Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? Being the good natured guy I am, I thought this was classic baby-boomer rabble rousing. “Video games make gunman.” “Video games make you anti-social.” We’ve all heard these claims, and though many people still (mistakenly, very mistakenly) believe these claims, I think most of the gaming public is sick of hearing these baseless accusations. I know I am.
But as long as these suspicions linger and misinformation is accepted as general truth, the pro-gaming scene will be under a microscope. And, as hard as it’s been for TI6 participants to get visas this year, do we really want a negative image influencing policymakers to think that eSports are creating a new generation of gambling addicted youth?
Because that’s exactly what’s happening. The online safeguards are minimal. Any 14-year-old with a little bit if creativity can get around online age-verification with hopes of hitting the jackpot. Were this the only fallout from the unsanctioned gambling, it would be bad enough. But with underground betting likely exceeding $2.3 billion in earnings, this also creates serious temptation for teams.
Inequality creates opportunity for injustice
As eSports become more established, we’re seeing the industry surrounding it grow. This creates revenue, and through these profits our favorite players and teams can afford to live their lives and perform in tournaments. But that’s the thing about temptation. With a little bit more, life could always be better.
There’s a huge class disparity the gaming world. Players from middle-class and affluent backgrounds have better access to technology and reliable internet. It’s only natural that players with this kind of advantage do better than those from the third-world or less developed regions. Natural, but not fair.
I’m not a fan of this kind of economic preferential treatment, but I do believe it has largely insulated us from a number of potentially damning scandals. If you have money to fall back on, then the money you win is kind of a bonus, isn’t it? If, however, you grew up in poverty, or if your team was denied a visa to a tournament that could have potentially paid your rent and living expenses, or if something tragic happened (illness, injury, legal expenses) and you’re desperate for some quick, easy cash – in these cases I can see players turning to game-rigging/illegal gambling as a last ditch effort to stay afloat.
There have already been bans made against DOTA teams illegally involved in gambling, and there are even suspicions of major, internationally recognized teams taking part in these activities. The problem isn’t just with DOTA, either. As STEAM generally facilitates (in a fashion) this gambling, the platform itself could become embroiled with controversy, which jeopardizes the stability of all MMO STEAM games.
Sheriff, is that a real badge?
For these reasons, I was pleased to hear Valve has taken a firm stance against the gambling associated with their platform. But it’s hard to take them too seriously when there is record of Gaben consulting economists to create a cyber-economy where players can “experience all the illicit thrills of black market weapons trafficking.” That quote is taken directly from the counter-strike.net blog. Sounds like sheriff might be a little crooked, himself.
Now that the public eye is on the gambling associated with STEAM, Valve is more than happy to take out a plastic sheriff’s badge and slap a handful of companies with cease-and-desist orders, but are those third-parties really the culprit here? While the actions of third-party gambling facilitators is disgraceful, they were only taking advantage of loopholes that Valve intentionally created.
I’m not embarrassed to admit, nor am I exaggerating in the slightest when I say that Valve has made life-changing games available to me. The thing I love most about these games? They’ve had a positive effect on my life. They’ve introduced me to friends, taught me to think creatively, engaged me on a level few real-life activities have, and have served as a kind of therapy during darker moments.
Fact is, the impact of eSports gambling is more serious than a simple cease-and-desist order can correct. The issue here, in my mind, is the policy that fosters this kind of environment to begin with. For the problem to be resolved, there has to be transparency and regulation, two things Valve seems unable or unwilling to provide.
Someone once told me, “Anything is a weapon if you’re holding it right.” Well, I refuse to let eSports, which have only had a positive influence on my life, be misused so that a few money hungry individuals can capitalize on the addictions of those unprepared to resist them.
You should be, too.