In January 2015, the culmination of what was an almost six month long investigation into Counter-Strike match-fixing resulted in the indefinite bans of the iBUYPOWER team and the fixers that facilitated them profiting from thrown games.
These players represented the best Counter-Strike players in North America by a country mile, perhaps even the most talented that the continent has produced. The ban left a void that many thought could be filled. A year’s worth of hindsight shows that not to be true. North American Counter-Strike still hasn’t recovered. Maybe the sport as a whole hasn’t.
The bans have no chance of appeal, no chance of redemption, and the players with glittering careers are now held up as the poster-boys for greed and bad choices. The brutal nature of seeing these men come to grips with this new, harsh reality even left this reporter questioning the rightfulness of the pursuit of this uncomfortable truth. There may have been other star players who were guilty who were not caught, one piece of a paper-trail away from the end of their careers, and they must still squirm wondering if it will ever come to light. We’ll probably never know how endemic match fixing was or still is among professional players.
Yet, undoubtedly, the harsh penalties handed down to these players sent a wake-up call of seismic proportions through the upper echelons of the professional scene. One error of judgement and it’s all over… the status, the money, the achievement, the glory. Thanks to these worthwhile rewards, the fear of losing them has made the scene cleaner than it probably ever has been.
But what of those who know they will likely never set foot on the stage of a major tournament or even command a respectable salary? What of the semi-pro, mostly amateur, players that have to take their opportunities where they can and needn’t worry about consequences? Unfortunately there are still a number of players who are looking to use the game as a means to supplement the income of whatever they do outside it via cheating and fixing matches. What’s worse is that because they lack the same profile as the North American players, it mostly goes ignored. There are no investigations, no outrage, and, by extension, no consequences.
People say that pointing fingers without being 100% certain is poor form for anyone with a platform. Maybe this is true, but I’ve always operated on the simple principle of balance of probability. It was that instinct that drove me towards investigating the match fixing to begin with, to keep going when people even denied the logic evident before their eyes in the video footage from the game, to discount testimony from multiple sources, to even dismiss evidence of the financial transactions in the aftermath. There seems to be an impossibly high standard of evidence required to “convict” players in the eyes of fans, a standard that would see almost every criminal walk if it was applied to the justice system.
I support Blackstone’s formulation, neatly summarised by Benjamin Franklin as, “It is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer.” Witch-hunts are ugly by nature. The accusers whip up a one-time neutral mob into a towering morality-driven frenzy, and it rarely ends well. Even in the instances where the accused are guilty, the mob justice usually goes further than any fitting punishment. Despite this all being true, the eSports community is often its own worst enemy. It will relentlessly attack those guilty only of the crime of opinion, beat on those who express themselves as they wish, while constantly giving the genuinely harmful elements a pass even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the untoward.
This is especially dangerous because we mostly police ourselves. The status quo in eSports is still profit driven, whatever gibberish is served up about wanting to grow this industry for “all of us.” It takes too much and too many resources to be the ones leading the charge against the problems in the industry, not to mention everyone considers the unveiling of unpalatable facts to be “a bad look” for everyone, bad for business. As such it is the journalists and community members that expose these things, often to their own detriment.
The recent incident surrounding a group of German and Turkish players who represented the Planetkey Dynamics CS:GO team barely made a ripple despite some fairly shocking revelations. After entering a tournament amusingly called The Rising Stars Europe Cup, their team of mid-tier aspirants emerged victorious from a field of teams with many more established and storied players. In online tournaments, these things will happen. It is what makes LAN play the great equalizer; nowhere to hide, new types of pressure, new levels of scrutiny. Yet there was something wrong with the last two games they played, against Team ALTERNATE aTTax and Danish team Revival, respectively.
The footage showed moments of uncanny reading of the game, a paranormal level of prediction and decision making. Crosshairs seemed to unerringly stick to their targets, achieving a level of consistency worthy of the best aimers in the game. Against Alternate they came back from a 16-14 first map loss to win two crushing victories on the subsequent maps. In the final, Revival were never in it. As the community watched Planetkey romp to an easy two map triumph, they also expressed their disbelief in the legitimacy of the players, in particular Ammar “am0” Cakmak, Bastian “ayken” Schend, and Koray “xall” Yaman.
In a move that is usually considered taboo from players, Team Alternate came out and expressly said they believed their opponents had cheated and that they would decline to compete in any tournaments that invited them in future. In a long Facebook post, team spokesperson Oliver “kzy” Heck elaborated further, saying, “For us its easy to tell the difference between good players with good reads and people that use certain tools to push it.”
Heck is certainly no stranger to cheaters, having played with the likes of Sebastian “xenn” Hoch, who was caught using a wallhack by the FACEIT league’s anticheat software. Other professional players have also called out this group of players before. Their reputations are already tarnished among their peers, irredeemably so, and if anything this has made them less interested in playing fair.
The administrators of the tournament spent twenty-four hours reviewing the footage looking for a smoking gun; always a fools errand. In isolation, every incident can be explained as “luck,” and even the common sense application of the law of averages isn’t enough in the eyes of the community. Unless a piece of software detects a cheat, there will always be doubt. Even then, there will be shrieks about “false positives.” In the end, they had to reluctantly accept that the Planetkey players could only be proved to be nothing more than highly suspicious.
Fortunately, that boldness proved to be the players downfall. Thilo “syken” Phan and Koray “xall” Yaman had placed maximum bets on themselves to win the final, something against tournament rules and something that is considered a breach of ethics in the sport, as it should be. Valve, usually tight-lipped on such matters, even specifically “recommended” that players never bet on any games, stating, “We will always assume that you have access to private CS:GO-related ‘inside information’ that might give you an unfair advantage when placing a bet on any CS:GO game or match.”
For me, the circumstances surrounding this alone should be enough to warrant a ban for these players, even a temporary one. If Valve were to plant a flag on this matter, it’d give license for the other tournament organisers to feel comfortable following suit. Many are reluctant to get into the potential legal minefield of mirroring bans of other leagues, some countries potentially offering recourse for even the guilty if you can believe it.
However, there’s a reason I’m highlighting these players specifically. This is far from the first time they have been involved in dubious cases. The team captain, Robin “r0bs3n” Stephan, and Cakmak had been involved in another instance of match-fixing when they played in myRevenge. In a match against the Hungarian team Volgare, they lost despite being heavy favourites. An investigation by betting site CS:GO Lounge, and in particular their steward Courtney “Honey” Timpson, found inarguable evidence of the game being thrown for profit.
These included friends of the players making sizeable bets on multiple accounts for them to lose, with some of the accounts being the only bet they had ever made. Even a member of the myRevenge team placed a traceable maximum bet that they would lose. The upshot was the players were released from the organisation, which also included two of the players earmarked as having cheated here, Yaman and Schend.
Yet the collective reaction from the community barely amounted to a shrug. “Who are these players and why should we care?” Well, the players came back and were promptly involved in more match-fixing allegations, this time under the banner of KILLERFISH. Betting patterns around the team were generously described as “suspicious” but featured 100 accounts placing maximum sized bets on wins and loses alike, all with 100% accuracy. All the accounts placed their bets from the same I.P. address. Again, the community reaction was underwhelming, and the players protested their innocence, claiming it was just an unfortunate coincidence someone with access to that many accounts would bet, accurately at all times, on their games and they absolutely had never communicated with that individual. Benefit of the doubt was dispensed.
Phan was again at the centre of cheating accusations, as well as match-fixing, when just over two months ago he took on PENTA Sports under the UX Gaming banner in the Gameshow Global Esports Cup. An influx of bets for UX Gaming to win were placed on Fanobet, with one last minute bet reputedly being worth $10,000, prompting them to cancel all bets on the game. UX won the game 2-0, with Phan bizarrely playing on an alternate account that had been used by the proven cheater Hoch. It was a mess, and this time the fans stood up and took noticed… Temporarily at least, until UX Gaming kicked the team, putting the players back out into the murkiest depths of the talent pool.
After this most recent development, Planetkey naturally released these players, the cycle completed once more. The sad reality is there will always be another to give them a home. With everyone desperate to use CS:GO to advertise whatever they want to hawk to the ever-growing fanbase, why would anyone want to do their due diligence? Instead you can have a guaranteed online tournament win and a bunch of Reddit threads that end with a firm pat on the back when you kick the players you should never have employed in the first place. It’s win-win.
Now, we get back to balance of probability. Am I saying all of these people are guilty? From a legal standpoint, no. But there’s an awful lot of coincidences that surround them, their play, and their careers. They stick together, maybe because they have to, maybe because they are a confederacy of like-minded people. If they have never engaged in anything untoward, they are among the most unlucky people I have ever come across in any field, so unlucky that the poor redneck dunderhead from Making a Murderer would look at them and say, “I thought I had it bad.”
I know from my day-to-day work that there is still a corrupt underbelly in the lower echelons of Counter-Strike. The desperate and impoverished are still fixing matches. People are still cheating for a chance at fame and fortune. We can’t be expected to catch them all, although I suspect at this stage no-one really wants to. What we can do is start making some solid decisions.
Tournament organisers out there, I’ll ask, are these the type of players you want in your online, often anti-cheat free, competitions? Do you want the headache of the investigations and the appeals and the statements? There’s good news – you don’t have to. You’re calling the shots, and no-one, bar a few, is going to be up in arms about you making a decision to secure the integrity of your competitions by excluding players who have continually flirted with breaking the rules and been linked to everything rotten in our game. There’s enough for me to feel comfortable about it. There should be for you too.