An “Eye in the Sky”: Cheating in esports and the ESIC’s decision on the “coach bug”

As in the case of any professional competition, whether it be on the pitch or in esports, it requires adherence to strict regulations and protocols. With the current esports market having boomed over the last decade, and the pandemic promoting the esports platform as a means of new entertainment, the remote nature has raised concerns of cheating in this growing industry.

The persistent lack of regulation in the esports sector means cheating via identity theft, phishing and eDoping has caused entirely new legal problems to surface. Much like in traditional sports, cheating can not only impact customer and player confidence, but also gravely affect game traffic and revenue growth.

On 2 September 2020, the Esports Integrity Commission (“ESIC”) issued a lengthy ban on three Counter Strike Global Offensive team coaches who were found guilty of cheating in the ESL “One Road to Rio” 2020 and “DreamHack Masters” Spring competitions. “ESL”, the competition organisers, proceeded to issue their own bans amidst the allegations of the “Coach Bug”.

What is the “Coach Bug”?

The “Coach Bug” or “spectator bug” refers to the unexpected advantage by which a coach can become a spectator anywhere on the game map, without drawing the attention of others. In the case mentioned above,  it provided the team with a significant tactical advantage, as the coach was able to manipulate the game to view the opposing team’s positions. From a technical perspective, this was achieved by accessing the game’s spectator functionality which is usually designed to allow non-participating individuals to watch the game from the view of the current players. However, the coaches were able to manipulate this functionality and develop strategic plans to lead their team to victory.  

Although the developers of the game, “Valve Corporation”, fixed the bug, it was clear that COVID-19 could lead to other instances of cheating. As remote play becomes the norm, coaches now require access to their own screen to view game-play. Naturally, this raises the risk of cheating and corruption within esports, as competition organisers have limited opportunity to exercise any oversight.

Anti-cheat technology

With social distancing requiring greater remote-play, the lack of oversight usually found during in-person tournaments enables players, coaches and users to freely manipulate the game. Though there’s been a recent uptake in remote management software, any statistics of its success in preventing cheating is still limited. Further, we’ve seen a growth in anti-cheat algorithms and machine learning on the server side and in processing logs which allows organisers to protect against cheating. However, cheating in the software sense is trickier to spot, especially during a tournament match or in instances where the individual has used custom-made hacks. The Valve Anti-Cheat System (VAC), introduced in 2002 has been introduced to combat these issues, as it operates across the developers stream-platform and scans the players computer for anything out of the list of identifiable cheats. Any identification of a cheat then results in a permanent, non-negotiable ban.

Near one-quarter of ESL’s technology budget now goes towards anti-cheat measures and other tournament organisers such as “FACEIT” have developed their own software to counteract cheating. However, a key consideration when regarding any such software, is whether personal data is involved and how such data will be stored and protected.

The legal perspective of cheating in esports

With the growth of technology, the implementation of any anti-cheat software or VAC-like systems can still pose a data protection risk. Data on individual gamers would need to be gathered to assist in ensuring their record is ‘clean’ and free from any cheating bugs. The ESL have stressed that the measures are GDPR compliant and as soon as the player’s confirmed as “clean”, the data is deleted.

Another risk of liability has been noted when providing evidence of cheating in online games. The ESL typically review at least one case of cheating per month and though they have match-evidence, they lack still software-evidence. In the instances of more complex cheating, no current legislation or policy dictates how to address these cases. As the key disciplinary body, ESIC have a 4-level system to disciplinary offences. In the case of the 3 coaches mentioned above, they received the highest, level 4 sanction which included a 6-month, 12 month and 24 month ban. As the competition organisers, ESL also issued their own sanctions with disqualification of the team, reduction in overall points and took back the prize money that was awarded.

The future

With COVID-19 increasing the need for online tournaments and remote-play to abide by social distancing rules, new and increasingly complex forms of cheating could be on the horizon. The “Coach Bug” event is the first step in cracking down on and preventing a rise in cheating however, it remains to be seen whether the disciplinary methods by the ESIC and ESL will be sufficient in managing endemic cheating.

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