Adam Fitch: Esports' conflicts of interest problem is unavoidable - Dexerto
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Adam Fitch: Esports’ conflicts of interest problem is unavoidable

Published: 26/Feb/2021 16:23

by Adam Fitch

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When you look up what ‘conflict of interest’ means in a dictionary, you’ll find: “A phenomenon in every industry but especially rife in esports, a conflict of interest is the result of greed and malpractice in business.”

OK, you won’t find that, but it may as well be the case. It’s technically a situation in which a person or organization has multiple, competing interests. A decision regarding one interest could affect another. It could be having ownership of an entity that conflicts with the activities of your employer.

In the context of esports, most of the instances of conflicts of interest are indeed ownership. It could be a businessperson having financial interest in competing teams or a professional player competing for one organization while owning a stake in another. Simply put, there’s a huge game of trust being played here — allowing these instances to exist means that you either believe in the integrity of the involved persons or you don’t care about the potential for duplicity. Either are dangerous.

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In a closed system like with Riot Games’ LCS — a North American league that’s made up of 10 partner teams — it’s interesting. It’s in the interest of every stakeholder for the competition to succeed, they all have financial involvement. They’re all effectively business partners, or subdivisions of the same company. We’ve already seen instances of troublesome conflicts of interest in its short lifespan and the public, frankly, only sees a smidgeon of what happens behind-the-scenes. Deepening the issue, many of the players have competed alongside each other and are chums. The teams have dealt with each other for years. When you become good friends over the years, there’s a good chance some elements of professionalism are left at the door when dealing with each other.

Virtus.pro PUBG
Virtus.pro
ESforce own Virtus.pro, event organizer EPICENTER, and news site Cybersport.

Even in more open ecosystems like that of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, though ESL and Flashpoint alike would love for it to be closed, conflicts of interest are everywhere. So much so that the game’s developer, a company notorious for staying away from the official competitive side of the title, had to intervene.

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A major issue is that these practices trickle from the top down. You only have to look so far as to ESforce to understand how interconnected and self-serving business can be in esports. The Russian competitor has been a major player in the industry for years and controls organizations, a news publication, and a tournament operator. It used to be much worse, too.

It’s saddeningly easy to think of existing examples of conflicts of interest to this day. An article of its own would be warranted should I rattle off a list of them here so I won’t, but I really want to get across just how prominent they are — so much so that the much of the industry at large has a blasé attitude towards them.

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It’s not whether shady dealings are happening, it’s that there’s the opportunity for them to take place that’s the problem. If I own two teams, a tournament operator, and a betting site, just imagine what is possible there. If I own multiple team brands and a news publication, that’s free publicity whenever I so desire! I can even write my own narratives that will go down in history as we look back at esports’ humble beginnings in decades to come.

TACO MIBR Yeah Gaming
DreamHack
CS:GO pro TACO was under fire for owning part of Yeah Gaming while competing for MIBR.

The solution? That’s a tough nut to crack. Esports doesn’t have a universal governing body, a fact that’s both good and bad depending on how you look at it, and thus people are effectively free to do as they wish. There’s not a barrier to entry when it comes to many of the top titles. You can start your own news outlet on any given day. Want to host an event? Get the approval of the game’s developer, set a decent prize purse, and teams will flock. Anybody can operate in esports.

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Game developers and tournament operators have the power to stop teams from competing in select events, so that’s one solution. That’s not a one-size-fits-all remedy though. Frankly, as esports stands, we can’t cleanse the industry of the majority of potential conflicts of this sort. Especially at the very top.

What we, the communities that comprise the esports industry, can do is hold these people and entities to account. Speak about instances of conflicts of interest on Twitter, Reddit, and other public spaces. Educate your fellow fans, industry professionals, even those involved in the situation who may not be aware of where an issue stems.

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We don’t have the power to stop these incestuous relationships from existing ourselves but conversation may just convince the powers that be to do something effective. Some conflicts of interests are solvable, some aren’t, but all should be treated seriously in the name of integrity. We can’t let businesspeople sweep these practices under the rug if we want esports to be fair. It is an industry predicated on competition, after all.