Scrutinizing the ESIC “whistleblower”: It’s a wonderful life
As Richard Lewis, Dexerto’s Editor-at-Large, tries to get more information from Aleksey ‘Yarabeu’ Kurlov, he takes a look at the match-fixing allegations levied against Team Spirit’s Igor ‘w0nderful’ Zhdanov.
You can read Part 1 of this article series, ‘Scrutinizing the ESIC “whistleblower”: The first contact’, here. Part 2, ‘Scrutinizing the ESIC “whistleblower”: Going down the rabbit hole’, can be found here.
Seventeen-year-old w0nderful has had an incredible rise in his professional CS:GO career. A sniper by trade, he had the unenviable task of filling the shoes of Team Spirit’s star player Abdul ‘degster’ Gasanov, who departed after not wishing to relocate to the organization’s home base of Serbia. The opportunity only presented itself after HellRaisers, also adapting to the shifting landscape caused by the conflict in Ukraine, made their entire squad available for transfer.
While things haven’t been great for Team Spirit, who were coming off an incredible semi-final finish at the Major in Antwerp, w0nderful has certainly had a number of standout performances that show, even at his young age, he is ready to compete at the highest level. This is something he is set to do in about two weeks’ time, when Team Spirit will compete at the second Major of the year, in Rio de Janeiro.
As it happens, though, he will not be traveling to his first Major with a clear head. His name was one of the many put out into the public domain by an ex-ESIC employee who framed himself as a whistleblower. Aleksey ‘Yarabeu’ Kurlov spent only three months at ESIC before he allegedly became so disgusted at them and their inactivity that he felt compelled to release a bunch of names of players he says are guilty of match-fixing, primarily from Ukraine and Russian teams.
However, since he did so, no real evidence has been forthcoming, and the allegations seem to have only made things worse. I spent several conversations trying to get Yarabeu to provide anything solid to corroborate his allegations so I could investigate and publish any of his claims that had substance. There was only one that even came close to meeting that standard.
“I am the owner of MAJESTY (a team w0nderful played for briefly in 2020) and I paid for match-fixing. He [w0nderful] was my player. I sent him the money and I have another player who will confirm it.”
This was the specific claim made to me in private by Yarabeu and the one in which he seemed the most invested. The conversation was a confusing back and forth as this seemed to be a starting point for his allegations rather than a destination. From what I could glean, he claimed to have been an off-the-books owner of a small Ukrainian esports organization called MAJESTY. In August of 2020, they acquired a squad that comprised w0nderful and Volodymyr ‘Woro2k’ Veletnyuk, both of whom he has publicly accused of fixing matches, as well as Evhen ‘j3kie’ Serhachev of the now-infamous Akuma team, which he also publicly accused of cheating.
During this time, Yarabeu insisted that he paid money to the players to engage in fixed matches. Then coincidentally in 2022, when Yarabeu became an investigator at ESIC, he claims he was contacted by Team Spirit, who sent him evidence of w0nderful being potentially involved in match-fixing, seemingly from the time he competed on the MAJESTY roster.
Yarabeu says that in his capacity as an ESIC investigator, he attempted to negotiate a deal whereby w0nderful testified about his involvement in exchange for immunity. Yarabeu said that this deal was reneged upon, infuriating him because he himself obviously had knowledge of the fix from his own involvement in it.
When he got around to interviewing w0nderful, he said he made a four-hour recording of the conversation (which he initially offered to share with me but then didn’t) where the player allegedly made a number of mistakes and contradictions that prove his guilt. Yarabeu then supposedly spoke with another player who agreed to testify against the other players, including w0nderful, although he said he wouldn’t reveal who that was out of fear for that individual’s safety.
“… The problem is that I’m worried about this man’s safety, because if he appears in your article in the wrong light, he may be threatened or worse, yet this man is willing to confess and suffer any punishment, but not a public hanging,” Yarabeu said.
I then asked if he would share the information about this testimony with me, so I could write it up in advance as opposed to reacting to it, should anything be made public, but he refused. In fact, gaining any details I could use to investigate further was like pulling teeth. I pressed him very hard for evidence and, most likely due to the language barrier, there was some confusion about the details.
He shared with me two screenshots of payments he said were made from the MAJESTY manager, Alexander Shyshko, to w0nderful. One was for approximately $350 on 10 December 2020 and the other for $400 on 18 January 2021. The screenshots were heavily cropped, and it wasn’t immediately clear who was being sent the money nor via which platform it was sent.
Yarabeu refused to tell me specifically which matches MAJESTY had supposedly fixed, but he did say that they were “mostly ESEA” and a “second tournament I will not name until the reaction of Spirit’s management.” According to the team’s Liquipedia page and Twitter, they disbanded on 2 December 2020, a day after losing the finals of ESEA Season 35’s Open Division. This detail alone makes relating these payments directly to matches difficult.
“I will be in touch with the management of the company [Team Spirit] on Monday [24 October 2022], “Yarabey said. “I ask you to wait with your material until their official statement on the situation because they want to understand how involved the player was, look at all the evidence and make a decision.”
I spoke with a source at Team Spirit to try and confirm any of these details, and while they wouldn’t go on record about it, they did acknowledge that the organization had contacted ESIC in regards to some concerns they had about their newly recruited player. I asked ESIC and they simply told me that they do not comment on any potential ongoing investigations.
There were still parts of this I couldn’t understand. For instance, if Yarabeu had indeed paid the players to fix matches, wouldn’t he have additional financial records that corroborated this fact? What are the odds of one of the first investigations that come across his desk being that of a player he himself claimed to have paid to fix matches? Why, if indeed such a deal had been agreed, would a 17-year-old player with a whole career ahead of him refuse to take a pretty generous deal to testify that he and some of his teammates threw matches? But the question that nagged at me most over the course of our interviews was why someone who claimed to want to catch match-fixers would be so aggressively against sharing any information or evidence.
For example, when I asked which player was going to testify against w0nderful, something I think perfectly reasonable to ask, he said:
“This question seems a little strange. Do you want to prepare a defense for him?”
I explained that by knowing this I could then have my copy written in advance so we could publish in a timely fashion.
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“If you want a finished story, I think you’ll get it on Monday.”
I then asked if he was able to prove any kind of ownership of the MAJESTY organization.
“Funny question really, how long have you been following the competition [sic] scene? Not trying to offend or insult you, but have you seen team owners publicly in 2020? How often do you see team owners in public at all? I have a contract for my manager written out by a player to let him out of the country with him, this is the only confirmation I have, and it is written on [sic] the manager.”
I asked if he could tell me which specific matches MAJESTY had fixed.
“Yes, of course, I can even find them, but do you want to blame all the players? You’ll hurt innocent people that way. I told you, mostly ESEA, the second tournament I will not name until the reaction of Spirit’s management. It is one thing when a player admits and confesses, and another when he denies and tries to deceive everyone around him.”
I ignored the very obvious contradiction about hurting innocent people following his podcast appearance and asked if he’d had any interactions with the players directly.
“And why should I interact with them if I have a manager? Every team has a manager, and it’s his job to solve questions and do everything to make me ask fewer of them. Over me there was a man from China who fully paid the salaries and we decided what match to lose (most often him) specifically with Majesty we did ESEA, but there was also another tournament, which I will leave for now in order to save information to the management of Team Spirit, because if they want to protect the player, I will make it public.”
He’d already criticized me for not asking for details about the system and setup he claimed to have, so that followed next. He told me that for all participants in fixed matches, each player received about $2,200 due to the fact they were able to get good limits at two undisclosed sportsbooks. He placed the bets in Europe and his Chinese associate in China. The $2,200 for each player represented half of the net profit. He told me that the Chinese associate was well known and had even supposedly been outed publicly by former Virtus.pro CEO Sergey Glamazda after they allegedly refused to accept money from him to fix a game.
He also explained that match-fixing is only something that happens because salaries are low. He explained that at MAJESTY, players made $200 a month in salary and that many big organizations with more resources were paying similar amounts. “A cashier makes $500 and a CS:GO player only $200. What a joke.”
I tried to steer us back to the topic of w0nderful. Out of all the claims Yarabeu had made, this was the one I felt was closest to a breakthrough. It was clear to me already, and it would be confirmed so later, that what Yarabeu wanted more than catching match-fixers was to be credited for doing so. He repeatedly made offhand comments about me either being in ESIC’s pockets or being a journalist that was looking to cut him out of the story entirely. At one point during our final conversation, which went completely off the rails, he said, ‘You are either making fun of me or do not understand that this is my work and no one will continue it without me.’
We’d not really talked much about motivations so I asked if he was angry with w0nderful.
“I told you, I initiated an opportunity for him to get immunity from ESIC in exchange for testimony against everyone in the system. He agreed but then lied and said he didn’t know anything. Why should I be mad at him?”
I responded that maybe, because w0nderful had refused to accept the deal and denied the story, he felt his time had been wasted.
“I don’t think any of my time may have been wasted, I am disappointed that he gave up the opportunity to defend himself publicly and move to the side of justice. Why do you think he refused? I still don’t understand.”
I said there could be a number of reasons and explained that immunity sounds good on paper but the chances are, if he was guilty, he would still be dropped. And if Valve were aware of it, they couldn’t make an exception in his case and he’d have to be banned from their events for life. Maybe there was an argument that could be made around him being 15 but it’s a hell of a risk to place a budding career on.
“His testimony could make a big difference in the scene, the organization was just as aware and promised to help the player in any matter, even protecting the family… I believe he would have gotten proper protection, and now he’s on the precipice of losing his entire career.”
I tried again to get him to give me some more details but we went around in the same circle.
Monday has since come and gone and I’ve heard nothing from Team Spirit or ESIC, and it’s clear Yarabeu won’t be talking to me again any time soon. As you’ll see, our conversation degenerated into him essentially accusing me of secretly taking $60,000 a year from ESIC to cover up any of their errors. One of his colleagues has since been in touch making the vague threat that we will soon have “a dialogue”. Whatever that means.
In short, the w0nderful allegations remain in limbo, and it’s not clear whether the evidence, if indeed there is any, will be enough to warrant action. He claimed he would make everything he had public but it begs the question: Why hasn’t he done that already if, as he says, he’s on a crusade to catch match-fixers?
I know a little bit about that myself but also know that without proof, except in the most glaringly obvious of circumstances, you have to leave the allegations on the shelf. He didn’t see it that way. He repeatedly told me that my standards were too high and that’s why I would never catch anyone. Yet doing things his way hasn’t achieved much either, from what I can tell. If no action is forthcoming towards w0nderful or any of the other players he has accused, days from a Major, then the damage isn’t just reputational.