Scrutinizing the ESIC “whistleblower”: More wild claims and ESIC’s response

Stephanie Lindgren/ESL Gaming via ESPAT & ESIC

Aleksey ‘Yarabeu’ Kurlov continues to throw out wild accusations in his chats with Dexerto’s Editor-at-Large, Richard Lewis, who gets ESIC’s perspective on the work of the self-proclaimed whistleblower.

You can read Part 1 of this article series, ‘The first contact’, here. Part 2, ‘Going down the rabbit hole’, can be found here. Part 3, ‘It’s a wonderful life’, can be found here.

Following public allegations made by the self-styled “ESIC whistleblower” Aleksey ‘Yarabeu’ Kurlov about their player Igor “w0nderful” Zhdanov, Team Spirit posted a statement that they would be cooperating with an ESIC investigation into the matter and conducting one of their own. They were also sure to thank Yarabeu for his “assistance,” which as far as I could tell was publicly smearing the player and threatening to publicly release more “evidence” if they didn’t take him seriously. The Major in Rio came and went, yet there have been no follow-ups from any party involved, and one has to assume it will end up in the same pile of dead ends other such investigations have landed.

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Yarabeu’s scattershot approach to his allegations has simultaneously had a broad reach but limited potency. Just weeks after they were made, they have mostly been forgotten, and ESIC’s current credibility crisis with the community following a number of humiliating climb-downs over previously issued bans won’t help either. Despite this, I am told Yarabeu is still plugging away in the background, reaching out to organizations to inform them of their players’ transgressions and continuing to make a number of outlandish claims.
Yarabeu accused a number of players of match-fixing and said ESIC has no interest in seeing investigations through

I can’t say I am surprised. After all, the final interview session that we conducted saw him descend into a kind of madness, making a number of allegations towards me as he became increasingly frustrated at my requests to see the evidence behind his claims. What he did share wasn’t, in my opinion at least, enough to sanction someone with a potential lifetime ban. Indeed, I doubted it was enough to even convict someone in the court of public opinion. Some second-hand testimony and a few out-of-context screenshots would make for a good starting point. But for him, it was the final destination, irrefutable proof that had to be acted on at his behest. Further complicating things was the fact that he himself had participated in a number of match-fixing activities over the years and even went so far as to claim he himself had induced some of the players he was now publicly accusing. That alone would be grounds for recusal in his role at ESIC but now he was trying to continue that “work” without guardrails or oversight. For who or what ends wasn’t initially clear but would come into focus later.

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“Let’s try it another way: To you, what [constitutes] proof of guilt of a player?” he asked again during one of the many times I explained that I felt his evidence was insufficient. “After all, we have different standards, I think like a person from the police, and you as a journalist, I understand that in my context a person from the police sounds ridiculous, so you can say a jailed specialist but somehow or other, I still somehow got into ESIC and for three months no one touched me, apparently my work is all satisfactory?”

Of course, the limited amount of work he had done at ESIC, details of which he had shared with me in our initial email exchange, had yet to bear fruit. It seemed to me his expectations were unrealistic in that he had turned up on day one with a number of claims about corrupt activity in multiple esports titles and he expected ESIC to simply act upon them. If he had known anything about ESIC at all before he took the job he would have known that their investigations take an eternity in esports terms.

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Another allegation he kept floating around was that ESIC was somehow involved in some financial irregularities as he couldn’t understand where they got the money from to pay him.

“For starters, ask yourself a question: With what money did they pay my salary, and how much do employees older than me make? I think the salary of $100k + a year without any activity is already strange, no? At a nonprofit company? A video editor’s salary of $60,000 odd, too, no? Where is he? [Are there] any videos?”

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One thing we can agree on is that while there’s no indication of any irregularities or impropriety on ESIC’s part, its finances haven’t been as transparent as expected. It has publicly been suggested by several esports figures that they are ducking out on their responsibility to publish their annual financial statements as a non-profit organization. Naturally, this would clear up any confusion about the salaries Yarabeu was talking about. I again reiterated that while I was happy to look into these things, I would need to see some proof of the existence of the phantom video editor before making any allegations of the “fraud” he had publicly spoken of.

”You look like someone who either doesn’t want to get honest or someone who represents ESIC. I always wondered which employee is on a video editor’s salary for $60k a year, given that ESIC has no video.”

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I asked him if he was accusing me of being on ESIC’s payroll.

“Where did I say that? You can use my words however you want, but so far you are a man – who defends a tired system that is not only useless but also encourages all kinds of fraud.

“Just like ESIC.”

This exchange is essentially all you need to know about Yarabeu – and by extension, his allegations. If you scrutinize his claims, even just to a basic degree, then he will accuse you of being part of the same sprawling conspiracy he, and only he, is going up against. He had made a number of swipes at my integrity during the course of the conversation but I had put up with it as I did expect somewhere down the line he would eventually show me something worthwhile.

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In the interests of full disclosure, I have, of course, never taken a penny from ESIC. The totality of my involvement with them goes something like this… I met their founder, Ian Smith, in 2016 during the MLG Columbus Major and discussed the ESIC project, which I felt would be a very welcome addition to the existing esports infrastructure. In July of that same year, I had Ian come on the 14th episode of my podcast during which no money changed hands. I would then periodically send across tips about match-fixing activity and suspicious betting patterns, based on things my sources would share with me, all free of charge, of course.

In 2018, I spoke at their annual general meeting, something publicly disclosed and I even published the speech at the now-defunct VP Esports, which you can still read via archive. Again, this was done for free, although if I recall correctly I was bought a double Johnnie Walker Black by an ESIC employee. I was scheduled to speak at their Global Esports Summit in April this year but caught Covid and had to withdraw. This again would have been done free of charge.

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So no, I am certainly not a secret off-the-books employee for ESIC raking in an additional $60,000 a year for the purposes of promoting them. Indeed, if that were the case, it’d be the worst money ESIC had ever spent since as I have been repeatedly critical of them both in writing and on various podcast appearances. But facts don’t seem to matter much to Yarabeu and unfortunately for him, that’s a problem when you want the world to believe you about serious allegations you supposedly have intimate knowledge of. With him, it’s not so much a boy crying wolf as it is him telling you to your face that you are the wolf and then spending several hours telling you he can definitely prove your lupine heritage before changing the subject.

None of which is to say I don’t believe him on a number of his claims, but two things became increasingly clear. First and foremost, anyone who listened to this guy was going to have to sift through a river of shit just to fish out the occasional nugget of truth; and secondly, he wanted all the public credit for any findings those nuggets led to. I believe that the last part was why he was so reluctant to provide specifics. He genuinely feared I would write a story that didn’t mention him. I certainly couldn’t doubt his commitment to being the center of attention at least. This was someone who walked away from a six-figure salary as we hurtle towards a recession because he would have had to do the work in the shadows.

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His other allegation about ESIC was that they had made him demand money from a partner to conduct an investigation. “When I’m doing an investigation and they call me up and say, ‘Are you stupid? Are you doing it for free? Contact the company and ask for money.’ Do you think it’s OK?”

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I told him, again, I would need to know more details before passing a judgment but acknowledged that as he worded it that it sounded strange. Not good enough. In fact, no kind of pushback was. Every time he made a claim that I challenged he simply said it was proof that I was biased towards ESIC, even though I had spent hours and hours trying to assist him in substantiating his claims in a way that was fit for publication.

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“If you and I go online with this same dialogue, no one in the world would appreciate you as an independent [party]. You ignore any issue with ESIC and defend them in any aspect. After all, I am not a stupid person. You say they are unproductive in spite of their funding and that’s fine. Mistakes with coaches are normal. The lack of investigations is normal, even now you say they are doing them.”

The conversation devolved and became unproductive. With the exception of one more claim he had made, one about a vulnerability within the game CS:GO that only he and a handful of others knew about, there wasn’t much more of value exchanged. Even that ended with him demanding I give up one of my direct contacts with Valve as he refused to share any specifics with me. I steered the conversation back to his allegations about the Team Spirit player w0nderful and asked if he would at least share with me what he was going to show them so I could write up the story ahead of time and release it after they had published their statement on the matter.

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“Well, of course, you want news, but I want honesty in esports, so I’m waiting for a reaction from the management of Spirit, and I don’t give it to you for a public execution, I can publicly execute myself.”

Now I might be many things, but one thing you can never accuse me of is being unthorough. Even though our conversation had descended into him refusing to share anything with me as he felt I had revealed myself to be an agent of ESIC, I felt it was still important to treat his allegations about them and me the same as any other. I reached out to the head of ESIC, Ian Smith, to address each of the specific claims he had made in public and to me in our supposedly private conversations.

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As anyone who has tried to report on ESIC knows, Smith is quite a hard person to get hold of, but I was able to catch him on an off day and leave him details of what was being claimed by Yarabeu. In response, he sent me a dictated message that I shall publish in its entirety.

“Before getting into specifics, I can give some brief background about his [Yarabeu’s] hiring. We only got the budget to hire an Investigations Manager for the first time this year. As you know, resourcing has always been an issue and we struggled to find a suitable candidate. When Yarabeu came along I could see obviously that there were significant issues, but he also brought a lot to the table in terms of knowledge and understanding of betting practices and he had a decent level of insight into particularly the Eastern European Counter-Strike and Dota scenes, including where match-fixing, cheating and corruption were concerned. I felt that with a bit of structure and management he could be very helpful to us. For those first three months of his probationary period, I was supervising him and I don’t think I was doing the greatest job of this because obviously I have a ton of other responsibilities and there were a few language difficulties, even though his English is pretty good. Judging what he has subsequently said in public it is clear he misunderstood a hell of a lot of what I was saying and I possibly misunderstood some of what he was saying.

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“The main issue was that while he had a lot of raw data and insight, he had no idea how to structure this in a legally compliant and acceptable way, and this is where the real problem came. He was making endless allegations and jumping from matter to matter to matter, and I was trying to create some order out of that and in particular saying, ‘Can we prove it?’ Obviously, it’s no good saying some bloke in Odessa told me a team is fixing. Even where the betting evidence we had indicated that it was true… That’s a hell of a long way from being able to prosecute somebody because you have got to have evidence and we need it in a certain format so we can issue a notice of charge that is compliant with our code.

“This is why for any hire we impose a strict probationary period but also why at the end of that period, when I realized I wasn’t getting the best out of him, I handed over management of him to someone else in the Australian office. They had more experience on the legal compliance side and also had the capacity I didn’t have because of my other duties. I thought that would be a great solution, to move his role more from being an Investigations Manager to more like an informant role, where we could point him in the right direction and then take whatever evidence he produced and handle it more professionally.

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“For whatever reason, he was massively resistant to that and neither I nor anyone else could persuade him that it was in his interests and ESIC’s interests that he worked in a different way. He just would not. I then didn’t hear from him for ten days, partially I assume because I was off sick but also partially because he was planning to do what he did.

“I think a large amount of what he wrote is just garbage and I will address some of your questions specifically. I think it arises from the language difficulties and the basic misunderstandings between us although where he got some of this stuff from I honestly don’t know. Honestly, I just find it really, really sad. Not just because of his reaction at the end and turning us but also if he’d been able to accept supervision in the way in which we were structuring it he could have had a helpful career with us. So I’m sad because we’re not just back to square one with the recruitment issue; in fact, we’re a few squares behind square one because he has left us with a ton of unstructured information that is now quite difficult to dig into.

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“I have no idea what he is talking about with a $60k Video Editor role. We’ve never had any such role or any such budget or any such need. What would he be editing? So I don’t know what he’s referring to there. I tried to have a think, but obviously, we have my Operations Assistant and then Yarabeu was our only other full-time employee [with the exception of the founders] because we have never had the budget to have anything other than that. So, sorry, but I’m drawing an absolute blank on that one. I wish we had an additional $60k.

Ian Smith blamed miscommunication for some of Yarabeu’s accusations and rejected that ESIC has a video editor on a 60k salary

“With regards to his claims that he was told to stop an investigation until he went and asked for money, it is a misunderstanding but one I understand where he got it from. In this particular instance, there was an investigation that was not for a member of ESIC but for a betting company that was not a member. The basis on which we agreed to complete that investigation or to at least help where we could with it was that they would pay for that investigation because it related directly to something on which they had a reputational as well as a financial exposure. So there are two elements, the first being we made it clear that we would not do the work unless they paid for the work because they were not a member of ESIC and had never paid us a cent but wanted our help with this matter. The second was that we discussed having anyone involved in unethical practices enter a program of rehabilitation, supervised by certain law enforcement communities, that would take place over a period of time. We had these talks with them with a view to them becoming members of ESIC because currently, they could not become a member as they couldn’t comply with our due diligence process. Yarabeu is likely to have overheard those conversations between me and an exec at that company, which had nothing to do with his investigation, but were about the politics and legality of betting operators within certain jurisdictions becoming members of ESIC over time because it simply wasn’t possible now. So with respect to his allegation, I did tell him not to do any work on that particular investigation because it was for a non-member that needed to pay us to do it. It is not true of any other investigation as those were special circumstances. I can forgive his misunderstanding there.

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“As to his claim that there were no investigations taking place before his appointment: Well that is of course absolutely ludicrous. Not only are there a number of investigations ongoing at the moment but there are a number of investigations that I am involved in that he wasn’t and he knows nothing about because it was too late to bring him into those and he didn’t have any value to add to them. I don’t know why he would have thought that this was the case. He was doing a review with my Operations Assistant of old unusual and suspicious betting alerts to determine whether or not there was to be an investigation carried out because as I’m sure you know we have a massive backlog of those and I haven’t had a chance to review our database with a view to determining what can and can’t be closed, what needs to remain open and what should be prioritized because we get a hell of a lot of these.”

That was that then. A lot of work, a lot of wasted time and Yarabeu’s 15 minutes of fame had drawn to a close. So far not a single one of his allegations has led to any punitive measures and the general consensus among those accused is that he is something of a kook. He would reward me by repeating his public accusations that I was a clandestine ESIC employee and publishing the burner phone number I spoke to him from, a minor inconvenience but one that could have had some serious implications had I not taken precautions. I had come into this expecting to come away with at least one story of merit. Instead, the story is one asking how someone like this ever end up working at ESIC in the first place. I found Yarabeu to be an interesting figure not because he was an insider or a whistleblower but mostly because he was someone that had a genuine chance to do some good for esports in a role many would be envious of but instead threw that away for clout.

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Why, then, had writing this final installment been so slow given that ultimately there was little to talk about? Oh, you’re asking the same question my bosses do. Well, just when I thought it had run its course I received a message from one of the players that he had publicly accused of match-fixing. They asked about my interactions with Yarabeu, which as you’ll now know were mostly ridiculous, and what I had made of him. I was candid and then asked why he wanted to know. He told me that his organization had been approached by Yarabeu, or as he called him “the ESIC guy”, and that he had said he had proof of some of their players fixing matches.

“We offered to help him investigate,” they said, “but since he didn’t want to do anything for free, we said that if we have evidence to ban our player we could pay, but the evidence he gave is not enough in general to do something to the player…We didn’t pay him and now he says we will not get any invites [to tournaments]. Would you like to help open this situation publicly and show who this person is?”

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Oh, go on then.

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