Scrutinizing the ESIC “whistleblower”: Going down the rabbit hole

esports pros compete on stageAdela Sznajder/ESL Gaming via ESPAT & Valve

Dexerto’s Editor-at-Large Richard Lewis begins to untangle the web of claims made by Aleksey ‘Yarabeu’ Kurlov, the disgruntled former ESIC employee who claimed he wanted to expose that esports is rife with match-fixing.

You can read Part 1 of this article series, “Scrutinizing the ESIC “whistleblower”: The first contact”, here.

While it was clear that Yarabeu had a burning desire to talk to people about his experiences, I had assumed there would be at least some kind of restraint on how many people he spoke to and the nature of the allegations he made. As it turned out, he was talking to almost any outlet that would spare him the time, and his allegations grew increasingly specific, despite the fact that they seemingly couldn’t be substantiated.

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Once they had verified the emails, republished the blog in its entirety. The general reaction from the users of that site was muted, with most seemingly concluding that the blog was light on details for its length and that there was mostly little new information in it. Yet the three months Yarabeu had worked at ESIC had lent him a kind of credibility, so the assumption was that he would have had access to lots of information the rest of us wouldn’t. I knew of a number of journalists that entered into conversation with him but weren’t exactly champing at the bit to publish what those conversations had entailed.
Yarabeu (right) appeared on a podcast, where he made allegations about specific teams and players

Eventually, he would go on a lengthy live podcast with Belarusian CS:GO commentator Konstantin ‘LENINIW’ Sivko. Here, the number of allegations that he would make was almost too many to count, and he wasn’t shy about naming people, either. LENINIW himself posted a summary of the allegations on the CS:GO subreddit, but it was subsequently deleted as the moderation team wants to discourage witch-hunting of players. These allegations included the claims that:

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  • Ukrainian player Volodymyr ‘Woro2k’ Veletnyuk has played for a number of teams banned by bookmakers.
  • All Chinese teams are corrupt when it comes to match-fixing in esports.
  • TYLOO, Lynn Vision, Fun Spark and D13 all have shared ownership.
  • Relog Media run “fake tournaments” where they provide no-delay streams to enable teams to fix outcomes.
  • Kazakh player Ramazan ‘Ramz1k’ Başizov intentionally lost matches and now owns teams that engage in similar activities.
  • Akuma used the “radar hack” method during the EPIC Esports CIS Region RMR qualifier event for the PGL Stockholm Major. ESIC did issue some penalties for strange betting patterns around their matches that resulted in the recommendation to all partners that any team made up of three or more of the players be prevented from entering their competitions.
  • Ukrainian player Igor ‘w0nderful’ Zhdanov has participated in fixed matches, something Yarabeu says he determined during an ESIC investigation by looking at his bank account statements and seeing a disparity in salary claims.

It is worth noting that during the course of the podcast, there wasn’t a single piece of corroborating evidence presented for anything Yarabeu said. In addition to claims of precise details, there were a number of vague intimations made about other teams and players. For example, he said that the former Copenhagen Flames team was “weird” because they could win at LAN events but would lose regularly in online competition, implying that it could be deliberate.

He also stated that he knew of a “critical vulnerability” within CS:GO that players could exploit for an advantage but couldn’t do anything about it as he had no means to contact Valve —  an endeavor that would be easy enough for a member of the general public, let alone someone who worked at ESIC.

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So incredible were these claims media sites jumped all over the contents of the broadcast and, because reporting standards aren’t exactly high in the space, they added their own embellishments. For example, a list of players published by CIS publication CSGO HS was then tweeted by Turkish website Esporkolik, and that tweet subsequently went viral. The problem with that? The list of player names was obtained by going through the rosters of teams Yarabeu had mentioned in passing and there was no distinction made between the players he made hard allegations about and teams, such as Copenhagen Flames, he had made mere observations about.

This scattergun approach to allegations was a problem for me, especially now that it was likely innocent players were being accused due to the shortcomings of social media-based reporting, where engagement and shares are prioritized over quality. I even asked him about this list of players that was now doing the rounds and he said they were wrong to include a number of names.

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“I never talked about HooXi or degster,” he said. “They [CSGO HS] used [their names] to hype it up. I was a participant in a podcast in which they cut a lot of phrases and tried to twist them. I gave some names and teams, but they twisted it.”

He stood by his claims about other players he specifically named. I asked if he had any concerns about potential legal action for defamation. He was bullish.

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“Let them file [lawsuits], [I will] ask them where they got the Rolex and ask for their tax statements along with the turnover on their bank accounts.”

As expected, the denials from the players specifically named have been swift. In CS:GO especially, allegations of match-fixing are often leveled at players from vitriolic bettors whose tickets didn’t come in. This has been the case for years and with so many players having their DMs open on platforms like Twitter for reasons I’ll never understand, the threats and abuse are both prolific and intense.

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Of course, the innocent players haven’t been helped at all by the guilty, many of whom have operated so brazenly that even in the absence of hard evidence their reputations as match-fixers are cemented. People have become comfortable now making the type of allegation that would have at one time been shocking and therefore reserved. As such, players no longer wish to kill these allegations with silence.

Woro2k posted on Telegram: “Let them throw at least one proof so that they catch me [guilty] of fraud. Why doesn’t he provide proof if he knows everything about me? Let him call me the labels that are forbidden and the rest.”

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Dmitry ‘Dima’ Bandurka also posted on VK following the claims made on the podcast, saying: “HAHAHAHAHAHA, right now I’m watching Lenin’s podcast on my stream and I’m laughing out loud from this invited former ESIC employee. IN [MY] LIFE I have never done 322 [fixed matches], no radar, no gotv, no information or agreements. Zero scams, my conscience and reputation are fully clear, I have always played honestly and I give all my best.”

degster, who Yarabeu said he didn’t even name, reacted to the supposed allegation on Telegram with: “I’ve seen all sorts of news about fixed matches. They wrote that degster might be [involved]. Of course, I didn’t see what this dude was saying, but, man, if you really said that, what an *** you are. “Perhaps”, I “participated in something” – yes, yes, I’ve been living alone since I was 15, without parents, for the sake of 322 [meaning fixed] matches. [Damn], what an abomination.”

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Stephanie Lindgren/BLAST
degster categorically denied having engaged in match-fixing activities.

Regarding these allegations, I repeatedly asked if he had any hard evidence that would conclusively demonstrate that any of the players were indeed guilty of participating in fixed matches. Obviously, the evidentiary standard is incredibly high and would require multiple pieces. Betting data alone isn’t enough, testimony alone isn’t enough, it’s incredibly easy to manipulate screenshots, and betting websites protect data, making it impossible for anyone without internal access to know who actually did what. This is becoming even more difficult to track with the advent of cryptocurrency-based bookmakers. When it comes to evading being caught, the odds remain staggeringly in favor of match-fixers, even ones that seemingly make their activities obvious.

“Yes, of course I do [have hard evidence], but let’s change the subject…”

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I didn’t want to, so I asked again.

“You can ask me the nickname of a player you are interested in, and I will name the match he lost for money and the date.”

Since w0nderful was named specifically, I asked what evidence he had that this player had engaged in match-fixing.

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“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.”

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A body of work

Let’s pause there for a moment before we explore those allegations further and look at Yarabeu’s claimed experience. It’s clear enough to me, based on everything he said publicly and everything we talked about personally, that he has been in and around match-fixing circles for some time. To what level of aptitude and how highly connected it’s not possible to say. I mentioned earlier that his original blog was sure to mention some key names in CIS match-fixing lore. Indeed, he claimed that the website he worked at had caught the now infamous throw by Dota 2 player Alexey ‘Solo’ Berezin, the man responsible for the term “322” as slang for match-fixing due to that being the amount in dollars returned for losing a match he had bet on himself to lose.

He said that he worked with banned Starcraft 2 player Pavel ‘Revolver’ Belov in a scheme that was netting him “10,000 dollars at a time” before it was caught and shut down. While the timeline of this claim wasn’t made clear, Revolver was banned by Blizzard in 2017 for impersonating a broadcaster and trying to influence another player to “collude on matches for monetary gain”. The alleged amount he stood to gain was reputedly only $100, a strange amount to risk a career for someone supposedly used to raking in thousands of dollars from past fixing activities.

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These names would be known to even many casual fans as they are woven into the fabric of the esports scene. Name-dropping them wouldn’t require someone to be an insider, and it also serves the benefit of piquing someone’s interest. That said, I’m inclined to agree with the initial consensus on the blog. It was long but light on details and dates, and yet, if it was to be believed in its entirety, it would make the author something equivalent to the Forrest Gump of CIS match-fixing: Always in the right place as history, even of the dubious sort, was made.

I’ve been writing about esports match-fixing for over a decade, so allow me to editorialize for a moment. In my experience, whenever you interview someone who tells you they are guilty, they never want to be guilty of only something insignificant. If I were to take every person I interviewed at face value, the only people who ever confessed were kingpins, never footsoldiers. The reality, of course, is a lot more mundane: People who brazenly break rules have enough of a narcissistic streak to self-aggrandize. They know that if their legacy must be a shameful one, then they’d rather be the most shameful as opposed to the least. There’s a sizeable industry in paying criminals to talk about their escapades to the point of borderline glorification, all the while insisting that crime doesn’t pay. I approach every interview I do on this topic with this in mind, that the hustle didn’t end the second they decided to stop match-fixing.

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There’s also always a repeated modus operandi in these conversations, too. You take an established fact and you claim involvement, unique knowledge, or add an embellishment to the story that supposedly only someone who was there could know. Typically, this is done for the purpose of synthesizing credibility. For example, if you want someone to give you money for the purposes of fixed matches, you tell them about all your many successes, and show them betting slips and suchlike. Did you have insider knowledge they were fixed? Were you the person organizing the fixes? Are you the shadowy fixer with no name the players were whispering about? Hell, you can say whatever you like so long as you can convince the person listening. Greed should do the rest.

“You’re an investigator, have you ever heard of me?” he asked at one time during our conversations. He was right. Despite what is now closing in on two decades working in esports, with well over half of that spent on reporting about the things everyone would rather ignore, I had never heard of this individual, not even in passing.

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“Before my blog, I don’t think so,” he continued. “However, many team managers had my nickname in the list — [for] match-fixing. I am blocked in the GRID system officially for leaking information — check it out, they will confirm, [REDACTED] is my Skype. Investigate, contact Parimatch, 1xBet, Marathonbet, or any other by mail. Do you know what you will find? All accounts are blocked for endless betting on suspicious matches, and you know what else? All accounts are not under my name, but the mail is mine. Contact Stepan Shulga [Head of Esports at Parimatch] and ask him how he caught me and my company in SC2. Find tournament organizer HPL [Hot Price League], and explore the scandal associated with it. It is also my project. I took part there.”

Blizzard EntertainmentBlizzard Entertainment
Yarabeu claims that he is associated with match-fixing in StarCraft 2

I did take the time to contact Shulga and ask if he had any recollection of the events as described by Yarabeu. He said there wasn’t much history there and made it sound far less dramatic.

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“I know him from the news going around, and we have a private conversation on Telegram. I’m sure that [the] described schemes with SC2 existed. We stopped such parlays on fake tournaments a few years ago. We never met before but some information from him seems to be true.”

I asked about the specifics of Yarabeu’s supposed scheme that was enabling him and his partners to bring in ten thousand dollars a time.

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“A few years ago we discovered strange parlays in [the] system,” he said. “It was like ‘pre-made’, ideally before all games. Something like in the film “Back to the Future”. It was small tournaments, that usually come from Liquipedia. Some prize pool, [but] very low, Korean names, some sponsors that were strange, like a book shop from SEA or something like that. And most interesting of all the games were live on Twitch but were being cast from demo files. The organizers said, ‘It’s common practice, nobody wants to see games early in the morning.’ We even tried to speak with players, and they said strange things as well.

“Generally, a) someone made the tournament; b) scheduled it on Liquipedia; c) made it look like a real tournament with even some [popular] names; d) games played and results are known by someone [in advance]; e) games are broadcast as live but were played 5-6 hours earlier; f) parlays are settled upon existing results.

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“I’m not sure that it was [Yarabeu] personally. All my questions were to the tournament organizer. We spoke with [Yarabeu] a week ago and he said that it was “his work” but I have no evidence here.”

So, as it happened, Shulga only knew the name from the recent furor around Yarabeu’s claims and said that, while he had indeed shut down a particular method of Starcraft 2 match-fixing, there was nothing to directly tie Yarabeu to involvement. If you believe that knowledge of the method means that he must have had some involvement then you probably weren’t paying attention to how bad things had got in Starcraft 2 from 2015 onwards. The type of fixing method described wasn’t exactly a secret. There were a variety of methods being employed by the match fixers in smaller tournaments at that time, and much of it became very public. There’s even a Liquipedia entry about it that names me as having been sent evidence about this, which was indeed the case. But as is the lament down the years, it didn’t meet the evidentiary standards for publication. In short, anyone could go and read this and claim they’d been involved and got away with it.

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I had asked Yarabeu to detail the work he did during his brief stint with ESIC. He sent me a detailed list of all the cases he claimed to have worked on, and all of them shared a common thread. Suspicious activity, allegations becoming investigations, yet irrefutable proof always seemed to elude him. It was also strange to read as both he and I had covered much of the same ground. He had investigated stories I’d been making notes on, in some cases for years. With one or two exceptions, his caseload was essentially an epitaph for all the stories I could never get over the line for publication. But now he had made many of them public, an action that actually only made it more likely the people involved would work harder at covering their tracks and tying up any loose ends. It was contrary to everything he said he wanted to achieve.

It was also becoming increasingly clear that attempting to use anything from him I might be able to verify wasn’t going to help with anything linked to the bigger picture. There just weren’t enough details for me to follow up on, and despite claims to the contrary, the depiction of himself as some well-known match-fixing operative didn’t seem to be accurate. All signs pointed to him being someone that had managed to parlay limited knowledge about match-fixing into a six-figure job who then inexplicably decided that this wasn’t enough to satisfy his ego.

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What I wanted then was for him to be able to demonstrate evidence of just a single match-fixing incident as this would at least afford him some credibility in the eyes of the community and also justify the use of my time to investigate the many claims he had already made. It was always going to be highly unlikely that anything came from this at all, so nailing down at least one match fixer would have at least made some sort of difference.

I chose a name at random from the list of players he had specifically called out. w0nderful seemed like the best one to ask about as not only was he playing for a CS:GO team that was ranked 12th in the world at the time of his allegations, but they had just come off a miracle run at the Major in Antwerp that saw them make it to the semi-finals. Yet despite repeated claims of having hard evidence and having said both publicly and privately he wanted to expose these people, he was very reluctant to share anything he claimed to have.

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“All I see so far is that you want to make news on my information instead of using it to start more investigations as a base of information,“ he said. “You are not asking me how the system was set up on the team, how many players were involved, how many matches were lost or won. You are interested specifically in hype on a t1 player.”

I didn’t have the heart to point out the irony of what he was saying.

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