Scrutinizing the ESIC “whistleblower”: The first contact
In a new article series, Dexerto’s Editor-at-Large Richard Lewis takes a deep dive into the wild claims made by a former ESIC employee about the organization and its alleged uninterest in seeing investigations through.
The past week has seen a flurry of reporting around claims made by someone framing themselves as a whistleblower from inside the Esports Integrity Commission (ESIC). The initial wave of headlines made claims about the nature of ESIC’s business, framing them as dishonest actors more concerned with profiteering than preventing match-fixing. This led to very specific allegations of match-fixing from teams and players alike, particularly from Ukraine and Russia. And of course, this led to subsequent denials and attempts to impugn the whistleblower’s reputation.
Before this happened, several things had been widely established anyway. The first and most obvious is that esports has an unfathomably deep problem with match-fixing globally, so much so that not even the official entities that police it have a grasp of its true scope. Second, ESIC are woefully ill-equipped to battle this problem and have not so much bitten off more than they could chew but rather they’ve ended up like a python that bursts itself trying to swallow a whole donkey. Thirdly, in the world of match-fixing, there are many types of dishonest actors, and nothing can ever be taken at face value.
As if all of this wasn’t enough to contend with, few regions have a higher distaste for ESIC’s work than the one encompassing both Russia and Ukraine. In a community that has always been something of a law unto itself when it comes to esports, many prominent parties were skeptical about recognizing ESIC’s assumed authority. That shaky foundation was eroded when then forZe coach Sergey ‘lmbt’ Bezhanov had a ban overturned after maintaining his innocence the whole time. (He later told Dexerto that ESIC only began investigating his case after he was already banned).
Then, when actively petitioned by the teams competing at the EPIC League’s regional qualifier event for the PGL Stockholm Major to investigate one of the competitors, Team Akuma, ESIC still failed to act. Tensions then peaked when the rising Team Spirit saw their coach hit with a ban just days before the Major in Antwerp. The infraction that Sergey ‘hally’ Shavaev was “guilty” of was certainly a lesser offense by comparison to the many coaches that were banned for lengthy time periods in 2020, and many felt that the additional penalty of him missing a Major simply because ESIC had stalled their investigation seemed additionally punitive. Team Spirit’s lengthy letter to the community poisoned what little goodwill was left, the icing on the cake coming when hally’s ban was overturned after the Major anyway.
In general terms, there are many with plenty to gain from ESIC’s credibility being shot in this part of the world. It is rife with match-fixing across most of the popular esports titles, and sportsbooks do little to prevent it. With so many skeletons in so many closets, having the one entity likely to ever open those doors declared incompetent by plausible voices is one way of evading scandal. It is my strong suspicion that the reason ESIC’s investigative work has slowed to a snail’s pace is that they themselves recognize the potential dangers of any more high-profile mistakes or retractions.
It is worth taking all that in mind as we peruse the allegations. At the time of writing, they had made little impact in the Western esports media, but the former ESIC employee continues to court the attention of as many journalists as possible. I was one of those journalists, and I have spent my time trying to carefully sift through his many claims to establish fact from fiction and reality from suspicion. What I instead got was a series of frustrating exchanges from someone who seemed more interested in being publicly credited as another would-be savior of esports without actually being able to provide much in the way of substantive evidence to validate any of his claims.
The first contact
On Thursday, October 13, a user blog was posted on the Russian esports news website Cybersport.ru. It was visible for a few minutes before being taken down, presumably by the website’s administration team. (The blog post has since been put back up.) A contact of mine was able to copy its contents and send them to me, explaining that they would be of great interest to me. The blog had been written by a little-known figure in the CIS esports scene called Aleksey ‘Yarabeu’ Kurlov, who was claiming to be a former ESIC employee that wanted to expose not only their ineffectiveness but also just how widespread the match-fixing problem was across esports.
The allegations made in the blog would be accurately characterized as largely established. Certainly, for anyone who has been following the trajectory of ESIC or reports of match-fixing in esports there would be no surprises here. ESIC have been overwhelmed and ineffective? The Chinese betting market is rife with corruption? Obtaining irrefutable evidence of match-fixing is so difficult as to be nearly impossible? Well, color me shocked. What was of interest was that finally there was someone seemingly from within ESIC willing to talk about the scope of the task they have set for themselves and the organization’s shortcomings.
Yarabeu detailed the story of how he was recruited by ESIC. A lengthy preamble that read like a who’s-who of Russian esports match-fixing that also served as a confession to his own match-fixing activities that he engaged in while working an entry-level position at IP.pokerlite.ru. He explained something that is already well established in esports circles: many employees at betting sites with less than stellar reputations use the information they obtain to protect their business for the purposes of self-enrichment.
“Fake bets and fraudulent events… some of the company’s employees were interested in personal enrichment. As we were the monopolists on the market of esports betting, not only in CIS, but also in the world for a long time, all the cheaters stuck to us. We caught Alexey Solo Berezin and failed to catch Vladimir PGG Anosov, but they are only a small part of the number that came to our watering hole. Anyway, working all the time with stakes, numbers and teams I started to build up my own database of cheating players, teams and the people they collaborate with. I was identifying employees of other companies, siblings, and friends of esportsmen, making connections and generally developing a database and a system of protection for my bets, so as not to have my accounts blocked ten times… While I was gathering this database to protect, some employees were gathering it to attack and as I am quite a sociable person, one day one of these employees in conversation offered me the opportunity to “make money on the side” . To me, this was no surprise: We had all been to meetings where some bragged about financial successes from other companies, but what did the bosses say? The bosses were happy with the answer: ‘We’re robbing the competition, so we do our site a benefit.” And you know, it sounds simple, but it was enough.”
To be fair, if I were running a company that was designed to catch and penalize match-fixers all across the globe, this is the type of person I would consult with. Someone that had been in the mire, knew the mechanics and contacts of how to make dirty bets that were mostly untraceable, and at a later date had a change of heart and now wanted to do the right thing after years of being on the other side.
Unfortunately for both parties, it seemed Yarabeu had very unrealistic expectations about what the work would entail once he came aboard.
“… The main founder, Ian Smith, [was] interested [in hiring me]. We had a couple of talks and he offered me the position of head of investigations but with a consultancy contract for three months. While we were negotiating with him I didn’t stop sending in information about every event I knew or had seen in the time I had just met him. Job secured, I’m head of investigations at a cybersport integrity company on a three-month trial. Now I won’t just be catching cheaters in betting, but in all things cybersport…
When I arrived I was shocked, firstly by the company system from within, secondly by their database, which turned out to be 50 times smaller than mine, thirdly by their knowledge of esports and how to cheat in it, it’s almost mid 2022 and I have to explain what GRID is, what an observer is, how a team can get access to it and win. You’ll say, ‘So what? We don’t all know that either’. But for starters, consider that this method is four years old and that the loudest scandal was with Akuma, which ESIC promised to sort out and that was also based on that.
So the company that promised to sort it out doesn’t even know what it has to sort it out, more than a year later I tell them about it and they just don’t understand what I’m saying or what I’m talking about. Speaking of staff numbers, I came and headed a whole department of investigations related to cheating in ALL of esports. Do you know how many people were in that department before me? Zero, and with me there was one!”
These criticisms deserve some scrutiny. I have reported extensively on ESIC since their inception. I was the first esports reporter to feature their founder, the aforementioned Ian Smith, on a podcast in 2016, and I have done all I can to bolster their work as an external contributor. However, I, too, have been disappointed with the effectiveness and speed at which they operate. It was March 2021 when Smith declared that their report on North American match-fixing in the ESEA league would be published “within the next ten days to two weeks” and we’re still waiting. Many of the accused have gone on to establish careers in other esports titles.
At the other end of the spectrum, ESIC has also been guilty of some “false starts”, having issued bans to CS:GO players and coaches in such a hasty fashion they have had to subsequently walk them back, the worst thing any authoritative body can do. So, while I still believe they are necessary for the long-term success of esports, I am certainly more than aware of the very valid criticisms that can be leveled at them.
Still, Yarabeu’s disappointment seems based largely on a lack of understanding about how niche esports is, even to those coming from a mainstream sports background. While I can agree it would be ridiculous if there was one person heading up investigations for all global match-fixing in esports, why would anyone be surprised that lawyers with little esports experience background struggle to grasp the minutiae of “radar hacking” in CS:GO? Expertise is built over time, and ESIC’s staff are certainly learning from the ground up.
He also claimed to have been “reprimanded” for undertaking investigations without demanding payment, although again this seems rooted in a lack of understanding about the ESIC business model. I’ve seen the subsequent salacious reporting around these claims but they were public knowledge for anyone with even a cursory interest in how they operate. Partners pay a fee to gain access to services such as the monitoring of suspicious betting patterns. Yarabeu’s framing makes it sound like a form of extortion, a tone some other news outlets were quick to pick up on.
“At first I thought I was missing something, then I noticed that in almost three months not a single one of my investigations had been published, not a single person had been punished. I’ve been involved in investigations, I’ve been on calls with witnesses and I’ve also been on calls with game publishers, but it wasn’t to help cybersports [meaning esports], it was to get ESIC’s name out there. So you take a LOUD name – tell companies about it, call them, tell them you know about it and that’s it, you don’t do anything else. Just nothing at all.
At some point, the company’s partners started to ask me questions: What about the investigations? Will there be any information about anything? Can we share with them a list of dishonest teams? And I could not answer them anything because no one was going to answer me.
So the system in ESIC is built so that bookmaker companies and big organisers pay ESIC. ESIC put it in their pocket and think how to put more. It’s a non-profit organisation, by the way. Yes, it was put in my pocket for three months and it was pretty good and could have been put in my pocket for a long time.”
In the next few paragraphs, Yarabeu went on to say that the people that made up ESIC had no interest in really resolving the issues in esports and were more interested in taking money for themselves. The basis for this was his frustration at them having not published a single one of his investigations and that they had taken little to no action on his findings.
When I initially made contact, Yarabeu sent me emails that confirmed he had worked at ESIC. I checked the specifics of his time at the company. A source there familiar with Yarabeu’s work explained to me that his time at ESIC had come to a somewhat acrimonious end.
“As with all people we employ, there was a three-month probationary period in place to review whether or not they would be able to do the job long term,” they explained. “Aleksey was hired to be an investigator, but it became clear during these three months he didn’t understand the necessary legal standard we had to operate under. Many of his investigations amounted to him being told something by a contact, which was a starting point for an investigation rather than a final destination. We explained this to him many times and he would become frustrated and tell us that no further evidence could be acquired. Obviously, when that is the case we cannot take any formal action against someone and can only proceed to monitor their activities.
“In the end, he didn’t meet the required standard to pass his probation,” they continued, “but because we acknowledged his experience and source network could be useful for further investigations we offered him a reduced role, one that would only require him to gather evidence rather than head up formal investigations and report to a new investigations team leader. He took this as an insult and is now enacting what I can only best describe as a professional tantrum. It’s a shame, but it has taught us to be stricter with our hiring criteria.”
This seemed a reasonable explanation, but I still wanted to keep an open mind about the allegations surrounding ESIC specifically. After all, if they intend to be a governing body for integrity issues in esports, they themselves must be above reproach.
When I first spoke with Yarabeu, I asked him about ESIC’s version of events and he disagreed with their characterization, although he did confirm that they had said he was going to have to work under another person.
“I talked to Ian Smith, and his position was, ‘Aleksey, I’m too busy for all the investigations and I don’t want to do it, I need you to cooperate with another person, but you will keep 90% of your duties and do all the things that you did all these three months.’ Does that sound like a downgrade? Or a failure to pass the probationary period? When you retain 90% of the duties but have to work with another person because the first one is busy? No, I wanted to continue working, but after conversations with other employees, I realized that my new duty is to sit in place and get paid, and preferably quietly.”
At times, our initial conversation became relatively heated, and one of his main bugbears was my constant requests for hard evidence for the claims he was making. His point was that if the evidence around the allegations didn’t “fit my standards,” had I ever thought about changing them? I explained that the standards I operated under had not been crafted by myself. They were simply the standard that is expected of any reputable journalist, that serious allegations require evidence. “Maybe because they’re so high you’ll never catch anyone,” he said to me. I told him I shared his frustration with people getting away with things, but that the standards were inflexible. Of course, this being esports, it would turn out that not everyone would agree with that.