Let me start with a classic horror story from my college days, the kind everyone from my generation has. Back then, learning how to be an adult was essentially down to trial and error. The internet was still relatively new and certainly too costly to justify having in a student house. As such you just kind of blundered along learning about things as they lurched out of the unforeseen future and smashed your teeth in.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by Dexerto.
One such lesson I learned was never live in a place with a token electricity meter. These make you pay for the juice in advance via a card you add credit to. Run out of credit? No electricity for you, although they usually give you a tiny bit of emergency reserve that can be activated via pressing a button, so good news about keeping Grammie’s life support machine going for a few more hours till you can hustle down to a petrol station first thing in the morning. They are installed at a property when it has a high turnover of tenants and the Juice Dispensing Corporation don’t want to deal with chasing up those with outstanding debts who have disappeared into the night. I didn’t think too much about it when I moved into my first place with the first friends I’d made during the trial-by-halls-of-residence.
We’d be watching a movie and then CLUNK – everything would shut down. “Wes, go and press the emergency button, mate,” and we’d laugh as a glowing ember of a spliff would float down the pitch-black hallway, cursing with each stubbed toe and cracked shin. It was just one of the house rituals, like the rota for making tea or the combination of closed doors for when someone was getting laid. You make it work and you don’t think too much about it beyond that.
End of that year’s first term and we all say our farewells to go back to our families and friends and whatever semblance of a normal life we left behind. I was the first one back, arriving on a cold afternoon to a house with no power. Emergency button not working. Must have been on emergency when we left. No worries, straight to the shop, top up the card and then put the kettle on. Then the horror… fully powered up I opened the fridge and was hit by the same foul gust that must have greeted those who pilfered Egyptian tombs in antiquity. It had been left fully stacked and in the absence of power everything inside had rotted over the period of weeks we’d been away. The mould and mildew found a good friend in the matter and it had spread black fur over every surface. Then I saw the movement, a shimmering on the bottom shelf. Life.
What had been rump steak was now a slurry that had birthed hundreds of maggots that were thriving in this new environment of cultures. As well as learning about this quirk of living with token meters this is also how I learned that the fly eggs are already on the meat. I closed the door and between dry heaves started about solving the problem. I had to lift the bastard thing, praying that its contents wouldn’t spill out over me, and take it to the bottom of the garden where later that evening I would flip it on its side and fill it with bleach. It stayed there until the day we moved out.
Why I am telling you this and making you nauseous? Well, there are few reasons. The first is I am obviously both pretentious and self-indulgent, no better than those games journalists that want to write about anything other than their assignment. I’m just kidding of course, hold off on those new hit pieces, kids. Also, they’ve already given me the lifetime achievement award. They can’t take it back, no matter what I write now.
The most important reason is that it is an allegory that has served me well in my time in esports, one that shouldn’t need to be explained but evidently does since no-one ever learns anything in this business. It is that when things are left unchecked in a sealed environment, terrible things will happen and happen at rapid pace. If there are no checks and balances to greed and selfishness eventually the people who lack the fortitude to resist those urges will destroy everything around them, including the very thing that served those instincts. Valorant is rapidly becoming filled with such people.
I got thinking about this after my own recent experience of being falsely accused of not only journalistic malpractice but also being a Machiavellian figure that can control the global market forces of esports with his keyboard. The allegation was that in 2014 I had taken a bribe from a team owner to write a story about a rival team that had inarguably engaged in match-fixing. My motivation for that story, one that almost ruined my career because no-one believed it despite the overwhelming evidence, had to be a financial one. The outcome of that article, that no one except myself and the person cutting me the paycheck could foresee, set off a chain of events that enabled the signatory to win a CS:GO major four years later. Paul Atreides was a fucking amateur.
This insane story has been spread as a direct result of an influx of players to Valorant, some of whom have already paid the price for match-fixing, and many others from the lower tiers of North American CS who are suspected of engaging in the same behaviour. It has generated much chatter, most of it serving a very clear purpose. Currently the Esports Integrity Commission is investigating those claims and no-one knows exactly what will come tumbling out of that particular refrigerator. No-one knows anything and yet everyone is talking, which is a description of American esports in a nutshell.
Many NA esports competitors at their core have the same instincts of curtain-twitching bored housewives… They simply can’t wait to tell you some fantastical story about their neighbours that exists in the twilight zone between fact and complete fabrication. And they’ll do it for 50 Twitch subs a time as well as all the clout they can muster from it. Even as they rake in millions of dollars they never lose this pathetic desperation for relevance and status. More importantly it is essential that their fans know that they are not only right but infallible. We’d never lie to you. Thanks for the Prime. Meanwhile they are sharing information about rival team practices with heavy esports bettors and cozying up to owners of skins casinos for off the books sponsorships. Got to get that bread.
So why not retcon history about the most significant instance of match-fixing in Western esports and dismiss it as a contrivance to make people money? After all, this is what motivates them. Why not say that someone who stated what they knew on the record was coerced? After all, they are moral cowards and this could be the only thing that would move them to do the right thing. The fact that even a cursory glance at the timeline of events would show how absurd this is, that in fact the story’s origin came as a direct result of the stupidity of the player that we’re now being told had his career prematurely ended, should have ended it as a topic of discussion. But no. There’s no time for facts. The priority is constructing a framework where everyone else but the players are the bad guys and the decision to cheat or throw a match is just another decision you make that day. Journalists? Corrupt. Team Owners? Corrupt. Games Developers? Engaged in covering up the corruption. Players? It’s complicated, man…
I’ve seen this happen many times before. The new game, the new scene, the claim that there’s “no rules” or “established norms.” Like hipster vikings they move from scene to scene pillaging it for all they can before they get word of the next big score. The developers say: “Hey look we made a great game that people will be playing forever because we’re geniuses” they proclaim while the hordes strip the copper wire from the walls. Esports to them is a marketing tool, which you think would make it a priority yet they do nothing to preserve or protect it. If you’re a fan of Valorant this should worry you immensely. There is no doubt that US based esports organisations have made their decision about what FPS title they will be investing in. They’ve already poisoned the ecosystem with their Venture Capital, inflating the salaries and buyouts they will be complaining about in a year and working together to suppress in two. They’re going to offer opportunities to people who don’t deserve them, weak-willed bums who would rather spend a year being a big fish in a small pond, more interested in their bank balance and personal brand than competitive excellence. Some of them are even going to have got away with huge ethical violations and potential crimes in one scene. What do you think happens next if there’s no oversight?
Remember when some of the Call of Duty personalities came a calling to Counter-Strike? “Neat game guys, love these skins and the fact we can use Valve’s API to make unregulated gambling sites. We are absolutely not just here for the money.” It created a fundamental change in the culture of the game turning a generation of teenage morons into degenerate gamblers and DDOS scripters. It showed players there were other pathways to making money, ones much easier than hard work and dedication. Those counting the dollars won’t agree with me that it wasn’t worth it.
Despite Valorant being in its infancy it is already under siege from those who want to use the burgeoning professional scene simply as a conduit for their own financial gain. Take for example the story of Ardis ‘Ardiis’ Svarenieks who was accused of potential match-fixing. Riot are said to have investigated the allegations and have cleared the player. Much rejoicing about a job well done. Of course for that rejoicing to take place you have to ignore the fact that there is a recording of the player discussing match-fixing with potential suitors where he says “I was always down to do it for you, yeah, but you all pissed me off.”
So apparently because there was no evidence he actually did anything means people like me are never supposed to mention the incident again. Getting recorded discussing match fixing or failing to report an approach carries a ban in most sports. Here the punishment was being recruited by G2 Esports.
This type of story is going to be one of many. This is true not just because the players engaging in this conduct are utter morons and leave a paper-trail so brazen any disgruntled member of the collective can simply leak it publicly and it will be a slam dunk. If the amateur hour paper trails aren’t enough they always have to talk about it. What good is getting away with something if no-one knows you were so clever?
I’ve called out Riot Games for overreach many times in the past. It was fair and accurate criticism. What else can you say about a company that banned a high profile player for a year because he criticized the design of a skin? They abused their position in the industry multiple times and have gone after anyone who has plainly stated that fact. They tell me that they are changing, that the frat-boy tyrants who thought the esports industry belonged to them have gone or are soon to be pushed out amid revelations of other internal abuses. I am no rube so I of course will only believe it when I see it but I will at least offer some free advice that I am almost certain they will not heed.
Right now the developing Valorant scene is being constructed by failures, profiteers, liars and the terminally greedy. This is manifestly true and readily observed. There has been an influx of players who are treating Valorant not just as a new venture for them to apply their talents but as a haven to avoid consequences for their past transgressions. You have hugely popular organizations co-signing and normalizing that type of behaviour. The money that is about to be pumped into the scene, combined with global attention, will accelerate growth but in the absence of tangible consequences for wrongdoing it will also lead to scandal after scandal, most of it undermining the integrity of the scene you hope to build and pissing in the face of the fans you hope to retain.
You need a dedicated esports integrity team with investigative capacity and a commissioner for publicly communicating decisions and findings. You need to publish a code of conduct that incorporates penalties for betting, cheating, match-fixing, association with match-fixers and failure to report match fixing approaches. You need to ensure that no organization or player has any ties to any unregulated betting sites. And, while I advocate for fresh starts, you need to pay close attention to the results of any ESIC investigations and make a decision about whether or not you can live with these types of players being the early faces of your sport.
We’re paying a heavy price for it in Counter-Strike, though maybe not by the metrics you would use. I see it more and more. The pandemic has thrown up a world where we play the same online matches on endless repeat to bored fans. We’ve had dozens of coaches banned for cheating and there are more to come. Our semi-pro scene is riddled with match-fixing and there’s no-one to investigate it. The one entity that can investigate it had to admit defeat of systemic stream-sniping and declare a do-over. Don’t let the viewership numbers fool you. Our scene is a precarious late game of Jenga and I don’t know how many more bricks it has before it comes crashing down.
Valorant has had a hugely promising start and many are rubbing their hands at the prospect of it being “the next big esport TM.” Nothing wrong with that. That’s pretty much all our business is when you get down to it. Many more are rubbing their hands at the prospect of yet another Wild West style frontier. The choice for your scene is a simple one. Address these things now or get ready to carry it to the bottom of the garden.