Bugs, Bans, and Bets: The Imperfections of the Esports Integrity Commission

Patrick Ronan

Esports—a blanket term for the vast and diverse ecosystem of professional gaming—are expected to generate over $1 billion in revenue for the first time this year.[1]  Such financial growth (and the venture capital interest it has spurred) increases the stakes for the competition underlying the industry and, like any other professional sport, requires a robust system to ensure the integrity of professional matches.  Enter the Esports Integrity Commission ("ESIC"), an independent regulatory commission formed in 2016 that oversees member events across several different esports titles. 

So, how does ESIC work? ESIC operates as a Members-Association, in which different Esports stakeholders—such as tournament organizers, betting operators, and government bodies—pay dues in exchange for ESIC to investigate and prosecute any instances of cheating, match-fixing, or doping at member events.[2]  Esports present unique problems to any potential regulator, and so having a dedicated commission to Esports integrity separate from traditional sports integrity commissions is necessary.  For example, unlike traditional sports, the games that are played as Esports are created and owned by individual game publishers.  These publishers, such as Valve for CS:GO and Riot Games for League of Legends, have tremendous influence over competitive play and often have the last say on any bans or punishments for violations of rules.  ESIC's authority (and existence as a whole) then is ultimately beholden to the game publishers.

But, when things go smoothly for ESIC, the system can be appealing.  For example, ESIC swiftly investigated and prosecuted the coaches who exploited CS:GO's Spectator Bug in 2020.  ESIC combed through hundreds of hours of game footage to identify the coaches who exploited the bug and assigned demerit points on a four-tier scale according to the severity of the cheating.[3]  ESIC also had an appeals process in place for coaches to challenge their sanctions, which in a few cases led to reversals.[4]  At the end of the investigation, ESIC forwarded their findings and recommendations to Valve, the developer of CS:GO, who ratified the bans on January 27, 2021.[5]  Here, the independent integrity system worked great; ESIC used the efforts and resources that tournament organizers and developers either didn't have or didn't want to expend to investigate and punish coaches cheating in professional matches.

While ESIC has made some progress in cracking down on Esports integrity violations, the commission still has some fundamental issues it has yet to iron out.  The biggest problem stems from the fact that ESIC's members and their tournaments and operations span across six continents and dozens of Esports titles.  While it's difficult to know exactly how large or well-funded ESIC is, it is highly unlikely that ESIC has the resources or expertise to properly address every issue that comes up. 

On the expertise point, it's important to note that each Esports title is vastly different and complex in terms of its culture, rules, and common integrity issues.  Any potential regulator needs to be well-versed in the nuances of the game to accurately determine if a violation has occurred and the proper punishment for said violation.  In this aspect, ESIC has drawn some skepticism from Esports fans, most recently after ESIC issued a two-year ban on the Heroic coach Hunden for sharing his team's "anti-strat" material with a competing team.[6]  The incident involved very CS:GO specific material and an act of sharing that Hunden contends is common practice among CS:GO coaches.[7]  When questioned about whether there was a need for CS:GO experts to look at the material in question to ensure it was indeed an integrity violation, ESIC's commissioner Ian Smith, a former sports lawyer specializing in Cricket, disagreed.  "Getting into the weeds of exactly what is in a file . . . from an ESIC perspective is not the point at all."[8]

So, how can the regulation of Esports integrity be improved?  One option is having the game developers take on a larger role in monitoring the Esports competition on their titles.  The game developer could act as the equivalent of the MLB for baseball, having a dedicated integrity committee investigating and adjudicating conflicts and violations.  With such a system, players, fans, and sponsors alike would have faith in knowing that the regulators really do know the complexities of the issues they are dealing with and have the ultimate authority to enforce bans.

Another improvement could come from ESIC itself in increasing their transparency and creating independent committees dedicated to the major titles it regulates.  ESIC has already taken an important step in this direction by recently launching a "Transparency Initiative" after public criticism from fans and players.[9] 

Lastly, Esports integrity regulation maybe just needs more time.  Many of these investigations and scandals are matters of first impression.  Over time, more Esports-dedicated regulators and lawyers, rather than simply traditional sports lawyers extending their practice to Esports, will emerge with a better understanding of the nuances of the industry's issues.  As more money pours into Esports, tournament organizers, betting operators, and game developers will become more sophisticated and set stricter standards to ultimately create a more principled and trustworthy game.


[1] “Esports Ecosystem 2021:  The Key Industry Companies and Trends Growing the Esports Market,” Insider Intelligence (Aug. 3, 2021), https://www.insiderintelligence.com/insights/esports-ecosystem-market-report/.

[2] See https://esic.gg/about/.

[3] See Emma Matthews, "37 CS:GO Coaches Have Been Banned for Abusing the Spectator Bug," Sept. 28, 2020, https://www.pcgamer.com/37-csgo-coaches-have-been-banned-for-abusing-the-spectator-bug/.

[4] See Nosa Omoigui, "CS:GO Coach Georgiev Wins ESIC Appeal Over 'Spectator Bug' Cheating Claims," June 16, 2021, https://igamingbusiness.com/csgo-coach-georgiev-wins-esic-appeal-over-spectator-bug-cheating-claims/.

[5] See https://blog.counter-strike.net/index.php/2021/01/32375/.

[6] See https://esic.gg/sanction-outcome/esic-issues-2-year-ban-to-nicolai-hunden-petersen-for-breach-of-esic-code-of-conduct/.

[7] See https://twitter.com/hundencsgo/status/1420367122782429192.

[8] "Hunden Ban Explained in Detail, NA & AU Matchfixing Scandals," HLTV Confirmed, at 18:06, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jh6gGfUyJMg&t=1214s.

[9] See https://esic.gg/press-release/esic-launches-transparency-initiative-to-bolster-visibility-of-investigative-work-and-outcomes/.