Match-fixing goes digital

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COMPETITIVE video-gaming, collectively known as eSports, is surging in popularity, packing out stadiums from Germany to South Korea, and attracting a global audience of almost 400m. The industry is worth $700m annually, according to Newzoo, a market-intelligence firm, a figure expected to rise to $1.5bn by 2020. And where there is money in sport, so there is corruption and betting—already an estimated $40bn annually, 90% of it illegal.

The first eSports-fixing scandal was in 2010, when South Korean players threw professional matches for financial gain. Last year Lee “Life” Seung-hyun, one of the biggest names in eSports, was convicted for his part in a series of fixes in Starcraft 2, a science-fiction strategy game. He was banned for life fromeSports in South Korea. The case was uncovered by a police investigation into illegal gambling that stumbled across eSports-fixing, rather than eSports organisers attempting to ensure clean play.

Fixing in eSports is a mix of old and new. Players can be paid to underperform in time-honoured fashion. Or they can be paid in “skins”—decorative frills that have no bearing on gameplay. These can be cashed out, like casino chips. Gambling with skins happens on unregulated sites, making it easier for fixers to avoid detection. In 2014 several players on Counterstrike, a shooter game, used skins to bet against themselves and deliberately lost, making more than the prize money. There are new ways to tilt the outcome, too, says David Forrest of the University of Liverpool, such as strategically timed internet glitches.

ESports has no governing body. But in 2015 the biggest games formed the eSports Integrity Coalition to crack down on fixing. Gambling firms have started to certify hardware and software before competitions, in the hope of rooting out technological malfeasance. Raising awareness among players is also essential—though hard, says Ian Smith, the coalition’s head. They can “go from playing in their parents’ basement to playing in a $5m tournament in six months”.

Traditional sports still offer higher returns to fixers. But perhaps not for long. By 2020 the total bet on eSports is expected to exceed $150bn a year. “ESports betting is increasingly attractive to the kind of people that eSports does not want attracted to it,” says Mr Smith. Regulators in football, cricket, tennis and the like know how that feels.