What’s driving sports corruption? An interview with Ian Smith, Esports Integrity Commission

May 24, 2022
Driven by the mainstream popularity of online gaming, Esports has become one of the fastest growing sports globally. The industry is forecast to be worth as much as $1.8 billion by the end of 2022.

But as Esports gathers momentum, its growing popularity has attracted a lucrative and unregulated betting market that exposes the sport to the same risks of corruption as more traditional sports. Meanwhile, there remains no central Esports governing body, instead, invigilation is left to competition organisers.

Ian Smith is Integrity Commissioner for the Esports Integrity Commission (ESIC), a non-profit members’ association established in 2016 to promote and facilitate competitive integrity in Esports. As former COO for the Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations, Ian is a “reluctant expert” on issues of sports corruption whose “fundamentals remain the same” from pitch to PC.

Clue joined Ian to talk about the rise of match-fixing in Esports, what factors are driving corruption in sports more broadly, how corruption can be detected in sports, and how – if resources were limitless – we could ensure the integrity of sports.

Watch the full interview above or read the transcript below:

What’s your background in sports integrity? 

So for many years I worked in cricket as the Legal Adviser and Director for the Professional Cricketers Association and then later as the Chief Operating Officer for the Federation of International Cricketers Association – and anyone who knows the history of cricket knows that we have had, over the years a series of scandals primarily relating to match-fixing, which I became a reluctant expert in because at the time that was first emerged in late 1999, I was the only player lawyer representative. I was able to liaise on behalf of all the players in the creation of the Anti Corruption Unit and the rules around the Anti-Corruption Code. So I learned a great deal then.

And then, of course, unfortunately, through the scandals in 2010, onwards, both domestically and internationally. So yes, reluctant expert in something that I never thought I’d I’d ever be delving into, but now have spent the last 12 years of my career doing little else.

Does Esports corruption differ from traditional sports?

It’s very interesting working in two different areas, in fact, three different areas of sport and whether there is an overlap and how corruption affects those things, particularly between Esports and traditional sports, where I worked in cricket and golf, as well as peripherally in football and other sports. And then for the last six and a bit years, primarily in Esports. And the fundamentals are the same. So even if the competition itself differs in certain fundamental respect, the way in which matches are fixed for betting fraud purposes is much the same.

The biggest differences that what you see in Esports, where there’s no governing body is far more opportunistic fixing by players, coaches, teams looking at situations and deciding that in that particular situation, it’s better primarily financially for them to bet against themselves and deliberately lose than it is to win the tournament because it’s meaningless, it has no context and the prize money is small, which doesn’t happen as much in traditional sport where the fixed tends to be by the betters themselves, bribing or otherwise coercing or paying players to create a certain betting outcome. But the mechanism is the same. And we’re seeing more and more and more of that traditional type of match-fixing in Esports that we always saw in cricket.

Who are the victims of sports corruption?  

I’ve always taken the principal victims of sports corruption to be the players themselves. Obviously, from a purely financial point of view, it’s the betting operators’ money that is stolen, right, we understand that and that they are the primary financial victims. But broadly speaking, it’s the players that suffer most and this is most apparent in Esports. And the reason for that is that the players are the product and if you you’re an expert in a particular game, if something happens to the popularity of that game, through a scandal, for example, you lose sponsors or broadcast and there’s fewer tournaments with lower prize money, the players, that’s that’s their direct loss, whereas the tournament organisers can just organise events in different games, the publisher generally is not reliant on Esports from a commercial point of view, they’re reliant on it from a marketing point of view. And so for them, the loss is minimal for the teams, they just change rosters so if there’s a scandal in Dota 2, they drop the Dota 2 roster and get a League of Legends roster or, you know, Rainbow Six roster so for teams, it creates a bump, it’s not fatal, but for the players of that game, if the scene dies in that game, then where do they go? You know, it becomes it has the highest impact on them. So yeah, I regard them as victims, and certainly they are victims of attempts to manipulate sport both directly and indirectly.

Is sports corruption a growing problem?

The the two biggest drivers of corruption in sport are the easy availability of betting markets and the volume in betting markets, the revenue that’s now available is growing so rapidly that what used to be a second tier event with the low possibility of a significant return now can produce a significant return. There is significant volume in the matches the opportunity to open accounts to bet in multiple places because of the internet and also because of crypto makes it more and more and more tempting and therefore more and more likely that people will attempt to manipulate games.

Why does sports integrity matter?

It’s an it’s vitally important for a number of reasons. The first is that sport is an entertainment product, like many others, like games, like movies, like TV, like all of these things that are competing for consumers’ time. And if the consumer, the ultimate consumer, the fan, loses faith in what they are watching, they have multiple options for entertainment, right? It’s easy for them to migrate to something else. So whatever they love of it is, that love can be undermined by suddenly finding out that what you’ve been watching is not true. And so competitive integrity is vital to the sport, because without it, the sport loses its fan base, which means it loses its revenue, which means it can’t develop and grow in the way that it wants to.

So it’s vital at that level, but the more you drill down, the key victims of match-fixing, and sports corruption are the players themselves. And so it’s vital that they understand the link between genuine competitive integrity and their future as a player that the short term gain of a betting fraud, will provide them with something small, but the long term is protected by ensuring competitive integrity because that’s where the future of the sport is in maintaining a fan base and growing a fan base, because without a fan base, without an audience, in these days of vast choice, you don’t have a product, we don’t have a sport, because it’ll disappear very, very quickly, if people lose faith in what they’re watching.

How can we detect sports corruption?

So the key element that without which you can barely move forward is proper liaison and understanding of the betting industry – liaison with them. You have to work with the betting industry to determine which games are likely to have been fixed. And the only reliable way of working that out is to examine the betting, right, you can’t watch match action and say, oh, that guy’s fixing the mac – there is a very small number of circumstances in which that’s possible. But what you can do is watch betting markets in terms of who’s betting in what volumes. What is bucking the trend.

And so what we’ve done is develop a suspicious betting network globally, that alerts us to any one operators or group of operators’ anomalies; what what is not going according to plan. And this is where the technology kicks in which are the mechanisms for finding that out and there are numerous one, this is before you begin an investigation. And then of course, technology like Clue is vital in the investigation itself, because you need a way of dealing with masses of data. For example, in one of our cases, we had 99,000 matches to look at to detect whether a particular cheating bug had been used. Now, you can’t do that manually, you need software, you need technology to look at it, you also obtain vast amounts of intelligence and you need a sensible place to store that, to analyse that, which is what we use Clue for. It’s a vital part of the entire operation. But it begins and ends with betting data. You’re getting nowhere in sports corruption, particularly match-fixing, unless you have access to good betting data or a good way of monitoring what’s occurring in the betting markets. That’s absolutely vital.

How could we tackle sports corruption with ‘endless resources’

Okay, the endless resources question is always a fascinating one, what would you do? And I’ve always answered this by saying, we would do what we do now, just better now that that’s a very broad answer. So what I would say from a purely practical point of view, what we would do as an organisation is we would hire full time investigators, we’re currently recruiting for our first one. But we could easily keep three or four busy. There’s certain software that is available at high cost that would be extremely useful to us certain using open source tools, so getting that going at an affordable level would be extremely helpful to us.

But the biggest thing that sport could do, in terms of protecting sport as a general proposition, including Esports, is to create a far broader, almost mandatory global, suspicious bet alert network, where we create a link between all of these betting operators, regulators, law enforcement, monitoring companies, data companies, that enabled the free flow of information about what was going on in the betting markets and matches in all sports all the time in real time. That would make a enormous difference to link these people who are competitive, commercially competitive in tackling a problem that is common to all of them.

Because every operator, whether they’re one sport, online-only specialist or they’re a multi sport, huge non endemic, like Bet365, or Betway or Pinnacle, any of these guys to have as much information from the global marketplace as possible in real time, would allow companies to react with speed and eventually just make it so difficult for match-fixing to occur that would naturally slide away as the criminal element went elsewhere to find their return on investment. Because at the moment, it’s too easy.

Do we need more awareness on sports corruption? 

The role of education is absolutely vital as a key deterrent. Because this was really highlighted to me by my work in Esports, relative to my work in cricket where and education programme was established and maintained very quickly by the Anti Corruption Unit. And certainly at international level, and then devolved to domestic level, there were constant updates on what the rules were, what it looked like to be approached what had happened, what to do about it, if it happens. And all of these things are in a way that many players would describe as being bombarded with this information. And right down to Academy level and the difference in Esports is there was no structure to support that education. So we had to create it from scratch. But I do believe that education is the key deterrent because once the players understand what the rules on what consequences of breaching those rules are, and what it looks like to be approached to fix and what to do about it that happens. There’s an immediate rebuttal of potential fixes for the bad guys, because many of them with that understanding will refuse any approach and report it. But if they don’t know what the rules are, they don’t know what to do, if they’re approached, then they’re far more likely to give into the temptation, because often the money is far in excess of what they could earn playing. But also, the message coming from the fixers is, you’re not going to get caught, you’ve got very little chance of being caught. What we’re trying to persuade the players of, and this is increasingly true, is that actually, there’s a high possibility of being caught because of liaison between sports and the betting industry? And so yes, I see education as as absolutely central in the long term to the fight against betting fraud and corruption in school.

What is rewarding about sports integrity?

At a personal level, the most rewarding element of working in anti corruption work in sport, is that I feel like we’re doing something of value to a very wide range of people who share my interests, right. So I’m a sports fan, I want to watch two people or two teams, doing their very best to win at doing whatever they can, within the context of the rules of the game and of society and of morality, to win the game. I abhor the fact that people will deliberately manipulate outcomes for money and for betting fraud. And everybody loses in that situation, the players, the teams, but most of all the fans, you know, people like me, who want to see something genuine.

And so it feels good to be part of the attempt to make sure that that is maintained that integrity is maintained in sport, and I know that there are bigger issues in the world. But for many people in their day to day life, support of their team, their players, their sport is a central part of our enjoyment of life, right? The big issues matter to us that in day to day life, it’s these things that provide us with joy and happiness. And if those are tainted, it actually undermines the enjoyment of life for many people like me, and so I don’t want to do that. And I want to fight against that.

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