The history behind betting in Counter-Strike is fraught with drama, both for professional players and gamblers, but the market has proven to be lucrative for bookmakers who hope to seize hold of a growing industry which is reaching millions of people every single day.
The path to regulated and sanctioned gambling has proved to be a tough one though as the game has had to overcome allegations and evidence of match fixing and a hotbed of illicit skin trading all while fighting against a minefield of different gambling laws across the world.
Valve created the market for skin gambling shortly after they introduced weapon skins back in 2013, when they allowed individuals to buy and sell the cosmetic items for real money. Soon after, websites which allowed members to place skins as bets on professional matches became the norm. despite sports betting being illegal in 46 states of the United States and elsewhere in the world.
Valve had already familiarised its players with gambling, too. After all, opening one of the crates that drops during normal play requires players to buy a crate key from Valve directly. That key gets you a random item from the pool of items available in the crate, with the act playing out both visually and mechanically like a slot machine.
With skins handed out like this, Valve was conditioning players to gamble, including those playing the game from a young age.
Valve was conditioning players to gamble, including those playing the game from a young age.
In a report published by Bloomberg last year highlighting the research conducted by Eilers & Krejcik, it was revealed more than three million people wagered $2.3 billion worth of skins on the results of esports matches over the previous two years. Many of those wagers are made by minors. The article highlights the 16 year old Sven, a Dutch teenager who started skin betting after a friend told him "people were making tens of thousands of dollars doing it."
The unregulated gambling market created a grey area for the developers, so much so that in July 2016, Valve issued cease and desist notices to 23 sites including popular operators CSGO Lounge and CSGO Lotto but many still remain in a black market capacity.
The row over skin gambling in the CS:GO scene was catapulted into mainstream media when Twitch was forced to ban the account of James “PhantomL0rd” Varga after he was accused of failing to declare his stake in the CSGO Shuffle site, who had the odds rigged in his favour, by veteran reporter Richard Lewis. Popular streamers Trevor “TmarTn” “Martin and Tom “Syndicate” Cassell were also discovered to have stakes in CSGO Lotto.
It appears that the esports community has since learnt its lessons though and today, there is a real focus on regulated betting and the industry is booming.
Bookmaker Betway has made strides in the Counter-Strike scene in the last couple of years and many gamblers think of it as their go-to operator. Its marketing is everywhere you look on the competitive scene, with Swedish superstars Ninjas in Pyjamas proudly displaying the company as their headline sponsor across most of their merchandise.
The bookmaker was also announced as the official betting partner for ESL Cologne, which concluded earlier this month, in a deal that was aimed at enhancing the viewer experience.
Those tuning in to the tournament were given live odds powered by the gambling company, while desk analysts and casters had a mountain of statistics that they could use to show the constantly changing balance of powers between the two competing teams.
Both ESL and Betway are members of the Esports Integrity Coalition (ESIC) which hopes to prevent cheating and corruption in the industry through multi-agency cooperation.
“ESL is a founding member of the EIC and, as such, have voluntarily subjected themselves to the highest integrity standards independently monitored and enforced by ESIC,” says Ian Smith, integrity officer at the ESIC.
“This includes a rigorous Anti-Corruption Code dealing with betting, match fixing and abuse of inside information. ESIC also works with reputable betting operators offering markets in esports to monitor suspicious betting and proactively deal with the threat of match fixing.
“Betway was one of the first betting operators to sign an information sharing memorandum of understanding with ESIC and have been enthusiastic supporters of our work since we launched, helping to fund our education programme.
“Betway are a highly regulated operator with a strong integrity function and exactly the sort of business that esports ought to embrace because they are the antidote to dodgy, unregulated skins and cash betting sites that target underage gamblers and undermine esports credibility.”
While safeguards to protect the integrity of the game are in place, many fans will remember the iBUYPOWER match fixing scandal that split opinions worldwide. Back in 2014, evidence of multiple players from IBP team betting against themselves in a match against NetcodeGuides.com in Season 5 of the CEVO Professional League surfaced.
The North American team went on to lose the match and after a bit of digging, CSGO Lounge confirmed that a large number of high volume bets had been placed by Duc “cud” Pham and Derek “dboorN” Boorn. NetcodeGuides.com founder Casey Foster also placed a bet against the challengers after he was informed of the plan by IBP captain Sam “DaZeD” Marine.
As a result, seven players were permanently banned by Valve on January 5, 2016.
Yet, given all the ground the industry has made in attempting to banish unregulated betting and unfair play from the game, this sort of thing is still happening. Last week Richard Lewis revealed that he was investigating claims that two players from Eastern Mysterious Power had placed a number of high stake bets against themselves before throwing their WCA 2017 match against T.O.T on July 3.
In an update posted later that week, he noted that there were two possibilities for the incident based on testimonies from the Chinese scene: that T.O.T were offering their services to change the outcome of matches and hired a better team to play against EMP after they refused to match fix or that EMP had indeed thrown the match.
Either way, World Cyber Arena’s reputation has been left in tatters as only one out of two teams, whether that be EMP or an unknown team at this point, have been banned and that particular hammer fell on the five members and the coach of T.O.T.
The decision means that the team will not be able to play in WCA Counter-Strike tournaments for the next year but the decision has left fans questioning the integrity of the tournament and the scene as a whole.
The fast paced nature of gambling in Counter-Strike means that regulators such as ESIC have to be constantly on their guard but ultimately, the future lies in the hands of players, organisers and bookmakers themselves. Hopefully in the near future the risks associated with gambling to both viewers and professionals can be eliminated.