On the night of February 27, terrorists ran through the deserted streets of a crumbling Moroccan city, trying to plant a bomb. Heavily armed police pursued them, taking down the enemy one by one.
Across the world, dozens of people watched the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive match online. Some even bet on the outcome. But was it a fair fight?
“I have never ever seen anyone throwing this blatantly in the history of low-level match fixing,” one spectator claimed in an online esports forum.
At the centre of the allegations was an Australian-based team of young men playing the hugely popular first-person shooter game.
Victoria Police are investigating whether at least six matches played by the team earlier this year were fixed.
Two semi-professional players involved in the suspect matches were arrested but have not been charged. The other four players in the team who competed are not suspected of any wrongdoing.
It is the first major Australian investigation into corruption in esports, the fastest growing sport in the world.
The fallout could have global ramifications and create uncomfortable questions for businesses and governments — including the AFL, NRL and Victorian government — which are lining up for a slice of the $US1 billion esports industry.
“It’s had a significant impact worldwide,” esports integrity commissioner Ian Smith said.
“The fact that people can be arrested for this stuff has elevated the … seriousness with which anyone is regarding this issue.”
Concerns corruption threat isn’t being taken seriously
Mark Johnson, a University of Sydney lecturer who has researched the intersection of video gaming and money, believes a lack of understanding about what esports is has contributed to the spread of corruption.
“The video game industry is worth more than films and music combined, but they are still not taken seriously,” he said.
“I don’t really watch traditional sports but I know what they are, whereas if you don’t watch esports you don’t know anything about them.”
Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Paterson said he expected an increasing number of cases of corruption in Australia to be uncovered.
The force’s Sporting Integrity Intelligence Unit has received reports of match fixing in other Counter-Strike: Global Offensive games, and about organised crime links to the ownership of an Australian-based team that plays the Overwatch Contenders game. Betting anomalies have been reported on matches involving that team.
“There is no test of a fit and proper person to be engaged as an owner of an esports team,” Mr Paterson said.
“We are seeing people encroach on that area that have reputations that [mean they] probably … shouldn’t be involved in this part of esports.
“I could absolutely guarantee that this wouldn’t be the only [alleged] incidence of match fixing or betting anomalies on esports environments in the Australian market.”
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Mr Paterson said the allegation under investigation is that two Australian players told their associates to bet on the fixed matches.
He believes dozens more people could be arrested as part of the investigation, which has already resulted in six arrests and houses being raided in Victoria and Western Australia.
Police expect $30,000 could have been won on the potentially corrupt games — not a huge sum, but many times more than some of the players involved won in their entire careers.
“The motivation is greed. It’s money,” Mr Paterson said.
“They weren’t making any money off playing the games because they’re not skilled enough at that particular level.
“The people that are professional players can make millions of dollars. These players were at the other end.”
‘We weren’t intentionally trying to lose’
A player who featured in the suspicious matches in the ESEA-Mountain Dew League but is not under investigation told the ABC he had no knowledge of anything untoward.
The player, who was speaking on condition of anonymity, said he had gambled on Counter-Strike games before, but only top-tier matches in which he was not competing.
He met his teammates playing Counter-Strike online. While he also became close with some of them outside the game, forming the team was mainly a social exercise.
“Most of us just jumped on to have fun, just to play,” he said.
“Any sort of [corrupt] behaviour like that, if it did occur, could have easily been concealed, just because of how bad we were.”
Another player, who is also not under investigation and did not want to be identified, said the team was only playing in the league to fill a last-minute vacancy.
“We weren’t a serious team at this point,” he said.
“We knew weren’t going to win, but we weren’t intentionally trying to lose.
“Some of us used to be good, but we’re sort of washed-up players. We didn’t really care, we weren’t committed to playing professionally anymore. This was like our final run.”
Those fans watching the matches were similarly torn between questioning the team’s ability and alleging corruption.
“It’s not throwing. They are just bad,” one fan wrote after the February 27 contest.
Problem overlaps with young male gambling
Major Australian bookmakers, including Sportsbet, set odds on esports.
The ABC has been told the markets are not large and a single bet of more than $2,000 would be enough to raise the suspicions of gaming companies.
It is understood bookmakers are uneasy that so many professional gamers and those who follow esports are under the age of 18 — a concern that underpinned South Australia’s decision to ban wagering on esports in 2016.
One of the players under investigation regularly played in teams with minors in the months before his arrest.
Mr Paterson said young men — who are typically the main players of esports — are increasingly likely to be involved in online wagering and that some of those arrested had “significant gambling problems”.
The recent arrests netted five men who were aged 20 or younger with no criminal history, he said. The offence for which they are being investigated — corrupt conduct relating to a betting outcome — has a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Mr Paterson said some of the men allegedly involved had gone to the same high school and university, and were from normal suburban Melbourne families.
“We’ve got young men, typically 19- or 20-year-olds, who have no history with police,” Mr Paterson said.
“They’re getting involved in [corruption] offences … at quite a young age that have serious consequences for them.
“The sheer volume of young men involved in gambling, both in high school and in universities, is at epidemic proportions. What I’m not seeing is anyone doing anything particularly about that.”
Mr Paterson is equally concerned about the inaction from the publishers of video games regarding corruption, saying there were clear shortcomings in esports governance.
He questioned whether publishers that hold detailed data about every player in every game would hand it over to assist in police investigations.
Mr Smith, the esports integrity commissioner, said it was clear these publishers, including multi-billion-dollar companies Riot and Blizzard, were more concerned with profit than integrity.
“Their attitude towards and knowledge of the relationship between betting and esports has historically been very poor,” he said.
“Their response in my view has been very poor to the crisis that’s happening within their game and that situation hasn’t really changed.
“I think the startling statistic in all of this really is that not one publisher … has contributed one penny to the fight for integrity in sports.”
Mr Smith said governments, cities and businesses, including traditional sporting clubs, needed to weigh-up these integrity concerns before funding rapid expansion in esports.
The Victorian Government does not comment on what it pays to lure major events, but will host the Melbourne Esports Open for five years, ending in 2022, in a deal it claimed would generate $25 million for the state.
The 2019 Melbourne Esports Open held earlier this month at Rod Laver Arena attracted thousands of attendees.
AFL and NRL clubs have invested in esports teams. Vicinity Centres, the manager of Emporium Melbourne, announced earlier this month as part of a deal with an esports company that it would build the largest video gaming and esports venue in the Southern Hemisphere at the shopping centre.
“They know that esports and gaming is literally the only way to reach the demographic they’re all desperate to reach,” Mr Smith said.
“There are millions and millions of them and they are super hard to reach. They are the golden goose of the future of any commercial enterprise.”
Watch the full story on ABC 7.30 tonight