A troublesome year in professional Counter-Strike has revealed both successes and limitations of the Esports Integrity Coalition, an organization founded in 2016 to investigate wrongdoing across esports. This year included multiple stream sniping investigations and the widespread use of a spectator bug that resulted in the suspension of almost 40 CS:GO coaches. Still, members inside the professional CS:GO world say they have lost confidence in the ESIC as an independent agent in the scene, according to multiple sources directly and indirectly involved with the developments. The turbulent year has if nothing else revealed the limitations of an under-funded organization trying, but not always succeeding, at its goal.
The first area of concern with the ESIC pertains to stream sniping, the act of watching a live stream of an ongoing match while also playing in it, in an attempt to gather information regularly available to spectators. On Dec. 2, the ESIC issued a statement revealing a zero tolerance stance on stream sniping, stating they had received an assessed compelling evidence of it occurring on a regular basis between May and June of this year. But multiple sources have explained to DBLTAP that despite claiming widespread evidence, the ESIC found only two violations -- by Cloud9 and FURIA in the BLAST Premier: Spring 2020 American Showdown. The two organizations were fined, essentially the result of admitting to doing it in a plea deal, but neither were banned as a result of the investigation, according to sources. That has led to some questions about the authority behind a "zero tolerance" policy. When asked about this occurrence, the ESIC declined to comment.
ESIC commissioner Ian Smith did, however, issue the following statement about the CS:GO community's reaction to the ESIC's Dec. 2 statement:
"I knew there would be criticism of the decision, and I would love ESIC to have been in a position to take a different approach, but we weren’t and aren’t yet," Smith said. "At a personal level, I was a little upset by the criticism because I don’t think people appreciate the work involved and the fact that we are the only org in this space trying to do something about the problem. It was very heartening, on the other hand, to receive a ton of support and offers of help from the community and I hope to be in a position to mobilize that with respect to other matters in the coming year. I received very encouraging feedback from some senior CS pros in private; I just wish they’d been a little more publicly vocal in their support. We’re all doing our best to get used to this strange new world – it’s really not as easy as any of us would like it to be and a lot harder than some parts of the community seem to think it is.”
When it was discovered in late June that MIBR had the stream on in the background while playing at BLAST Premier: Spring 2020 American Finals, BLAST had already changed their rules after FURIA and Cloud9 had been reprimanded. Stream delays were increased to 3 minutes, but having the stream playing was not actively being punished, according to sources. It wasn’t until the recent statement by the ESIC that stream sniping at ESIC partner tournaments is now completely forbidden.
In September, GODSENT was notified they were facing a six-month ban from all ESIC sanctioned events as a result of another stream sniping investigation, according to sources. The ESIC concluded that the players had used the stream to recognize HE grenade damage, overlooking that CS:GO has an in-game utility damage scoring function. Upon being notified of their ban, GODSENT urged ESIC to seek consultation over its findings, according to sources. This ultimately led to the ESIC rescinding the ban and apologizing for the trouble. As a result, multiple sources have expressed their concern to DBLTAP that the ESIC’s lack of understanding about CS:GO’s game mechanics may be limiting their ability to properly address competitive integrity.
When asked about GODSENT’s near ban, Smith said: “I can confirm that, with respect to a certain type of advantage allegedly only available by stream sniping and no other method, we received inaccurate information from external 'experts' that nearly led to a serious error on our part and we were, thankfully, corrected in time. It turned out the advantage was obtainable by fair means that the 'experts' were unaware of.”
Perhaps the most notable moment for the ESIC in 2020 was the result of its investigation into what is now commonly known as the coaching bug scandal. The ESIC banned 37 coaches for various lengths of time for their use of the bug throughout several years of play. The bug allowed coaches to float above the map at unique angles, allowing them to gain information they would not have otherwise known to relay to their team. Higher profile bans included Allan "Rejin" Petersen (19.8 months), Nicolai "HUNDEN" Petersen (eight months), and Nicholas "guerri" Nogueira (four months).
At least one team found out about their impending ban ahead of the ESIC's announcement, Smith confirmed to DBLTAP, though sources say at least two more did. That leak has caused several figures in CS:GO to be concerned about special treatment being given by ESIC to some teams, according to sources.
"I don’t regard (the leak) as a problem at all, but, in response to finding out, I provided a pre-publication copy to as many of the affected teams as I could contact so they could get their PR sorted in advance," Smith said. "I don’t think this was malicious at all.”
The issues facing ESIC have not deterred the organization, though, as more bans are expected to come soon as it pertains to the coaching bug exploit.
“The second part of the coach bug has been finalized and will be released soon," Smith said. "Holiday scheduling for comms is very tricky, so I suspect it will be in the new year; especially as we have found a couple of ‘new’ bugs that need investigating with worrying evidence of high profile exploitation."
The ESIC was established in 2016 and is a small team who aim to take responsibility for disruption, prevention, investigation, and prosecution of all forms of cheating in esports, including, but not limited to, match manipulation and doping. The ESIC's job is difficult and resources short, and that doesn't absolve it of all mistakes, but the context is important when understanding the criticism -- both fair and unfair -- levied at the organization.
"I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made this year relative to the resources we have and the nature of the changes within the esports industry this year," Smith said. "Obviously, there’s a great deal more I wish we could have done and a lot of what we did do I would have liked to do better, but we have to be realistic about the nature and maturity of the industry and the support we get from it. There’s only so much we can do."