Esports is an industry built by a legion of compulsive, highly competitive gamers who have achieved unimaginable fortune and fame through the power of playing video games. It is funded by a rogue gallery of mega-rich sports owners who are happy to milk the venture for all its lucrative benefits, without any long-term investment in the culture or the hobby. The fans they cultivate are voracious, sectarian and obsessive – known for analyzing the slightest whiff of backscene drama with the keen attention of one particularly scrupulous Taylor Swift fan. With all those elements in place, what could go wrong?
Yes, esports has been the scene of many controversies over the past 12 years. Some of them are small and confined to a distinct niche, and others are messy and verging on criminal, capable of taking entire organizations off guard. Together, this list serves as a time capsule of the industry’s red-hot peak in the mid-2010s, when an obscene amount of money was dumped into the pro-gaming bubble, allowing countless incidents of overexposure, fraud, and ignorant management. . . In 2022, these kinds of stories are becoming increasingly rare. The nutrition frenzy has moved on, leaving more room for the real, veteran esports organizations to thrive – and those grassroots companies are less interested in a pump-and-dump scheme. Which is a good thing, even if I sometimes miss that time of excessive indulgence. Read on and despair.
Forsaken takes an aimbot to a Counter-Strike tournament
Aimbots are treated punitively regardless of where a player competes. If you work your way through the Counter-Strike ladder – with no money at stake – and get busted for illegal software, you can expect a speedy ban and a lifetime account suspension. So it goes without saying that you can play the same tricks on one official esports competition, of significantly high stakes, you are officially risking everything.
Nikhil “Forsaken” Kumawat didn’t get that memo when he signed up for the eXtremesland tournament in 2018. His aimbot alerted the anti-cheat software and cameras caught him frantically trying to remove the contraband from his computer when the tournament regulators rolled up to confiscate his PC. (Those images, in the video above, have become something of a joke in the Counter-Strike community.) Forsaken earned a lengthy ban from playing professionally and is now retired. Can’t say I’m that surprised.
More than 30 CS:GO coaches caught cheating
Another CS:GO cheating scandal followed in 2020, when it was discovered that at least 37 professional CS:GO coaches had exploited a bug that allowed them to freely view the map during matches and pass information to their team. They were approved by the Esports Integrity Commission and in 2021 by Valve itself, which permanently banned four coaches and created a new rule prohibiting non-players from joining the server during games. (Also in 2021, there were 35 CS:GO players suspended for betting on matches. It’s been a scandalous year for CS:GO!)
CS:GO again, but this time it’s drugs
In 2015, the ESL listed that “esports needs to come of age” after a member of the North American CS:GO team Cloud9 revealed that the team was “all on Adderall” at ESL One Katowice, suggesting that “everyone” at the event takes the stimulant, that is used to treat ADHD. After the incident, the league instituted randomized drug testing.
CS:GO again: skin gambling
In 2016, the practice of CS:GO gambling skin erupted into a huge controversy with years of repercussions, including scandals manipulated promo videos and secret advertising, intervention of the stateand multiple lawsuits.
Echo Fox implodes
Looking back, I don’t think any organization has encapsulated the gilded excess of the esports boom as well as Echo Fox. It was a company founded by Rick Fox, a seasoned NBA swingman known more for his stunning looks than his basketball prowess. They immediately started drafting players in every pro gaming scene imaginable, which was common at the time. (Can you believe H1Z1 once had an esports format? Man oh man.) But then it all came crashing down in 2019, when Fox and its business partners filed dueling lawsuits against each other, with the former accusing the latter of using racist slurs. language and fraudulent business practices, and the the latter incurs costs (opens in new tab) of “grossly inept management.” We never got the concrete details of what caused the split, but Echo Fox remains a microcosm of how quickly an esports organization can erupt in spectacular fashion. There’s a lot of dumb money in this industry; then now forever.
Life fixes StarCraft matches, ends up in jail
This is easily the most famous esports scandal in history, if only because the main offender ended up in jail for their indiscretions. Life, also known as Lee Seung-Hyun, was once a top name in Korea’s highly popular StarCraft community. He was exceptionally dominant in the early 2010s, during the halcyon days of StarCraft 2. But then, in 2016, the police began scrutinizing his career. As it turned out, Life had a gambling problem and he was tied up in a match-fixing ring where he deliberately threw games for huge payouts from the Korean sportsbooks. Life in prison earned a lifetime ban from competitions and an 18-month prison sentence. He never played professionally again. It’s representative of how gigantic the video game business has become. In our weird, cyberpunk modernity, it’s possible to serve time for StarCraft.
Andy Dinh lets his temper get the better of him
Andy Dinh is a prodigious success story for professional gaming. He entered the industry as a neophyte – a humble League of Legends grinder – and slowly his esports organization, Team SoloMid, grew into an international juggernaut. Unfortunately, if The Washington Post reported this last yearDinh also routinely berated his staffers and created a bitter, toxic environment in the TSM offices.
When that report hit the internet, League of Legends authorities conducted their own investigation, resulting in a two-year suspension and a $75,000 fine due to “a pattern and practice of disparaging and bullying behavior by Andy Dinh towards TSM players and staff members.” It’s one of the tensions in the meteoric rise of esports: all of these companies are ultimately startups, and startups often lack the structure and accountability of more seasoned companies. (Although that doesn’t mean seasoned companies never have the same problems, as we’ve seen in the games industry in particular.)
Carlo “Kuku” Palad’s heated gamer moment
Carlo “Kuku” Palad, an off-laner for Dota 2 team TNC Predator, was preparing for the 2019 Major in Chongqing, China, when an old commentary came home. In 2018, Kuku lost in a public match against another Chinese side, and just before the final curtains fell, he typed the words “ching chong” into the chat. You don’t have to be an expert in cryptology to see that as an obvious, racist insult to his opponents, and as pressure in China not to allow Kuku to participate in the event.
At first, Valve was on its hands, but when the controversy refused to evaporate (and after TNC Predator objected to specific reprimands for their player), the company finally invited Kuku to play in the major. Like any game fap involved in larger Sino-US relations, rumors circulated that the Chinese state itself had a hand in forcing Valve into action. (So true, the Chongqing government also imposed their own restrictions on Kuku entering the city (opens in new tab).) Years later, Kuku remains a successful Dota 2 pro, but I doubt any love has been lost between him and the game’s Chinese contingency.
Blitzchung pokes the bear
Keeping with this theme, a Hearthstone pro named Blitzchung, also known as Ng Wai Chung, won a Hearthstone Grandmasters tournament in Taiwan in 2019. At the end of his victorious interview, Blitzchung proclaimed “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” in support of the protests against Hong Kong’s extradition law that were taking place at the time. Blizzard responded with a ridiculously harsh punishment, which onlookers quickly attributed to pressure from the Chinese government, which is known for its sensitivity to these speech violations. Blitzchung was forced to forgo his prize money and received a one-year suspension from competing Hearthstone, resulting in widespread annoyance from Blizzard fans, including an outright boycott. Blizzard later returned Blitzchung’s winnings and reduced the ban to six months, admitting to acting too quickly, but to deny that either pressure from the Chinese government or the content of Blitzchung’s statement played a role in her decision.
This is primarily an esports controversy, but it was also the first major blow in Blizzard’s ongoing fall from grace; one that set the stage for the layoffs, Activision Blizzard’s union breakdown, and now the years of alleged gender discrimination preventing the pending sale to Microsoft. After Blitzchung, things went downhill for one of the most iconic video game makers of all time.