Esports Gambling Takes Off, But Match Fixing Remains

Professionalized video game play breeds gambling and scandal, because humans

AFP/Getty Images
Jun 24, 2016 at 9:00 AM ET

If you play, they will bet on it.

As Esports have proliferated—even snagging airtime on ESPN2 in 2015, long after its transformation from mid-90s bastion of obscure competitions to mainstream sports—so too has the exchange of money wagered on their outcome. There is no frontier of winning and losing that will not attract betting.

(No, seriously, at my alma mater’s basketball games, there’d be a baby race at halftime, in which infants would crawl a short distance to their parent—sometimes in a straight line, usually not, with guaranteed hilarity—and my friends and I would all bet a dollar on a random child, just for the sheer absurdity of then passing around cash at the race’s conclusion.)

There’s already a Seattle-based company, Unikrn, that has entered the digital marketplace, even though no U.S. customers are allowed, but folks residing in Australia and the U.K. can bet all they want on CS:GO, League of Legends, and Dota 2. (Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, is an investor in Unikrn.) The industry’s growing popularity has spurred a major betting market—and also fears that the as-yet unregulated world could be ripe for match-fixing.

That market may seem small to some, but a new report from Mindshare North America indicates that the average gaming fan is more passionate and, importantly, more affluent than one might suspect. Among the unexpected notes of the report were that 43 percent of Esports fans make 75 grand or more; 58 percent of fans 25 or older have children; and 38 percent of fans are women.

“Forget the stereotypes—your typical Esports fan isn’t just someone playing World of Warcraft in his mother’s basement,” Mark Potts, Head of Insights, Mindshare NA said in the release. “The Esports community is varied and evolving, ranging across audiences of working professionals, parents, and more.”

That’s why gambling sites are lining up to crack into the business. CNBC reported market research done by Eilers that expects fan wagering on Esports to reach about $23.5 billion by 2020, with the staggering projection that there could be more bets made on League of Legends than soccer’s European Champions League. Las Vegas could legally enter the field but hasn’t, the Review-Journal reported. Others are expanding the scope of their gambling marketplace.

“We know that live-betting for Esports is the wave of the future,” Scott Cooley of told SB Nation. “So, we actually have an entire team of people working on expanding our eSports gambling platform so that it covers even a broader amount of odds and allows you to get involved with the live-betting aspect.”

Already South Korea has indicted 10 people, including two Esports players, for their role in an alleged Starcraft 2 match fixing incident, according to a Polygon report. The players allegedly received a combined $86,000 for throwing three games; the others were purportedly involved in brokering the deal and disseminating inside information. Polygon also wrote that two other players received lifetime bans for a similar Starcraft 2 incident and, tragically, that a League of Legends player attempted suicide after confessing to match fixing.

Matters could only get worse as the money pours in, and there is no organization overseeing the industry. There’s no Esports governing body, although former NFL punter Chris Kluwe has campaigned to be its commissioner. As SB Nation points out, it’s already extremely difficult to spot untoward activity because a lack of full effort might involve a delayed button-press on a controller, not something more obvious like a player not running full speed in a widely televised sporting event.

As the money grows, surely an executive body will arise. And sports oversight is always fair and scrupulous—just ask FIFA.