Does esports have more integrity than traditional sports? Interview with Ian Smith, Commissioner, ESIC

As with any nascent industry, there needs to be time to work out issues and grow. This process will not happen overnight, and esports betting as an industry is no different.

The fantastic growth it’s experienced, especially in recent months, comes with increased scrutiny and pressure to iron out issues of integrity. But just how serious are the issues of integrity and consumer protection in esports when compared with some of its larger, more established counterparts?

After assessing publisher-betting relationships in Part One of our Esports Integrity Spotlight, we caught up with Ian Smith, Commissioner of the Esports Integrity Commission again, to hear his perspective on the future sustainability of the industry and how it compares to some of the other mainstream sports betting verticals.

We know from our first interview that you’ve worked in a variety of high profile sports roles centred around integrity. But how bad is integrity in the top tiers of esports versus something like cricket or tennis?

“It’s very difficult because people talk about esports as if it’s a single thing and want to compare it with the NFL, Tennis, Football, and these sorts of things.

If match fixing is bad in Lithuanian third division, or Greek second division or Turkish first division, does that make football bad?

Of course, the answer is both yes and no.

If you look at the top end of football, the Premier League, LA Liga or Serie A, fixing is more or less non-existent.

People would say, as a broad proposition, fixing in football is bad. But that’s because some leagues are corrupt and run by criminal networks.

Similarly, there are problems with certain verticals in esports. I would rate the problem as bad.

If I was looking at second tier DOTA2 or third tier CS:GO, and to some extent, the less controlled elements of League of Legends where RIOT is not involved in tournaments, then you would say match fixing in esports is worse than most traditional sports (outside of cricket, football, tennis, horseracing, boxing, snooker).

Esports is nowhere near as bad as any of those, but it’s a lot worse than your typical Olympic sport.

We sit in the middle between the high end, high bet upon sports and the low end, low bet upon traditional sports.

Within the definition of esports, you would say most of your sports are safe. Certainly tier one esports is safe.

We have practically no betting related scandals or problems in top tier CS:GO, top tier DOTA2, and top tier League of Legends. And even these days in top tier StarCraft, which used to be very bad.

But when you drop down the levels and tiers of the various leagues, it starts getting bad.

The game that needs clearing up the most (by far) in esports, is currently in DOTA2. And frankly, that’s because they’re very popular in the CIS region and China.

If you attempted to take match fixing out of the Chinese and CIS betting regions, you’d probably remove 85% of match fixing worldwide in all sports.”

With the rise in esports activity over the last few months, and the rate of growth set to continue at a disproportionate rate (when compared to other sports), does this pose any additional risks to integrity we should be aware of?

“From a low starting point back in 2015/2016 when cash markets opened up, particularly in 2016 after the skins markets were suppressed by Valve, most established operators offering cash markets and new sports, we’re seeing at least 50% in growth per year.

It was by far the fastest growing sports betting product in the world. I think the only thing growing at anything like the same rate was Mixed Martial Arts and UFC. Everything else showed fairly organic, steady growth.

Of course, the pandemic has caused a big jump. It’s caused a jump in traditional esports betting products (CS:GO, DOTA2 and League of Legends).

But it hasn’t actually increased the suspicious and unusual betting reports in any marked way.

What did grow was suspicious and unusual betting in non-traditional esports markets.

FIFA, for example, prior to the return of real football, we saw some very worrying trends in betting.

Clearly, a bunch of people from outside of esports and who were traditional football betters, came into the FIFA space because there was nowhere else for them to go.

Obviously, as an esport, it’s much easier to understand than your traditional esports because it’s just a sports simulator.

We did see a dramatic increase in potentially corrupt behaviour in the new areas that evolved through the pandemic.

Growth has been phenomenal in esports and has been really accelerated by the pandemic, but it was already pretty special.

Corruption in that context has grown, but primarily driven by non-traditional betting products by the proliferation of Mickey Mouse Tournaments, frankly.

People were filling the market and suddenly had nothing to present. They were presenting real low level tiers and you’re always going to take a hit in those kinds of markets.

There were a few good things that came out of the pandemic, like Eformula1 or ENascar and some good high level FIFA competitions, some good Pro Evolution soccer competitions.

But a lot of what came out during that period to fill the holes left by the absence of traditional sport was frankly garbage.

And if you offer garbage markets, you’re going to get garbage bets. That’s just the reality, but the operators had nothing else to offer.

I think esports stood up pretty well through this period. Certainly, from a growth perspective, it was wonderful.

From an integrity point of view, I’ve been pretty pleased by how it’s stood up.

I think that’s largely due to the bettors, not really knowing how to manipulate markets that they don’t fully understand.

That’s not to say they haven’t caught up pretty quickly.”

Editor’s Note: What we’ve learned from catching up with Ian is that it’s just too easy to brand an entire sport as corrupt or fixed.

To fully understand this issue, we need to take a more granular approach and really understand the variances with the esports ecosystem. Just like with any sport, the lower down the ladder you go, the lower the quality gets, and unfortunately, this also applies to levels of integrity and consumer protection.

Operators and general stakeholders in esports betting will need to concentrate on the higher tiers of gaming in this sector to mitigate risk and keep consumers protected. This will encourage a higher standard industry-wide and help to guarantee a sustainable future for esports.

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