Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Curse of Success

I spent part of last night watching a documentary by the PBS show Frontline. If you've never watched a Frontline documentary, they're very much worth the time.* This particular time, however, the Frontline documentary was on daily fantasy sports. Called The Fantasy Sports Gamble, it talks about the explosion of daily fantasy sports into the popular consciousness, whether daily fantasy sports such as Draft Kings and Fanduel are gambling or "games of skill", and how "normal" online gambling subverts US law to cater to US players.

While I'm not exactly planning on playing any of those games**, I did note one almost throwaway comment toward the end of the episode. One of the people promoting a lesser known daily fantasy sports site was emphasizing the growth aspect of some of the "lesser" sports in the US, such as cricket and eSports.

That got me to wondering just how we truly know that eSports are legit.

My quick conclusion is we don't.

Unlike, say, other sports or "sporting activities", such as football (both varieties), basketball, auto racing, and even extreme sports, there's a physical gamespace that people have to compete in. While the space could be tampered with, that tampering affects all competitors equally. But with eSports, the gamespace is virtual, and controlled by a central system. That central system becomes more of a black box, where you have to assume everything is equal for both sides***.

But what if it isn't?

And, more importantly, how can you tell if it isn't?

You have to assume that the code compilation for eSport games didn't include any tweaks to the code designed to adversely favor a specific build at a specific time, but with growing amounts of money involved, you can bet that organized crime is trying to find a way to game the system in their favor.

I'm not talking about players being paid to throw matches, as can be found in this article from Den of Geek, but the employees at the company from being paid by organized crime to make very small code tweaks that will favor one style of play over another. Between two evenly matched teams, just a small tweak of a cooldown or a very slight manipulation of a crit size would be enough to influence the game. Or, to put it another way, if there was a code tweak in a Mario Kart Tourney that someone playing Rosalina would have a larger than normal chance of getting a lightning bolt or a Bullet Bill. It may not ensure victory, but it would certainly tilt the game in favor of someone who plays Rosalina.

And what organized crime would want is not exactly a sure thing, as that would cause speculation, but a decent chance at a sure thing.


If you follow auto racing, some leagues enforce more standards than others. Formula One racing is at the "let 'em play" end of the spectrum, while NASCAR is at the "rules lawyer" end. But that "rules lawyer" end of the spectrum means that NASCAR spends a lot of time measuring and testing the cars and other equipment of their participants to ensure there's no funny business going on.

The reason why I bring this up is obvious: without extensive testing, that black box is more mysterious than ever.

It's not as if gamblers will not stop sniffing around what they feel is a sure thing. The sheer chutzpah of some gambling sites to sponsor soccer teams (such as Stoke City having Bet365 as their primary sponsor the past few years) shows that other places around the world have a different view towards gambling than the US'. But still, as eSports will become more popular and more money flows in their direction, there will be more attempts to manipulate the system for profit.

It goes with the territory, I suppose, just as long as eSports doesn't have their own version of the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

"Yeah, I'm gonna play some 2x2s tonight. Wanna come?"
From the movie Eight Men Out. From

*You can watch Frontline shows online for free, and they're definitely worth it. One of the best ones from last year, League of Denial, talks about the concussion epidemic in the NFL, and inspired the Will Smith film Concussion.

**Full disclosure: I have played Fantasy Football in "leagues" when I was in college and upwards of 10 years ago, but I've not played in years. I no longer even fill out a bracket for the Men's and Women's NCAA Basketball Tournament, because I tend to be lousy at picking who will win.

***Not counting individual build and toon differences; there's a reason why Blizz and other PvP-centric companies are constantly tweaking class and racial abilities to prevent the "new hotness" from cleaning up on the Arena or Battleground for too long.


  1. Well, given how ferociously players jump on any perceived unfairness/imbalance, it seems unlikely that a dev could deliberately introduce an imbalance in the game that would favor one person. They might be able to do so in a patch right before an event, but I think they'd be caught fairly quickly.

    Honestly, if I was fixing a gaming match, I'd focus on targeting the players. It's much easier and much more likely to be successful. It's also easier to tell if you were successful, and you know who to blame (and thus who's kneecaps to break) if your fixing attempt is not successful.

    1. Players will jump on perceived imbalances, but then again players will grump at just about anything, real or imaginary.

      A clever developer can adjust code so as not to be caught, such as sticking in code that engages only when a certain date range is reached.

      Fixing matches by focusing on the players is easier, but is also more blatant. Judging by some of the scandals referenced in the Den of Geek article, the players involved were none too subtle in how to throw match.

      Me, I'd go for what sports watchers call "plausible deniability". Change the playing field itself just a bit, and you can change enough of the outcome to make money. Maybe you don't get the win, but if you get enough to cover the spread you'll still make money. That's how the point shaving scandals in basketball back in the '50s did it, and more recently games involving Northwestern University football and basketball players in 1998.