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Tim Masters
Tim Masters

Watches esports a lot, when he's not writing about esports. Also enjoys video games.

Apr 26, 2020

With the pandemic still gripping the world harder than Karen fighting Karen for the last pack of bog roll, CS:GO has had time to reflect this week and go back to a favorite topic. Every couple of years the “conflict of interest” issue raises its head in gaming – sometimes in Dota, and often in Counter-Strike – where the waters are murky and many snakes still operate.

In most cases, the conflict of interest is generally one of ownership, where players have a stake in a team they don’t play for, or investors have a controlling interest in multiples parts of the same ecosystem. This is a proud tradition in CS, where for years fans have watched events that could easily have been fixed due to the way the teams and tournaments were funded.

A very famous and obvious historical case would be the ownership of Na’Vi, which for a long time was listed as being owned by ESForce. This company, owned by Alisher Usmanov, also had a controlling or significant financial stake in both SK Gaming and Virtus.pro while owning Natus Vincere, as well as financial interests in EPICENTER, the TO that ended up running a Dota Major in 2019.

That obviously opens up a whole spectrum of ways results and even events could be manipulated, which is terrible for the public face of the game. This is just one example, and we had another come to light this week, thanks to HLTV. According to a report by Luis Mira, two teams competing in the ESL: Road to Rio event running up to the only CS:GO Major this year are connected in some very worrying ways, with members of Made in Brazil essentially listed as owners or investors in competitor org Yeah.

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For those not aware, in the Road to Rio event alone there are also ownership ties between Dignitas players and their former org Ninjas in Pyjamas, as well as a couple of other things that probably should be looked into, but then again the wider problem here is a lack of understanding. Those confused are expected ESL to go out of their way to avoid such conflicts of interest, when the company itself is tied to organizations in ways that really should raise questions of their own.

ESL was founded by a man called Jens Hilgers, although you’ll not find his name on the Wikipedia these days. You will, however, bring up search results suggesting he is co-owner of G2 Esports, and some reporting from 2016 that shows he was also exposed by Richard Lewis as having financial ties to Fnatic, at a time he was on the Supervisory Board at ESL.

Just to boil that down, he was on the board at the company running the tournament while having a potentially controlling financial interest in not one, but two orgs involved in ESL events. It goes to show that ESL have had their own issues with entanglement long before the MIBR/Yeah situation came up.

It seems likely that unless Valve chose to properly intervene for the sake of the game, we probably won’t be free of these embarrassing headlines for some time. While HLTV do a great job reporting on it, you can see the scene still hasn’t fully caught up with why it matters from a recent tweet by the co-founder of the site itself, where he compares opportunity for corruption with suboptimal tournament formats.

For now, the fact is that CS:GO and esports generally aren’t big enough to make fixing these issues a priority, and it may be that the scene never fully outgrows its Wild West-flavored beginnings, especially if Valve continue to act the way they have. The company makes the right noises when it chooses to make any noise at all – but if Dota and CS:GO are the pudding we look at the proof, this is only a small section of the potential issues the game is currently facing.

It’s nice to look on the bright side though: at least now the audience exists for the sort of stories that highlight these issues. The growing realization from fans and players alike that this matters in the esports world is the biggest win so far, and a great sign for the long-term health of the game. As the saying goes, the first step is admitting you have a problem.

Photo credit: HLTV

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