ESL announced a decision yesterday that sent shock waves through the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) community: Players who are banned from ESL's highest levels of competitive play for cheating pursuant to the Valve Anti-Cheat (VAC) system will be permitted to rejoin ESL's competitive ecosystem after only two years.
This is a major change, as players could previously be banned for life upon receiving a VAC ban. Though it is worth noting that ESL, which organizes esports competitions around the world, has always capped bans at two years for players who are punished pursuant to ESL's separately operated anti-cheat technology, ESL Wire.
In its clarification post, ESL stated that this rule change is not set in stone.
"We will consult with players, teams, organizations and sports integrity experts such as ESIC on whether the existing policies are still adequate for professional play in Counter-Strike."
This is commendable, but begs the question: Why aren't there systems in place to ensure that consultations happens before the rule is changed in the first place?
ESL's decision has been subject to additional scrutiny because it invokes many of the underlying issues surrounding one of the most controversial decisions in the history of CS:GO, namely, the lifetime bans received by four of North America's most talented players for fixing a match while competing on behalf of iBUYPOWER in 2015. As a result, some of the game's most prominent players have been quick to criticize the inconsistency between the applicable punishments for cheating in game as opposed to fixing a match.
Apparently its okay to cheat for years at LAN tournaments(only 2 years ban) but 1 matchfixing match is life time ban. Welcome back cheaters
- FaZe karrigan (@karriganCSGO) March 23, 2017
Its unbelievable that swag, dazed & co are still banned and cheaters might come back to play once again. Unreal.
- Gabriel Toledo (@FalleNCS) March 23, 2017
These players make valid points. Both match-fixing and cheating undermine the integrity of the sport itself. And while reasonable minds can differ about which is worse, I have trouble seeing why one type of behavior should be treated much more leniently than the other.
That being said, I wanted to highlight some important overarching issues that may have been missed on this subject.
Not all cheating or match-fixing is created equal
The biggest issue with ESL's rule change is that it treats all VAC bans equally. This makes no sense. Shouldn't it matter whether the player has been caught cheating before? What if the player cheated in an online event when they were 15-years-old, as opposed to a 25-year-old that cheated during the final of a major?
In almost every criminal justice system, punishments hinge on a variety of factors, including age, intent, level of contrition, severity of the offense, whether the person is a first-time or repeat offender, and more. Moreover, this process does not end when a punishment is doled out -- parole determinations and sentence reductions will consider extremely similar criteria, as well as a person's behavior in the wake of the punishment. This is why three-strikes and mandatory-minimum laws receive so much criticism; they remove the human element from an equation that desperately needs it.
Take the case of the iBUYPOWER players, for example. All four players ultimately participated in the fix, but that doesn't necessarily mean they all deserve the same punishment. Braxton "Swag" Pierce was 17 when the match was played and, according to some reports, was pressured into participating (in contrast to orchestrating the throw).
I'm not necessarily saying Pierce deserves to be unbanned, or any of the other iBUYPOWER players for that matter. Personally, I think they should be, but that is beside the point.
The simple fact that the iBUYPOWER players are still banned does not necessarily mean all VAC-banned players should remain so as well. Maybe some of the most notable VAC-banned players impacted by ESL's decision, including Joel "emilio" Mako, Hovik "KQLY" Tovmassian, Gordon "Sf" Giry and Anil "cLy" Gülec deserve a second chance as well.
I understand why the two situations are being conflated in this instance, and I, too, would love to see significantly more structural attention paid to the problem and treatment of match-fixing, cheating and other misconduct. But each individual situation should be evaluated on its merits. We shouldn't spite one group because of arguably unfair treatment imposed on another.
The underlying system is still broken
If you just focus on community reactions to ESL's announcement, you would assume that players with a VAC ban that is more than two years old can now compete in any CS:GO event. This simply isn't the case. ESL's rule change only applies to competitions organized by ESL. Let's not forget that any player that is newly permitted to compete in the ESL Pro League still has separate hurdles to get over, including the rule sets for Faceit's ECS, Turner's ELeague, individual tournaments operated by ESEA, Dreamhack, PGL and MLG, and Valve-sponsored majors.
There is no overarching rule set for CS:GO as it relates to competitive integrity and player misconduct, but there needs to be.
This problem permeates the entire ecosystem. Take, for example, ESL's anti-doping policy. Whether you agree with it or not, it is ridiculous that a player can be banned from ESL events for violating the anti-doping rules via ESL's drug testing policy on a Thursday and play in a marquee CS:GO event that very weekend so long as that event isn't organized by ESL.
Beyond the lack of consistency, the manner in which punishments can be issued is problematic. When the iBUYPOWER players were banned, they didn't receive anything close to due process. As the stakes continue to raise for CS:GO esports, we need to create infrastructure to appropriately handle key decisions. We need clearer rules, a well-defined decision-making process that involves multiple perspectives, structured evidence collection, independent appellate opportunities and much, much more. VAC bans are certainly more automated than many other bases on which a ban or suspension would be made, but the system is by no means infallible.
Organisations like the Esports Integrity Coalition (ESIC) have been established to solve this very problem, but to date, none have been adopted by even 50 percent of major CS:GO competition organizers. We need to create more consistency, transparency and fairness across the CS:GO ecosystem surrounding how these types of decisions are made.
At the end of the day, I think the intense criticism of ESL's decision is somewhat unfair. While it's preferable the organisation didn't adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, I don't have an issue with giving certain players that engaged in wrongful behavior a second chance. This is true for both cheaters and match-fixers. Each situation should be evaluated individually based on a totality of the circumstances through a process that is thorough, transparent, fair and applies to the entire ecosystem. Only then will we achieve justifiable, consistent outcomes for the former members of iBUYPOWER, players subject to VAC bans and anyone else who is banned, suspended or subject to some other punishment.
Editor's note: Bryce Blum practices at ESG Law, where he represents a variety of esports teams, talent and institutions. Blum is also a member of the Board of Advisors for ESIC.