Global Offensive: A curtain of cheats and their inevitable fall

Hovik "KQLY" Tovmassian's VAC ban is one of several examples of how cheating has crept into competitive CS:GO. Helena Kristiansson/ESL

The console gamer's catch-22 spawned with the advent of split screen. Either you peek at your sibling's corner or risk them gaining an advantage on you. Cheat or risk being cheated. Sessions huddled around the Nintendo 64's Goldeneye were rife with finger-pointing. People were just as quick to deny it, but even with a concerted effort to focus on your corner, it was almost impossible to not notice the colors shifting in your peripheral vision. In my family, we acknowledged that it happened by not talking about it.

There were countermeasures of course. We banned Oddjob. We stared at walls to conceal our position. We slapped the controller out of each other's hands during pivotal moments. Eventually, though, we just played the game. There wasn't anything major at stake. But these types of problems persisted with each new shooter. From Halo to Call of Duty. And back to Halo and back to Call of Duty. And so on to subsequent expansions. The PC, however, was supposed to eliminate those archaic advantages. And it did. But what stepped forth was a wave of cheating unparalleled in other esports genres. Shooters dominate the discussion when it comes to accusations of cheating.

Those old LAN parties in our favorite basements grew legs and stepped out from the shadows. The perception of gamers as nerds is being curbed. The gaming industry as a whole is seeing continued growth. Valve recently announced their Counter-Strike: Global Offensive Major Championship prize pools would be raised to $1,000,000, starting with MLG Columbus at the end of this month. Just five years ago, MLG made a splash in esports with $50,000 and $100,000 prizes for StarCraft II -- meager figures now. The type of expansion the industry has seen since should be mind-boggling to anybody who played games as a kid. We were told it was a waste of time. We were told we should invest in our futures -- and so we did.

Passion meets skepticism

The wave esports is riding on now stems from a common passion for gaming. At the heart of every major title are players long confined to their own spaces -- who still are. What's causing this to blow up now is the very pent up energy and excitement that games have long provided us. All those little victories we enjoyed in our rooms are now manifested onto the large stage. That's the magic of esports. That's what separates it from traditional sports. We inhabit the same training grounds as the professional players.

What happens, though, when that very training ground is littered with toxic perceptions of cheating? Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is the largest FPS in the esports and sits next to League of Legends as one of the vanguards breaching mainstream audiences. It's a much simpler game for casual fans to understand as well. Despite its complexities and nuances, the general idea is to kill the other team. There's a scoreboard. Shooters have existed for more than two decades -- and even longer if you count its origins in actual warfare. Counter-Strike itself is a franchise that has risen through two professional circuits before this one. Among all of the esports titles, its strategies and tactics have been refined the most.

Despite changes to the mechanical aspects of the game -- and many would argue they are vast -- the core principle of competitive Counter-Strike have been consistent. While we see the likes of League of Legends place more emphasis on macro play and less on finger dexterity and speed, Counter-Strike still reigns supreme when it comes to Olympian reflexes and body control. It is an incredibly unforgiving game when it comes to making a mistake. A single death often causes the entire strategy to crumble. Anyone who has played the game has also cursed at it. We have missed the easiest of shots and flicked our wrists into the most absurd shots.

And those moments of awe -- the very ones that make your head perk up and wish someone else could have seen it -- are often met with accusations of cheating. Counter-Strike is the only major esports title to be so shrouded in controversy over cheating. It's the same type of ugly that has marred Major League Baseball.

The home run chase during the summer of 1998 saw Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa vie for Roger Maris' coveted single-season home run record of 61, which had stood for nearly four decades. Both of them smashed it with 70 and 66, respectively. Just three years later, Barry Bonds hit 73. Since then, the game's biggest stars have been caught in the steroids torrent -- including the aforementioned three. Every major accomplishment is met with skepticism. Even if people hesitate to call a player guilty, they are often equally hesitant to say he is, without a doubt, clean.

These accusations become louder every time someone is caught. See Lance Armstrong -- perhaps the poster boy for American resilience throughout the aughts. Now he's synonymous with cheating, lying and cover-ups. That's all it takes to ruin a legacy. It destroys the perception around an entire sport, where so many people are playing fair. Counter-Strike has been wrapped in the same cloud -- which becomes especially prevalent during online tournaments which rely on slow cheat detection and the human eye.

Creeping into the pro scene

At the end of 2014, two high-profile players were banned by the Valve Anti-Cheat System prior to Dreamhack Winter (one of the title's major tournaments, the very kind to now feature a $1 million dollar prize pot). Titan's Hovik "KQLY" Tovmassian and Epsilon's Gordon "SF" Giry headlined a wave of VAC-bans (as announced by their teams in separate statements). I've seen people run around the map like The Flash while headshotting anything who dared appear on their screens who weren't flagged as cheating. The system isn't perfect, but the concerted waves of bans are a clear attempt to clean up the game.

Those bans were followed by one of the most infamous moments in CS:GO's young history. Fnatic, the most accomplished and currently undisputed best team in the world, used a map exploit to garner a significant advantage to turn a game it was losing badly into a victory. It was a jaw-dropping match to watch. The casters barely knew what to make of the exploit: Fnatic's Olofmeister was boosted into an eagle-nest-like position that allowed him to pick off members of the opposition squad, LDLC, with ease. The shots came from an angle that wasn't supposed to be possible.

The likes of waving foam fingers can distract even the best players from hitting a free throw in basketball. Imagine random full-court 3-pointers raining from the rafters. Only you can't see the ball, let alone where it's coming from. You just see three points go on the board for the other team every time it gains possession. That creates a huge mental stress on your team. That's the kind of mental advantage acquired by cheating -- you disrupt the other team's flow. It's very difficult to remain calm in the face of injustice, even if it's just perceived as such. Not to mention the mechanical advantages gained by cheats. That's the type of clout that hangs over Counter-Strike's online matchmaking system. Every time an opponent is having a good game, just the very idea that hacks abound in CS:GO eats at you.

And that carries over into your perception of the pro scene. I said earlier it plagues online tournaments in particular, but cheaters figured out how to infiltrate LANs -- or so go the rumors. That's the other thing to remember about all of this. The evidence is often a finger pointed here or a finger pointed there. Fnatic's Robin "flusha" Ronnquist, for example, is perhaps the biggest name to come up when skeptics need a mark. It is the most successful team in the world at the moment and is the odds-on favorite to win any tournament it enters. Yet, there's never been any proof against him -- just speculation and "suspicious" clips.

Of course he's suspicious. That's what being good looks like. A clip surfaced recently of NBA reigning MVP Steph Curry hitting 77 3-pointers in a row during practice. Anyone who's watched him play live has had their jaw dropped. He's out there playing a video game and we're all still trying to learn checkers. Some of the alleged hacks are, however, very subtle. One claims to improve player accuracy by only a small margin -- maybe some 10 to 15 percent. One is supposed to adjust the way the mouse moves if the cursor is close to an enemy. They claim to be able to remotely activate them through the Steam client. But those types of advantages -- if real -- can make a good player into something legendary. It can turn a perpetual gold-glove-hit-machine into a goliath-like home-run-machine. It can turn a guy who defeated testicular cancer into a six-time Tour de France champion.

Say it surfaces now, though, that Fnatic did, in fact, harbor cheaters. Or, so I'm not just picking on it, let's say it's fan-favorite Ninjas in Pyjamas. These are teams that have won in the hundreds of thousands in cash prizes. Fnatic has breached a million -- this is before this year's 400 percent increase in prize money. What's the punishment? A stain on the legacy?

A chance to move forward

The entire prospect of being a professional player was a gamble. Sure, it's more stable now than ever before, but it wasn't always like this. And there isn't any guarantee this bubble won't burst. These risks are a product of instability. Get caught and you retire -- the average of a professional Counter-Strike player is roughly 23. It is even lower in League of Legends. You retire and you go do something else. Gaming might be the dream career, but it wasn't ever a feasible option growing up -- most of these players knew growing up they'd have to do something else. That prospect isn't so terrifying. It's the same prospect they face if they don't win, anyway.

So we fall back on morality. The good old human spirit and the respect for competitive integrity that comes with it. I am a little cynical, yes, but I've seen what happens when you give people the option to peek at each other's screens over brief bragging rights. Say someone comes at you and offers you a hack that hasn't been caught yet. It's not an obvious one, but it'll improve your performance. It's packaged as just a better mouse. A piece of hardware. And you sit on the brink of irrelevance, or you take a risk and shoot for fame -- the consequence of which being cast back to that very brink of irrelevance you began with. It is, however, one thing to understand why it happens and another entirely to condone it.

Valve's recent decision to permanently ban former iBuypower players caught in a match-fixing scandal was met with mixed responses. Some arguments made sense -- they should have been decisive from the get-go instead of baiting the players with the a glimmer of hope for return. What shouldn't be controversial is the decision to permanently ban them. If Valve hopes to legitimatize Counter-Strike for would-be investors, then it must do what it can to lift the perception of cheating.

In League of Legends, Riot's league system has managed to attract massive venture capitalists to invest in their pro teams. Even challenger-tier teams are finding people to invest millions of dollars into them. Their viewership continues to increase. However, having the producer so tightly wound into the scene has met a lot of criticism. The likes of IPL and MLG were forced to abandon League of Legends as Riot monopolized control over its esport. It's very difficult for new teams to step into the scene without any sort of financial backing, but that's in line with traditional sports. Riot's model favors its established teams, but stability is very attractive for new sponsors keeping their eyes on esports -- and without a doubt, we have their attention.

2016 promises to be a banner year for CS:GO. Aside from the significant prize pools at their major tournaments, Turner's ELeague is set to launch with a prize pool above $1 million as well. With Counter-Strike as its featured title, it's set to take video games onto TV. The scene is more than a year removed from its biggest scandal. Tournaments are upping security measures to counter cheating. If Valve intends to crush the stigma of cheating surrounding the game, then now is the time to do it. More energy and resources should be invested into cleansing the matchmaking service. Stability in the scene will mean more consistent rules. And that stability and integrity should be symbolic of the game and scene as a whole.

Counter-Strike is one of the most exciting esports to watch. Unlike its MOBA counterparts, its downtime is, at worst, an old-fashioned western standoff. Timers on the rounds ensure a maximum run-time that companies like Turner can work around. One of the old barriers for entry in PC games was the amount of money required to build a strong rig. Nowadays, those costs are significantly lower. While shooters like Halo, Call of Duty and Blizzard's new upstart Overwatch still maintain a presence, it is Counter-Strike that sits at the head of the genre. It's up to Valve to restore the community's perception and belief in competitive integrity. This is a scary prospect for longtime gamers accustomed to letdowns. But the trajectory of the scene and the amount of money being invested into it should be a welcome sign of hope.

Those days spectating the screens of your siblings and friends have culminated in a movement that asks gamers to celebrate each other. At the very top of the competitive ladders are players who embody every victory you've managed -- both in the company of friends and alone with your devices. Though there are people who've never stopped screen peeking, there are tons more who have made peace with their brief stints with death. They are the gamer's temporary inconveniences. And the cheaters? Even the multi-millionaire athletes -- with any imaginable tool at their disposal -- were caught. They will be swallowed by this wave.