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Battle Royale with Arda Ocal: Catching cheaters in BR games

Battle Royales from Fortnite to Warzone have made efforts to deal with cheaters in their playerbases. Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the world was introduced to a 24-year-old who is finding cheaters in video games. His name is Mohamed Al-Sharifi, an Iraqi who lives in London, and since he got laid off from his job for COVID-related reasons, he's spent his time busting hackers -- and he's very good at it. In fact, through multiple discord servers and other means, he's amassed a group of volunteers that help him snuff out the "bad guys."

Cheating and hacking is always a discussion in gaming, particularly in Battle Royales. Whether it's a dispute over top prize money in a competition, or top streamers lamenting the amount of hackers they experience in an eight-hour play session, the topic regularly comes up. In November, FaZe Jarvis received a lifetime ban from Epic Games for using hacks publicly in Fortnite. Jarvis is not the first and certainly not the last.

The topic of cheating has come up recently in Fortnite as well, particularly as new events such as the Fortnite Champion Series begin to ramp up again.

So how do people cheat in game? One way is collusion -- where you collude with opponents to gain points and advantage, to "gamify" the leaderboard to advance to a tournament or receive more prize money. "Storm Surging" is one such example, where players will deliberately wound -- but not kill -- one another in order to avoid a storm surge penalty. Famously, two Canadian players were banned for 14 days following allegations of cheating prior to the 2019 Fortnite World Cup (but still qualified and participated).

Then there are the cheat programs that are found online. This is where I decided to consult with Al-Sharifi, who was recently profiled by VICE about how this is accomplished and how it can be prevented.

"It's really easy to cheat in [Fortnite and Call of Duty: Warzone]," Al-Sharifi told ESPN. He explained that certain websites (that he declined to provide so as not to give them any free promotion) have one-day pass keys that cost around $5 to $20 depending on features.

"It's as simple as going to your local shop to buy snacks," he said.

In one such example, when you download the cheat program and give it administrative access on your computer, the program loads its driver into a kernel and then allows you access to many cheat functions, including information on enemy locations, an easier-to-see color palette for weapons and enemies, enemy weapon and loadout info and aim assist.

What is a kernel? Think of it as a central nervous system of your PC, connecting software to hardware. It is the layer in between applications and your CPU, memory and devices that essentially controls a lot in your PC. If an application had control of this, it would be very powerful and able to bypass a lot, including manipulating certain programs. Cheat software essentially bypasses any anti-cheat software or detection by using the kernel on your computer.

"Warzone's anti-cheat is completely defenseless, they will never win the war against cheaters for the simple fact that they don't even have a kernel driver," Al-Sharifi said. "If you want to win the war against cheaters you need to have an intrusive anti-cheat or you just won't do anything."

Al-Sharifi said that Infinity Ward, the creators of Call of Duty: Warzone, do regularly ban cheaters, particularly in waves. However, users can simply create another account and download the same cheat software.

"I can play the game right now and cheat for weeks or months and then be banned by their ban wave and it only can take me less then 10 minutes or 1 hour to come back and do the same process again," he said.

Al-Sharifi loosely estimates that based on the information he has collected and is aware of, 10% of the Fortnite user base cheats in some way, while it's closer to 25% for Warzone. Al-Sharifi says Fortnite does make a more concerted effort to stop cheaters.

One game that Al-Sharifi compliments in the anti-cheat realm is VALORANT. The new tactical shooter from Riot Games comes with the Vanguard anti-cheat software that installs directly on your computer as a measure to prevent hacking. While privacy concerns have been raised about the Vanguard software itself, particularly its kernel-mode driver, Al-Sharifi believes this is what developers should be doing to attempt to eradicate the problem.

"(Riot) have completely gotten rid of cheat dev pasters, and public cheats," Al-Sharifi said. "It is extremely hard to cheat on VALORANT, and also hard to obtain private cheats for VALORANT. Sadly enough, you cannot get rid of cheaters, but what VALORANT has done with vanguard is extremely impressive since they have made it very, very hard to cheat, which should be the goal for every company."

Al-Sharifi notes that third-party anti-cheat efforts do exist, like BattlEye and Easy Anti-Cheat, but the hackers "are like [five] steps ahead of them" and the most effective method would be for the developers to create the measure themselves.

Is cheating truly a major problem in gaming and esports? While many will say the answer is yes, a few sources closer to Epic Games and Infinity Ward (who wish to remain anonymous) told ESPN that though it does exist, it is blown way out of proportion, particularly by public outcry on social media. One source said that often, a tilted player will publicly complain about a cheater with no evidence, which will lead to the conversation being brought up again, even though cheating wasn't necessarily the cause at all. Others have said that companies, in particular Epic Games, have dealt very well with situations like these recently. Epic didn't respond to a request for an official comment about how they deal with cheaters, while Infinity Ward pointed to a series of tweets that dealt with their response to cheating in Call of Duty.

With millions of users playing games like Warzone and Fortnite every day, and competitions like the Fortnite World Cup and the Fortnite Champion Series offering sizable prize pools, the allure to gain an advantage -- whether the reasons are monetary or, perhaps, an addiction to winning -- will always be prevalent. Competitive integrity, at least according to Al-Sharifi, should be held in the highest regard, which means shutting out the cheaters.

NEWS AND NOTES

1) Speaking of competitive Fortnite events, 14-year-old gamer Gen.G Moqii became the first female competitor to win an official Fortnite Champion Series solo event on Sunday, in the stacked European region no less.

"I'm glad I made it as far as I did, but this is just the qualifier, not the semifinals or the finals, so there's still a lot more to be done," Moqii told ESPN. "I am happy with my performance during the qualifiers, and I hope I can do well in the semis and finals as well."

Her father (both Moqii and her father wished not to disclose their names) believes this was a long time coming for his daughter.

"I'm so proud of her and her achievement," he told ESPN. "But I'm not surprised at her top placement because we knew how capable she is and that this day was coming."

In terms of the magnitude of her accomplishment, Moqii is focused on being the best player she can be and does not dwell on hyperbole.

"I don't really look at it as making history. I just want to be known for being a good player in Fortnite, and I try not to focus on other things right now. I practice and study the game a lot, and want to improve even more between now and finals."

"Gender doesn't matter in this," 14-year-old Fortnite competitor Soleil "Ewok" Wheeler told ESPN. The important thing is to support each other while you're playing."

Fortnite caster Arten "BallaTW" Esa told ESPN the win was a long time coming for someone of her talents and previous results that might have been even greater. "An opens stage is something we all already knew she could win, she's gotten close multiple times," BallaTW said. " But there's a lot of volatility ... in my mind her qualifying for finals of Dreamhack Anaheim and then FNCS Invitational was more important and more difficult. However, (we) can't understate the impact of seeing a 14-year-old girl at the top of a leaderboard. This will hopefully open the floodgates in making it more common for girls to compete at a high level."

2) Warzone Season Five brings with it not just another 700-gig update (just kidding, it's only 36), but new additions to Warzone: the stadium roof is blown off (FINALLY!) and now you can drop inside, trading bullets around the concourse and different sections. I wonder if you'll get to watch a football or soccer game too? Oh, there's also a speeding train somewhere on the map that crunches vehicles. Enjoy!

3) The newest member of NRG Fortnite, Clix, won the Bugha Throwback Cup on July 31. I wrote about NRG's footprint in Fortnite a couple of columns ago.

4) One other concern about Fortnite competitive comes from CourageJD. After citing the amount of awesome personalities and undiscovered talent there is in the Fortnite scene, the popular streamer lamented about the spectator client in a tweet.

I will say that the wide shot of the builds after a game has concluded is one of the prettiest visuals in all of esports.

5) This week we also got more Marvel / Fortnite collab, with the Hulk Smashers pickaxe and bonus Hulkbuster available to users that completed the Marvel Avengers game beta on PS$/XBOX One. This is a smart way to get players to get one game and play it through so they can enjoy a unique cosmetic in another game they already play. I've said it before and I'll say it again, Epic Games' collaborations with celebrities, brands and leagues is undefeated.

Speaking of collabs......

6) I'm going to be in Fortnite this Saturday ... because of Tetris!

That is 100% factual. I am the host and one of the commentators for the Classic Tetris World Championships, one of the biggest retro esports tournaments around. Last year, the tournament was featured as part of ESPN 8: The Ocho, a yearly day at ESPN where the most bizarre but awesome sports are featured (including classic Tetris). On Aug. 8 this year, The Ocho is coming to Fortnite on the Big Screen, which includes a re-airing of a 30-minute 2018 CTWC special. So, with apologies to Game Awards creator and frequent host in Fortnite Geoff Keighley, I am now Fortnite's favorite personality from Toronto.