The Zika virus. Coastlines made up of water that's mostly sewage and human refuse. The political scandals. Protests held by police and firefighters over the wages they're not getting. A collapsed bike path that killed two people. The jaguar that ran alongside the Olympic torch but then had to be put down. Green water in swimming pools. The doping scandal that embroiled Team Russia.
If you were keeping up with the 2016 Olympics in Rio, chances are these headlines are all old news to you. And if you were keeping up with the 2016 Olympics, and you're also living in America, you might've already forgotten about all this stuff that happened earlier, 'cause everyone's talking about Ryan Lochte now and what a horrible human being he is.
We've gotta hand it to you, 2016 Rio Olympics. You've certainly won the gold medal for the Most Scandalized Olympics in recent memory. But when it comes to controversies, look out, real-world sports, the glittering and gritty world of eSports might be giving you a run for your medal.
If you've never heard of eSports (also known as pro gaming), it's competitive gaming. And it's serious competitive gaming, with nationally-selected participants training as a full-time career to crush their opponents in a variety of games, broadcast live overand other online live streaming services, complete with play-by-play commentary. While eSports is still a long way from having its own Olympics, it is a multi-million dollar industry that pulls in competitors and spectators from all over the world.
What drives young men and women to compete in video games? It's not just the thrill of winning, but the thrill of winning big money; as of August 2016, DOTA 2 has awarded approximately $86 million so far in prize money over 651 tournaments. And that's this year alone, so far. Players winning international championships can expect to take home roughly $1 million USD in prize money, and some companies, like Riot Games, even pay their players like salaried employees.
So it should come as no surprise that whenever cold hard cash is involved, controversy follows. And in the gritty world of competitive video-gaming, the stakes are as high as the temptation to cheat. Here is a taste of some of the most legendary controversies in eSports.
1. Adderall: This Is Your Brain on Steroids
It's a sad, sad truth that competitive sports and performance-enhancing drugs go hand-in-hand. eSports is certainly no exception. Performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) are so widespread in eSports that players and officials have both acknowledged the prevalence of their use.
Perhaps most (in)famously, professional Counter-Strike: Global Offensive player Kory “Semphis” Friesen has gone on record candidly admitting in an interview: “We were all on Adderall, it was pretty obvious if you listened to the comms. I don't know, people can hate it or whatever, but tons of people do it.”
Adderall is a prescription stimulant commonly used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. As a performance-enhancer, Adderall has been clinically proven to improve both cognitive and memory control and significantly enhances performance in goal-directed behavior—which definitely comes in handy when you're multi-tasking queuing up your barracks while coordinating a pincer attack with your siege tanks and an invisible squadron of Wraiths.
The fact that Semphis made the comment in such an offhanded fashion pretty much brought the elephant in the room out into the open and caused a major upheaval in the industry. While eSports officials and fans have long been aware of PEDs, it's been a problem that's stayed swept under the rug up until Semphis made his stellar comment during a live-streamed interview, and of course, it's up forever on YouTube.
Now that league organizers have been forced to act to save the face of their industry, some steps have been taken to regulate the use of PEDs during tournament play by threatening expulsion or hefty fines. Baby steps, but steps nonetheless.
2. Play On Our Team, Or Your Mom Loses Her House
In 2015, 18-year-old Marcin “Kori” Wolski grew frustrated with eSports organizers who failed to pay him for several months worth of matches throughout the previous year. Uncertain if he'd be paid for an upcoming event, and realizing that he no longer enjoyed playing with the team, Wolski tried to quit.
That's when he received a call from his manager Sebastian “Falli” Rotterdam. At first, Rotterdam tried to guilt Wolski into staying with the team, stressing that if they don't play, they'll lose valuable sponsorship income, meaning that the entire team will “lose their jobs.” When it became apparent that Wolski wouldn't be swayed, Rotterdam resorted to threatening his family directly. Here's what the manager said to his 18-year-old protege: “You know your mom signed the contract? I will make sure you will lose the house. That's a promise.”
Unbeknownst to Rotterdam, Wolski recorded the entire conversation. Unfortunately, Wolski was too intimidated to do anything with the recording. Subsequently, he was not only coerced into re-joining the team, but also to pay a fine for leaving.
It was only some time later that Wolski finally found the courage to upload the recorded phone conversation to a publicly-accessible file sharing site for audio content. The net result? Rotterdam quit his job, and shortly after was permanently banned from holding any role in the official League of Legends tournament organization. Details are a bit sketchy on whether Wolski was ever paid, let alone refunded his penalty for leaving the team.
3. League of Slave Labor Legends
The popularity of competitive gaming is legendary in South Korea, with championship teams attaining celebrity cult statuses, but it's not often we hear from the star players themselves. At least, until just a few years ago, when several prominent South Korean players began to speak out about the widespread mistreatment of players by their managing organizations.
In an interview, League of Legends player Bae “Dade” Eo-jin told a reporter that “Korean players wake up at 1 pm and play until 5 am,” and suggests that the horrendous 16-hour game-playing regime was a significant contributor to burnout, stress, and mental fatigue. South Korean organizations have also come under scrutiny due to accusations of refusing to pay their professional gamers with competitive salaries. Consequently, many South Korean players have embarked on a slow, but noticeable exodus to other markets, with some finding mercenary work by hiring out their pro-gaming skills to other international teams.
In 2015, League of Legends organizers passed new rules for Korean teams in that they had to adopt minimum salaries for professional players, and sign contracts that permitted players to stream individually for increased private revenue.
4. Top League Player Rigs Games, Attempts Suicide
In 2014, news broke of a top Korean League of Legends player Cheon “Promise” Min-Ki having attempted suicide. As the story developed, details arose that made the case increasingly more convoluted. According to the Korean eSports Association (KeSPA) as well as testimony from Cheon's teammates, Cheon had thrown several recent pro matches over the last year.
According to Cheon, the match-fixing started when he was approached privately by their manager Noh Dael Chul, who asked Cheon to lose a match as a 'punishment' against one of their sponsors, who had neglected to pay a fee. Cheon was troubled by the request, but was pressured into carrying out the deal, and his team lost a match they could have easily won. Though disappointed, his teammates remained unsuspecting about the loss, and the team continued to train together and compete.
Over the course of the year, Cheon was approached by their manager again. And again. Again and again, Cheon acquiesced to the wishes of his boss and threw match after match. Finally overwhelmed by his guilty conscience, Cheon told the whole story to his teammates, who banded together and confronted their manager. Noh attempted to sway them all to his side and throw one last match, after which they would be paid out and could leave the team. When the team refused, Noh sold off all the computers and equipment they used to practice.
We know about this from a lengthy Inven forum post made by Cheon, who relayed his experiences in great detail. He also describes how he'd discovered that, from the start, their manager had planned to cultivate a strong reputation for their team as top gamers, and would then bet heavily against them. The team would then lose their matches on purpose, allowing for Noh to collect his winnings, which would then cover the team's salaries and living and training expenses. Normally, a team's expenses would be covered by a sponsor, but Noh had financed his team privately.
Cheon concluded his post with this ominous passage:
“tl;dr: I'm not in this world after 5 minutes... I am sorry for all of this, and I can't tell you everything, but I'm leaving now as I can't deal with this anymore.”
True to his word, Cheon subsequently threw himself from the 12th floor of a building. His fall was broken by the roof of a recycling center, and he was taken to the hospital in a coma with multiple fractures. Shortly after the news broke of the beloved sports star's ordeal and attempted suicide, fans rushed to establish online fundraisers to help with Cheon's recovery. Korean eSport authorities promised to pursue legal action against the team's manager, Noh, and to arrange to provide help for Cheon's medical care. Cheon has since recovered and is now back to doing what he loves: playing games and streaming.
So the Olympics might maintain its hold over the gold medal for Most Waterborne Pathogens in a Sports-Related Controversy for a while, but it might've surprised you to know that the world of geekdom has its own professional sporting leagues, and all the scandal to go along with it. It's a sad statement of the times to see cheating and controversy go hand-in-hand, even with a hobby as beloved and otherwise benign as gaming, but it should come as no surprise that wherever there's glory involved – and especially a lot of money – cheaters sometimes do prosper.
To be fair, of course, not every manager is a dyed-in-the-wool scumbag, and not every professional gamer doses up on prescription ADHD drugs before a championship match.