While the electronic sports (Esports) industry has always been popular amongst the young, its global growth accelerated, dramatically, because of the covid-19 pandemic. This applied to all segments i.e., players, viewers and investors, fuelled by the passion, commitment and economic returns inherent in the industry. However, the governance structures of international Esports have not kept pace with those of its physical counterparts.
As in physical sports, the prize money now on offer in Esports, the sponsorship deals available and the exposure on social media have tempted players and stakeholders to try to gain unfair advantages through cheating. E-doping refers both, to players misusing therapeutic substances to enhance their performance and to the mechanical and electronic manipulation of the software. Both practices are intended to gain unfair advantage by using means other than the player’s skill to enhance performance, and gain in-game advantages, which impact the result of a match.
Physical sports are subject to the supervision of their governing bodies and to the jurisdiction of the criminal law of the domicile of players and of game venues. In the absence of an appropriate body (there are two at the international level however not everyone is a signatory), and with no requirement for those involved in Esports to submit to regulatory oversight (since its all largely publisher controlled), the world of Esports is struggling to cope with the problem of e-doping.
Esports require players to perform calmly in pressure situations, keeping reflexes under control but reacting quickly to changes on-screen. Physical e-doping can help with these demands. Drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin and Selegiline, have therapeutic uses but can be used to calm and control the nervous system and aid focus and speed of reaction. A professional Esports player opened a can of computer worms, recently, when casually admitting during a game that he and his teammates were consuming Adderall. The publishers of each game impose different rules, but tournament organisers have sought to control the use of drugs by adopting tournament-specific regulations based on the World Anti-Doping Code. National anti-drug laws obviously apply but may be difficult to enforce in Esports competitions.
Mechanical and software e-doping, a more challenging practice, involves such abuses as software cheat codes and applications, server attacks, bugs and third-party software or tools not allowed by the game publisher in order to gain an advantage. These hacks are used in various ways, such as allowing players to alter computer software settings to provide the auto-aiming of weapons, seeing through obstructions like walls and smoke and accessing additional powers like strength and flight. The opponent’s server or network may be hacked through distributed denial of service, and obstructions such as time lag. Technological advancements permit e-doping through hardware modifications such as altering keyboards and pointing devices and their settings to gain an advantage.
The increase in accessible live broadcasting and streaming options that generate enormous revenue, allowed players to watch live broadcasts of their own matches, thus providing insights into opponents’ gameplay. While tournament organisers and broadcasters have adopted measures such as delays of a few seconds in live streaming, e-doping has become a never-ending battle between organisers and cheats requiring vigilance and commitment at all times.
The founding of the Esports Integrity Commission (ESIC) in 2015 and the adoption of ethical standards and practices by a number of tournament organisers as complemented by the efforts of game developers have led to the successful establishment of measures to curtail e-doping. However, several unethical practices still escape scrutiny as ESIC is unable to keep up with the volume of cases reported to it each month and has found it difficult to conclude its investigations (which are time consuming) successfully because of a lack of evidence.
The popularity and acceptance of Esports, including their inclusion in events such as the 2022 Asian Games and Commonwealth Games, mean that stringent measures against cheating are now required. Multiple unconnected mechanisms are ineffective to tackle integrity issues and one autonomous governing body must be set up for the same. Legislators should revise criminal laws to include the concepts of new technology and Esports and to penalise dishonesty as in any other profession.
Aahna Mehrotra is a partner and Rashi Tater is an associate at TMT Law Practice.
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