Few esports teams have achieved the phenomenal success of Fnatic.
Established 16 years ago as a niche project by a Sydney mum-and-son team in Australia, it later spawned a vaunted global brand that boasts a global audience of 55 million fans.
With more than 200 esports championships in the trophy chest, it has become a PR behemoth headquartered out of a muraled alleyway in east London.
Fnatic’s social feeds are populated with a new genus of elite athlete — the hardcore gamers who comprise its teams — adorned in varsity Gucci ensembles and pictured fist-pumping around their custom-branded BMWs.
Esports teams like Fnatic rely on sponsorship. So when the team was offered a new lucrative sponsorship deal earlier this year, it might have seemed like a typical day at the Shoreditch office.
But this particular proposal came with strings attached. It required Fnatic to secretly agree to lose matches.
As it happens, this “investor” was a match-fixer.
The esports revolution
The competitive gaming industry has exploded over the last decade and is now worth more than a billion dollars.
But with success has come challenges.
Background Briefing has learned the global agency tasked with combating corruption is under-resourced and failing to keep up with the torrent of complaints.
While the coronavirus pandemic put much of the traditional sporting world on hiatus, esports viewership has skyrocketed.
Audience numbers have increased by an estimated 50 per cent since March.
In Australia, the industry is still in its infancy, but it’s worth millions and is growing.
Sydney investor David Harris sees a day when Australia’s sporting greats won’t be cricketers or footballers. They will be gamers.
“Part of the decline of traditional sports is that they are having trouble connecting with that younger generation where esports, you’ve got that wave of young fans coming through who are staying with it,” he said.
Mr Harris has invested millions in the industry at home and abroad. He’s a former NRL general manager who experienced his “light bulb moment” in 2015.
That was when he learned that a website run by one young esports enthusiast in Sydney was getting millions of viewers.
Individual matches have out-rated the Super Bowl and players can earn more than their traditional sporting counterparts.
One Australian player — Melbourne’s Ana Pham — won around the same prize money from a single tournament as Novak Djokovic did for winning the Australian Open.
Across the world, elite gaming houses have sprung up, where talented players can live and breathe video games, and chase the dream of making a high-paying career out of their childhood passions.
Local teams attracting lucrative sponsorship deals
On a suburban road in Kellyville is a rather ordinary-looking family home. But look closer and you’ll notice the lawn is overgrown, the lights are often on until the early morning and the curtains are always drawn.
Inside this house might just be the future icons of Australian sport. It’s the home of the Chiefs, one of Australia’s most elite pro-gaming teams.
Team captain Tom Henry explained why the team needs to keep the house so dark.
“The important thing is not having glare on the monitors because that can really affect just how much you can see,” he said.
In the living area, where in most houses a couch might sit, there’s a row of expensive gaming computers.
They are illuminated by fluorescent lights and signs bearing corporate logos.
There is also a fully stocked glass-doored fridge filled with one brand of energy drink.
In the bathroom, more merchandise — beauty products provided by a major team sponsor.
Only a ‘negligible’ number of fixed matches are stopped
As esports’ profitability has increased, so too have allegations of match-fixing and fraud.
The Esports Integrity Commission (ESIC) investigates and reports on corruption allegations across the world, and by its own admission, it’s swamped.
ESIC receives around 100 match-fixing, cheating and other corruption allegations every day. And while not all of these complaints are credible, it says it doesn’t have the resources to investigate them all.
“If you look at another sport like cricket, they probably have between four to six major match-fixing investigations annually. We have 14 and that was basically picked up in the span of three months and they are all fairly major,” Mr Hanna said.
He says only a “negligible” number of fixed matches are ever stopped.
In Fnatic’s case, the team immediately rejected the match-fixing approach and reported the incident to the regulator.
A spokeswoman told the ABC the team takes a zero tolerance approach to any form of cheating, and this policy is spelled out in its player contracts.
Australian player banned after he ‘didn’t read the rules’
Joshua Hough-Devine, 19, is a semi-professional Counter-Strike player known online by his gamer tag, JHD.
“I like winning, especially when it’s against someone that talks a lot of sh*t,” he said.
He had hopes of making it big, until last month, when he learned via Twitter that he had received a 12-month ban for gambling offences.
“I just laughed it off, it was just a shock,” he says.
JHD had been caught betting on his own matches — he says he only ever bet on himself to win and he never threw a match.
“When you do that sort of stuff, it’s basically just stealing money, it’s a scummy thing to do,” he said.
He says he takes responsibility for his actions and his only explanation is that he didn’t read the rules.
It’s young emerging players like this that are often the target of match-fixers. Josh says he’s been approached online to throw matches, but he refused.
“I’ve been offered like $2,000 a match to throw, but I just don’t take it because it’s just not what I’m about,” he says.
“Like why would I take $2,000 when you have a possibility of getting arrested.”
Esports’ governance issues compound risk
In Australia, players caught match-fixing can face serious penalties, including jail time.
Last May, five men from Melbourne’s outer suburbs were charged with match-fixing offences as part of the first Australian criminal investigation into esports.
The police unit responsible for the arrests was Victoria Police’s Sporting integrity intelligence unit.
The head of the team, Detective Superintendent Steve White, says esports players are potentially more likely to be easily corrupted by criminals because of poor education amongst players.
“Due to lack of education by leagues, tournaments, or the game publishers, players will be potentially unaware of the rules governing betting on esports or even how to recognise the match-fixing approach or how to report it,” he said.
Detective Superintendent White told the ABC that the risk of match-fixing is compounded by the lack of a single esports governing body; there’s no videogame equivalent of the International Cricket Council.
In Australia, there are some associations which advocate for the sport.
One, the Australian Esports League conceded that the industry was fragmented, leaving individual players vulnerable.
Another, the Esports Games Association, told Background Briefing the Government should speak to video game publishers and tournament operators about integrity measures.
Often the job of educating professional gamers and setting consistent standards is left to tournament organisers or the game publishers themselves.
The two biggest names in esports are game publishers Valve Corporation and Riot Games, which control the intellectual property of their games and often administer the esports leagues.
Background Briefing asked them whether the absence of a governing body was putting young players at risk. Neither responded.