Two Years of Silence: ESIC's abandonment of the NA Matchfixing Investigation
Two years ago today, when ESIC banned three players in the Mountain Dew League (MDL) for conspiring to throw a match, it marked the first time the integrity commission had issued sanctions against players in North America. It also marked the first time since iBUYPOWER had been banned that NA players had been held accountable for what had become an open secret; matchfixing was rampant in the highest levels of semi-professional play.
With that momentous stroke of the ban hammer, ESIC also announced that they were in the process of "investigating and resolving charges for 34 individuals," a staggering amount of potential bans for a scene of NA's size. Likewise, this new announcement saw the list grow from ESIC's initial press release which stated they were pursuing fifteen investigations.
With this announcement, despite the body missing a number of previous deadlines, many thought ESIC were going to "drain the swamp," for a lack of a better term, wiping the slate clean of matchfixers and their fellow travelers. This is especially true with ESIC's announcement of the FBI getting involved, supposedly bringing a new group of skilled investigators into the fold once they "found their footing".
Alongside these bans, Ian Smith, the commissioner of ESIC, would go on a press tour, telling HLTV Confirmed that the investigation would take time however the body had access to "amazing material" that would help address this serious issue. Along with this, it was also confirmed publicly that ESIC would be working with Riot Games to potentially mirror the bans in VALORANT. While this would not directly help the NA scene, justice for players who were perceived to decamp to Riot's FPS to evade justice and were now on cloud nine enjoying six-figure salaries and the good life in a new VC-backed wonderland felt right on a cosmic level.
With the stage set for more bans to drop in the coming weeks and months, no one could expect what would happen next in ESIC's investigation into rampant matchfixing in the North American scene... complete radio silence. In the two years following their initial ban wave in the NA matchfixing investigation, ESIC have yet to release any further bans nor offer any further public accounting of progress made after nearly 54 months of investigation.
To date, the only bans dropped, which were against Carson "nosraC" O'Reilly, Sebastian "retchy" Tropiano, and Kevin "4pack" Przypasniak, only came as a result of a concerted effort of multiple journalists, which full disclosure includes the author, in providing the original leaked recording to ESIC demonstrating ChocoCheck's attempt to fix a match that was later forfeited.
With the premise in mind that ESIC's only bans to date were helped to the finish line by external actors, it feels fair at this point to raise two questions: have ESIC made any discernable progress in the past two years, and if they have nothing to show after nearly 4.5 years of investigating, are they totally in over their heads?
When you consider ESIC's numerous missteps when it comes to their mismanagement of the parallel AU matchfixing investigation, ESIC's long-prophesized second coach bug ban wave, the mismanagement of the investigation into Luis "peacemaker" Tadeu's potential use of the coach bug, or their humiliating kowtow to Nicolai "HUNDEN" Petersen and his lawyers over the threat of potential litigation, just to name a few examples, it doesn't inspire confidence.
Dust2.us attempted to contact Ian Smith, Stephen Hanna, and ESIC as a whole on multiple occasions to ask for an accounting of their activities over the past two years. Unfortunately, they did not respond or acknowledge the request for comment.
Despite not returning Dust2.us' requests for comment, an hour-long interview with Ian Smith was released today by the INSITE CS podcast discussing ESIC's activities.
Unfortunately, and as can be expected, Ian's discussion of the investigation is largely about the issues the body have experienced while also admitting that the organization struggles to maintain focus on old investigations due to poor staffing and a flawed workflow:
I guess this comes down to me, in a sense, relying on people like you actually asking me this question because being proactive on old investigations when we have got 100s of new ones is a question of resources, time, and focus. We are a radically under-resourced organizations, relative to our workload. So, my focus individually is always on "what are we doing now," not on “what did we do last week, last month, last year," which is a fault – I’m explaining and excusing.
That’s not a good thing, but it is one that we are addressing now, in terms of resourcing. We need more people, and we need people who are exactly in the position to identify that we haven’t updated the website, to say "hey, I looked at website and we haven’t done anything on this for 6 months to a year, whatever." I don’t have that luxury, at a personal level, and neither do the few people who work for us yet. Bluntly, the increase in resourcing, both at a human and money level, is what we need to serve the community in a way that the community deserves. In the meantime, I rely, as the community does, on guys like you asking me the question.
I’m perfectly prepared to answer the question, but I don’t sit day to day with my investigatory workload going; "oh yeah, perhaps I should revisit this thing that happened 2 years ago." I hold up my hands that that is not satisfactory and we're building towards what is satisfactory very rapidly.
These comments made by Smith are damning in the context of the NA investigation. It suggests that while many may have expected ESIC to be diligently working on this issue for at least the majority of 4.5 years, the NA matchfixing investigation may have been a non-priority within ESIC for some time. If ESIC were to be forced to give an accounting of the time and effort put into this investigation, the results may not look good, but truly only Smith and the rest of leadership know.
So where does this leave NA and the overall cause of integrity in the scene? Not in a good spot, I'm afraid. Without saying the quiet part loud, it can be said with certainty that matchfixers have continued to be active in the scene over the past two years. With that, there's very likely a new feeling of impunity as the ESL FACEIT Group (EFG) have handed over their investigative authority over to ESIC, a body that hasn't demonstrated its ability to protect esports integrity.
Keep in mind that in mid-2022, ESIC were presented with a low-stakes slam-dunk case where an ESEA Main player admitted on video to trying to arrange a fixed match and ESIC did nothing about it despite ESIC being forwarded the evidence by ESEA.
With this fact apparent, and with the release of Counter-Strike 2 on the horizon it very well may be time for the Counter-Strike scene to decouple from ESIC and chalk it up to another failed initiative a la the CSPPA. We have already seen some willingness by ESL to go down this road by fining Astralis $100k for violations of their conflict of interest statutes without the public involvement of ESIC.
While ESL and its subsidiaries aren't viewed as the most caring or capable protectors of esports integrity perhaps putting more power back into their hands may clear some of the red tape and allow actually caring parties to work faster than at a snail's pace.
Whatever the future holds, the fact that NA is today celebrating the two-year anniversary of our collective abandonment by the body that was supposedly set to clean up the scene is a sad, but expected day, for those who have clung onto the scene despite all of the challenges. However, needless to say, ESIC did not respond to our request for comment prior to the publication of this article.