Earlier this month, the first British e-cycling champion, Cameron Jeffers, was stripped of his title for using a bot instead of riding on an actual trainer, to unlock the virtual “Tron Bike” in the cycling simulator Zwift. While he did not use the bot during the championship, the virtual superbike nevertheless gave him an unfair advantage over his competitors. Jeffers is certainly not the first cheater in e-sports. Gaming platforms, and e-sports organizers especially, struggle continuously with cheaters who use software hacks (e.g. aimbots or seeing through walls), share accounts, fix matches or use chemical stimulants.
Cheating is part and parcel of all sports and software cheats have been part of video games forever. In casual online games, some 40% of gamers cheats sometimes or regularly. It is only logical that esports also see their share of cheaters in pursuit of money and fame. In response, platforms have set up anti-cheating departments that check for illegal software patches. They’re also developing algorithms and machine learning tools to detect anomalies in the behavior and performance of players. Zwift, the e-cycling platform, has set up its own agency, ZADA, formerly known as the Zwift Anti-Doping Agency; a clear reference to “real” sports’ WADA. ESL, the world’s largest esports platform, claims to spend up to a third of its technology budget on anti-cheat technology. Across the sector, the Esports Integrity Commission (ESIC) governs the fight against cheaters and prosecutes offenders. Possible punishments include fines, public shaming of players and their avatars (including executions), multi-year bans and even jail sentences.
E-sports have the potential to offer a genuine level playing field to all competitors. Unlike in conventional sports, everyone can ride, shoot or fight with exactly the same digital bicycles, racing cars, guns or swords. Yet, at the same time, the potential for cheating is far greater, since a smart hack (e.g. “god mode”) can provide a far bigger advantage than a shot of EPO or other forms of cheating in conventional sports. As esports continue to grow (global revenue of USD 1bn) and prize money increases (tournament prize pools already amount to USD 30m), cheating will become all the more lucrative. It is thus no wonder that game developers and esports companies fear the detrimental impact of cheating. However, as we have argued before, cheating in sports also makes for compelling stories and can add a layer of human interest that has largely been lacking in esports so far.