The news of another match fixing scandal in Starcraft has broken out hours ago, and here is the summary and my opinion. More importantly, I want to discuss about how this could be potentially prevented.
To begin with it is very sad that I have to use “another” in the first sentence and “2015” in the title, in order to be specific about this very match fixing incident. This is because there was another arguably higher profile match fixing scandal five years ago in Starcraft, if you aren’t familiar. I used SaviOr in the featured image because he’s the face of the incident.
I will quickly summarise what happened, then provide my opinion on the incident and how we can reduce the chance of such scandal from happening again.
Rumor had it that there would be a report on match fixing in Starcraft today (examples of credible sources: Crank and Waxangel). Eleven to twelve (different reports state different number) individuals were said to be identified and they included players, coaches and brokers. Before the actual report was released, YoDa (player) and Gerrard (coach) of team Prime were singled out to be involved in match fixing, and KeSPA issued a statement that both are banned for life no matter what the results of the investigation are.
Those involved players and coaches are reported to be paid 5000USD to 20000USD per match fixed.
No other name was mentioned in the released report.
BBoongBBoong was later reported to be involved as well.
Let me start off with a clear statement.
I have zero tolerance and zero sympathy for those who are found guilty of being involved in match mixing. However, as long as the individuals are not found guilty in the formal prosecution process, I will believe that they are not guilty due to the benefit of doubt and my confidence in the legal system.
Everything I mention hereafter follows the above statement, and I hope my words will not be misunderstood.
It is unclear whether those mentioned have already been found guilty, so please keep that in mind. It really saddens me if the report is true, and those names are involved. I think there is no debate that no one agrees with the behaviour, and they should be punished if they are found guilty. Period.
If they are found guilty, the only room for discussion is the motivation behind the decision to fix a match. According to several sources, Prime were having operation issue financially and it resulted in desperate measures.
I believe almost everyone will say that it is not a pardonable reason for match fixing. The line has certainly been crossed.
Art, like morality, consists in drawing a line somewhere.
– Gilbert K. Chesterton
I will like to bring up something rather controversial. At its core, such behavior is basically giving up morality for desperation needs. May I go as far as drawing parallel with someone, who has no food, steals food. If you look at Marslow’s hierarchy of needs, the physiological needs like food and water come before anything. Thus, it is understandable and perhaps forgivable for someone to steal food to survive. However, this leads to a question, is the operation of the team ranks below morality and ethics? To bystanders like you and I, the answer is simple. No. However, for those who are personally involved, there may reach a point that the team is everything. I don’t mean “everything” in a philosophical sense, but rather from a psychological perspective. If the individuals have been trying every legal option possible to save the team, it is easy to fall into the pitfall that it is all-or-nothing. In other words, the previous actions done to save the team become a “sunk cost” that create a cognitive bias, and it in turn makes the individuals thinking that everything they had tried and held on to will be in vain if they give up. I am not finding excuse for them, but just pointing out why people do what they do even if they know they shouldn’t do it.
Let’s move away from cognitive psychology perspective and look at it from a behavioral economic perspective. People react to incentive, whether they are aware of it or not. To put it simply, those who match fixed are desperate for money, and it is the monetary incentive that outweighs the reasons to not match fix. On a macro scale, this is hardly deniable. I recommend you to read Freakonomics if you are interested in it, as this principle is consistent across different contexts, cultures, occupations etc. Thus, it can be argued that match fixing behavior, like many others, is predictable. If I were to ask you to point out a team in Proleague that is most likely to commit in match fixing, I guess the answer is quite obvious. Your justification will likely be their poor results and financial struggle, which essentially are the incentives to match fixing. These can be broken down into two things.
First, the incentive to win is too low. A good example is match fixing in sumo wrestling, and I quote: “…the study found that 70% of wrestlers with 7–7 records on the final day of the tournament (i.e., seven wins and seven losses, and one fight to go) won. The percentage was found to rise the more times the two wrestlers had met, and decrease when the wrestler was due to retire. The study found that the 7–7 wrestlers won around 80% of the time when statistics suggest they had a probability of winning only 48.7% of the time against their opponents. Like Benjamin, the authors concluded that those who already have 8 wins collude with those who are 7–7 and let them win, since the 8-win wrestlers had already secured their ranking.” Similar to this situation, Prime’s Proleague results can be argued to be “meaningless” from their perspectives, and it is whether the opponents can beat them with a 3-0. No one will fix a match when you have something important on the line.
Second, the monetary reward is too huge. The first point alone cannot account for the behavior, because it suggests that one will match fix for any cost if the incentive to win is too low based on a homo economicus perspective. But that only happens in a theoretical sense, no one will do that for a dollar in practice. Here is another related example based on behavior economics, a study by Gneezy and Rustichini (2000, Quarterly Journal of Economics) found that the monetary incentive has to be “big enough” in order to have the intended effects. I quote from a blog summary, “…performed a field experiment with 10 day care centers in Haifa, Israel. These day care centers were having problems with parents picking up their children late, which (to me at least) is not surprising since there was no specific penalty for doing so. In order to combat this problem, the day care centers instituted a fine of 10 Shekels per child if a parent arrived more than 10 minutes late. Economic theory would obviously suggest that, since the price of picking up a child late has increased, there would be less of that activity. However, what the researchers saw was that more, rather than fewer, parents started picking up their children late. It is also important to note that this higher level of tardiness persisted even after the fine was taken away (at least for the period that the researchers observed.) … The parents likely took the fine as an approximation of the inconvenience to the teachers, and may have realized that they were previously overestimating the inconvenience to others.” Incentives matter.
The two points I brought up may seem extremely intuitive, but when you think deeper after you combine both points, it makes me wonder whether we can systematically prevent such match fixing scandal from happening again. This leads to my next point.
I don’t want to simply hold a moral high ground and repeat the criticism that have been stated by many, but rather think of plausible solutions that may help us prevent match fixing again.
I believe that, theoretically, if something is predictable, it is modifiable. Thus, if match fixing behavior is predictable, we can prevent it or at least reduce the chance of it happening. Clearly, the current negative reinforcements (i.e., legal and social consequences) alone are not enough to discourage people from match fixing, so I try to come up with improvements based on the two seemingly intuitive points mentioned in the last section. What I am going to suggest here does not account for the limitations behind the scenes, as it is a different discussion altogether. For readers who have been following my blog and are aware of my background, here is what I am going to say: Academics focus on ideas and practical implications, and the actual applications should be the job of practitioners.
Reduce redundant games
By reducing redundant games, we reduce the number of games that have little incentive for those involved to be played and this addresses point number one mentioned above. There can be different approaches, and I will just suggest one. Proleague can systematically reduce redundant games by changing the tournament format used. The current season format is a round-robin system, which ensures every team plays every other team. While it is arguably the most fair system from a pure meritocracy perspective, it results in many “meaningless” games that do not affect standings. That in turns creates redundant games, and systematic redundant games creates match fixing opportunity. The key word is “systematic”, because if it is not, there is little room for match fixing potential. A good example is the infamous Naniwa Probe rush against Nestea in Blizzard Cup 2011. This is because both had a score of 0-3 in a group of five, and they would be in the last two places of the group no matter what the result was.Although the match is redundant (which is the rationale behind Naniwa’s action), you can’t really set up a match fixing scenario as it is hard to know this will happen to contact the players accordingly beforehand.
I don’t want to make a suggestion of what tournament format is the most appropriate as it requires insider knowledge of broadcasting limitation and viewership etc. However, using the same logic, there should be a lower chance that players match fix in GSL and SSL, because every game counts in the format. With that being said, the investigation of this match fixing scandal has pointed out that there were some GSL games involved. Therefore, since systematically reducing redundant games (point number one) alone is not enough, it needs other additional fix like creating an association based financial support (point number two).
Association based financial support
This is to address point number two mentioned above. It is arguably impossible to reduce monetary reward for match fixing by controlling the amount of money offered. However, we can reduce the perceived value of the money offered for match fixing by providing a safe financial net for every player in the league. If those involved are not desperate for money (i.e., trying to keep the team alive), it is relatively hard to tempt them to fix matches using money. I am not saying it is not possible to be tempted, but definitely much harder. This is because it does not only reduce the perceived value of the task in a risk and reward sense, but it is less likely for people to go through the cognitive bias I mentioned above since they are less likely to engage in prior desperation actions and thoughts.
Does KeSPA have the money to do that? I can’t give a definite answer, but it is important to have a sustainable model (look at examples like NBA and NFL). Ideally, the teams should be given enough basic financial backing to ensure they can operate normally. External sponsor deals (e.g., JinAir for JinAir Green Wing) will become add on for the teams, and KeSPA can contractually take a portion for the association and the league. For all I know, there may be something like this in place already, but the details need to be refined for the sustainability of the industry itself. If Starcraft is big and legitimate enough for such match fixing, then it is big and legitimate enough for KeSPA to really do something about it. There is training for the association’s players to learn how to deal with the press and so on, and even “retirement planning” for the players is on the agenda. Therefore, I truly believe there is room for improvement in preventing match fixing from a systematic approach beyond just highlighting the negative consequences.
I have zero tolerance and zero sympathy if they are found guilty.
At the same time, there are many positives to be taken away from this scandal. First, Starcraft is not a daed gaem (did I even spell the joke correctly?), or else there won’t be a match fixing scandal. Second, there have always been investigations happening in the background, even though the authorities seem to be quiet on it. Third, weird performance alone is not enough of an evidence to prove one has fixed a match.
The suggestions I mentioned are very limited, but they show what can potentially be done. I am sure KeSPA and other eSports organisations can do better to prevent match fixing as much as possible through other means apart from negative reinforcements.
I will end with a quote from Yoda himself.
Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.
Featured image is taken from monsuey.