As Sports Shorts reported last month, many ‘traditional’ sports have turned to esports during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to maintain engagement with fans while their own competitions have been cancelled or postponed. However, esports can be vulnerable to scandal in much the same way as regular sports. In this blog, we will look at a case that has brought into sharp focus the issue of cheating in esports and the importance of having competition rules that cover this behaviour.

Formula E’s Race at Home Challenge

ABB FIA Formula E, commonly known as ‘Formula E’, is the world’s first all-electric international single-seater championship (think Formula 1 but with electric cars). With normal competition not currently possible, Formula E organised the ‘Race at Home Challenge’ (the “Challenge”), with the aim of bringing the sport into the virtual world. As part of the Challenge, teams and drivers from Formula E, as well as a selection of top gamers will take part in a series of live online races with the noble objective of raising money for UNICEF.

The Challenge features two separate grids running in parallel; one comprised of professional Formula E drivers and the other filled by some of the fastest gamers and influencers. The winning gamer will make the transition from the gaming world to secure real-life track time on a Formula E circuit during a race weekend, when normal competition returns. The climax of the Challenge will come in the grand final online on 7 June 2020.

The Challenge was progressing well until a scandal erupted in Round 5. During the race, competitors such as Jean-Eric Vergne (DS Techeetah Formula E driver) and Stoffel Vandoorne (Mercedes-Benz EQ Formula E driver), who eventually won the race, repeatedly raised suspicions that Daniel Abt (Audi Sport Abt Schaeffler Formula E driver) was not behind the wheel. Their suspicions stemmed partly from Abt’s unexpected ascent to the podium positions when he had struggled to make the tops spots in earlier rounds of the Challenge. Additionally, competitors are normally shown live through video conferencing whilst racing and all of the competitors could be seen clearly, apart from Abt, whose feed was  obscured. Vandoorne even tried to call Abt during the race but he did not respond.

As a result of in-race complaints and other complaints received by Formula E after the race, the organisers decided to investigate. Whilst Formula E did not explain exactly how they conducted their investigation, it was reported that organisers had cross-referenced the IP addresses of competitors and confirmed (i) it could not have been Abt behind the wheel, and (ii) the IP address used was in fact that of professional sim racer, Lorenz Hoerzing,  who was pretending to be Abt during the race. Hoerzing had been competing in the sim racer section of Formula E’s events but has since been suspended from the sim racing series.

Abt apologised in a video, and said he always planned to reveal that Hoerzing was in fact the driver, that no money changed hands and that they just “wanted to create a funny story for the fans”. After admitting to his indiscretion, Abt did recognise the seriousness of the matter.

Unfortunately for Abt, neither Formula E nor his team found the ruse amusing. Formula E ordered Abt to pay €10,000 to a charity of his choice and disqualified him from the Challenge. Audi Sport Abt Schaeffler fired Abt from the Formula E team as a direct result of his deception. In a statement, Audi said: “Integrity, transparency and consistent compliance with applicable rules are top priorities.”

The rules

In order to sign up for the Challenge, entrants had to complete an Entry Form, which contains links to the full Terms and Conditions (“T&Cs”) for the Challenge and the Competition Rules.

Clause 11 of the T&Cs provides that all Challenge races are subject to the Competition Rules and the Code of Conduct within those rules (the “Code”). Amongst other things, the Code states that:

  • All participants are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that reflects positively on the organisers (and any of its affiliates), press, and other participants and comply with all applicable law and regulation at all times.
  • Participants shall not engage in conduct which the organisers deem to be harmful to the business, reputation or relationships of Formula E or their partners.
  • No forms of cheating, gameplay, gamesmanship or gaining an unfair advantage in any way will be tolerated. This includes, but is not limited to […] Impersonation (including playing under another driver’s account) – to be understood as playing under another driver’s account or soliciting, inducing, encouraging or directing someone else to play under another driver’s account.
  • Any other behaviour as determined to be cheating, gameplay, gamesmanship or gaining an unfair advantage in any way by the organisers.

The Code also states that:

  • Participants are responsible to notify the organisers at the earliest opportunity of any form of cheating, gameplay, gamesmanship or gaining an unfair advantage by any other participant that they know of.
  • Competitors must notify the organisers of any unfair exploits that they become aware of. Any participant who is deemed, in the sole determination of the organisers, to have cheated or behave in any way as described above may be penalised and/or disqualified from the Formula E Race at Home Challenge.

Under clause 19 of the T&Cs, Formula E reserves the right to disqualify competitors, who it deems to have breached the T&Cs, the Competition Rules or the Code.

How are other esports tackling cheating?

Other big gaming leagues have already wrestled with the issue of cheating. As news website The Verge observes, the organisers of the League of Legends Championship Series (which has become fully remote as a result of COVID-19), recognised the differences between playing in a studio, where everything is controlled, to playing remotely and the opportunities for deception it brings. As a result, organisers brought in measures such as “screen recording, running in-game communications through league-operated Discord servers, and broadcasting games on a delay so players can’t gain a significant advantage from watching the competition”. Similarly, the ESL Pro League is using proprietary anti-cheat tools during matches and also keeping tabs on players through webcams.

Of course, tournament organisers would prefer that cheating and attempted cheating did not occur at all. With that in mind, player education is a very important tool for event organisers and teams seeking to prevent misconduct. Some esports stakeholders turn to third parties to provide relevant training. For example, ESIC (which stands for ‘Esports Integrity Commission’) is a not-for-profit members’ association body that works with esports stakeholders with the aim of combating corruption and cheating in esports. ESIC educates players on issues like cheating and anti-corruption and has created its own ‘Integrity Program’, which includes a clearly defined code of ethics, a code of conduct and an anti-corruption code. ESIC’s view is thateducation is the best method of deterring corrupt activity and [so we] are committed to a robust and comprehensive education programme”.

Conclusion

Whilst Daniel Abt’s case illustrates the importance of putting in place practical measures such as those described above to prevent and discourage cheating, it also shows the importance of having robust terms and conditions for esports competitions, that allow organisers to quickly disqualify competitors and impose monetary penalties, should the need arise. Such provisions have the dual purpose of allowing organisers to act swiftly, thereby minimising any reputational damage, and deterring competitors from cheating by clearly setting out strong sanctions. Unfortunately, in this case, Formula E’s protective rules did not have the desired deterrent effect on Daniel Abt and Lorenz Hoerzing.

Squire Patton Boggs is here to help you draft terms and conditions for your next esports competition. Please contact Ailin O’Flaherty for more information.