Starcraft CSR: The Starcraft Scandal

RichardLewisRichardLewis 2010-04-21 19:06:49


Richard Lewis reviews the South Korean Starcraft betting scandal that has rocked e-sports

This article is the sole opinion of the author and does not represent the opinion of Heaven Media Ltd or the opinion of any affiliates.

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April 12th 2010

It is often the way that the biggest stories break through the most innocuous means. South Korea is a hotbed of e-sports activity, especially Starcraft, and while it may be something of a Western exaggeration to call it their “national pastime” the best players and teams are treated with a reverence rarely seen by their European counterparts. However, even with the gaming and e-sports press taking an interest in such matters, the scene remains quite insular and secretive. News and updates often come down a slow drip feed and there are very few reporters outside of South Korea, and indeed outside of the Starcraft scene, that truly know the full story. With so much invested in the competitive Starcraft community it always seemed unlikely that the dark underbelly would ever be overturned to face the light.


The story as it broke on news.naver.com (Picture courtesy of news.naver.com)


At a little before two o’clock in the afternoon the site news.naver.com broke a story that would send shockwaves not only round the country, but around the world. It alleged that it had uncovered details of an illegal gambling ring that was fixing the outcome of high profile Starcraft matches to buck the odds and earn significant profits. It also alleged that unnamed notable players had been involved with the scam, as well as key members of their organisations.

Within hours the story had been translated and posted on the Team Liquid forums, a hotbed for Starcraft related discussion. The reaction was mixed. There had been some who had always questioned the legitimacy of some results, while others were dismissive of the story seeing it as sensationalist and without merit. Yet as the hours ticked by the story gained momentum, being picked up by several mainstream gaming sites and even sections of the mainstream media. It was clear the story not only had more than a grain of truth in it, but it also wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. As the first names started to be revealed many fans the world over hoped that their favourite players wouldn’t become embroiled in what was already being labelled the biggest scandal in e-sports history.



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Richard Lewis reviews the South Korean Starcraft betting scandal that has rocked e-sports

This column is the sole opinion of the author and does not represent the opinion of Heaven Media Ltd or the opinion of any affiliates.

[whiteline]

Background

Starcraft has become a way of life for people in South Korea, so much so that even those outside of it recognise the impact it has had on their culture. Many people often ask the questions “Why Starcraft” or “how did that particular game become so popular?” There are no short and simple answers. Rarely are there for anything that could be described as cultural phenomenon. There are multiple factors at play that have all contributed to the growth and development of competitive Starcraft in this part of the world.


Seoul, South Korea


For example, their fierce rivalry with neighbouring Japan led to several trade restrictions that particularly hit consoles. They were not hit with an out and out ban, but such items were the preserve of the very wealthy. For an everyday person if you wanted to game, the easiest and cheapest way to do that was by owning a PC. As such in the 1990s their people were not exposed to the wave of Nintendo and SEGA titles that were craved both domestically and by the West.

In addition to that South Korea was very much ahead of the curve when it came to internet connections. Perhaps again fuelled by rivalry with Japan, the government were fixated on developing as much cutting edge technology as possible and they saw the potential in broadband communications. The telecommunications companies that were then owned by the state were effectively forced into building the infrastructure that made high speed broadband possible in the populated areas of the country. The proliferation of this technology, along with the government agenda, kept it affordable and not only was it present in the majority of households at a time when it was seen as the “new thing” in developed Western countries, it was so cheap that the use of internet cafes during work breaks or while on the move became an integral part of the daily routine.

During the late 90s south Korea hit a significant economic downturn. Businesses were going bust and high unemployment forced people to have to think about going into business themselves. One of the simplest and seemingly most profitable businesses that someone could run in Korea was an internet cafe. There was an abundance of customers, especially those who wanted to use the internet away from the potential watchful glare of family members or other colleagues. By the turn of the century there were literally tens of thousands of such businesses dotted across a country with a population of just under 50 million. At the equivalent of 50p per hour the cafes were soon packed. Players could meet each other and play face to face, adding a more human experience to competitive gaming. It was not uncommon for people to come into the cafe to watch certain players perform, hoping to pick up on some tips or tricks that would help them improve their game. The owners didn’t mind – those who came in to watch would often sit there for some time buying cokes and snacks at a mark up price.


One of South Koreas 30,000 internet cafes, known as PC Bangs


With the combination of cheap broadband and PC gaming came the popularity of online competitive play. Yet there were limitations on what titles could pass the afore mentioned trade restrictions and other laws, including censorship. Grand Theft Auto III was banned because of its content and later Counter-Strike: Source would run into licensing issues. Blizzard titles proved especially popular and the company remains the only Western company to have any sort of foothold in the Korean market. Starcraft seemed to provide players with the perfect blend of competitive RTS action and came packaged with a platform, Battle.net, that made seeking out like minded players online easy. Its low specification requirements also meant that it was a game available across all social classes and income brackets. It was easy to see why such a game, in this particular environment, would take off.

Of course the economic downturn affected everyone from all walks of life and this included the television companies. With television also growing in popularity there was a need for cheap programming, something that people would want to watch but wouldn’t break the budget. With the cultural impact that gaming, in particular, Starcraft was having it made sense to try and cater to this demographic. After some tentative programming proved popular it wasn’t long before channels started to pick up Starcraft matches as a regular feature in their schedules. By 2002 there were e-sport specific channels televising live competitions, with Starcraft featuring very heavily. The two biggest are now Ongamenet and the government owned MBCGame. Huge corporations, such as Samsung, KTF and SK Telecom, started to pump sponsorship into the organisations and players, seeing an easy opportunity to be advertised in something that was culturally relevant but also in its infancy and therefore cheap.

Culturally speaking South Korea, while very technologically advanced, has also produced little in the way of sporting heroes. It is only in recent years that their football has come on leaps and bounds, with many citizens preferring to watch the English Premier League for their soccer fix. In other sports they are too under-represented. While Korean cinema is finally starting to get the recognition it deserves in both Europe and America, for a long time there were no stars or maverick directors that could be exported to other countries. Often the preference for major advertising and endorsements was to bring in stars from America rather than their own domestic talent. In this celebrity vacuum the Starcraft players were given far more prominence that would have been afforded to them in almost any other culture. Not only did they have the buy-in of the natives, but they also had that export value, albeit in e-sports circles. When they played outside of Korea in global tournaments, such as the WCG, they were seen as unofficial ambassadors for the entire country. It didn’t hurt when they invariably won too.


The South Korean national football team competing in the 2002 World Cup


To put this into perspective during the 2002 World Cup the top Starcraft players were taken into the dressing room of the South Korean national football team. After having made history by beating Spain on penalties they were facing Germany for a place in the final. The players were there to help motivate the squad for the biggest game in their careers. Can you think of another country where e-sports stars are brought into a room of starstruck international footballers? Can you picture Sam “RattlesnK” Gawn or Marc “Mangiacapra” Mangiacapra being invited to boost Fabio Capello’s team?

The matches really mattered to many people and for players a top spot in the KeSPA rankings (Korean e-Sports Players Association) was not only something that would propel them into the public spotlight, it was also proving to be extremely lucrative too. With so much money and so many interested parties it was only a matter of time before gambling activity started taking place on the outcome, as you would see with any sports. However, in South Korea gambling law is a very complicated area.



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Richard Lewis reviews the South Korean Starcraft betting scandal that has rocked e-sports

This column is the sole opinion of the author and does not represent the opinion of Heaven Media Ltd or the opinion of any affiliates.

[whiteline]

South Korean Gambling Law

As in most of Asia, gambling in South Korea is effectively illegal. It states in Article 246 of the Criminal Act that anyone who gambles or bets for the purposes of gaining property shall be punished by a fine of up to 5 million Won. Article 247 prohibits the opening of premises for the use of gambling for a profit and carries a punishment of imprisonment for no more than 3 years or a fine of up to 20 million Won.

However, it is not that cut and dry an issue that it could be called “outlawed”. In South Korea it is still possible to gamble under certain circumstances, rules about which are preserved mainly for the promotion of tourism to the area. For example when it comes to Casinos the laws vary for tourist and Korean citizens. For tourists the Tourism Promotion Act allows hotels to operate casinos that only foreign nationals are allowed to enter. Such businesses are heavily supervised on penalty from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and feature stringent security on their premises. All slot machines are illegal outside of a casino. There is even one casino found in the Gangwon province, an abandoned mining district, where it is legal for citizens to gamble. This is part of a special act to rejuvenate the area.


A South Korean based hotel casino


When it comes to online gambling, the waters muddy even further. As the transactions likely don’t take place on South Korean soil it would be impossible for them to be subject to the country’s laws. Yet, as the user is still of that nationality, they are still subject to the national laws surrounding gambling. The National Police Agency has set up a task force to monitor any illegal online gambling activities, but as of yet there have been no cases brought to the courts to test out just how strong the law is on this particular issue. That might change soon.

The Scandal Unfolds

Despite the mainstream Korean media not wanting to bring too much attention to the scandal it is one so big that keeping a lid on it has proved almost impossible. By the time it hit the forums, the story wasn’t just being replicated in the e-sports press, but had spread to mainstream media in Austria, Norway, Germany, Sweden and was even reported on by the BBC. On a national level The Korean Times seemed determined to be one of the few voices wanting to get to the bottom of everything. While many in South Korea hoped that it would simply go away, The Korean times were with the public clamouring to try and fill in the gaps, most of which are people’s names.

Their story on the 15th April decided to sum up the national levels of disillusionment and disappointment with an opening human interest paragraph.

“Since 1999, Park Won-ki has-been a die-hard fan of StarCraft” It began. “It was one of his biggest joys in life to watch professionals compete in local leagues of the worldly popular military science fiction real-time strategy computer game. A section of his blog is dedicated to postings on computer games. But now, the 33-year-old office worker says he is not sure if he can genuinely enjoy them as he used to. ‘I feel so miserable and disappointed. It's so shocking to realize fake matches and fraud were part of the history of StarCraft leagues,’ Park said.”
What we know for certain is that as the game grew in popularity people saw that it could be utilised for profit. According to the reports an illegal gambling ring formed in 2006 and prominent members of the competitive scene were approached to facilitate proceedings. The people behind the websites made contact with several retired pro gamers, a former pro gamer coach, a former match announcer and an e-sports journalist about the possibility of rigging some matches. With their collective know-how and contacts, the ring went about their business of approaching to ranking players and inviting them to throw results in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. It is said that while many declined, no-one reported the matter and a blind eye was turned to the activity when it was suspected.


Spectators gather for a live match


All the more sinister was the fact that it is said the organisers behind the tournaments and events were aware of the situation and had tried to revolve it themselves without mentioning it to the authorities or to the press. This had the effect of driving the ring underground and tightening their security. In the end it is said that the organisers held a closed door conference where they discussed the possibility of co-existing with the illegal betting sites, with many in support of the idea. By 2008 it is said that the practice had become part of the norm, a way of adding some spice to a season with manufactured twists and turns.

A flight of fancy? Perhaps. As it stands such conspiracy theories may be all the public ever have that comes close to the truth. South Korean human rights laws precludes criminals from being named by the press and KeSPA have said that any players they find guilty will be subject to internal disciplinary action, likely very quietly. Despite the huge significance of the matter there has been no official statement from the Ministry of Culture, however according to the BBC a spokesperson from the Korean Embassy in the UK was willing to go so far as to say that it had been reported to the police and was being dealt with. Even The Korean Times appears to be of the consensus that true justice may never be served, at least never publicly, although there will likely be measures put in place to prevent this from happening again.

Even in the absence of names, some will remain guilty in the eyes of many through insinuation and coincidence.



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Richard Lewis reviews the South Korean Starcraft betting scandal that has rocked e-sports

This column is the sole opinion of the author and does not represent the opinion of Heaven Media Ltd or the opinion of any affiliates.

[whiteline]

The Savior

When Jae Ma "Savior" Yoon burst on to the scene he was like a breath of fresh air. A Zerg player, he used innovative tactics to defeat all the biggest names in the game. Everyone was stunned by how incredibly talented he was and it seemed as if he was unbeatable. The question became not about whether he would win his match, but would his opponent be even able to win a single game against him. Naturally, he found himself not only enjoying a devoted following but also the financial rewards that such success brings.


Ja Mae "Savior" Yoon (Picture courtesy of Gamepron.com)


Given that the player had already established himself as seemingly unstoppable 2007 saw a few shocks for his fans. In February 2007 he had made it to the finals of the MBC Championships once more. If he won, it would be his third consecutive title. Many wouldn’t have bet against it. At this stage in his career he had won 70% of all his televised games.

His opponent was a Protoss player called Taek Yong Kim, known as Bisu. Despite a good run to the final he was a huge underdog when paired up against the best player in the world. Yet there was something amiss in Savior’s play, it just didn’t seem what people had become used to. In truth, he was dominated by his opponent and tens of thousands of fans who had turned out to watch the final live, coupled with those who watched it on television, could not believe their eyes. Not only did Savior lose the match, he lost it in straight games for a 3-0 scoreline. Bisu was crowned champion in what was a huge e-sports upset.

A bad day at the office for the reigning champion? It happens to everyone, in every competitive field. That match was not the only one that the one time invincible Savior lost and even though it was still only a handful of fixtures many seemed to arrive at the conclusion that his form had dipped significantly. They had become so used to seeing him win. It can’t be said for certain if anyone besides optimistic Bisu fans profited from the outcome of that final, but in light of the scandal such anomalies are all being carefully scrutinised.

Whether or not Savior is involved will likely never be known for certain. It is safe to say that he will be one of the players investigated, his name already on the publicly leaked “black-lists” that are being circulated. Is he simply a victim of his own talent? Do people find it so hard to believe that he could lose legitimately that it is easier to swallow that he threw the match to a lesser opponent? It seems there could be more than just a small part of that in play. Then again, if you have ever seen him play, it is easy to understand why – he is that good. That in itself is a shocking realisation. As many have commented since his name was linked to the scandal, if the few games he did lose were fixed doesn’t that make him even better?

The Future For Starcraft

Depending on how you look at it the scandal couldn’t have arrived at either a better or worse time. The launch of Starcraft 2 is only round the corner and while it isn’t certain that it would be such a success it would instantaneously take over from its first incarnation as the competitive game of choice, perhaps the scandal might help it achieve exactly that. Those keen to leave this sordid affair in the past might see the arrival of a new game as the means to do exactly that. Even if the change is only cosmetic it might prove to be one that at least keeps consciences clean. It is speculated in the South Korean press that Blizzard will soon enter the fray and use the issue as a means to push the move to Starcraft 2 and increase their overall control of their product in the country. However, there are those that say competitive Starcraft, whatever the version, needs to undergo some radical changes if it is to win back the belief of fans.


Will Starcraft 2 represent the competitive future in South Korea?


Those changes look to have already begun with the cancellations of some tournaments and a new set of rules being drafted for those that want to take part. The most important part in the implementation of these changes is going to be doing it in such a way to appease the sponsors and investors that make the sport possible. What was at one point a cost effective form of huge advertising could quickly be perceived as having a negative impact on the company image now that the e-sport has been so openly linked to illegal activity. Reassurances are going to have to be made that this sort of thing will not happen again. If sponsorship money was to be withdrawn from the sport the current system in place, a twelve team league with each team supported by a particular company or business, could collapse entirely. The organisers of the tournaments have moved quickly to ensure this does not happen.

The first comments about the new rules came from Song Byung Gu, the player known as Stork, who finds himself acting as a player spokesman on many issues. Following his teams match against Airforce Ace on the 14th April he said:
"Something huge has happened this time around. But instead of talking about the issue itself, this problem has changed few rules in Proleague, and players are getting harmed from these new rules. Cellphones, MP3s etc. are banned from stadium now. I can understand the cellphone ban, but many players use music to calm their minds down. The precaution is okay, but I think this new rule is also harming these players.

I think they took away the freedom from the new players who will take a lead in E-Sports in the future. MP3 should be allowed. I know that there are models that can access internet, but this new rule is invading player's freedom."
The new rules may not be liked by everyone however almost everyone involved with the scene from the top down accepts that change is required if Korean e-sports are to have a future. Often seen as an indicator of how big e-sports could be by the rest of the world, how this problem is dealt with could have a global impact.

Many sections of the media compared this betting scandal to that of the American baseball team, the Chicago White Sox. Eight members of that team were found guilty of match fixing during the World Series and were banned from baseball for life. The stain on the team saw them dubbed the Chicago Black Sox. Yet it has to be noted that while it may appear to be a similar occurrence there are marked differences. For starters, even in 1919 baseball was established as America’s national pastime. It wasn’t going to go anywhere, scandal or not. In this instance the fledgling industry of e-sports, even in a country as progressive as South Korea, does not have that luxury. If justice is not meted out to the satisfaction of all parties with something invested in the competitive gaming scene, then it is not melodramatic to say that it could all come toppling down like a house of cards.

The real scandal would be if it was swept under the carpet once more.
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