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Ethical Issues in StarCraft: The Conflict of Interest in Teamkills

ploguidic3 2015-02-22 04:10:43

With the recent wave of accusations of voided bets by Pinnacle eSports, as well as the accusations regarding unscrupulous funding sources for online tournaments by Olivia Wong, now seems as good a time as any to discuss some of the ethical conundrums that are by and large unique to StarCraft. These issues arrive because despite the fact that StarCraft is a one versus one game, players generally belong to teams and as such potentially unethical opportunities can arise when players from the same team meet each other, and it is more beneficial for the team as a whole for one player to win, than for the two players to put out their best effort against each other.

This was potential conflict of interest was perhaps best highlighted in a 2013 MLG tournament when Paulo “CatZ” Vizcarra encountered his then-teammate Sam “Kane” Morrissette in the open bracket at the MLG 2013 Spring Championship. CatZ chose to forfeit his match against Kane allowing his former teammate to advance ahead of him rather than playing out their match. This was a polarizing decision amongst the StarCraft community. Many resented the fact that if one is to play in a tournament, they must try their best to win said tournament. Others felt that transparently forfeiting a match was a perfectly logical and ethical decision for a team leader to put the good of his team ahead of the good of his own tournament run. There was certainly controversy, but this decision was made transparently and was obviously within the rules of the tournament.

Sam "Kane" Morrissette photocredit to R1CH

The practice of putting a player's team before the player in individual sports is nothing new, and neither is the accompanying the controversy. The most classic example of this is that of so called team orders in motor car racing. Team orders are a practice of ordering a player to let their teammate advance in front of them so the teammate is able to secure an artificially better finishing position. Team orders are used when the having a preset order for a teams racer's is more advantageous for the team than allowing a race to play out organically. This happens because motor races exist as part of a larger circuit, not unlike WCS. Team orders can be used to ensure that the player who is more successful in the overall circuit is able to accrue more points. The legality of team orders has wavered in motor racing. Currently NASCAR bans team orders and F1 has an ambiguous stance, but enforcement of these rules is incredibly difficult. This is because despite rules team orders can be set discreetly, either in a live event by saying an ambiguous command or message across the radio such as “Your teammate is faster” or simply setting a predetermined order before the race even begins. Even in instances where it is seemingly obvious to spectators that team orders are being “stuck to” it is difficult to apply punishments as evidence is rarely more than circumstantial. Racing leagues and many fans believe that racers have an obligation to try their best to win the tournament, while teams which rely heavily upon sponsorship dollars will simply continue to act in the best interest of their team and thus sponsor.


StarCraft is perhaps less susceptible to these situations than motor racing is, because any time multiple teammates participate in a race there is an opportunity for team orders to come into play. The opportunity for StarCraft players to allow their teammate to artificially overcome them is only possible in so called “team-kill” scenarios when two teammates meet each other in a tournament bracket. An example of a high stakes team-kill Lee “INnoVation” Shin Hyung met his new teammate Eo “soO” Yoon Su in the finals of the 2014 GSL Season 3. The 2014 GSL Season 3 marked soO's fourth GSL finals, an achievement that is unmatched by anyone in the Heart of the Swarm era. Many considered soO to be the best player in the world at this point, but there were fears among some that soO may throw the match or otherwise intentionally not play to the best of his ability. This is because soO's various GSL and Dreamhack runs had already sealed his qualification for the WCS Global Finals at Blizzcon, while INnoVation needed to win the GSL to seal his ticket to the finals. This alone is obviously not enough create any type of case against soO for throwing his match, but here in we see the difficulty in enforcing any kind of rule that requires a player to play to the best of their ability. If soO had chosen to allow his teammate to advance, perhaps by telling him certain build orders he would use in advance, or simply playing at less than his full ability, there would be no way to prove it.

Lee "INnovation" Shin Hyung photocredit to Kevin "Silverfire" Chang

Although there are similarities between CatZ's decision to forfeit against Kane, and a hypothetical scenario where a player intentionally performs at less than their full ability in order to allow a teammate to advance, these are ultimately different acts and should be treated as such. As a business owner and player CatZ is forced to balance the best interests of his team against and did so in a transparent manner while abiding by the rules of the tournament. Although many may have disapproved of his decision, the polarizing nature of his action is a consequence he would have had to consider when deciding how forfeiting would help or hurt the ROOT brand. When a decision is made behind closed doors by simply intentionally playing at less than his full ability, the player is able to help his team and teammate without dealing with any semblance of consequence that one would expect from the decision to forfeit.


If a player is acting in good faith within the rules of the tournament, than it seems unreasonable to call their actions unethical. On the other hand it is deeply unethical to intentionally lose a match while appearing that you are attempting to win. If a player chooses to play games they have an obligation to try to their best to win. Despite the fact that the rule is largely unenforceable, the spirit of competition and integrity is strengthened by merely having a rule that states as such on the books.


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