The Difference Between Cheating in Esports vs Traditional Sports
Cheating is an unfortunately often-present bane of competitive integrity. There are always going to be competitors seeking advantages over their opponents, some in the form of more frequent, more rigorous, more productive training… and others who seek the more unfair advantages that will be discussed in this article. As much as we’d like to believe that all professional competitors are on even playing fields, the fact remains that cheaters plague both athletic and virtual competition. And when even one person cheats, it can throw every result around them into chaos, making spectators and other players question whether various wins or losses were legitimate. And once that Rubicon is crossed, it can negatively spiral until the reputation of certain teams or entire games are soiled. So-called “hackusations” or speculation on who is cheating will spread like wildfire, and even innocent players will come under undue scrutiny. In traditional sports, massive committees often launch internal investigations once accusations are made, but esports and especially smaller-scale grassroots gaming events seldom have the same resources.
Breaking the Rules IRL
It is usually easier and more obvious to cheat in the virtual realm, especially when it comes to the most famous “hacks” – wallhacks and aimbots in first-person shooters. All it takes is the right program, usually bought in a shady corner of the internet. Other methods of cheating in esports are possible; some of these will be discussed below. Choosing to cheat in traditional sports usually entails engaging in multi-person conspiracies to break rules or throw games to cash in on self- or proxy-bets. And it should be noted that there are all kinds of cheating in both forms of competition, from modifications of game equipment to match-fixing and plenty of examples besides. So, in this piece, though I can’t come close to covering them all, we’ll explore various incidents of cheating in esports and traditional sports, how these incidents have impacted their respective scenes, and what can be done to mitigate the damage.
Just a quick note about language before we dive into the unfortunately deep world of cheating in professional competition. The connotations of words are hugely important in the perceptions of the people, places, actions, or things they point to. The word “hacker” generally has an air of coolness about it, due in no small part to pop culture. Neo of The Matrix often comes to mind for me when I hear that word. As such, as seems to be the case with many more people in recent years, I’ll be calling the clowns who modify game files to cheat in esports what they really are: cheaters, not hackers. The “hackers” are the people who make cheating programs, not the ones who buy them and use them in online games, and even the people who make these programs probably don’t deserve a noun as cool as “hacker.”
Another general point is that video games typically have a slightly different definition of “rules.” See, this wild aspect of the human condition called free will that we could exhibit in real life by… say, picking up a soccer ball and running with it while karate-kicking anyone in your way, allows us to do things that we know are against the rules in ways that simply can’t happen in video games unless using a cheating program. And these cheating programs appear in just about every online game, to varying degrees. Even recent indie hit Fall Guys is not immune to the fragile egos of cheaters, and there are more kinds of cheaters than the people who remove the titular falling mechanic for themselves.
No developer wants to see a video with a title like that Shroud video and with that many views; it indicates a huge problem in Fall Guys and other online games that can be hard for devs to tackle, especially when no sane person would cheat at an experience as casual as the game in question. Shroud, who will appear again to face another online cheater later in this article, in the game he’s famous for, seems to face a huge percentage of players who “stream snipe” him in all games he plays, most especially Player-Unknown’s Battlegrounds with its 100-player matches. These “snipers” know he’s playing and generally try to troll him by queuing up just as he does, which is a form of cheating unto itself. Well, maybe the pacifists who would often give him free kills in PUBG aren’t cheaters, but this is, either way, unique to streaming culture. The closest parallel to traditional sports are fans who jump into the fray while streaking or otherwise disrupt the playing field, like the guy who got arrested for chucking a live chicken into an NHL rink.
Cheaters Abound in Esports
Funny enough, this can segue us back to esports. A fellow Jigglypuff player (though I won’t say any more about them than that, in case my source is wrong about their identity) once threw a crab at champion Melee ‘Puff main Hungrybox after the latter secured a tournament win at Pound 2019. The crab-tosser has not received any punishment I know of, but in-person tournaments don’t exist right now anyway, making it a bit of a moot point. This is just an exceedingly weird moment in the history of esports.
Now, back to the subject at hand, players cheating. The in-game rules of traditional sports are enforced to varying degrees, often by penalties ranging from small positional advantage to a reset of play to a player being removed from the rink to suspensions, fines, and even bans. Some examples of penalties include yardage-based football penalties, free kicks or penalty shots in soccer, powerplays in hockey, and hitting below the belt in boxing. These things aren’t quite cheating, though they are rule violations. EA Sports’ FIFA series turns off handballs for online play since they are boiled down to random elements in simulated soccer matches. In a video game, you couldn’t will your guy in FIFA to do the previously-imagined hand-carrying karate-kicking rule-breaking nonsense any more than you could use Link’s sword in Super Mario Bros.
The first specific sport I’d like to thoroughly and specifically delve into is infamous for its prevalence of cheating when it comes to solo players or even small private groups. This sport’s cheaters parallel gaming’s most famous form of solo competition, the speedrun. Our first sport is golf. When it’s just you and the golf course, the only person holding you accountable for your scorecard is you, if you bother to keep one at all. It’s extremely difficult for anyone on the PGA Tour to cheat, but people have. Tiger Woods famously cheated… but off the course. If you Google “pga tour cheating,” you’ll find headline after headline, so it’s not unheard of to cheat in the sport, but cameras facing you makes it fairly difficult. If they’re not there and no one’s eyes are on you, you can drop your Callaway 4 or whatever wherever you want and no one will be any the wiser. There are several world leaders known for cheating in this way. Speedrunning may not be mainstream esports, but like golf, the hobby features competition ultimately between individual players and the course/game even though they play at the same time for the best score or the best time. In other words, just as golf is a competition ultimately between the player and the course, speedrunning is a competition ultimately between the player and the game. The hobby has certainly seen better numbers on Twitch and YouTube than many other video game competitions, especially through its events AGDQ (Awesome Games Done Quick) and SGDQ (Summer Games Done Quick), as well as other events featuring live competition to get the best times or marathon get-togethers outside of the GDQs. Though it’s very difficult to cheat at one of these marathon events, people have cheated in order to be featured there. Speedrunning has seen many people akin to the golf player who shanks shots and then plays from wherever they want, who splice together their best segments (usually poorly) or otherwise cheat to get higher places on the speedrun.com leaderboards. And it can be extremely hard to spot a cheating speedrunner, though it’s always satisfying to watch them get caught.
Rule Breakers Abound in CSGO
Now, let’s dive into our first examples of cheating in esports featuring teams of players. These examples will come from the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive community. I don’t mean to put CSGO on blast here, but there’s no doubt that this particular scene has a high proportion of cheaters when compared to the average esport. This is likely because it’s comparatively easy to cheat in shooters and Counter-Strike requires a truly absurd level of mechanical skill to see success at the highest level. This high prevalence of cheaters is especially the case in the higher ranks online – just watch this classic Shroud video or this more recent one by Hiko. The latter example shows that the perception among players and community members is that most CSGO ranked games are going to feature cheaters. Though really, it’s probably just a bit higher than the average online game.
This higher comparative prevalence of cheaters is unfortunately true in the competitive scene as well as the game’s online modes. The Valve Anti-Cheat software (VAC) has struck down too many professional CSGO players for comfort. After a highly-improbable jump-shot along with several other suspicious plays he made in Dreamhack 2014, Hovik “KQLY” Tovmassian was slapped with a VAC ban. Joel “Emilio” Mako was also hit with a similar ban in the middle of a match. Nikhil “Forsaken” Kumawat, even before his ban from competition, was known to have several VAC-banned accounts. In October 2018, in a match against the Vietnamese team Revolution, Forsaken was caught in perhaps the most famous Counter-Strike cheating scandal thanks to its sheer meme potential. You need only google “word.exe” to find countless references to the cheating program found on his computer by tournament admins.
Players don’t need to break the rules of competition so flagrantly as these aimbotters and wallhack users to go down in infamy. Sometimes, “legal” plays are horribly boring or unfair; that’s why rules are often changed. There’s a long history of players pushing the envelope of the rules and inspiring or even forcing rule changes. YouTube channel Secret Base covers topics like these if you’re looking to take deep dives into sports, like this one on NHL coach and rule-bender Roger Neilson. I think the best example from the virtual realm that pairs with this is the competitive Super Smash Bros. scene. Even now, the default game mode is a 2-minute timed match, which only a few casual gamers leave on. The games all come prepackaged with dozens of competitively unviable stages and random items that are not suitable for tournaments with entry fees and cash prizes. In ye olden days, these items and/or wacky stages were often tournament standard. Usually, players playing “dishonorably” are the reasons that these rules have changed.
And the rulebooks are written because there are some strategies, exploits, and glitches that are simply too good to ever be used in competitive tournaments for money. A spectator with access to the whole map who can relay all enemy positions to their team is certainly one of those strategies. Sorry, fellow Counter-Strike fans, but we’re back up as we dive into more examples of cheating in esports. You may have heard about the recent massive scandal involving a whopping thirty-seven (and counting) Counter-Strike coaches. We covered this breaking news on our YouTube channel recently if you haven’t seen the full story yet or read the news stories. Basically, a “spectator bug” exists in which a coach who is supposed to be limited to viewing only their team’s players can instead move their camera around the map freely, and thus act as a “human wallhack” of sorts, relaying crucial information to their players.
Teams and coaches will seek any advantage they can get, especially when big money is on the line. Sometimes, this involves “abusing” “bugs” but this particular example goes much further than simply using a physics exploit or unconventional strategy emerging from wonky programming, both of which are generally legal in esports unless way too strong. And this bug is certainly way too strong. It’s outright, flagrant, blatant cheating. These coaches may have thought they could get away with it, but thanks to countless hours of demo analysis by dedicated referee Michal Slowinski and software dev Steve Dudenhoeffer, the ESIC (Esports Integrity Commission) has punished the thirty-seven coaches confirmed to have abused the bug thus far after the ESIC’s initial investigation. And as further investigatory work goes on, even more coaches may be implicated.
The parallels between this scandal and real sports aren’t the clearest-cut, but there are a few that we can draw. For example, there’s a long history of shady information gathering among big-name sports teams, often featuring illicit videography not unlike this Counter-Strike spectator bug. The most famous example is probably the New England Patriots’ “Spygate,” a story that broke in 2007. The Patriots were caught filming the New York Jets’ sideline signals during their Week One game – a clear unfair advantage, taken using literal spies. The fines were steep: $500,000 from head coach Bill Belichick and the removal of the team’s first-round draft pick from the next season. Similar allegations later emerged that the Patriots used similar filming tactics during their first Super Bowl appearance in 2002. The NFL claimed to have found no conclusive evidence against them, but… well, I’ll just say that optics are very important to the League, and many people believe those allegations are true to this day. A similar scandal later came out in the form of Denver Broncos assistant coach Josh McDaniels orchestrating the filming of their upcoming opponents, the San Francisco 49ers, during their practice sessions. McDaniels was “only” fined $50,000, a tenth of what Belichick paid, showing that relative fame and win-loss records seem to have a lot to do with how steeply the NFL decides to punish its cheaters. Most leagues, including esports leagues, often hand down punishments in a similar fashion.
The MLB is emerging from a similar videography scandal to its football counterpart, having suspended Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow (who were promptly fired by Astros owner Jim Crane) and fined the club $5 million along with several top draft picks, for stealing signs from opponents and relaying them to their players illicitly. The Boston Red Sox also parted ways with their manager, Alex Cora, who was implicated in the report. Newly-hired manager of the New York Mets, Carlos Beltran, former outfielder for the Astros, resigned before he ever even managed a game. Though widespread cheating scandals like this can happen in any league, Counter-Strike is still a niche interest compared to football or baseball, and so the punishments handed down for the virtual videography cheating via the spectator bug generally reflect the frequency of the bug’s use by the coaches involved. Bans and suspensions seem to be used more often by esports commissions and tournament organizers, which makes sense given that esports is still more of a hobby than professional and traditional athletics. People don’t generally talk in terms of the “football community,” for example, though just about every esports scene is described as such, and most esports coaches probably couldn’t afford a $500,000 fine. Again, videography cheating in sports isn’t quite the same as the “human wallhack” spectator bug, but it has the same general vibe, taking crucial information through illicit camera work – the camera is just virtual in Counter-Strike.
I’m going to put the Patriots on blast again for two reasons. First, almost no one outside of New England likes that team, and they’re one of the only squads outside of our division that my hometown team (the Pittsburgh Steelers) consider to be our rivals. As part of the investigation into “Spygate,” as seen in this sportingnews timeline of Patriots scandals (that does erroneously list Belichick’s fine as the same amount McDaniels was charged), “Further investigation by the NFL revealed handwritten diagrams of Steelers defensive signals at New England headquarters, which according to ESPN included notes used in the 2001 AFC championship game, won by the Patriots, 24-17.” That slight advantage gleamed by knowing the Steelers’ signals may have had a lot to do with their single-touchdown win. My parents were rightfully salty about this championship loss when indoctrinating me as a toddler to love our geographic ingroup sports teams, as was their civic duty. So, I have a lifetime of slightly-played up sporting tribalism coming through on this one. The more important reason that I want to hold the Pats to the fire again is that their infamous “Deflategate” scandal is the closest parallel I’ve been able to find in traditional sports to the modification of game files. These insidious mods are another method of cheating in esports.
Now, Deflategate has not been 100% confirmed or denied, but a quick refresher or an introduction to the scandal would go like this: Tom Brady, without a doubt the best quarterback of all time (though I would argue that he is not “the greatest” since more goes into that title than skill and championship wins), prefers a softer grip that comes from footballs with lower rates of air inflation. He was accused of being tacit or complicit in an illegal process of deflating balls that accompanied the Patriots thrashing the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 in the 2015 AFC Championship Game, during which the footballs from the first half were found to be significantly less inflated than standard and replaced with backup balls during the second half. After a lengthy investigation finding Brady to be “at least generally aware” of the deflation, overturning of his punishment, and subsequent loss of appeal, Brady served his four-game suspension in the 2016 season. For a more detailed ESPN timeline of the scandal, click here.
During the appeal, as stated near the bottom of that timeline, “Judge [Denny] Chin said evidence of ball tampering was ‘compelling, if not overwhelming’” and Brady denies the allegations to this day. But one way or another, whether due to the ideal gas law or deflated manually, the balls were indeed underinflated, giving Brady a slight competitive edge over Colts QB Andrew Luck for that game. Whether Brady and the Patriots did so illegally is just one more example of players, coaches, and/or equipment jockeys seeking an unfair advantage that sticks in the public consciousness even years after the scandal vacated the headlines.
Generally, there are no ways to cheat in one-on-one 2D fighting games like Street Fighter or platform fighters like Smash, barring some stories of players using combo macros, pre-programmed punishes, or unfair AI like in Street Fighter II, or whatever is happening in this highly-viewed online match featuring Mike Ross and downright weird cheater “ToolAssisted.” There’s also one story, a whisper on the wind, a single strange moment in the long history of Super Smash Bros. Melee that parallels Deflategate in its modification of game equipment, or as mentioned above, the game itself. This example of cheating in esports blows the much more famous scandal out of the water in terms of the magnitude of its definitiveness and of the cheating employed. A player known as “Pichu Kid” to the members of Pittsburgh’s Melee scene (though his actual tag was “Chaos” and I’ll be omitting his real name from this article) was making waves in his local Northeast Ohio tournaments, defeating ranked player after ranked player with his low tier joke character, Pichu. Pichu was once regarded as the worst character in the game, given its low damage, knockback, low weight, and self-damaging moves. Character unfamiliarity doesn’t even help this unevolved form of Pikachu, since that evolved form is also in the game as a much more common and much better character. So, when Pichu Kid started taking sets from local hidden bosses, people took notice. At first, people were proud of the burgeoning “low tier hero,” but something seemed fishy.
No one wanted to be the first person to make a “hackusation” against Pichu Kid, since it’d come across as petty and salty if coming from someone who just lost to a Pichu, of all characters. But his setup was eventually inspected, as it became more and more clear that something was off about the Pichu on the setup he was bringing to tournaments. He often pretty much demanded that people play on that setup specifically, just one more fishy smell wafting from this cheater. The tournament organizers and players who performed the investigation found that, when plugged into the fourth port of the console specifically, Pichu would gain various buffs. These included things like increased fall speed, invincibility on various moves, and general increases to the size and knockback strength of most moves. The top two videos that come up when you search “pichugate” feature this insane mod, as does this playlist and this Reddit thread explaining the situation which offers a warning to the community at large. That warning is basically as follows: without a “checksum” installed, which would verify the contents of the game upon every startup, such cheats would not only be possible, but easy in the current day and age… once in-person tournaments come back, anyway. Despite the ease with which modders could illicitly buff their characters, such measures have not been taken by the Melee community or indeed any game in the FGC, and so we cannot know if the creation of “Super Pichu” is the only way that a one-on-one fighting game player has cheated in tournament play. But to draw parallels with Deflategate, this isn’t so much the Patriots allegedly deflating balls as it is a minor-league football player having a bionic arm installed which could accurately throw up to several hundred yards away, but only during home games… and hoping that no one would notice.
Thank you for accompanying me on this long journey to various realms of competition, virtual and real. Let’s take one more tour of a strange example of cheating in esports before we round out the article: virtual cycling in Zwift. Just about everyone on Earth knows the story of world-famous cyclist Lance Armstrong “blood doping,” meaning increasing the number of red blood cells in his blood, as well as taking performance-enhancing drugs like human growth hormone, EPO, cortisone, testosterone, and steroids. The man also drug test documents. All of this led to him getting his Tour de France titles revoked and receiving various punishments besides. The niche world of Zwift e-cycling made esports headlines recently with a “virtual doping” scandal which actually isn’t even close to real doping. Rather, as we covered on our YouTube channel, e-cycling competitor Cameron Jeffers illicitly obtained the best bicycle in the game (one used by all tournament players) and was subsequently fined, had his victory revoked, and is going through the process of appealing that decision. As clarified in that YouTube video, he had no unfair competitive edge, since all his competitors were using the same bike. And as Jeffers points out in his response video on the subject, the e-cycling rulebook had yet to be written when he obtained the bike in a way that would later be against those rules. This example shows that it can be tempting to draw similarities to cheating in traditional sports when it would make headlines or get lots of views with a catchy title, but the story doesn’t always match up. A dark part of me wishes that Jeffers really was using performance-enhancing drugs or virtually cheating or doing something akin to blood doping… but this is more like he bought an account that has all the skins, agents, heroes, etc. unlocked in a non-Zwift video game. And that would be far from a banworthy offense in most esports.
So, the parallels aren’t perfect when it comes to video-based or equipment-based cheating in esports and traditional sports, but there is one more kind of cheating that has likely existed since money and competition were interlinked: match-fixing, when one party “throws” a game, set, or match, usually to profit from controlling the outcomes of surrounding bets. And this time, the cheaters are remarkably similar. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the “Big Fix” of the 1919 World Series.
The full story, fog of history and all, can be found through the above link, but it boils down to several members of the Boston White Sox being paid off by gambling gangsters to throw the series to the Cincinnati Reds. Whether motivated by greed or fear, this scandal ultimately resulted in an increase to the frequency and efficacy of professional sports cheating and match-fixing investigations. And there are countless match-fixing scandals throughout the wide world of sports, too many to name, in everything from boxing to horse racing.
Esports has seen a few match-fixing scandals of its own. The one I’m most familiar with is the infamous CSGO iBUYPOWER scandal, in which the titular team threw an inconsequential match against the NetCodeGuides squad while betting against themselves on the CSGO Lounge, for skins worth a good chunk of virtual change. Though the match had no consequences in terms of playoff appearances, the scandal nevertheless resulted in permanent bans being handed down from Valve-sanctioned tournaments to all players found guilty.
Setting aside a discussion on the appropriateness of these bans when compared to the lighter sentences often handed down for in-game cheating in Counter-Strike, let’s head back into traditional sports. A young tennis prodigy, Karim Hossam, shares a similar mark of shame to the Valve-permabanned Braxton “swag” Pierce of Cloud9, the youngest player implicated in the iBUYPOWER scandal. Like “swag,” this tennis prodigy became involved in a match-fixing ring and was subsequently banned for life. The lines most memorable for me in the article attached to that link come from the following exchange, starting with an offer in a message reading, “‘One set for 3,000.’ Intrigued by the offer, the player replies, ‘How much to lose?’ and he is told, ‘Lose for 3,000 my friend.’ In the event the player did lose.” A tennis match, like an item bought and sold in a market stall. The promise of profit can be so tempting that players sometimes risk their entire careers for a quick payday.
StarCraft II also went through a famous match-fixing scandal, and this one resulted in several of its prominent players being not just banned, but arrested. And these weren’t bets for skins, but for real, direct money not tied up in the Steam virtual market. And in these Korean cases, the harsh sentences handed down were not just lifetime bans from tournament organizers, but prison sentences from the authorities. The courts dismissed appeals from several of those involved because they thought that the damage done by these players to the credibility of esports was worthy of such harsh penalties.
Whether or not you think throwing match-fixers in jail cells for years is justifiable, we can only hope that these penalties discourage future competitors from cheating or succumbing to the temptation of throwing a match in exchange for personal gain. There are plenty of here-unnamed examples of match-fixing in real sports and esports, and the story is usually very similar. All it takes is enough incentive for a player or players to lose on purpose, whether from violent gangsters or for virtual guns with virtual spray-paint on them worth hundreds of real dollars. That’s why I figured this brand of cheating in esports and traditional sports would be a good one to end on – the stories are as grimy as can be and the parallels are nearly perfect.
So, as we’ve seen, league administrators and tournament organizers have to always be on guard against the possibility of cheaters, both in-game and out-of-game. The temptations to receive money for losing on purpose or to attain fame and fortune for illegitimate victories have been too much for far too many competitors, in both the virtual and real-life arenas of competition. The question of what can be done about both kinds of cheating remains. For the governing bodies of sports and esports, it takes constant vigilance and zero tolerance when it comes to cheaters and match-fixers. For competitors, it takes a remembrance that the results are not everything. Umehara Daigo, the greatest Street Fighter player of all time, puts it like this in his book The Will to Keep Winning (an ironically large part of which deals with letting go of wins and losses), after discussing the need some players have to win at all costs to gain relative fame and fortune: “Forget all that. Live life at your own pace and grow every day, and the accolades will naturally follow.” In other words, winning and losing aren’t everything. And though cheaters do sometimes win (it’s hard to beat a guy who can teleport into your spawn and one-tap headshot all five of you less than a second after the round starts), they certainly never prosper and rarely, if ever, improve their legitimate skills. Make constant, measured, legitimate improvement the goal, and temptations to cheat will fall away, leaving only the game at hand and the skills to be refined… unless gangsters are threatening your family if you win, I guess. In that case, by all means, sell out baseball.