LONDON (Reuters) - The rapidly-growing virtual world of e-sport is having to face up to some very real problems as it steps further into the mainstream sporting landscape.
The age-old scourges of match-fixing and doping are becoming part of the conversation even as the talk turns to an electronic future at such major multi-sport tournaments as the 2022 Asian Games.
Issues of governance, player contracts and protection of minors are keeping the lawyers busy in a rapidly-developing electronic arena that has been described as a sporting ‘Wild West’.
Jan Pommer, director of team and federation relations at Cologne-based ESL (Electronic Sports League) warned also of the risk of external regulation.
“The U.S. or the European Union, if they have the impression we are not taking this seriously and developing this adolescent industry ourselves in a way that is efficient, we will be in problems,” he told a Leaders in Sport forum on Tuesday.
“Mike Tyson once said ‘everyone’s busy making plans and then you get punched in the face’,” he added.
E-sports include competitive gaming where players square off on virtual games for big prize money in tournaments and draw millions of spectators online.
Global audiences are expected to reach 385.5 million this year, according to research firm Newzoo. The Olympic Council of Asia is also planning to make e-sports a medal sport in the 2022 Asian Games.
While some stakeholders have played down the extent of the problems, they recognise the dangers as the rewards and revenues grow.
Pommer told Reuters that e-sport did not have a doping problem and the ESL regularly tested players.
He acknowledged, however, that there had been issues in the past with Adderrall, a drug commonly prescribed to treat ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
Students seeking to stay awake and energised while cramming for exams have also been known to take it.
Michele Attisani, co-founder of leading e-sport community FACEIT, felt some of the reporting had been more “to create sensational news around e-sport as a whole” than based on reality.
“There’s been cases where players have used drugs to enhance their capabilities but no-one has proved yet that this is a real issue for e-sports,” he said.
Pommer, a sports lawyer who previously worked for Basketball Bundesliga and the German Olympic Association’s marketing affiliate, said e-sport had become a billion dollar business with a ‘crazily huge’ betting market in Asia.
“There is enough money for potential match-fixers to invest into e-sport,” he told Reuters.
”Over 90 percent of match-fixing in classical sport is related to betting so why should this be any different potentially in e-sport?
“It’s important to have companies like Sportradar really tackling this and analysing it ... and having something like an e-sport integrity coalition. This is definitely necessary and everyone should be aware of this.”
He said there also had to be severe consequences for anybody caught trying to cheat or fix because the credibility of the competition was at stake.
Noah Whinston, the 23-year-old Los Angeles-based chief executive of e-sport franchise Immortals, sounded a more sceptical tone, however.
“I am pretty spectacularly unconcerned about match-fixing,” he declared, while recognising it had been “pretty rife” in the early days of e-sport when players made next to no money and few saw gaming as a career option.
“I think now, especially at the top levels of competition, not a lot of players are willing to throw away an easy $200-250,000 a year job that is going to be their career in the long term,” he said.
Pommer suggested that might just be wishful thinking, given some previous cases involving mainstream athletes earning substantial sums.
“You can’t picture how stupid people can be. So perhaps because I‘m so old and a lawyer, I‘m pretty pessimistic that we will see the next 10 years without any professionals (involved),” he said.
Editing by Greg Stutchbury