Crime and Punishment: Cheaters in CS:GO
Michael 'axtremes' Harmse
Nobody likes a cheater. That’s the understatement of the century. When one encounters a player using hacks to cheat inside of Valve’s matchmaking, it can be a massively frustrating undertaking. It’s awful to feel powerless. Who wants to be locked into a 40 minute exercise in futility while possibly being taunted by the cause of one’s exasperation? Perhaps that nefarious ne’er-do-well is twirling around like a homicidal spinning top and headshots everything on the server using a spinbot. Or maybe the mischievous miscreant has less extreme, though still powerful, aim assistance or wallhacks. It’s never a pleasant experience for the legitimate players on the server trying to enjoy the game. Most of us have been on the receiving end of a hacker at least once within CS:GO. Thankfully, Valve are making great strides in convicting and banning the accounts of hackers using VACnet. This should make the experience better for average players in future.
Seeking a competitive edge. Illegally.
So what of the competitive scene in South Africa? There have been a couple of relatively high-profile cases in the last few years. These players were caught participating in local tournaments using illegal software assistance of some kind to gain an unfair advantage. In the case of Gareth “MisteM” Ries, he was banned from participating in Telkom’s (now VS Gaming’s) Digital Gaming League in 2015 for hacking. Last year, Conner “zonC” Hughlin admitted to using an illegal exploit in Mettlestate’s Samsung Galaxy CS:GO Championship. He was also subsequently banned by the esports Integrity Coalition.
There have been others, but these are the two that most current CS:GO fans would know of. It’s not my intention to debate the morality of cheating or whether or not the bans were deserved. The rules in all competitions prohibit using any form of hack, software exploit, or external assistance. The bans themselves were ruled on by the respective tournament organizers (TO). Whether we agree with the validity of the bans or not, the players were removed from play for a few years in each case.
Fool me once
I’ve seen a fair amount of vitriol on social media in the past directed at these two particular players. Competitors will always feel hard done by having lost to cheaters, especially in tournaments like Mettlestate that could have lead to winning prize money. That kind of negative sentiment however does seem to lean heavily towards the nuclear option rather than rehabilitation. Should a player be banned forever for cheating? Should there even be an option for convicted hackers to return to competitive play?
Even in the international professional community, I’ve seen high profile players say they would refuse to play against a team including an individual that had hacked in the past. A lot of this came about from ESL’s announcement last year that they would allow VAC-banned players to compete at ESL One events after two years. I’ve seen similar sentiments expressed locally as well. Once a cheater always a cheater seems to be the thinking of many players and fans alike. Even if the cheater has served out his years banned from playing competitively, many seek to exclude them anyway. Are they afraid the former cheater would hack again? Or don’t they believe in second chances or rehabilitation? I can’t speak for other people of course, but I do find this attitude more than a little problematic.
The comeback trail
The severity of the instance or incident must be taken into account, as with any crime within the legal system. Completely ruling out the possibility of a player being rehabilitated after being banned for cheating cannot be the only option. If it was, we would have been deprived of one of the most highly skilled players to ever touch the game in the form of Na`Vi’s Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostaliev. Had s1mple been banned forever by ESL for cheating, we’d never have gotten to see his incendiary talent on the international stage. Janusz “Snax” Pogorzelski of Virtus.Pro is another such player. He won a Major in CS:GO, but would have been cruelly denied participation had his ban been indefinite.
Over time the attitudes toward cheating from companies like ESL have softened. With players like Hovik “KQLY” Tovmassian, their original lifetime bans have been overturned. There is seemingly less of a desire to make examples of transgressors. Valve however have remained typically silent on the issue which means such players are still banned from Valve-sponsored events like Majors. WESG for instance don’t allow players with VAC bans to even participate in their qualifiers, let alone the actual tournaments themselves. Indefinite bans do of course have a place if the severity of the cheating incident(s) aligns with that punishment. The CS:GO esports industry does seem to be moving away from that in all but the most severe cases. TOs like WESG are becoming an outlier with their overall stance, rather than the norm.
Should a banned cheater’s sentence be mitigated by being very young? In s1mple’s case he was 13 when he was caught cheating, while MisteM was similarly young at the time of his DGL ban. It has to be a mitigating factor, as with real world criminal proceedings. The severity of the crime should be matched when it comes to the punishment administered. Handing out lifetime bans for young offenders is not a reasonable way forward. As much as we might want to punish those that have transgressed against us and the game and scene that we love, due procedure has to be followed.
Dreaming of hacks
ESL, the world’s largest esports TO, says the ban period for VAC bans (CS:GO’s built-in anti-cheat system) and their proprietary ESL Wire system is two years in most cases. Many other TOs and esports governing bodies seem to have followed suit, primarily those aligned with ESIC. As evidenced in the case of zonC’s ban through ESIC and Mettlestate.
International TO, Dreamhack, had this to say as part of their press release last year about their alignment with ESIC:
“Cheating: Disqualification from the tournament, results voided, forfeiture of prize money, ban between 2 year and lifetime depending on age and level of player and nature/size of tournament and how the player cheated (this offence includes “smurfing” where both parties involved are liable to sanctions). Cheating at a competition played above an amateur level (i.e. where significant prize pool is involved or qualification for a professional event is at stake) should normally result in a 5 year ban, but, in aggravating circumstances, can result in a lifetime ban.”
Something worth noting is that none of the players slapped with a lifetime ban in the past were caught cheating at large international professional tournaments. It was all found in more minor online play or casual play through VAC. There has not yet been a case of a player being caught cheating on the biggest stages, although there have certainly been allegations.
What’s it all leading to?
Should players and fans be kicking against the way the industry at large is starting to approach cheating bans? They’re welcome to, but ultimately it could prove futile as bodies like ESIC and companies like Dreamhack and ESL determine the direction of the industry as a whole. We need to accept that the possibility of rehabilitation for having cheated is the path being set. We’re all welcome to our own opinions of course. However, changing attitudes from the industry elite means that we will see a very different course being charted in the handling of instances of cheating in the future to what we used to see.
The local approach
In South Africa, it’s imperative that the various TOs follow the example of their overseas counterparts. They need to start enforcing unified cheat ban rules as well as each other’s respective ban sentences. It’s certainly baffling that they don’t at this stage, but it’s surely something that will begin to change in the future. It has been possible for players banned in one tournament to play in another without repercussion until this point. That cannot be acceptable or seen as reasonable. In any competitive discipline, especially with money on the line, there will always be those trying to gain an unfair advantage for personal gain. Hopefully the SA TOs will begin to work together to stamp cheating out and enforce appropriate punishment across all tournaments being played.
Penny for your thoughts
I’ve taken great pains to lay out the facts in as balanced a manner as I could. I have an opinion, but I’d much rather hear yours. Do you think the more lenient approach from the world’s largest TOs is the way to go? Or should punishment be harsher? Can a cheater even be rehabilitated? Should they be forgiven? Or is the community too quick pass judgement and too harsh with those judgements? Sound off in the comments below. Play nice.