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2021-01-05 09:41:50

One of China’s most renowned esports organizations has received a lifetime ban from competing in the online battle arena game Dota 2 following a high-profile match-fixing scandal.

In a post Saturday on microblogging platform Weibo, Dota 2 said the team, Newbee, and five of its players are now banned from future competitions organized by the game’s U.S. owner, Valve Corporation, and Chinese partner, Perfect World Entertainment.

The post, which has received over 21,000 likes, identified the players by their legal names as well as the in-game names by which they’re better known: Moogy, AQ, Wizard, Waixi, and Faith.

Founded in 2014 as a “dream team” of China’s top Dota 2 players, Newbee went on to win that year’s premier global tournament, The International, bringing glory to their country and taking home $5 million in cash — an esports record at the time. In 2017, the team finished second at the same tournament, winning another $3.95 million.

In the years since, however, Newbee has struggled financially and failed to bring in highly touted talent. Then in February 2020, the team won 2-1 against a largely unknown team from Shanghai, Avengerls, in a set of matches rife with obvious signs of foul play from both sides. In one game, Avengerls managed to lose after storming out of the gate to take an overwhelming early-game advantage over Newbee.

Three months later, in May, the Chinese Dota 2 Professional Association — a newly formed league comprising eight domestic teams — as well as several domestic broadcasters announced lifetime bans against Newbee for match fixing.

Newbee’s Weibo account responded to the bans with fury, accusing the league of smearing the organization’s good name and threatening legal action in the form of a signed lawyer’s letter.

Still, without a ban handed down by Valve Corporation, which also runs the popular online gaming platform Steam, Newbee remained eligible to compete in The International. That changed Saturday. Two days later, Avengerls received the same ban.

Match fixing is a persistent problem in sports and esports around the world, as bets can be placed on all manner of scenarios — final outcome, first goal-scorer, total errors, and more — through gambling websites. In one early esports cheating scandal, 11 South Korean players of strategy game StarCraft were fined and ordered to do community service in 2010 for their involvement in match fixing over a period of several years.

In a podcast in October, David Parker, an Australian Dota 2 tournament organizer and commentator, said match fixing had become a widespread phenomenon at Dota 2 competitions around the world.

“I think match fixing in Dota 2 is far more rampant, far more common, than anybody even realizes,” he said. “I’ve heard allegations that 75% of the teams in Southeast Asia are involved in it.”

According to Parker, foul play in Dota 2 is especially hard to detect because it mostly occurs at the individual level: A single player might be tasked with letting their character die first — an outcome called “first blood” that can be bet on through gambling sites and doesn’t necessarily affect who wins the match.

With most esports teams competing virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic rather than at live events, players can also blame their poor performance on lag, Parker said.

A Shanghai-based esports professional surnamed Chu told Sixth Tone that Dota 2’s competition structure is also culpable to some extent, as most of the prize money sits at the top of a single annual tournament and there’s no league system to support teams throughout the year, unlike for rival game League of Legends. This means many poor-performing teams struggle to survive, and are sometimes tempted by illicit offers to boost their income, said Chu, who only gave his surname due to gambling being an illegal and sensitive issue in China.

“There’s no league structure, so teams with poor results have zero income, not like in other leagues,” he said. “Because of this, fixing matches can seem like an easy way to gain major profits.”

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Moogy competes for Chinese esports team Newbee during a Dota 2 tournament, February 2020. From @Newbee电子竞技俱乐部 on Weibo)