Hear me out: Counter-Strike's pro cheating scandal — which has seen three top-tier players get banned and others put under a hot magnifying glass of scrutiny — sucks right now, but it could be a good thing in the long run. Or it could create standards the sport can never live up to.
I know, I know: on paper this really couldn't be much worse. Massive eSports compo DreamHack Winter is coming up this weekend, two teams have been banned from competing, the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive pro scene is questioning the very foundations on which it's been built, and an incensed community is out for blood.
As a popular eSport, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is still very young, and people are already getting caught red-handed, losing fledgling careers. But, at the risk of sounding insensitive, may I say, "hurrah"? We might still be awash in a sea of confusion, but one thing is becoming pretty clear: people have a zero tolerance policy for cheating at Counter-Strike's highest levels. I think that stems in part from the fact that many fans have also played Counter-Strike against cheaters, and they hate it. Their reaction is doubly impassioned because, well, they have been there. It's bullshit. This early on, that's a powerful precedent to set.
In other sports, athletes rarely watch their careers explode into a smoking ruin of shame for cheating. As I mentioned yesterday, MMA fighters get busted for performance enhancing drugs with alarming frequency, and the worst they get is a (relatively) minor fine and a suspension. Some have come off long layoffs due to sketchy drug use and right back into title contention. What kind of punishment is that? Clean gains for dirty deeds. Pro cycling has had more doping scandals than anybody can count, but — despite some disciplinary efforts — it keeps happening. The NCAA is woefully lacking in needed resources to investigate cheating scandals in sports at the college level.
At some point, if the punishment is lax enough, it becomes beneficial to cheat. Even if you get caught, you still manage a net profit — for your bank account, sometimes even for your legacy. Maybe eSports should come down harder on cheaters, harder than ball sports and fight sports and racket sports and the puppy bowl. Maybe the only way to nip these issues in the bud is to tear them out at the roots. eSports are still young in the grand scheme of sports. They have a chance to shut down potential widespread cheating before it ever takes off.
The problem, however, is that we don't really know how widespread cheating is at the pro level in Counter-Strike yet. If it's as entrenched of a practice as some pros claim it is, the sport may already be in a bad way. You can't always defeat systemic problems by isolating individuals — by saying, "OK, person who cheated, it's one and done for you. You're out forever" and then putting their head on a metaphorical stake. If a whole bunch of people are cheating to, as they perceive it, level the playing field against other cheaters, high-profile busts don't necessarily teach them to clean up their act. Why should they? Everyone else is doing it too.
Rather, the system evolves to hide the act of cheating better. With steroid/HGH usage, athletes have found new ways to "cycle off" — that is, temporarily stop using and empty their bodies of evidence — over the years. Drugs have also become harder to detect with standard tests, more expensive to test for. These sorts of issues have a way of stumping officiating bodies for lengthy spans of time.
It doesn't help that Counter-Strike pros' alleged cheating tool of choice is apparently very subtle in the way it works. According to commentator Duncan "Thooorin " Shields, it doesn't turn players into unstoppable digital demigods so much as it makes them look like they're having their best day, every day. So it's already insidiously stealthy by design.
That sort of thing combined with an ineffective zero tolerance cheating policy, then, can leave a sport in a situation not unlike the one baseball faced with steroids in the early 2000s or the one football is facing with shitty actions from its players now. The sport holds itself up as a bastion of immaculate purity, but the human beings competing in it tarnish that image. And instead of looking into why/how people keep breaking the rules — admitting that the whole thing is flawed — the sport keeps punishing individuals, washing its hands of bad PR. It's a vicious cycle that doesn't actually solve anything.
So there are two sides to this whole Counter-Strike cheat scandal, two possible outcomes that couldn't be more different. Maybe we see a few cheaters weeded out over the next few weeks, and then the sport's a no-cheat zone from the ground floor up. But if prying a few boards from that ground floor reveals a rotten, maggot-infested foundation, well, things might get ugly (er). Even then, there are steps that can be taken (standardised hardware at competitions, first and foremost), but even those can't account for everything.
I'm glad that the Counter-Strike community is reacting so strongly against cheating, even if I'm increasingly wary of the witch-hunt-style accusations flying in all directions. With DreamHack almost here and tempers flaring, all eyes are on this problem. That's good, or at least it can be. That means nobody can sweep this under the rug, even if they want to. I do hope that people on all sides — whether fans, pros accusing other pros, or what have you — keep in mind why they need to deal with cheaters, though: not to settle personal vendettas, not to make the sport "perfect," not to grab the spotlight, but to ensure that it's mostly about good, clean fun. There will always be cheaters in every sport, but they don't have to be what the sport's about.