To say that all is not well in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive's pro scene would be a massive understatement. Multiple pros have been caught cheating by Valve's official anti-cheat software, and even more are suspected.
It all started when a semi-pro German player named Simon "smn" Beck got banned by the E-Sports Entertainment Association's tools. Given that he'd clearly slipped past Valve's own anti-scoundrel digi-wall, this got the Counter-Strike (and Half-Life and Team Fortress and DOTA 2 and Steam) maker curious. Valve reached out and, with the information they acquired from the ESEA, upgraded their own anti-cheat detection system.
And then, suddenly, people started getting caught with a very new type of red on their hands. Not blood. Oh no, by Counter-Strike standards, this was much worse. Third-party tools that assist players with aim. In some cases, they can help with very difficult shots.
The highest-profile cases involved Hovik "KQLY" Tovmassian, a player for bigtime team Titan, and Gordon "SF" Giry from another big team called Epsilon. Around the same time both were initially caught, Beck put out a list of other CS pros he alleged frequently utilise hacks — some of whom are on the world's best teams — and also explained, to some extent, how the hack works.
He further claimed that 40 per cent of pros derive their otherworldly skills from hacks and tools. Admittedly that's one person's claim and should be taken with a grain (or boulder) of salt, but it's quite a goddamn claim. Other players of note have yet to receive VAC (Valve Anti-Cheat) bans, so there's a chance he was exaggerating.
Meanwhile, KQLY was cut from Titan after they conducted their own investigation, determining that he used a tool for a week outside of a competitive context but that they could no longer trust him. KQLY issued his own statement, in which he claimed to have only used the tool before joining Titan, but that it was a "stupid move" nonetheless. As translated from French here, he said, "I wanted to say that I'm really sorry for all the people who supported me. I'm aware that with this bullshit, my career is over and that my team is in a really bad situation."
Epsilon followed suit, giving SF the boot in short order. They explained in a post on their website: "We have carried out a quick investigation along with information from Valve, and have also received an admittance of guilt from SF himself. This means that we have moved quickly to remove SF and make sure that we act in a manner that suits this situation."
This comes at a terrible (or very good, depending on how you look at) time, given that one of eSports' biggest events, DreamHack Winter 2014, is happening this weekend. DreamHack plans to take "special precautions" to prevent further twitchy fingered shenanigans. On top of that, despite the fact that Titan and Epsilon canned their respective bad apples, both teams are banned from participating in the competition this year.
The Counter-Strike community is abuzz with the news, with some convinced that a bit of smoke means everything is on fire. There are now websites dedicated to monitoring Counter-Strike pro accounts for VAC bans. People are not happy. As PC Gamer reported, other luminaries of the scene — for instance, commentator Duncan "Thooorin" Shields — are calling for an end to the witch hunt.
However, Shields also claimed that this cheat, which allegedly involves Steam's mod-centric Workshop, is particularly insidious in its subtlety. "It's a cheat that doesn't even have an extreme effect, unless you really abuse it," he said. "It has layers to it where it can just give you a slight advantage in aiming. So if you're already one of the best players in the world, it will make it so you just look like you're having your best game. It won't even seem like you're hacking and that was an impossible movement."
For obvious reasons, this calls the accomplishments of many of Counter-Strike's best and brightest into question. Their greatest hits, their biggest wins, their slickest no-scopes. It's a terrible state for any pro sporting scene to be in, not unlike the discovery that an alarmingly high number of top-tier MMA fighters have used performance enhancing drugs or, perhaps most infamously, the recent doping scandal at the highest levels of pro cycling.
Detecting the veritable Swiss murder knife bouquet of cheats/hacks in online games is extremely difficult, so there's no one-size-fits-all solution here. I would hope that most players dislike the idea of cheating to get ahead, but it's tough to say at this point — and, well, that's never stopped people in other sports before. One thing's for sure: the Counter-Strike eSports scene has some tough times ahead. Here's hoping it can pull its boots out of this mucky business and give people what they want: a good, fair show.