The Korean e-Sports Association (KeSPA) announced this morning that 2014 StarCraft 2 World Champion and 2015 runner-up Lee "Life" Seung Hyun, has been taken into custody by authorities at the Changwon District Prosecutor's Office in the South Gyeongsang province of South Korea. There is no official word as to the cause of the investigation, or whether Life has been charged with anything. However, as StarCraft fans were quick to point out on TeamLiquid.net, the Changwon District Prosecutor's Office has been conducting investigations into match-fixing allegations within Korean esports and, just last year, indicted several players, gamblers and brokers in connection with StarCraft match-fixing. That investigation centred on one StarCraft 2 team, Prime, and resulted in charges against three notable players and coaches.
Match-fixing rumours and allegations have swirled around the Korean StarCraft 2 scene for the last couple years. Sports betting site Pinnacle has voided betting results on a few occasions when they have observed unusual patterns around matches. Last January, the manager of Axiom eSports (the StarCraft 2 team owned by John "TotalBiscuit" Bain) noted that the scene was becoming flooded by a lot of small tournaments with unclear sponsorship. Because these smaller tournaments were not regulated by any organisation with professional rules and guidelines, they were rife with the potential for abuse. Most ominously, one of StarCraft 2's all-time most popular players, MarineKing, lost a match under highly suspicious circumstances last year.
However, it would be a categorically different matter if Life were charged in connection with match-fixing, and easily the worst scandal in StarCraft since the Brood War match-fixing ring came to light. That's because of who Life is.
Life is possibly the greatest StarCraft 2 talent of his generation. He won the prestigious GSL title at the age of 15, against Jung "Mvp" Jong Hyun, one of the greatest champions in StarCraft history. That inaugurated a run of major championships through 2013 that firmly established him as one of the best players in the world. In 2014 he won the world title at Blizzcon, and followed it up with another GSL title in 2015. This past spring, he competed in yet another Blizzcon final and nearly pulled off a repeat championship, which is almost unheard-of in a game as volatile as StarCraft 2.
All of which is to say Life is a superstar by StarCraft standards. He's won a small fortune in prize money, and spent the last year as a part of the elite KT Rolster StarCraft 2 team. KT Rolster, which is sponsored by a major Korean telecom company, is considered one of the most prestigious teams in StarCraft. It would be astonishing for someone of Life's accomplishments and stature to engage in match-fixing, either by throwing matches deliberately or by acting as a broker in such arrangements with other players.
Astonishing, but not unprecedented. The reason the Brood War match-fixing scandal was such a blow to the game was that Ma "saviour" Jae Yoon was one of the ringleaders. He was one of the very best to ever play Brood War, yet he acted as a go-between for match-fixers and pro players. Despite all that he had accomplished, and all that he had to lose, he still engaged in rigging matches, undermining the integrity of the game that had made him famous.
Still, it's too early to know anything. Life has not been indicted and, for all we know, he could have been taken into custody for reasons that have nothing to do with illegal gambling. For now, however, KeSPA have announced that Life will be ineligible to compete in any official matches until he is cleared of wrongdoing.
The timing is interesting for this because Life just departed KT Rolster to go back to his old (and far less well-funded) team, apparently at his own request. KeSPA's statement said that at the time the trade was approved, neither the team nor KeSPA itself was aware of any pending legal action involving Life.
StarCraft is a uniquely attractive option for match-fixers because it is comparatively easy to do. Rigging a match only really requires the cooperation of one or two players, whereas in team games it's much harder to guarantee both cooperation and secrecy. While Counter-Strike recently had its own issues with teams throwing games, the issue is an ever-present fear in StarCraft 2. When there is the possibility that it involves a player as widely-respected and successful as Life, that fear threatens to become a nightmare.
Photo of Lee "Life" Seung Hyun after winning BlizzCon 2014, courtesy Blizzard Entertainment.