Esports was rocked earlier this week when Ad Finem's team analyst Allen Cook sent out a casual tweet saying that he'd placed bets on the outcome of the Boston Major Dota 2 tournament. Specifically, Cook bet on both his own team and another team, OG, because (he said) he believed that AF and OG were highly likely to place first and second in the tournament. He ended up being right: OG placed first and Ad Finem placed second, resulting in some significant winnings for Cook. Specifically, he won £1110.15 in total. That's $1789.84 in Australian dollars.
Ad Finem's Dota 2 team congratulates their opponents, team OG, at the 2016 Boston Major.
Here's the question, though: Is it fair for someone in Cook's position to place these bets? While by the letter of the law it was allowed, there's the issue of policies put in place by tournament hosts to at least make things look fair, which is pretty important in any sport. Valve Corporation sanctioned the Boston Major, and Valve does have some nascent policies in place regarding online gambling. (They issued a lifetime ban against several CS:GO players who participated in a match-fixing conspiracy in 2015; that said, they also allow Dota 2 player Alexei "Solo" Berezin to compete in events, even though he previously got banned from Starladder TV after a match-fixing scandal.)
On a more practical point, there's the reason why so many major sports have outlawed betting by their players and coaches on games: Allowing it is a really easy way to send all your credibility down the shitter. Competition works — and legal bettors will feel encouraged to place bets — only if people believe the games themselves are being played honestly. Why show up to a match, let alone bet on it, if the outcome is influenced or flat-out predetermined? And in this case, when pressed on the issue, Cook has given some very squishy answers.
On Monday, Cook gave a statement in response to the reaction his bets on matches his team was involved with generated:
I don't particularly regret having placed the bets in the sense that I know in my own mind that these bets were placed in good faith with no 'inside information'. However, I wouldn't do it again having said that as I do understand the confusion that can surround such a situation...
I donated a large portion of the profit from these bets to the 'Child's Play' charity so that if nothing else than something good may have come out of this being highlighted.
What's telling is what Cook does not say. He does not say why anyone should believe that he did not have inside information. But even if you take Cook's statement as truthful, the main issue remains unresolved: Is casual online gambling on a team one works for, even without any intention of match-fixing, OK?
Cook answers, evasively, by refuting concerns that he could, as a team analyst, have had information that a layperson wouldn't have. But his answer only makes sense if you believe that placing the bets before the tournament made it impossible for him to have had, by then, inside information.
There have been a lot of suggestions that I could have had inside information on scrims/team disputes etc (surrounding both Ad Finem and other teams at Boston). This isn't the case, these bets were placed in November the month before the Boston Major.
Then he disputes the idea that he even works for Ad Finem. "I'm not officially paid by Ad Finem," he told us, claiming that he hasn't officially signed a contract with them and so isn't employed by them "as such". This requires ignoring his very own LinkedIn profile, which says, right under his name, that he has worked for Ad Finem as a team analyst and sales manager since September of last year:
Here's his explanation for that: "For the Boston Major, I agreed a payment to cover my time going out there and a deal based on how well the team did." (We reached out to Ad Finem's team manager, Michail "Madao" Chatzialexiou, for comment on the situation but had not heard back at time of writing.)
Either way, Cook has made no secret of his interest in gambling on sporting events. He tweets frequently about bets he places on other events; on Sunday, he tweeted that he considered himself "a professional gambler". While speaking with us, Cook said that he primarily places bets on the outcomes of traditional sports, so that the betting he does on the team he works with (or for) should be seen as a hobbyist activity:
I've not really done much on eSports gambling before, I deal mostly in Football, Racing (Horse) and Golf. I've considered looking at eSports betting before, but there [is] such little liquidity in it that I doubt anyone could reliably make a living out of it at the moment (anyone having any kind of success would have their account closed pretty quickly), and the bets I had were quite a rare example of throw-away stakes. I'm fortunate enough that I'm in a comfortable position that I can allow myself to work with Ad Finem more as a hobby than something I can't fund my life with.
It requires a lot of mental work to even try to justify why Cook betting on his own team in esports, at this point, could possibly be OK. Here's the most judicious view possible: Even as an unpaid team analyst (aside from whatever payment he received after the Boston Major), and even leaving aside any influence he might have on his team, Cook could still be presumed to have a leg up on his fellow bettors, just by way of his "hobby" position for Ad Finem's team.
Compete reached out to some other statisticians and analysts in the Dota 2 scene for their thoughts on the situation. Ben "Noxville" Steenhuisen, a longtime commentator and statistician, used to participate in esports betting himself, although not since The International 3 in 2013.
"At that time, esports betting wasn't big, so there were limited bets offered," Noxville said. "Betting since then has changed so much — there's coverage for most of the significant events, and importantly legal bookmakers offering bets on the games. This is a stark comparison to the rampant unregulated skin gambling which flooded the scene, which as we all know has been shut down quite drastically in the last year. Right now, I'm perfectly OK with members of the public betting on Dota 2 (and other esports titles), provided they're betting legally, responsibly and in a way that doesn't promote the activity to children."
But Noxville agreed that concerns can arise when a better has worked directly with an esports team:
Obviously betting against your team is unethical. Betting for your team is more debatable, but in my eyes it shouldn't happen in a strict sense, since betting or not betting are both signals you're potentially giving to bookmakers and and they can act on that signal. Betting on other teams is in a similar boat — you're giving off signals on how you evaluate a team based on private information. One could argue that [Cook's] insight into the scrim and practise games Ad Finem played before the event is 'unfair' information that other pundits didn't have access to (I believe Ad Finem were scrimming Team Secret in the lead up to The Boston Major qualifiers). I've never officially worked as an analyst for a team during an event (I've done programming work for analysts leading up to them however), but I think that they're in a position to have good insight into how the team is performing.
Murielle "Kips" Huisman, who currently works as a team analyst for Fnatic Dota, also expressed concerns about the situation. She thinks Cook's choice to bet on OG back in November could introduce some potential complications:
Allen placed a bet on OG to win the Boston Major. And he ended up playing AGAINST OG in the finals of Boston. Ad Finem lost, but he won more than 900 pounds. There's no evidence whatsoever that he botched the preparation, of course, but it's safe to say that he had a conflict of interest. Even if he didn't end up consciously acting on it, he sure as hell had a subconscious problem going on.
Cook's bets amounted to a wager that OG would make it to the final two and one that AF would make it to the final two. His bet on OG wasn't necessarily "against" AF, since he still would have won big even if OG had placed second. However, as Kips points out, the only reason why Cook didn't end up betting "against" his team was because these two teams didn't end up facing off until the final round. What would have happened if AF and OG had been on the same side of the bracket before then? As she put it, "Would he have cancelled the bet?"
More pressing, though, is the question of whether it's ethical for someone in Cook's position to place any bets on the tournament at all. Like Noxville, Kips expressed concerns about how much information Cook may have had about Ad Finem based on his knowledge about their behaviour during practise scrims and so on, and reiterated that Valve has previously banned players for participating in online gambling on Valve-sanctioned tournament outcomes, particularly when it comes to bets placed on players' opponents. Even placing a bet on your own team can be considered ethically dubious; it's a question that has come up in traditional sports many times, most famously with regard to Pete Rose, who still has a lifetime ban from Major League Baseball due to bets he placed in favour of his own team.
According to Kips, "Ad Finem knew of nothing. I spoke to Madao and he was thoroughly rattled by the thought. Neither of us knew that Allen was a professional gambler, and no one in AF knew that he'd been betting all the while he'd been working for them. Even if it may be legal, he clearly acted in bad faith here."
Meanwhile, Ad Finem announced today that while their Dota 2 team has not renewed their contracts, the team intends to stay together and honour their invitation to compete in the Kiev Major. The team's manager tweeted a confirmation that he would be sticking with the team. When asked whether he would "leave Allen [Cook] behind", Madao tweeted, "ofc not."