Anyone who bets online knows that there are some very stringent rules and regulations that online casinos and betting sites need to adhere to, in order to be allowed to operate. Sites must meet standards on data security, player safety, fairness and a whole host of other factors to keep their licenses.
Sticking to these rules protects both the operator and the player, and ensures that everything is above board. One gambling opportunity, however, managed to fly under the radar for a long while, before being exposed in a blistering exposé by an anonymous gaming enthusiast.
Online gaming is a massive entertainment industry. Modern games consoles allow players from all over the world to play all kinds of video games with and against each other, making for an exciting and engaging way to spend free time.
One such game, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, was released in 2012. It was far from a sure thing for Valve, the production company who made it. Multi-player shoot ‘em ups were hardly thin on the ground, with dozens of competing titles fighting for attention. CS:GO was also the latest in a series of games that was experiencing waning interest – the first Counter Strike title was released in 1999.
It would eventually prove itself a favourite in the genre of First-Person Shooters. It became and continues to be one of the most played and watched e-sports ever. Arenas sell out for tournaments and live streams of games are broadcast on TV on Friday nights. There are sponsorships and media deals. But there was a darker side to the game, one that would cast a long shadow on the integrity of the video game industry and ask difficult questions about production company’s responsibilities towards their players.
One tiny thing
For the most part, Counter Strike: Global Offensive was a relatively standard first-person shooter game. Players joined teams, either as insurgents or counter-insurgents, and fought one another to achieve objectives. Players bought and played their copy of CS:GO on Steam, a platform that connects players, saves their gaming history and so on. Think the App Store but for video games.
CS:GO introduced something new. Players could buy, collect and trade what are called ‘skins’, decorative weapons that vary in style and value. A player could upgrade their standard issue fire arm to, say, a dappled, blue-and-green polymer version, or one with flames or decals. These skins are bought for real cash and offer no improvement on in-game performance – your virtual AK-47 will do exactly the same thing, whether it is basic black or painted pink with skulls on it.
The purchase and trade of in-game, virtual items for real cash is not a new concept. What sets CS:GO apart is that its production company, Valve, allows the transfer of virtual merchandise to external sites.
What this capability did was create an unexpectedly popular gambling channel. Third-party sites, completely independent of Steam and Valve, sprang up, allowing players to bet their skins (paid for with real cash, remember) in different ways. Some sites allow players to bet their skins on the outcome of a CS:GO game, where teams go head to head in a battle for supremacy in cyber space. Others put players’ skins into a pool, allegedly randomly selecting a winner to take it all. Others still offered a sort of slot machine equivalent – players used real cash to buy credits, which allowed them to open ‘skin crates’. These could contain a super rare skin or something close to worthless.
It’s not all fun and games
If you’ve spotted a number of similarities to your favourite casino games, you’d be right. While the gambling element might not be overt, the hallmarks are all there. Real cash is used and there is a significant element of risk.
All this would be fine if CS:GO wasn’t hugely popular with a young audience. Teenagers are a massive demographic in video games so it is safe to assume that a large percentage of players ignored the 18+ age rating and joined in.
Another problem with this is that the gambling element was not immediately evident. Online casinos make no attempts to hide the fact that they are casinos and that players can expect to lose real cash at some point. These third-party sites make no mention of this, presenting themselves as simply another facet of CS:GO gameplay.
What this means is that underage players were exposed to online gambling, without their knowledge. As under 18s, it is also safe to assume that they would not have the critical thinking skills to realize if their gambling was becoming a problem and where they could turn for help.
This entire underground gambling platform came to light when one gaming enthusiast did some online digging and unearthed some very unsavoury details. The gamer in question goes only by an online alias HonorTheCall. This guy used his YouTube channel to shed light on the less-than-kosher goings on in the world of CS:GO skins.
This scandal centres around two YouTube users, Trevor ‘TmarTn’ Martin and Tom ‘ProSyndicate’ Cassell, who had millions of subscribers to their channels. They would post videos of themselves playing at one of these third-party sites, sharing their jubilation with their viewers when a crate turned up a rare skin. What they declined to mention was that they owned the site they played at, CS:GO Lotto.
These videos showed wide-eyed glee and joyful yells as TmarTn and ProSyndicate celebrated massive wins, showing millions of (many underage) viewers their surprise at winning thousands of dollars at a time. At no point in their videos or in the video descriptions did these two users disclose that they were more than just regular users, that they did in fact have a very significant vested interest in the business.
Through some sharp web sleuthing, HonorTheCall turned up evidence that Trevor Martin was the president of CS:GO Lotto and Tom Cassell, vice president. Put another way, it’s as if these guys owned a casino and pretended to win, on camera. HonorTheCall put together his own video, laying out the evidence he found via public records and a little digging.
To say this had an explosive impact on the gaming community would be an understatement. To gamers, this showed a clear and conscious conflict of interest – a pair of vloggers wilfully attempting to fool their viewers into using their site. But it went further. The news spread beyond the confines of the gaming world, coming to the attention of the general public. Non-gamers, and parents in particular, expressed alarm that their children were partaking in gambling activities, completely unchecked, and spending, in some cases, thousands of real dollars in a completely unregulated environment.
Apologies were swift and legal action equally so. Martin and Cassell were accused of knowingly misleading their viewers and for failing to disclose their affiliation to CS:GO Lotto. A class-action lawsuit was launched against Valve, which alleges that the company allowed the growth of an illegal online gambling market. Martin and Cassell were also included in that lawsuit and later won a motion to dismiss it on the grounds that there was no proof of how much money they made through the site. A poor excuse, at least to those outraged parents whose teens made large payments, via Steam, using their money.
What happens next?
It’s hard to determine how this story ends. HonorTheCall’s excellent detective work brought to light a shady and irresponsible underground gambling platform but without legal precedent, it will be difficult to see how gaming companies and judges will behave.
U.S. District Judge James Bredar says that a distinction between real and virtual money and goods must be made, arguing that laws do not deal with play money but the real kind. Valve entered into unknown territory when it allowed the explicit connection between real cash and in-game items. What happens from here is anyone’s guess but it’s fairly certain that the law, gambling regulators and gamers will be keeping a closer eye on this grey area of gaming.