Future of Sports Law - Part 1 | Ian Smith (eSports Integrity Coalition)

Welcome to Part 1 of our two-part series on eSports and the future of sports law.  Today Milan chats with Ian Smith, the Integrity Commissioner of the eSports Integrity Coalition (“ESIC”).  ESIC aims to be the recognised guardian of the sporting integrity of eSports and to take responsibility for disruption, prevention, investigation and prosecution of all forms of cheating, including, but not limited to, match manipulation and doping.Ian Smith the ESIC integrity commissioner poses for a picture at the Fnatic Bunkr on March 8th 2017 in London (Photo by Tom Jenkins)

Why did you enter a career in sports law and governance?  What was the impetus for you personally?

I was always a big fan of sports and reasonably good at most sports without being outstanding at anything in particular. I found, as my legal career progressed, that I knew a lot of elite sportsmen through school, university and army and they needed a lawyer, particularly when rugby union went professional in the mid-nineties and more and more South African sportsmen came to the UK to play rugby, cricket and golf. I soon worked out there was a career to be made out of being a trusted advisor to professional sportsmen and I deliberately set out to foster that. From those haphazard beginnings, I developed an expertise in sports governance and regulation and the way in which sport is run has become a lifelong obsession.

Please tell us a bit about ESIC, its history, and its work.  What is your role at ESIC?

ESIC came about because it seemed the only logical response, given the nature of the esports industry, to the question of what to do about the various integrity threats identified by our risk assessment in the Autumn of 2015. As there was no governing body or obvious “center” to the industry, the only way to combat a common threat was to persuade individual stakeholder to come together to address it and, so, the Coalition idea was born. We exist, as per our mission statement, to be the recognised guardian of the sporting integrity of esports and to take responsibility for disruption, prevention, investigation and prosecution of all forms of cheating, including, but not limited to, match manipulation and doping. Everything is explained on the website www.esportsintegrity.com My role is to oversee and enforce the ESIC Programme – the combination of rules and regulations we operate as the foundation of our mission. The Programme gives me a lot of power, so I have to be accountable to the members of ESIC and responsible in my exercise of authority. It’s a role I’m grateful for and humbled by.

What spurred your transition into eSports?

In the summer of 2015 I was asked to do an integrity threat assessment of esports by a media company. The more I discovered and the more the work progressed, the more interested I became in esports, both in terms of how it was similar to traditional sports, but also, of course, in how it differed. It gave me a new lease of life – I had become stale and somewhat disillusioned in traditional sports.

Given your considerable experience in traditional sports (and particularly cricket), were you well equipped for the new role as ESIC’s Integrity Commissioner or was it a steep learning curve?

Getting to grips with esports itself and understanding the ecosystem was a steep learning curve because, prior to the autumn of 2015 I didn’t know esports existed. From a governance and regulation perspective, though, my life in traditional sport made me well suited to the role of Integrity Commissioner because, as the saying goes, there’s nothing new under the sun. The same issues faced by traditional sports in the areas of integrity and corruption face esports in exactly the same way. Fortunately, I was/am a gamer, so the video games themselves were no mystery to me; what was a mystery was how each game title had its own community, its own vertical, its own culture and its own relationship between publisher, tournament organiser, teams, players and fans.

What do you say to those who doubt that competitive computer gaming is really a sport?

Whether esports is a sport is a fun argument over a beer, but it’s largely irrelevant. In many aspects, esports mirrors traditional sports and in many ways it doesn’t. Personally, I’ve come to the opinion that it is a sport, but who cares what I think? I think esports should just continue doing its thing and not become distracted with trying to be thought of as a sport alongside traditional sports, trying to get into the Olympics or set up governance structures like traditional sports. Those structures are not exactly a shining example of success are they?

What is the difference between a gamer who is a hobbyist and an eSports athlete?

The gulf between a casual gamer and a professional esports athlete is precisely the same as they gulf between a kid kicking a ball in his back yard and Lionel Messi – the gap really is that big and the pros really are that good. A decent CS:GO pro would beat a team of 5 casual gamers on his own without breaking a sweat.

What is the role of sports in society?

This is too big a question to answer properly in an email – as a pragmatist (or perhaps a cynic) I would say sport exists to entertain and distract us, but it has wider implications for health, cooperation, education and so on… but these are accidental benefits – mostly it’s just about having fun.

Do you believe there are certain “moral values” at the heart of sports and if so what are they?

I think the idea that there are moral values at the heart of sport is overblown. I think people acquire their values from numerous influences and I think sport plays its part in that, but I think what ultimately ensures integrity in sport is good rules and regulations properly enforced – history has taught us that you can’t rely on people to “do the right thing” when money or medals are on the line. Occasionally, people do the right thing and it’s refreshing and uplifting, but you can never take it for granted.

Are these values visible in eSports?  Are there unique values in the eSports world?

Our recent survey into appropriate sanctions for cheating in esports shows that the esports community has certain values that differ from those broadly held in traditional sports, but they’re on the same spectrum. Human nature is human nature and esports players and fans are no different.

The integrity of sports seems to be under attack at the highest levels – the FIFA corruption scandal and the Russian doping scandal come to mind.   In your view, why do these failures occur?

Greed and the desire for power drive the corruption and bad governance allows it. The minute you mix money and integrity, integrity will almost always come second – you have to separate those functions out, which is why ESIC is not for profit, has no commercial programme and is not owned by anyone – it belongs to the members – no one has equity in ESIC; not me, not anyone.

Are the same threats confronting eSports?

Not the same threats – esports exist in a purely commercial context. They are for profit and, as such, the sort of corruption that might emerge is more akin to corporate fraud and corruption than sports governance corruption.

Are new threats confronting eSports that we’ve not before witnessed in traditional sports?

Yes – the technology involved in digital sports mean that the way in which someone might cheat or rig an outcome is very different to cheating in traditional sports. There is also the fact that the digital nature of the industry means it is possible to create fake competitions to manipulate betting markets and I think it’s highly likely that’s already happening.

What are the unique challenges in terms of the regulation of eSports?

The lack of a center to the industry is the greatest challenge -there’s nowhere to go to address governance issues in esports

Presumably the level of technology involved and the fact that computer games are privately owned by companies make for certain complications.

Yes – the fact that someone “owns the ball” and can take it away on a whim or change its shape or size presents a serious challenge on a number of levels. This is one of the reasons that ESIC deliberately keeps its focus very narrow – we want to address a core common problem that affects all game titles played in esports before we go on to look at other regulatory challenges. Let’s get this right first before we start trying to fix everything.

Where do you see the opportunities in eSports law for aspiring lawyers and do you have any tips for those who want to follow in your footsteps?

Because the industry is still in its infancy there are a lot of opportunities, but, just like every area of legal practice, it’s much more about who you know that what you know. The easiest way in is to represent players by being part of the scene in a particular game title and develop a client base. Of course, joining a firm with an existing esports or gaming practice is a good way in too. Remember that any client will (and should) take it for granted that you know what you’re doing from a legal perspective, so he will choose to use you because you look after him or her well, make them feel special and solve their problems – knowing the law is a small part of the picture – knowing the sector, how it works, who’s important in it and how to get to them is the most important element. If you would like to be interviewed or offer your thoughts on a recent event, book or article, please contact our Editor In Chief, Michael Bidwell, at mbidwell@mccullough.com.au