Researcher Brett Abarbanel Talks eSports Cheats & Safer Gaming

Researcher Brett Abarbanel Talks eSports Cheats & Safer Gaming

In June this year the eSports Integrity Coalition called the industry to a match-fixing summit, after it revealed it had received an "alarming" 74 suspcious betting alerts in 2018.

The organisation, created in 2016 specifically due to the threat of betting fraud, said it was "deeply concerned" and wanted to move quickly to maintain the integrity of eSports both for punters, and for gamers.

It was a major move that reflected the immense scale of eSports betting's growth, with reports suggesting 12.9billion could be bet on eSports in 2020 - more than double the $5.5billion spent in 2016. But how worried should we really be about eSports integrity?

Brett Abarbanel, director of research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas's International Gaming Institute, has studied gambling in eSports, and found several layers of cheating possibilities; far beyond what could be achieved in traditional sports.

In an interview presented as part of's media partnership with Betting on Sports 2019, which will take place at the Olympia in London from September 17-20, we spoke with Brett Abarbanel about eSports, life in Las Vegas and her latest research project on responsible gambling.

IF David Beckham walked out on to the pitch tomorrow, he's not going to be able to kick a ball five times as hard as he could yesterday, but that kind of improvement is possible in eSports doping.

We're not talking about taking concentration drugs, which does happen, we're talking about the non-physical elements of eSports that are open to hacking by cheaters, in a way traditional sport could never achieve.

"How the cheating is done in eSports is quite different from how cheating is done in traditional sports," explains Abarbanel, "because everything is done online. It's done in a game, and a game that's based on a digital platform as opposed to real life, or physical platform.

"If you are able to get into a game, you could add in a few extra lines of codes or some kind of add-on into that, to allow, let's say your character who has a hammer, to swing that hammer five times as hard as it could normally."

She added: "These types of software hacks are very difficult to implement, but it is an example of how something like that might work."

The reason big software hacks like that are difficult to achieve is because major competitions exist on LANs - local area networks - that can be highly protected and easily policed. But what about smaller competitions?

Introducing The eSports Aim Bots

"There's also a lot of competition that exists just in a general online platform," said Abarbanel. "For example, preliminary rounds for different tournaments, that are not necessarily part of a major league, like Overwatch League, or the League Of Legends Championship League. Here you might see something like an aim-bot.

"An aim-bot is something I would install on my computer and it would intercept packet as they are sent back and forth to the server. Let's say I have a gun I'm aiming - the aim bot will automatically aim for the head, the kill shot in that game, as opposed to hitting in the arm, which might only take away some of the health bar."

Other hacks like this include bots that improve reaction speed or speed in general. The possibilities are wide-ranging in this area, so what can developers and leagues do to protect players?

"A lot of the games have functions that search for these sorts of things and then ban players for using them," revealed Abarbanel. "But they're not 100 per cent perfect."

The eSports Integrity Coalition has tasked itself with combatting these issues, and throughout the world national eSports federations have begun popping up to formalise regulation.

eSports Regulation Takes Big Steps

Abarbanel, like all eSports fans, welcomed in particular the formation of the European eSports Federation in April this year, bringing together national federations from the UK, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary, France, Russia, Slovenia, Serbia, Sweden, Turkey, and Ukraine.

"I think that that is a really good format," she said. "It allows people to build, based on their knowledge of the games. They already have those specific expertise that might not exist if you tried to push eSports into an existing sports federation, where you're probably going to be met with push back from folk who don't think it fits - or even have people in charge who don't know the games."

She added: "It's not necessarily malicious, it may just be ignorance about how some of these games work, which means then that writing rules for organisations around them might not be based on enough knowledge and expertise."

Creating national and then continental federations for eSports is a significant step towards convincing leading sports agencies that eSports should be included at competitions alongside traditional sports.

But How Alike Are Sports And eSports?

The 2022 Asian Games have already confirmed eSports will be a medal event, and the International Olympic Council remains welcoming towards discussions with any stakeholders. That suggests that some of the biggest names in sports are open to considering eSports sports full stop, and Abarbanel doesn't disagree.

"I view it as parallel to sport," she said. "Obviously it's quite different, but not every activity fits within the specific sport area, and there are certainly physical needs for eSports, they just may be different from traditional sport.

"There's also the psychological and strategic components. Again, sport often holds much of this, but in eSport it's also present in a different capacity, and so that's why I view it in a similar sense."

Abarbanel does not compete in eSports herself, but she plays daily and is presently all about card game Hearthstone and new Riot game Fight Team Tactics, which she desribes as 'like the hologram chess game in Star Wars' - to the gaming beginner.

Before eSports, Came Poker

With a degree in statistics from Brown University, why the researcher enjoys both games, with their emphasis on strategy, is obvious and becomes more so when you consider she used to pay her rent by playing poker. Well, some of it.

"When I was in my second or third year at school, that was really when the poker craze hit and I was majoring in statistics," she remembers. "I had a friend who reached out to me and, this is going to sound really sexist, but he said, 'Brett, you're a young female who is majoring in statistics, may I please teach you poker, and I would like to bankroll you in our poker game'."

Abarbanel was desperately bored working in the maths department as a homework grader - "which is as boring as it sounds" - so snapped up the opportunity. She took the offer, and added the $8ph she got from the maths department to the poker pot.

"I ended up financing groceries, and part of my rent," she said. "I also met the man who was to become my husband, and when we graduated, he wanted to be a professional poker player."

That ambition led to Abarbanel, a native of Californian beach town Del Mar, moving to Las Vegas.

Did You Know Las Vegas Did Skiing?

"I actually love living in Las Vegas," said Abarbanel. "People who don't live here, I think sometimes have this misconception that the strip is everything, and that's just not the case.

"It's so easy to have a very quiet life in Las Vegas. We have a huge suburban sprawl. You can go 40 miles away from the strip and still be in the broader Las Vegas area."

She added: "We're in the middle of a valley, so it's very easy to access the mountains; you might find t-shirts, sold around town for example, saying 'Ski Las Vegas', because we do get snow up there in the winter.

"But it really is a neat place to be. There's a lot of interesting stuff, you always have that city atmosphere, but it's a different type of city atmosphere."

Las Vegas isn't like New York or London, it's not like other major metropolitan areas, says Abarbanel. Tourism is obviously a major focus, but there are other industries there, like solar power - harnessing the intense, constant sunshine of the Mojave Desert.

It's meant that the population in the metropolitan area has doubled since Abarbanel relocated back in 2007, now toppling over 2.2million, and continuing to grow.

The Responsible Gaming 'Holy Grail'

Brett Abarbanel's focus at the University of Nevada Las Vegas's Institute of Gaming right now is a four-year project with MGM's portfolio of North American casinos, aiming to improve responsible gambling measures, which matches well with Betting On Sports's newest track.

This year the SBC event will host a Safer Gambling Forum on September 19, supported by the likes of GamCare, Responsible Gaming, and Safer Gambling Solutions.

Abarbanel is only halfway through her program, but already there have been some interesting findings that others could quickly implement.

"The big area when we really saw a difference was with employees and how they responded to programs likes this," she explained. "A big part of that was changing the framing to be more customer service orientated - because these are customer service employees, they are trained to provide service to people who come to them.

"So framing responsible gambling in the same way they frame everything else that they do with customers, was really helpful for employees. A lot of them were reporting that they felt a lot more comfortable talking to gamblers about responsible gambling.

"Previously, with a general compliance-based approach - provide the information and be done with it - they were worried that if they said the wrong thing, they might get in trouble at work.

"Now they felt like they could provide this information, which often includes 'set a limit, don't gamble everything that you have', which kind of seems like it might be in contrast to a traditional message that a gambling operator might send."

This work, alongside more techology-based projects elsewhere, is helping to achieve what Abarbanel calls the 'holy grail' of responsible gambling measures - having the ability to assess potential problem gamblers, and then the ability to communicate that with them.

Brett Abarbanel will speak on a panel entitled, “eSports - the major sport you are not carrying” at Betting on Sports 2019 at 11:20am on Wednesday, September 18.