Addressing Policy and Competitive Integrity in Esports: A case study on Apex Legends

Written by Donny Jackson

In our last blog post, we made comparisons between “real life” sporting events and Esports events and highlighted the importance of maintaining competitive integrity. Competitive integrity is a significant part of any sports landscape, be it virtual or in-person. In-person events bring about unanticipated and sometimes unprecedented circumstances that require policy and procedures to ensure the safety of participants and to maintain the integrity of the event. As the Esports industry continues to develop and expand, it is important to understand how competitive integrity within Esports compares to “real life” events. To do so, some of the most recent issues surrounding the Apex Legends Global Series (ALGS) and its professional circuit are examined here. This blog explores two recent issues bringing competitive integrity into question in Apex Legends: the first examines in-game pausing at pre-LAN and LAN events, while the second reviews an online hack during a pre-LAN event. We also identify possible solutions and emphasizing the need for sporting organizations to modernize their competition policies when it comes to Esports.

It is our recommendation that all sport organizations interested in hosting Esports tournaments should develop, at minimum, a match integrity policy to ensure competitors, spectators and game administrators know what to expect when issues arise and to mitigate risks related to “known unknowns” of competition. Without policy and procedures directing competitors and administrators on how to move forward when an inevitable issue occurs, competitors and spectators alike are left in the dark, unaware of what happens next, leaving them to speculate and scrutinize the lack of clear procedures set to address these circumstances.

Examples of what to include in these policies are detailed below. Good policy should address how to handle in-game intervention by administrators to protect competitive integrity and clearly communicate what is required of competitors to prevent match manipulation and outside influence. Online/remote games should require:

  • Deep virus scans as a condition for competition;
  • Identify possible risk mitigation practices to avoid unnecessary risks;
  • Highlight what is expected of competitors to ensure fairness and integrity are maintained;
  • Document issues as they occur and adjust accordingly; and
  • Ensure competitors are educated to protect competitive integrity.

Competitive Integrity? Live pausing and restarting of games

Apex Legends is an online, Battle Royale, first-person RNG “looter shooter”. At the competitive level, teams actively lookfor every advantage to best equip themselves to eliminate the other teams and become the last team standing as the playable game area shrinks.

Competitive integrity was hotly debated during the Year 3, Split 2 ALGS LAN Playoffs when a player’s game crashed, resulting in a lower placement and less prize money. The game’s competitive integrity was questioned as the team who won the game in that circumstance, ended up going on to win the entire Year 3 ALGS Split 2 Playoffs later. As such, questions arose as to whether the game ought to have been paused for the player whose PC crashed.

A second incident occurred when an administrator-controlled action resulted in notable confusion: during the same event, for the first time, the in-game action was paused. This provided some noticeable insight into how the game can be administered and how the administrators themselves can attempt to protect the competitive integrity of the game by pausing at certain points. Following this pause, questions arose as to whether this administrative step ought to have been implemented by the organizers to deal with the aforementioned game crash.  

Several months later at the subsequent LAN playoffs, internal issues occurred yet again, including game freezes and games crashing. At one point, one competitor’s game crashed during one of the final zones, when teams were in the middle of eliminating one another in a small playable area, which led to a game pause. Later, the online server hosting the entirety of the LAN event crashed – not just for one player, but for every single team – leading to an actual game restart, which had never been seen at that level before.

Hoping to not incur the same confusion as during the Year 3, Split 2 playoffs, ALGS administrators published a small blog post in an attempt to clarify how pauses work, and what happens during the game pause. While this transparency was lauded by the community, questions continued to linger about the game’s competitive integrity.

As more time has passed, and more games are played, pauses have seemingly become “normalized” and accepted, with casters, competitors and spectators knowing what to expect when game pauses or even restarts occur. During the Year 4 Split 1 LAN, several game pauses occurred which allowed competitors and teams affected by technical issues to compete fairly with everyone else.

However, it is not enough to simply accept these “conventions” and minor updates online without concrete policy.  

More than just a pause or game crash – what happens if in-game manipulation is suspected?

In fact, the need for policy addressing all sorts of situations is amplified when a tournament is hacked, forcing the tournament to be completely postponed because administrators do not know how to move forward with completing the remaining games.

During the Year 4 Split 1 Regional Finals (the last online-only competition of the split before the LAN Split 1 Playoffs), two games involving teams from the North America region were hacked by a user not involved in the games. First, one player was given “wallhacks” (the ability to see the other competitors’ position and health through walls – something not possible without hacking) and “aimbot” (the ability to not miss a single shot without even aiming at the target). As this occurred, the affected player left the game to protect the competitive integrity of the rest of the competition.

Immediately following this game’s hack, in the next game, a popular player was also given “aimbot” by the same hacker. This second affected player proceeded to recognize this, and rather than leave the game, he made an effort to stop playing in a way that could allow him to eliminate his opponents.

The context above involving the two hacked games is incredibly significant, because no publicly available rules or regulations outline what happens if a competitor is hacked mid-game. In one situation, the player left the game; in the other, the player remained in-game and briefly didn’t participate in a way that could eliminate others. Because of the lack of policy applying to a “known unknown” such as a hack, competitors were left completely in the dark with how to proceed.

Respawn Entertainment and Apex Legends Esports issued statements on Twitter acknowledging the issue as it happened. However, no information was shared at the time with respect to what would be happening moving forward. Eventually, the remainder of the tournament was played completely off-stream on a different date to prevent the hacker from gaining access. The impact was that competitors and the fans were left contemplating what would happen.

This incident brings cybersecurity questions to the forefront as well as the feasibility of hosting live tournaments moving forward. Given the hacker’s ability to gain access to competitors during an online event through a private server, questions arose whether these “hacks” would simply take place again following the postponement, or generally at future events. The need for additional server security measures are an obvious measure that must be taken to reduce this risk.

Ultimately, rigorous policy and procedural transparency are required to answer these questions and confidently move forward.

How policy can help shape the future of Esports, and why it could have helped Apex Legends

Contemplating and addressing “known unknowns” through policy is absolutely integral to not only ensure competitive integrity, but to maintain a strong reputation for being a viable and serious Esport.

In reviewing the current ALGS Official Rules and Regulations, we believe they are currently incomplete. For instance, while section 7 of the ALGS Official Rules and Regulations addresses administrative authority with respect to suspected hacks or cheats from the competitor(s), and Appendix “A” is comprised of a Code of Conduct, the regulations fail to specify what actions will be taken should the issues dealt with throughout this blog arise.

Not only are there a lack of regulations dictating what is to happen during the game, but a lack of information altogether about what happens outside the competitive landscape. Some of the obvious questions that need addressing include:

  • If a game has restarted, or has had to be postponed, what happens to the team’s points that they’ve accumulated? Is the slate wiped clean?
  • Will future games be played off-stream, or with a significant time delay, to prevent the chance of being hacked or interfered with generally?
  • How can server- and client-side security be increased to prevent a hack?

Good policy requires foresight, shared principles, clarity of purpose and reasonable actions. We must address these questions to maintain trust in Esports. As this growing medium evolves, it will need to proactively create policy to ensure competitive integrity is preserved. Moving forward, the following items must be clearly outlined in policy:

  • How to handle individual, client-side game crashes or freezes, why pauses are implemented and what happens during those pauses;
  • How to handle server-wide game crashes;
  • Sections surrounding game pauses and game restarts should clearly indicate situations when these, among other competitive integrity-focused features are used;
  • Sections around responding to in-game manipulation or breaches of the Rules and Regulations, with options for both immediate/provisional measures along with future discipline;
  • If a tournament is hosted online, full-PC virus scans from competitors may be required to ensure they do not have compromised machines;
  • If an event is hosted via a LAN, ensure server security is paramount;
  • If interruptions occur, ensure the scoring process is uniform and there are clear ways forward.

Esports would greatly benefit from having these policies and procedures publicly available to foster greater awareness and to demonstrate transparency.  

Final thoughts

While the aforementioned incidents affecting Apex Legends are unfortunate, they also demonstrate why proactive policy is important in sport generally. Without these procedures in place, specific Esports and their organizations may incur reputational harm if they are not seen as “serious” or professional enough to enact comprehensive policies to address various circumstances. It is incumbent on the organization, and the sport overall, to place themselves in the best position to both administer the sport and react when issues arise. Case studies on Esports such as Apex Legends should act as a reminder that match integrity policies and improved regulations are a great starting point to help maintain the overall competitive integrity of the sport while delivering a consistent and quality experience for all involved.

For assistance with policies for your organization, contact hello@sportlaw.ca.

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