Admissions of hacking by three professional CS:GO players have cast a shadow of suspicion on the CS:GO competitive scene. The outed players, Hovik "KQLY" Tovmassian, Simon "smn" Beck, and Gordon "Sf" Giry each received in-game bans through VAC earlier this week. The revelations call into question the players’ past performances, both during online tournaments and at LAN events, where the cheat, which allegedly connects through a player’s Steam Workshop, could have been used. For some in the scene, the news also presents the uncomfortable possibility that other professional players have used similar, still-undetected cheats in tournament play.
These revelations could not have come at a worse time for CS:GO e-sports—we’re days away from the biggest tournament in the game’s history, DreamHack Winter 2014.
Professional CS:GO players have been VAC banned before, but arguably not such high-profile players. KQLY, the most prominent player of the three, admitted in a statement on Facebook (that I’ve translated from French using Facebook’s integrated tool) that he had used a third-party program “for seven days.” KQLY denied using the program while he was a member of Titan (during the DreamHack Invitational, for example, which Titan won). “As you may have seen yesterday, I was banned by VAC and unfortunately it was justified,” KQLY wrote. “I wanted to say that I am really sorry for all the people who supported me, I am aware that with my bullshit, my career is now over and my team in a very bad position. They did not deserve it.”
When he was offered use of the program, KQLY says, the provider reassured him that “many pro players” were using it.
KQLY has been cut by Titan, who along with Epsilon have been disqualified from DreamHack Winter 2014 by the tournament’s organizers. Their expulsion is a huge blow to both organizations, who have spent weeks training for a chance to compete for the event’s quarter-million-dollar prize pool. Speaking to Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, DreamHack’s Head of e-sports Tomas Lyckedal expressed surprise. "I don’t think a pro player has been banned like this since 2001. Of course people have been caught cheating but it’s always been semi professionals, never established players. And it’s a shame it has to happen so close before the tournament,” he said. “I really hope that this doesn’t happen to more teams, but this has to be a clean sport so if it happens then so be it.”
Lyckedal also pledged that DreamHack “will take special precautions” at DreamHack Winter 2014. Playing in Titan and Epsilon’s place will be the winners of a “Last Call Qualifier” organized by DreamHack that takes place on Saturday.
On Friday, Titan issued a statement condemning KQLY’s actions. As it did so, Titan also criticized Valve for not working directly with teams to remedy the situation. After KQLY’s ban was revealed, Titan says it contacted Valve but was eventually “met with dead silence” after their initial email exchange. "Valve opted for a unilateral decision, handing out collective punishment with complete disregard for team involvement in the problem solving process.” I contacted Valve earlier today for comment but have not received a response.
The nature of the hack
KQLY’s ban was preceded by the ban of Simon "smn" Beck on ESEA, a third-party client used by competitive players to find matches and pick-up games. According to ex-pro and HLTV.org contributor Tomi “Lurppis” Kovanen, Valve contacted ESEA when it learned of the cheat. The bans of KQLY and Sf that followed, it would seem, were a result of Valve updating VAC to detect the cheat that smn used on ESEA.
The cheat in question is allegedly very difficult to detect, so much so it’s not out of the question for it to have been used at live LAN events. E-sports commentator Duncan “Thooorin” Shields took to YouTube (embedded above) to speak about the scandal—primarily to call for calm and an end to the “witch hunt” for other potential hackers that’s overtaken some fans in the scene in the past few days—but he also gave his own explanation for the type of hack that was allegedly used.
“It’s a cheat that doesn’t even have an extreme effect—unless you really abuse it—it has layers to it where it can just give you a slight advantage in aiming,” says Shields in the video. “So if you’re already one of the best players in the world, it’ll make it so you just look like you’re having your best game. It won’t even seem like you’re hacking and that was an impossible movement.” He continues, “This is a cheat that doesn’t have anything visible on the screen. The only way you’d know if someone did it is if you caught them at the point they installed it on that machine and activated it.”
Titan and Epsilon’s disqualification from DreamHack Winter sours the excitement around CS:GO’s biggest tournament of the year. For some, the bans have created a cloud of suspicion around other teams and players. Smn, the originally banned player, commented on a livestream on Friday about his ban and the incident, allegedly saying that as much as 40% of the pro scene is using hacks.
Of course, that's one person's statement, and it should not be taken as the certain truth. It remains to be seen whether more players will be VAC banned, and whether Valve will take further action, though some members of the community are already anticipating more bad news. I believe it’s important to temper our suspicion and not jump to conclusions that any one team or player is guilty until there’s hard evidence to suggest that they cheated.
It’s been exciting over the past year or so to watch CS:GO blossom into an e-sport that draws hundreds of thousands of spectators at once. And it’s been exciting to see the scene grow to support dozens of players and teams around the world. Fighting the hack-making industry, as we’ve previously investigated, is a constantly evolving struggle for studios like Valve, who can’t be expected to quash every single assistance program—it’s part of the cost of building a popular competitive game. Valve does, however, in cooperation with leagues and teams, have the power to make the punishment for hacking so unpalatable that fewer pros and non-pros would pursue it. Whatever happens next, it’s going to make for a fascinating tournament at DreamHack next week.