Like the compulsive addict still in the throes of denial, Valve has a major gambling problem it cannot admit to. We’ll hear plenty in the coming days and weeks about YouTube video creators exploiting their young audiences, but this problem doesn’t stop at a pair of arseholes selling out their fanbase for a virtual Counter-Strike: Global Offensive casino empire. It goes beyond flagrant acts of deception in the new social sphere of ‘influencers’ (that pretty, PR-approved, new media name for paid-up shills), and right into Valve’s notorious hands-off business philosophy.
Valve is a company who seem to believe almost zealously in ‘light touch’ non-regulatory, zero-protection business operations, and, in the case of CS:GO gambling, this philosophy has had some very ugly side-effects. It’s been ideal for making money, of course. CS:GO is printing money faster than TmarTn and ProSyndicate googling for legal advice. It’s also been great for the popularity of the game, which has flourished on the back of a surge in skin-related gambling. But under Valve’s watch, with Valve’s game, using Valve’s application program interface (API), a vast network of unregulated, unrestricted gambling websites has arisen. One which appeals directly to underage speculators.
Right now, that’s more of a moral and ethical dilemma (easily ignored when you’re a give-no-fucks company swimming in Gabe-bux). But ultimately, with the increased scrutiny that will come as a result of Trevor Martin and Tom Cassell’s dishonest dipshittery, this could become a serious legal issue.
Somebody is already trying to make it one, in a lawsuit filed before the Martin/Cassell story broke. “Valve has knowingly allowed an illegal online gambling market and has been complicit in creating, sustaining and facilitating that market,” that case alleges. It’s going to be awfully hard to prove that Valve ‘created’ the illegal online gambling, but the suggestion that they ‘allowed’ and ‘sustained’ it feels a lot harder to dodge.
Valve’s defense would presumably be this: CS:GO skins do not have real money value, and Valve only supports trading within its own Steam framework.
Except the former is demonstrably false. It only takes five minutes of googling for ‘sell CS:GO items for real money’ to find plenty of sites happy to let you do just that (at your own risk). They’re not Valve-run sites, so that puts some deniable distance between the transactions, but to suggest Valve don’t know about these places is laughable. Plus, if Valve items and transactions have no real monetary value, why is it even necessary to report Steam marketplace sales over a certain threshold to the IRS?
So, sure, you can’t directly cash out your chips at the Steam casino window, but there’s a guy in the back-alley with an OPSkins briefcase only too eager to help you. He’s not affiliated with Valve, but you can be absolutely sure they know about him, and damn sure they could get him to piss off out of their alleyway if they felt so inclined.
As pointed out by eSports and videogames attorney Ryan Morrison in a recent Reddit AMA about the CS:GO gambling scene: Valve have other awkward ties to the unregulated underbelly. They own every single CS:GO skin out there. Whenever there’s a transaction of any kind they’re implicitly involved, and have a duty to at least try to keep things under control. Instead, in accordance with their company philosophy, they’ve helped to make things as laissez faire as possible; allowing any and all gambling sites to use their API (the now notorious CSGOLotto required an active Steam account log-in), and letting blatant adverts for underage gambling (until very recently CSGOLotto touted itself as being for 13 years and older) flourish across their platform. Morrison even suggests (by way of this detailed Bloomberg article) that Valve may have been actively helping with the running of certain sites like CSGO Lounge.
Taking all that into account, it’s pretty hard to see how Valve can realistically claim ignorance. And, really, if your only defense turns out to be “well okay, but a lot of this stuff is not technically illegal yet,” you’re already so far under the moral low ground that it’s too difficult to haul yourself out with your greedy, dollar-stuffed hands.
It didn’t have to reach this point. With a bit of self-regulatory oversight Valve could have kept the worst excesses (promotion to underage players, total lack of transparency) in hand. Instead, cases like Martin and Cassell’s are bringing CS:GO gambling (and, by extension, any other gambling with virtual items) to national attention. Legal legislation has yet to fully catch up in this area, but it’s scandals like this that get things moving in the US; and because Valve couldn’t keep their nose clean, CS:GO gambling could now end up with a punitive top-down ruling instead of ESRB-style internal regulation.
Since they’ve clearly shown themselves to be incapable of overseeing a clean establishment, it’s time for Valve to walk away from the table. The first step is admitting you have a problem.