A Tale of Two Gambles: How Match-fixing changed the careers of 2 esports athletes forever

A bet is much like a coin toss. Flip it once and you win big. Flip it another time and you lose everything. Who knows what happens when you take one more chance? For two figures in the esports industry, the toss could not have ended up more differently for each of them.

In 2013, Lee “Life” Seung-Hyun reached the pinnacle of one of the greatest stretches of tournament wins in Starcraft II (SC2) history.

It started the year prior, when he defeated one of the all-time greats in the game, Jung “MVP” Jong Hyun, 4-3 in GSL Season 4. Life became the youngest ever player to win a GSL tournament, one of SC’s biggest tournaments, and the first ‘royal roader’ of the SC2 era (‘taking the royal road’ refers to a player winning a tournament on his first try). In November of that year, he attended his first tournament abroad, the MLG Fall Championship. Life cruised to the finals where he faced Lee “Leenock” Dong Nyoung, a two-time MLG champion, and defeated him 4-3.

He followed that up with a 4-2 win over Won “PartinG” Lee Sak for the 2012 Blizzard Cup in December. In January of the following year, he won his first European tournament, the Iron Squid – Chapter II, in a 4-3 reverse-sweep victory over Park “DongRaeGu” Soo Ho. Finally, Life capped it off with a 4-2 victory over one of SC’s bonjwas (a Korean term referring to the greatest player of his era), Lee “Flash” Young Ho, in the 2013 MLG Fall Championship, becoming the first ever back to back MLG champion.

Life winning back-to-back MLG Championships. Image courtesy of Liquipedia.net.

Meanwhile, Alexei “Solo” Berezin was a member of the middling Russian Dota 2 team RoX.KiS. The squad was then a tier-2 team struggling to break into the upper echelons of the game’s competitive scene and was again unsuccessful in StarSeries Season 6. Solo and RoX.KiS would end their campaign in the tournament in a futile match against zRAGE, but the seemingly meaningless match would go on to be one of the most infamous moments in Dota 2’s history.

While RoX was heavily favored in the match, the squad lost after 27 minutes of terrible decisions, ill-advised gank attempts, and suicidal engagements. Solo and his squad gave up 50 kills against zRAGE before the confounding match ended.

However, evidence later surfaced that Solo bet $100 that his team would lose, and with the odds heavily in favor of his team, he would have had a payout of $322.

Solo (far left) and RoX.KiS. Image courtesy of ESL.

After finding out about the incident, StarLadder, the CIS region’s premier gaming league, slammed Solo with a lifetime ban, while also issuing three-year bans on his teammates and a one-year ban on the RoX organization. While RoX initially defended its team, Solo eventually admitted that he placed the bet and left the organization.

Solo’s ban would then be reduced to just one year, but he never got his $322. Dota 2’s publisher, Valve Corporation, would then go on take match-fixing issues seriously issuing lifetime bans on future perpetrators.

The incident would go on to live in Dota infamy, with the Dota community, especially Twitch chat, coining the term ‘322’ to mean any bad or questionable play that would ‘throw’ a match away, no matter if there was any intent on match-fixing or not.

Solo would go on to express regret for the incident, and would bounce between unsuccessful attempts to revive his career for a couple of years.

While Solo languished as the butt of a joke in the Dota 2 community, Life enjoyed continued success in SC2. He would go on to win another tournament, the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) VIII, and finish in the top four in four others in 2013. Life continued with more top four finishes for 2014 and even sent the SC2 community abuzz with whispers claiming he was the game’s GOAT when he won 2014’s DreamHack Bucharest and the SC2 World Championship Series (WCS).

Life would go on to win two other tournaments in 2015, the IEM IX – Taipei and GSL Season 1, adding more accolades to his already impressive resume.

After his dominant run, many in the SC2 community were hailing Life as a potenial GOAT. Image courtesy of Liquipedia.net.

Meanwhile, Solo gambled on another attempt to revive his career by joining Vega Squadron. With successful stints in minor tournaments, the team secured a slot in the European Qualifiers for The International 2015 (TI5). While Vega lost in the finals and could not directly qualify to TI5, it still earned a wildcard slot for the tournament. In the wildcard phase, Vega lost to MVP Phoenix, who would place in the Top 8, and CDEC Gaming, who would eventually be the TI5 runner-up, and were thus knocked out.

While failure in TI would drive most teams to disband, Solo and Vega remained resilient. The squad would peak when it qualified for ESL One New York later that year, where it had a cinderella run to the championship. After beating top teams such as Evil Geniuses, Invictus Gaming, and Team Secret, Vega Squadron’s 2015 run was seen as Solo’s redemption story.

Solo and Vega Squadron during their win at ESL One New York. Image courtesy of ESL.

While another gamble went in favor of Solo, the same could not be said for Life.

In 2015, a deep-seated match-fixing scandal erupted in the Korean SC2 community. Investigations by the Korean e-Sports Association (KeSPA) and Korean law enforcement agencies uncovered a string of match-fixing incidents going as far back as January of that year, with several people in the scene involved. Later in October, the Chanwon Regional Prosecution Service’s special investigations division released an investigation report about the match-fixing incidents and arrested the suspects, two players and a coach for the team Prime. A former player, four brokers, and two financial brokers were also arrested. KeSPA later banned the arrested players for life.

It didn’t end there, unfortunately. On January 2016, KeSPA announced that Life had been arrested by the Changwon prosecutor’s office on charges of receiving money for match-fixing. Many among the SC2 community could not believe Life’s involvement in the scandal, especially considering that by that time he was the second player with the most tournament earnings, at around $460,000. The community’s worst fears were confirmed when the prosecutor’s office released its official report on April, charging Life and another player, Jung “Bbyong” Woo Yong, with match-fixing. It was discovered that Sung “Enough” Jun Mo, a former player, host, and journalist, paid Life and Bbyong money as compensation for intentionally losing matches and subsequently betting on those fixed matches.

Life was sentenced to 18 months of imprisonment, a three-year suspension, and a 70,000,000 won (or over $64,000) fine, alongside a lifetime ban from participating in any KeSPA tournaments. Life tried to appeal for a more lenient sentencing in July, but he was dismissed by the Changwon District Court.

Following his arrest, Life’s WCS Global Finals title was revoked and he was disgraced from the SC2 community. He would not compete in any other major tournaments since.

In August of that year, Virtus.Pro (VP) announced their new squad, with Solo at the helm as the team’s captain and drafter. The team would have a respectable showing in The Boston Major 2016, placing 5th-8th. The next year saw VP go on a dominant run leading up to TI7, with a 2nd place finish in The Kiev Major and a championship in The Summit 7, which secured them a direct invite to the tournament.  

Solo and VP during TI7. Image courtesy of Valve.

In TI7, Solo and VP had a strong finish in the group stages and ended up in the upper bracket. They beat LGD Gaming in their opening match 2-0 but lost 2-1 to eventual 3rd placer LGD.Forever Young, which sent them to the lower bracket. There, they were eliminated by eventual TI7 champions Team Liquid, 2-1, and ended up finishing 5th-6th.

Despite an ultimately disappointing finish in TI7, VP retained its roster. In the next event following TI7, ESL One Hamburg 2017, VP went on a tear. They defeated Liquid, Newbee, and Team Secret in dominant fashion, staking their claim as the foremost contenders for the new season. Due to his excellent captaining and support play in the tournament, Solo was awarded the Mercedes Benz MVP, winning $50,000 to put towards a Mercedes Benz car.

Solo and his Mercedes Benz. Image courtesy of ESL.

Solo and VP would go on to win the last tournament of 2017, the DOTA Summit 8, and entered 2018 as the favorites to win TI8, following resounding victories in ESL One Katowice 2018 and The Bucharest Major.

Life, it seems, is much like a coin toss. Flip it once, you’re a back-to-back champion, the greatest player of your game. A bet is much like a coin toss, too. Flip it another time, you get $322 and disgrace. Who knows what will happen if you flip it once more?