China's Esports Gamblers

Wu Jiangfeng

The Gambler

This past April, after losing 40,000 yuan or about $6000 in one bet, Qin Gankun (not his real name) posted for help on a forum for people looking to quit gambling. He is 21 years old, a junior at a prestigious university, and of his monthly 5000 yuan living expenses, he spends half of it on gambling.

Qin, a self-described “gambling dog,” is a fan of esports, particularly DotA 2 (Defense of the Ancients 2) and CS: GO (Counter-Strike: Global Offensive), arena combat games favored because of the speed and frequency with which they are played, providing betting opportunities 24/7. In the Chinese online gambling argot these are often referred to, bizarrely, as esports “spinach,” a homophone of one of the Chinese words for gambling, bocai. After four years of gambling on major platforms like MAX+, VPGAME, and Dali, Qin has accumulated six accounts, bet on over 5000 matches, and lost 70,000 yuan, or a little more than $10,000.

The worst of it came in the middle of 2015, when he had borrowed 3000 from his cousin and 10,000 from his girlfriend, along with 14,000 from an assortment of a dozen or so friends.

Esports gambling in China doesn’t usually involve bettors putting up money directly, though. Rather, the gamblers put their money into the virtual equipment or gaming items that are then given to players in the games. It makes for the barest technical excuse, allowing the gamblers to deny that what they do strictly qualifies as gambling, which is illegal throughout mainland China.

The equipment in question is priced according to its features, the power it offers players in the games, and especially with how limited its availability might be. Game items can sell anywhere from a few cents to several thousand yuan, and are offered up through specialist websites for players to buy and sell freely. In DotA2, for example, most items might run at a few dozen yuan, but higher end swords might cost 2500 yuan.

If a bet is won, then the bettor can take the item back and sell it off, pocketing the money. If the bet is lost, the bettor has to pay out for the item.

Qin’s Alipay account has a credit limit of 9500, so when he doesn’t have enough cash he’ll turn to friends and game item sellers on Taobao, the leading ecommerce platform owned by Alibaba. There’s no receipt, no interest, just a promise of “I’ll pay you back when I can.”

Trust may be the one truly priceless thing among gamblers. Qin has a group of “gambling dog buddies” who will borrow from one another when they hit heavy losses, but who also cheat one another with disheartening regularity.

Claiming his mother was ill, one player borrowed 4000 from Qin, only to then block his messages, change his phone number, quit his job, and vanish. Before this the two of them had only been teammates in DotA, having known one another online for more than a year, but had never met face to face.

“You know a guy comes to you looking to borrow money to gamble with, and you also know he’s going to run, but you loan it to him anyway,” Qin says. He calls the esports gambling world “dark” and “rotten,” and says he finds it hard to trust anyone anymore. And yet, he doesn’t believe his fellow gamblers are entirely unfeeling, either. “When somebody rakes it in, they’ll remember you were good to them.”

It started for him over the winter break of his senior year in high school with a simple link on a DotA2 fan website that led to a betting portal. On his first bet, Qin won 20 yuan.

At the beginning, he was careful, only placing a few dozen yuan on fights.

Bets are available on almost any aspect of the game, not just on which team will win a given fight, but, for example, which team will make the first kill, or the first ten kills.

And when he started out, his luck was good, so that after the first few matches his winnings snowballed into more than 5000 yuan. He then started increasing the size of his bets, and delved deeper into the games, seeking out unrecognized teams. He made friends with analysts who studied the strengths and weaknesses of players, and joined more than 40 chat groups on QQ, China’s ubiquitous chat messenger, where other bettors talk at all hours, crowing over their wins and lamenting their losses. Qin found himself a mentor, a gambler who regularly threw down four or five thousand yuan on a single match, yet who would also urge Qin himself to exercise retraint.

It all came to a head in April when Qin lost 40,000 yuan. It was a DotA2 match. On one side was a team with a winning streak, on the other a team with straight losses; the disparity in their strengths couldn’t have been any starker. More than 2000 people bet on the match, piling up bets of more than six million yuan, with 63% favor to the stronger team.

Qin put everything on the champion team, but the underdogs came out with an upset victory.

Apart from the players, there are three other roles in the esports gambling world: touts, sellers, and the professional cheats. The touts often double as online forum and chat group moderators. The sellers traffic in the game items players require, often undercutting the official price. And the cheats pass themselves off as one of the above.

Qin has met fraudsters posing as item sellers many times, and in his early days of gambling lost some 600 yuan to them as a “learner’s fee.”

The existence of such fraud has given rise to another, auxiliary role of middlemen, who are often either moderators of QQ groups or trusted players. Buyers and sellers may then choose to make deals through them for the sake of security.

Of course, the cheats find ways to adapt to and even exploit such precautions. Qin once tried to sell an item through a middleman, only to discover that the “buyer” and middleman were actually one person—who disappeared as soon as Qin had handed over the item.


The Dealer

Wu Zhiyi is a genuine item dealer, roughly of an age with Qin. Last summer, he borrowed 20,000 yuan from his family as a seed fund, and now does upwards of ten grand a month in business.

To grow his clientele, he is active in more than ten gambling groups, where he makes friends with players and bettors alike.

On an item that’s priced at over a thousand yuan, Wu may only earn a dozen or so yuan, so he depends on a high volume of sales, striving to keep his deals honest with no haggling. To avoid the cheats, he insists on money and trades upfront, no exceptions.

Wu is always on the look out for the fraudsters, who use screenshots of others’ inventory as their own. He even keeps a blacklist of known cheats, and will post their information in his QQ group.

That QQ group now has nearly 800 members, a client base he has spent a year cultivating. Wu says he once hoped to be able to make friends in these circles, but not anymore.

Some time ago, a former player “friend” of his with whom he had done deals worth more than 20,000 yuan, but whom Wu also knew had accumulated large debts, called him at seven in the morning. For twenty minutes, the other man chatted with him about overseas trips and the fancy hotels he had been staying at before innocently turning to the subject of an upcoming match. All the while emphasizing their friendship, the other man asked him to place a bet on the match for him.

Wu refused. “It was all just a ploy.”

Another client, whom Wu had known for two months and done four or five deals with, each time for expensive items, spoke with Wu every day. This client was also the manager of a gambling group with over 2000 members, so Wu let his guard down and passed an item over to him without receiving payment upfront. The other man promptly vanished.

“Don’t make friends with gamblers,” Wu now reminds himself. Especially the “top players.”


The Tout

Li Zitao is one of Wu’s biggest clients, and one such “top player.” His road to the world of esports gambling actually began with soccer. It started last summer, when he bet on the European championship. He and a friend went to a bar where a small betting pool was open. His friend teased him: “If you won’t bet on this, you might as well just be a salted fish.”

“There’s no excitement in it,” he said.

“If you want bigger stakes, you can bet online.”

“I don’t dare bet money,” he said. Li, born in the ‘80s, is a businessman, and describes himself as an aggressive personality. “If I lost, I’d have to sell my house and everything I have. No way I’m doing it.”

But his friend knew he played DotA, and so suggested he bet on game items. The reason he accepted, he says, is because “this is something you can’t necessarily bet on, even if you have money,” and, moreover, the conversion of money to game items made it seem as though it was a more distanced, rational process than straight cash bets.

But perhaps he misjudged it, because after just two weeks, he upped his bets to 400 yuan, and then to 1000. Lacking experience, he quickly lost it all, but he wasn’t troubled, “because it didn’t seem like I was losing cash.”

To try to change his luck, he registered for two accounts, and when he was losing in one he’d switch to the other, even changing the username when he felt it was becoming unlucky.

On the betting platform he uses there is a weekly leader board, with one ranking for the biggest winners and one for the biggest losers. One month over a three day period he lost 200,000 yuan, and both his accounts showed up on the losers’ board at once.

When he was still he novice, he did get cheated when another gambler who owed him more than 10,000 disappeared. He even hired a private investigator, though it was no use. Now, when loaning money he asks for a copy of the other person’s ID card and their living address.

What infuriated him the most, though, was when he joined a QQ group run by a crooked tout. It cost 200 yuan a week to be part of the group, where betting recommendations would be offered on 10 different matches. He paid for two weeks, and lost on nine of the matches.

This, it turned out, was what is known as a “counter-tout,” who deliberately gives misleading betting advice so that bettors will channel their money onto losing bets, thereby tilting the odds and increasing the payout for those on the other side.

Li himself is now also a tout with his own QQ group.

Or rather, he has four groups. Two are betting groups, places for people to talk; one is a tout’s group, where he alone can post, offering up betting recommendations for others. And the last is a regular esports fan group, with no connection to gambling. Each group has 2000 members, and costs a fee to join.

Most touts work as volunteers, making nothing from their work, but as Li sees it, they play a role that deserves recognition, and big name players have been known to bestow game items on touts after a victory as a kind of largesse.

In gambling circles, both the honest dealers and the frauds rely on the same currency: trust. At the end of last year, Li gathered a team to build his own betting platform, with the goal of winning over players’ trust by putting forward dependable betting advice, and then converting them to paying users.

Within a year, Li has gone from player to entrepreneur. He says his ideal is to “help players learn to bet rationally.”

But as everyone knows, when you rise to the top, reason goes out the window.


The Cheat

Li and Wu used to have a mutual friend, a player known only as “Charles.”

Wu once received a QQ chat message from Charles at 1 AM, saying he was in Macau, had fallen into debt, and was being held prisoner in a hotel by his creditor. He begged Wu to help him contact the authorities. “I’ll think of something,” Wu messaged him back.

He tried dialing the Macau police as Charles asked, but couldn’t reach them from within mainland China, even on an internet call. He tried dialing the local emergency number, only to be told the local authorities couldn’t do anything about something happening in Macau. When he messaged Charles again, he got no reply.

A week later, Wu heard from a friend that Charles’s parents had gotten him out after putting up some amount of money—one person said it was 70 or 80,000 yuan, while another said it was more than ten million. Charles had contacted a number of his gambling friends, but Wu was the only one who had tried to help him.

Charles had only just paid Wu back a debt of more than a thousand. They had known each other about a year by then. Charles, it turned out, was 27, and a “princeling,” the son of a wealthy family.

Wu remembers Charles as being quite innocent in the beginning. He was cheated three times by frauds posing as item sellers. He didn’t win very often; in fact, he frequently wound up on the losers’ leader board. There was only one major victory that Wu remembers, when Charles won almost 100,000 off a thousand yuan bet. He sold half to Wu, and continued betting with the remainder, which he then lost.

Charles and Li are part of the same VIP chat group, with fewer than fifty people in it. After returning from his ordeal in Macau, Charles kept gambling, and came to Li asking for money. Li denied he had any to loan him, but gave him half of a gaming item he had worth 3000.

A few days later, after an animated discussion in the VIP chat group, Li realized that Charles had finally, truly disappeared.

Charles had posted a long note to the group, in which he said: “I don’t want to cheat anyone anymore, it’s too hard to bear … I want to start my life over, and I will return the money, I’ll make it back gradually.”

It was then that everyone in the group discovered that all of them, from the players to the betting platform workers, had loaned Charles money. He had cheated them all.

Li sighs relating all of this. Later, he says, another gambler came to him looking to borrow money. His reply: “No help. No loan. I’ve fallen out of love before.”