But how do parents help children avoid an on-line risk that parents can’t
even imagine exists?
Consider the story of Elijah Ballard.
In 2012, Elijah was a sixth grader in St. Louis. He used his father’s Visa (with permission) to create a Steam account with the video game company Valve. He downloaded a copy of the popular first-person-shooter game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CSGO). He says that at first, he didn’t care that much for the game.
In August 2013, he tried an updated version and was soon deeply immersed in it.
By early 2014, Elijah had become active in the virtual gambling available through the CSGO Lounge.
By the end of 2014, Elijah had moved to the emerging casino-style websites that were connected to the CSGO world.
By 2015, Elijah’s life had spiraled out of control. His parents could not understand what was happening.
By 2016 Elijah, now 16 years old, was in counseling and recovering from compulsive gambling. And, he was a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against Valve.
As his father said, “Elijah was 13. Who in his right mind would have thought he was compulsively gambling?” Grady Ballard, a dentist, thought that his son was just playing a video game that pitted terrorists against counter-terrorists.
But CSGO has become much more than just a game.
Shaun Assael is a member of the ESPN network’s Enterprise and Investigations Group. On 1/20/2017, he posted an ESPN article which describes Elijah’s journey.
How did Elijah, a vulnerable young teen, get sucked into online gambling so smoothly by playing CSGO?
In 2013, Valve issued a new version of CSGO called “The Arms Deal Update.” It only made a small change. It didn’t affect how the weapons of the game were used, or how the game was played. Now the players could buy distinctive covers for their weapons. The covers are called skins. No big deal, right?
Wrong. This small change, changed everything. The skins had “value” based on their rarity. Most had values of a few cents to a few dollars. But some were rare enough that they were valued at thousands of dollars. The way in which players “win” these skins is through a virtual slot machine, embedded in the game. Players were no longer playing Counter-Strike just as a war between terrorists and counter-terrorists. They were now gambling as well. And their status in the game was now partially determined by their “skill” as gamblers. Did the game become more popular?
Mr. Assael notes that: “Seven months after the arms update was unveiled in August 2013, Valve had 150,000 users playing it at once – a sixfold increase from a year earlier.”
Elijah’s father did not know that CSGO had morphed so that gambling was now an essential part of the game. Nor did he know that the culture and community surrounding CSGO and CSGO tournaments had morphed into the explosive growth of the newest form of online gambling.
Valve created and controls the virtual market where the players can buy, sell, and trade the skins. It is through a related website, CSGO Lounge, that players can use their skins to bet on teams in the CSGO tournaments. But this is all virtual betting. No real money changes hands.
So how did Elijah gain access to casino-style gambling sites that use real money?
There is a “side door” to the CSGO site that allows players to transfer their skins to connected but “unrelated” sites, sites with names like CSGO Jackpot and CSGO Lotto. On these sites, they can convert their skins to real money, and play casino games. Of the estimated $5 billion wagered using skins, about $3 billion was wagered after being converted to real money.
Elijah’s father did not know that there was an open doorway from playing CSGO to active participation in online casino games. Nor did he know there were no restrictions on who could walk through this doorway. It was just as open to a 13-year-old as it was to a 33-year-old.
But it actually gets worse. The casino sites related to eSports gambling are almost completely unregulated. Regulatory agencies are not even looking at eSports gambling. It is, as Mr. Assael notes, “a burgeoning Wild West of gambling.”
How big is CSGO now? In 2016, an average of 342,000 people were playing the game at the same time. But it’s not just the players. There are CSGO tournaments played around the world. The big ones can have million-dollar prize pools. These tournaments last several days, and often have over 100,000 people in attendance, watching live. And, they can have as many as 27 million streaming viewers watching the action. Many of these viewers don’t just watch; they gamble on the outcomes. It’s called eSports betting. In 2016, an estimated $5 billion was wagered using skins.
Elijah’s father said, “Elijah was 13. Who in his right mind would have thought he was compulsively gambling?”
Another way of saying this is: Who in his right mind would have thought that there was an open pathway from playing a video game into an unregulated world of online casino gambling, with enticement to gamble, that is open to children?
How many other children have already been sucked into this world? We don’t know. No one of responsibility and authority appears to be looking.
So that means parents must look to see what their kids are doing and playing on-line. One close look and the on-line risk will become apparent.
Please read Mr. Assael’s article. If you have friends that you think should know about this new on-line risk, please forward this blog to them. If you are connected to a PTA or a church/temple/mosque group that relates to children and teenagers, please share this with that group.
Together we can mount a global offensive to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and other “games” luring our children into the dark, sad world of the compulsive gambler.
Let’s get started!