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Exposing the win-trading corruption in China: The aftermath story

Hearthstone Radoslav “Nydra” Kolev


 

#0: The lead in
 

Organized win-trading and pay-to-legend services are known issues on the Chinese server, plaguing, corrupting and compromising the competitive scene at its core. Popular streamers and pro players on respected teams are involved, working in groups that have developed an intricate code language and cautious behavior to avoid being caught by the supervising officials NetEase or Blizzard themselves. The phrase RenMai, used to describe win-trading within the circle of cheaters, has become a meme for the general public, which many – myself included – saw as evidence of just how common the phenomenon is.

Thr?e weeks ago, I wrote a detailed investigative report on the practice. Names of alleged win-traders and boosters were exposed, taken from information brought to me by senior members of the Chinese scene and confidential informants who needed the West to pay attention and bring RenMai to light, because China wasn’t ready to expose the practice itself. In my initial report, a dozen or more names were caught in screenshots abusing the ladder system and even meddling with the Gold Series Open, China’s biggest and most respected circuit of open tournaments.

This follow-up report outlines the entire aftermath of my reporting, including China’s heated reaction, statements from pro players, NetEase and the accused, death threats and attempts to discredit me, Blizzard’s investigation and resulting ban wave, and the final farewells from the guilty.
 

#1: Going viral and China’s outcry

 

"I'm glad this surfaced on the western front. We welcome everywone with solid proof to step forward."
-- NetEase Deputy Game Director


It didn’t take long for the report to blow up on social media. While I was somewhat taken aback by the speed of this development, it also naturally made sense. Reddit, as much as it likes feeding on drama, is even keener on justice, and in this case chasing out cheaters from the scene. Stories like that of Raphael “Hosty” Tsantili, caught stream-ghosting during The Pinnacle tournament, or Hyerim “MagicAmy” Lee, who might just have been the on-stream persona of an entirely different individual, had become Reddit sensations. An article featuring serious accusations including a major group of Chinese pro players and streamers would be no different.

Shortly after, the report was translated and posted on Chinese gaming forums, which set off a whole new series of reactions. Everyone jumped into the conversation, regardless of their position, reputation or involvement in the Chinese scene. Even though many attempts were made to deny the existence of the practice, comments like that of Yolo Miracle’s Fuoliver, currently ranked top twelve in all of China, suggested the opposite:
 

There are actually accounts getting suspended/banned every month for win-trading, but this has not stopped the practice. This boils down to the extremely low risk for this practice for the man on the street; Hearthstone is extremely popular now, so there are still tons of people taking this risk. There are some organisations/groups who do this all the time. Hopefully, NetEase/Blizzard can setup a proper blacklist; in fact, within the inner circles, we all have some idea about who the win-traders are. Hopefully we can deal a proper blow to these illegal activities.
 

It was NetEase who received the first serious backlash. With win-trading exposed, China’s gaming community looked for someone to blame, and who better than Hearthstone’s official distributor and tournament operator on home turf? There’s no denying the company was put in a difficult position. NetEase has been fighting the win-trading practice for a long time, but their powers are limited. Conducting a thorough investigation costs an inordinate amount of time, money and human resources, and shutting down the entire RenMai culture is a Sisyphean task. As a result, NetEase had taken the best measures they could afford – mainly by reducing the importance of placing high on the ladder – but that hasn’t been enough to uproot the win-trading business. Despite doing their best and working to offer solutions to a widespread problem, the face of Hearthstone in China was getting bruised, leading to company’s Deputy Game Director publicly welcoming the attention RenMai was getting in the west:
 

I’m glad this surfaced on the western front as well, we already have people on the case. But as I said above, we do need strong evidence before any action. We welcome everyone with solid proof to step forward as well, since having public monitoring and surveillance is better than doing it ourselves right?
 

By making this a case of ‘us vs them’ and looking for external scapegoats, the community had found an easy way out instead of confronting the problem.


Other NetEase representatives, however, were not as welcoming of the news, and issued mixed statements, seemingly a result of either misunderstanding the original report, or the immense public pressure from China’s gaming community, or maybe both. One such employee was Marketing Director Zhang Dong, who in a couple of posts went from being welcoming to the original report, to labeling me “unfriendly towards China”, and claiming the report is a mix of truths and lies that shouldn’t be 100 per cent trusted.

Missing the point proved to be a common theme within the Chinese community. Once they have finished attacking the innocent NetEase, the mob turned towards me as the author of the piece, all the while becoming even more enraged by irrelevant conversations such as whether or not China is among the weakest regions in Hearthstone. The passion grew to such an extent that certain fans with at least a basic understanding of English took it upon themselves to issue death threats in a Reddit thread, since deleted. At first I assumed this was a singular case, but the follow-up ‘apology’ of this aspiring assassin showed differently, and if that same person could find Bulgaria on the world map and convince his government to let him travel halfway across the globe, I might actually have been worried rather than wearily amused.  

 

Blizzard and NetEase had but one option: React.


By the end of the day, Chinese fans, with the help of vlogs and statements from the accused, had created a portrait of this journalist that suited their position: An enemy of the country and their scene, and one who is terribly misinformed and misled. By making this a case of ‘us vs them’ and looking for external scapegoats, the community had found an easy way out instead of confronting the problem head on and discovering a solution. “I have never been more disappointed in the scene,” one of my acquaintances in the Chinese community told me.

Still, the part about my limited knowledge of China’s culture was true, and I remained puzzled about the reaction. It was completely different to what I was used to in the west. Thankfully, a few days later one reader of Asian descent who mailed me after my appearance on The Angry Chicken podcast helped me understand the wider context of the reaction I’d received:
 

Corruption is a funny thing in Asia, people are very blasé to acts of corruption here and often feel that the action itself is only corrupt if someone points it out.  A lot of this comes from the notion of dignity or the 'face' that is very prevalent in most Asian cultures (most notably in China).  Asians and Chinese place a lot of emphasis on their dignity: how society perceives them, their social standings and their honour in society.  I know it sounds crazy but it is in-fact considered far worse to defame someone's character than it is to punish them for their wrongdoing.

When you published your article on China's win-trading, you essentially shamed the Chinese scene for its poor sportsmanship and conduct.  As a western educated individual you obviously know that a scene should be held accountable for its poor conducts and that its affiliates should work to improve the scene themselves for the sake of sportsmanship.  But I think the Chinese players don't see that, what they see is a scene that has its intrinsically corrupt aspects that have now been exposed for their corruption.  Again I know it sounds crazy but the act of exposing the corrupt aspects of the scene, bringing shame to the scene and its participants is actually considered far fouler in Asian culture than the corrupt aspects themselves.
 

Fair enough. The explanation seemed a little odd to my western sensibilities, but I was grateful for the context and new perspective at least. Let’s move on, as the story is far from over.


 

#2: “We will make him pay”
 

While the Chinese community was busy being furious about the exposure of the corruption, the original confidential informants remained undiscovered. Fortunately for some and unfortunately for others, that led to a furious rush to unearth even more names involved in RenMai. In the screenshots below, Jin Kanjia of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications (which is how his name translates to English), hopelessly tries to paint Team Celestial as the traitors, while foolishly revealing that BaiZe, one of the accused players in the original report and someone publicly defended by NetEase’s director of PR, is indeed part of the RenMai group. He is not terribly scared of NetEase either.

 


 

We have checked all our group members who had access to those screenshots, who knew BaiZe has joined our group, and who had connections to Americas server. We are about to find out who did this. If this would affect our players' qualification in China Season Championship, or, if this would reflex badly on our streamers, we will make him pay. I know it was Team CL who's been messing with our group. We made 30 players on Feb season top 100 list, we send 12 players play in qualifiers of China Season Championship(24 participants in total), and 7 of them moved on to main stage. Plus, Team CL has lost a lot of people these days, that's the reason why some of their guy is targeting us. Netease doesn't do nothing about us other than giving a bit of warning notifications, but no penalties.
 

In the meantime, more evidence appeared in the public domain about how easily accessible ladder cheating had become. One Taobao page openly offers pay-to-legend services for the Chinese server. Another one sells the same, but on the European and Americas servers as well. Both of these pages are yet to be taken down. The primal, impulsive outcry from the community had also calmed by this point to be replaced, according to sources, by a rising clamour against the win-trading business, from fans yearning for a healthy and respectable scene.

With all this information exposed and the rising discontent of the Hearthstone population, Blizzard and NetEase had but one option: React.
 

#3: The hammer falls
 

In the face of Blizzard's banhammer, the tide of emotion had turned.


In an article published by The Daily Dot a week after the original report, a Blizzard spokesperson assured the public things were being investigated. “Win trading is a bannable offense. It affects the integrity of the game experience and undermines the spirit of fair play,” the statement read. The same article also reminded its readers of NetEase marketing director Zhang Dong’s words condemning the original report as “mixing truths with lies”, and telling the public it would be very difficult to take any action. As it would turn out, that wasn’t exactly the case.

In the last days of March, an official post on the Chinese Battle.net site listed 17 accounts permanently banned from Hearthstone due to win-trading, as a direct result of the RenMai exposure. Of those seventeen, five were named in the original report, including FengFengFeng, a pro-player on team TongFu, and HeMa, a popular Hearthstone streamer.

The reactions, once again, were loud and abundant, but in the face of Blizzard’s banhammer the tide of emotion had turned. The gaming public had now decided to direct their ire toward the offenders, following the example of their western brethren in chasing them out of the scene. A few of the alleged perpetrators saw this as an opportunity to make last statements, brag about their fame and riches for whatever reason, and even threaten lawsuits.


 

YeZhuoYan: I have contacted my lawyer to prepare to sue Blizzard. Though the odds aren't great for me due to the unreasonable terms in user agreement, I still want them to show some real proof of me cheating. Btw can you guys - who are not my friends - stop harassing me by pm? Go mind your own damn business.

Farewell, Hearthstone, however, I won't give up just yet on this lawsuit. I can't seem having any fun playing this game anymore, totally lost interest. Shout out to all of my friends who have been supporting me. To those who enjoyed the drama and my misery, I gotta say, my life is still way better than you losers, don't envy me and take care.

* * *

HeMa: Farewell, China server: About the Ban

Due to what I do for a living, I get to see all kinds of darkness in real life. Who could ever have thought that in digital world it's not any better. Like what I said in Duowan's interview: Jianghu(drama, story and complexity of human being) is everywhere until the last man on planet disappear.

When I learned about the ban, I was extremely shocked and frustrated. What I said as an reaction to Gosu's article: "An honest man doesn't have to prove his honesty." seems like just a joke now. I resent Blizzard and NetEase, I resent all of you who added fuel to the fire and enjoyed my destruction. But in the meanwhile there were still a lot of my fans who've backed up for me, it was really pleasing and satisfying to see their trust and support. I've been streaming since 8 months, there are still people who put their faith in me after all.

I took one day to think this through, I guess I can move on now. There were signs of the bans coming, however, I didn't choose to lay low. I was being too arrogant and talking too much on this topic, so I got targeted and I deserved it. My nick name is "Low-profile hippo", I really should've stuck to it. To put myself in Blizz's shoes, I guess I can understand their intentions, they have to make an example of me to soothe the furious community. I also don't mind the people who shit talked about me, it's a free world, everyone's free to speak. You can insult me, but don't lay your fingers on those who support me, no one is more morally noble than no one. You really believe that you know the truth and you can say whatever you want? Let's be civilized.

I'm gonna answer some questions here: 1. No, I did not win-trade. 2. Unless they un-ban me, I'm not gonna play on China server ever again. 3. My accounts on NA and EU are ready to go, from today I'm gonna fight in the western world and I'm not gonna invest an? money. I will play NA more often.

Also, many of you have brought up the fact that I like to spam "Sorry" emote on NA when I won. You guys just don't know my reason, on that day so many of my opponents were BM-ing me on NA, it was just an eye for an eye.

Final shout out to Hearthstone and to my fans who've supported me.

* * *

FengFengFeng: Hey guys, I'm Fengfengfeng, people call me Boss Feng, cause I'm super rich and my father is the Chinese version of Donald Trump. This is my first announcement also the last. I played Hearthstone since May 2015. I didn't know how to play it right so I went to DouyuTV and watched some stream. I became to enjoy it. Everyday I played more than 12 hours, like crazy. I invested 100k CNY to get a full golden collection. I have mastered 8 classes but rogue.

Last November was the first time I got close to Legend#1. When I was at Legend#3, I ran into BaoQian, he was at Legend#2. I didn't know him back then. I lost to his Control Warrior with my combo Druid. That was supposed to be a good match for me, but I fucked up so I couldn't get Legend#1. Then I joined his little group, which is known as BaoQian's QQ Group now.

This group was a 24-7 active group. So many famous players in it. It had about 50 players who could constantly get top 100 in final standings. I became friends with them, talked about deckbuildings and strategies. It was fun even chatting with them randomly. I loved to play on ladder, I didn't mean to pursue anything concrete but I believed that if I'm doing something I have to try my best and see how far I can go.

Speaking of ladder, the match system is so bad, you can hardly be matched with any real "worthy opponent". When I was at Legend#100, I still could run into some Legend#20,000 guy. If I lost, I needed to win 4 matches in a row to make it just even. If I lost him twice, I'd be doomed.

I was ?ne win away from top 8 in Gold Series Guangzhou, that was a shame. But now that I'm banned for 1 year, it doesn't matter anymore. What I'm trying to say here is, I didn't win trade or benefit from anything, but I admit that I had RenMai, on ladder when I got matched up with a friend who's in dumpster and I'm top Legend, he conceded immediately without me even asking. I didn't know it was a good thing or a bad thing, just felt that the fortune and happiness came so suddenly and out of nowhere. I had a mixed feeling about it.

I'm no Hearthstone pro player, just a real fan of it. I played Hearthstone everyday, countless times from top 10 to dumpster and the other way around. I had so much time playing games cause my company only needs me to show up at like super important business event which is not that often. I played some tournament, hung out with some friends, to make my life meaningful. I never thought about make money out of it.

About the ban, I have nothing to say, my friend did auto concede to me twice. But a program is just a code, we are people, we are living humans, we had feelings, we communicated with each other heart to heart. Some of them let me win due to our friendship. Some of them don't and it's how it supposed to be. He auto conceded to me that fast I couldn't even stop him. After that I thanked him for letting me win cause it's a decent thing to do.

Guys, think about it as if you were in my position. If you ran into a friend, you were in dumpster and he's top legend, he wanted to be in top 100 so badly, and if he lost to you once he would lose so much. Would you be a monster and make him lose all his effort he did for a month? The answer is obvious.

I'm not trying to justify myself, I'm just a guy who will retire for good. Goodbye my friends, the Hearthstone Tavern doesn't have a place for your Boss Feng!

* * *

So where does this leave us? According to Iris, a higher-up in Blizzard China, and Riqiang, VP of NetEase, all seventeen names on the aforementioned banlist are guilty beyond doubt. According to the same people, that’s far from the end of the story, as investigations are ongoing.

As for China and its position within Hearthstone, this is a grand step forward. Admitting to the problem and openly fighting the corruption cannot have been, I assume, an easy task. However, these are necessary measures to be taken if the scene is to restore whatever glory it used to hold. I hold no illusions that RenMai will be purged fully. In a scene as large as China’s, investigating and prosecuting with definitive outcomes is impossible, and RenMai is a cloud that will take some clearing. The silver lining is Blizzard’s immediate reaction and the very clear message it conveys:

We’re not alone. And you’re not invincible.  

 

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