Michal Slowinski: “I really didn’t think I would find more than one case”
HLTV.org sat down with the freelance referee who uncovered one of the biggest scandals in the history of Counter-Strike.
Michal Slowinski is on a mission.
For the past few weeks, Slowinski — a veteran Counter-Strike referee and league operations specialist — has devoted much of his free time to combing through hundreds of demos from recent competitions, going far back as last year, way before the coronavirus began to upend life around the world.
The reason? A game-breaking bug that some coaches exploited to gain a competitive advantage.
The bug in question first made headlines last week, when Wisla Krakow coach Mariusz "Loord" Cybulski posted a tweet saying that, on rare occasions, a coach could "fly over the map" and provide information to players that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Other coaches, including Wilton "zews" Prado and Luis "peacemaker" Tadeu, weighed in on the discussion and admitted to having run into the same bug, which was promptly fixed by Valve in its August 26 update.
That was the end of it — or so many thought. Slowinski had been able to reproduce the bug long before Loord’s tweet and had come to the conclusion that it had been possible for coaches to abuse this exploit in a competitive environment. Since then, he has been hard at work trying to identify those who took advantage of the bug.
“I only found out about this glitch at some point in June, I think it was between DreamHack Masters Spring and cs_summit 6,” Slowinski told HLTV.org. “Some teams reported it to me and said that the bug had been part of the game since 2016. I’m not entirely sure that is 100% accurate because that is not something we can prove, but I know that it has been part of the game at least since March this year.”
Slowinski believes that teams became increasingly concerned about the potential damage of this spectator bug because the coronavirus pandemic has rattled the esports landscape. The stakes are much higher in online tournaments now, with Major spots and big prizes on the line, and the temptation to abuse an exploit could prove too strong to resist.
“It’s a little bit sad they didn't come forward earlier, but better late than never,” he said. “I wasn't given any suspects, nobody suspected anything. They just said that this bug was a thing and they helped me understand how it worked. My job was to try to reproduce it so I could report it to Valve.”
By using the bug, coaches could pick a spot anywhere on a map and remain locked in that position, this way making calls or providing information based on what they were seeing. If the coach reconnected to the server or changed the perspective to one of their players, it was impossible to use the bug again for the rest of the map because one of the conditions was that the team they joined as a coach didn’t have any players assigned. But since servers are restarted after every map in most big online tournaments, coaches could use the bug over the course of an entire series.
ESL dropped the ban hammer on Monday, when it announced that three coaches — Nicolai "HUNDEN" Petersen, Aleksandr "zoneR" Bogatiryev and Ricardo "dead" Sinigaglia — had been suspended for a minimum of six months after being caught using the bug in recent months. When I spoke with Slowinski, almost 48 hours had passed since the announcement, yet he still found it hard to describe the wave of emotions that he experienced that evening.
“I was a little stressed out, I knew the announcement was coming, I just didn’t know exactly when,” he said. “After it came out, my emotions, it was all gone. The case was sort of closed, you know? I even went out and sort of celebrated. I could finally breathe a bit, I could finally get some rest.”
There have been few moments of relaxation for Slowinski since he took on this responsibility together with Steve Dudenhoeffer — who has also been heavily involved in the investigation since day one. “We’ve done it together, the credit goes to him as well,” Slowinski explained when asked about his friend’s role. “He has been basically working as much as me. He has been helping me a lot from the start, because I obviously need a second opinion in all of this. I'd give him more recognition but he just doesn't like that.”
Slowinski has been juggling his investigation with his normal job as a tournament admin, leading to very long work hours and no days off. “It’s been done mostly at night and in the morning when I wake up,” he said. “Trust me when I say that over the last month I have spent way too much time on this, it's crazy.” Each demo takes approximately five minutes to verify — that is, unless he comes across a bug abuse, which requires a much more thorough analysis.
Speculation about which coaches will be caught next is likely to continue into the next weeks, especially after Slowinski discovered a potential case from 2019 involving FURIA’s coach, Nicholas "guerri" Nogueira (who has since posted a video detailing his version of the events). How far back do we have to go to make sure that all cases are identified? Not even Slowinski knows.
With Half-Life Advanced Effects (HLAE), a movie-making tool, anyone can now go through demos with hopes of identifying wrongdoers. Given the scale of the task at hand, Slowinski could certainly use the help, but isn’t he afraid that the community’s involvement, with no accountability or oversight, will inevitably lead to a witch-hunt?
“I didn't want to steal all the credit, it's good that there are some other people who can check this as well,” he said. “I don't want this to turn into a witch-hunt, but I guess there's nothing we can do about it.”
Slowinski has grown frustrated with the lack of a unified response to this scandal. He is now working with the Esports Integrity Coalition (ESIC) — which cooperated with ESL and has also handed bans to the three coaches — to develop an efficient and impartial process to analyse these cases as some tournament organisers are taking too long to go over his findings or have simply ignored him. At the same time, he questions Valve’s silence on this matter, especially considering that the qualifying system for the next Counter-Strike Major has already been affected in two of the six regions.
“I hope to see a statement from all the tournament organisers,” he said. “There are still cases where coaches [who have been banned] abused the bug in other tournaments. HUNDEN did it in one of the Home Sweet Home Cups and Heroic won it. What's the reaction here? Are they getting banned, are they not getting banned? And the same thing for Hard Legion, they abused it in three Home Sweet Home cups and Malta Vibes as well. There needs to be some sort of punishment. At the moment, it's easy to just rely on what was released by ESL and DreamHack, but there needs to be some sort of action by the other tournament organisers. And ideally by Valve, too. Valve needs to act. There needs to be some sort of punishment for the Major cycle.”
Three days after the scandal came to light, Slowinski is still grappling with his unexpected fame. The number of his Twitter followers has jumped to almost 14,000 from little over 4,000 since this all began. “I used to go through all of my direct messages on Twitter, but now my inbox has exploded,” he said. “I don't even have time to go through the comments in my tweets.” Most feedback has been positive, but he has also had to deal with abusive comments. “I’ve got some death threats, some from MIBR fans, some from Hard Legion fans. This morning, my email inbox was full of messages about someone trying to reset my Instagram password. That sort of thing had never happened to me before. What I'm happy with is that the big influencers in the scene have all sort of approved this investigation and have given me lots of props.”
The Counter-Strike community at large has been singing the praises of Slowinski and Dudenhoeffer all week long. ESL has agreed to pay the duo a compensation for their efforts, while host Tres "stunna" Saranthus and analyst Chad "SPUNJ" Burchill have set up an appreciation fund. Meanwhile, Flashpoint Creative Director Duncan "Thorin" Shields has revealed that he will push his company to hire Slowinski. For the Polish tournament admin, who completed on Wednesday ten years on the job, these are unfamiliar times. “As you can imagine, an admin job isn’t really rewarding in any way, whether it’s in terms of money or some sort of public recognition,” Slowinski said. “We work behind the scenes and we mostly get flamed by teams and by the community when something goes wrong.”
Slowinski said that he never thought this issue would assume such proportions when he learned about the spectator bug. “It's not like I expected to find a cheater. I really didn't think I would find more than one case.” And while the community appreciation and the payment he will receive will help to make up for all the time that he has spent, and will continue to spend, analysing hundreds of demos, those things were not on his mind when he set out to investigate the claims that players had privately made to him. Ultimately, he felt a sense of duty to protect the game that he loves. “I've been refereeing games for a very long time and I just want to make sure our game is clean and there is no unfair play from teams. When I found out about this, I felt I had to do my job and report it.”