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Valve's trade ban, skins betting and facing up to harsh realities

Since Valve’s widely admired decision to shut down OPSkins earlier this month, the debate over skins betting has come back to the fore, with good reason. Esports betting has reached a crossroad, with the possibility of gambling on games in the states a very real one judging by news from New Jersey, but increasingly companies looking to advance in the space are backing away from offering skins as currency to bet with.

While fan opinion is divided on this topic, the way Valve have acted in recent months makes it very clear they are not happy with the way the skins ecosystem currently operates, and the seven-day trade ban was the first step they had taken toward attempting tame their creation. We caught up with Boris Mihov, Chief Product Officer at Luckbox, for his view on the topic, and how it might develop.

The promise of a stable and open ecosystem has been made a lot of times from various third parties

“For everyone who’s ever dealt with skins, one thing is clear: it is a very difficult space to navigate from both regulatory and purely engineering standpoint. And the answer to both these problems lies with the publishers,” Mihov told us.

Herein lies the crux of the issue presently, at least from the outside, and it is an understandable hurdle for the likes of Valve. They aren’t keen on their skins and designs becoming currency, for obvious reasons.

Without the blessing of a Valve, third parties are forced to accept skin betting is not going to work in regulated systems, as Mihov knows too well from half a decade of esports experience. “The promise of a stable and open ecosystem has been made a lot of times from various third parties - and way before CSGO skins even existed, markets for virtual items have been around. But the harsh reality for these third parties is that it can only be made sustainable with the publishers’ blessing and help.”

Gaming has changed

The reality is that gaming has changed, though, and today tradable items and skins are a core part of the user experience in many genres. Equally, Valve make a huge amount of money from the sale of their skins, so they are invested in the idea they have value to a certain point, making for a tough ethical quandary, and some would say a slightly hypocritical position from a company that enjoys the headlines every time they break new records for a TI compendium.

Boris-Mihov

Recent regulation in the states has, as mentioned, opened the door for a boom in esports betting. Luckbox CEO Lars Lien welcomed, the move for more regulation, telling Esports Insider that “it is another important step towards ensuring that the esports community is served by operators with the highest standards of player protection”. But what does this mean, and is it the end of the open ecosystem that Valve have offered for so long?

“We’ve seen the benefit of an open ecosystem as, let’s face it, for years it’s been quite open,” says Mihov, and there is no doubt Valve have been hands-off for some time. “We’ve seen the bad side as well, with scams, serving as instrument for underage gambling etc. It’s not an easy thing to do, but I believe that whichever publisher finds a way to offer an open ecosystem of virtual items in a sustainable way, in accordance with legislators and regulators, will benefit greatly. And so will the players.”

For now, it seems as though skins betting is off the table, and to be honest that makes sense at a time when the market is new and every scandal has the potential to create public distrust. Down the line, it may come that we find a better way to deal with and regulate the trade and sale of virtual items, but with the challenges esports betting faces today it seems as though skin betting will be left by the wayside if Valve get their way, which they normally do.

Main picture: By Tim Dorr

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