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Saving your game

Posted on Apr 12, 2021 by FEED Staff

Verimatrix: Why esports needs professional content protection at scale before it’s too late

The esports industry has yet to experience the cash-haemorrhaging cybercrime that is the daily reality for producers of filmed entertainment and conventional sports broadcast. Let that be a warning.

With the value of its product rising fast, it is only a matter of time before competitive video gaming comes under the same serious and sustained attack from content pirates. It is time for the industry to make a pre-emptive strike.

The global video gaming industry saw revenue surge 20% to $179.7bn in 2020 after Covid-19 lockdowns boosted demand, according to IDC data. The inexorable rise of mobile gaming, next-gen consoles from Sony and Microsoft
and the global trend for home entertainment has fuelled this remarkable growth. Yet the greatest contributor is the flourishing esports sector, which Newzoo analysts expect will have an audience of 646 million by 2023.

Even a decade ago, esports was largely played by amateurs. While the ecosystem of leagues and tournaments has grown along with a professionalism and popularity that will likely see it badged as an official Olympic sport by 2024, one area still lags behind.

Esports’ Achilles heel is its vulnerability to pirates, hackers and cheats. The situation today mirrors that of the early days of digital sports broadcasting, with an industry naïve to the points of entry for pirate attacks or how sophisticated those attacks can be.

Stolen streams, stolen revenue

‘Stream ripping’ is one of the biggest threats to esports revenue. Pirates retransmit live broadcasts to steal viewers – and steal ad revenue. Since the vast majority of revenue (roughly 70-80%) for esports organisations comes from sponsorships and advertising, stream ripping can be catastrophic.

DRM (digital rights management) is the first line of defence for streaming video piracy prevention.

It ensures content is encrypted, whether in storage, transit or delivery, and delivers the right key and content ID to authenticated users for their playback environment. Additional forensic watermarking can identify the source of unauthorised streams or copies by tracing them back to the last authorised recipient. Once illegal sources are identified, they can be shut down to protect key revenue streams for the service provider.

Stream ripping is one of the biggest threats to esports revenue

But piracy is not the only threat. Hackers may attempt to bypass in-app purchases, starving the game studio of revenue. Others can be more malicious and distribute modified apps to give others unpaid access. They can replicate an app, distribute to the market and shut it down a month later – but the harm will have been done. And then there’s a whole different type of security issue – and one that affects fans as much as rights holders. Cheats.

Once competition rises to a major professional level, with millions of dollars at stake, it doesn’t matter if the playing field is made of grass or computer graphics – it invites temptation to cheat, and therefore requires strict regulations and guarantees that no cheating is taking place. Cheats can modify the game code and use AI to get an upper hand. Techniques like ‘aimbots’ (which provide automated targeting in shooting games) or ‘wallhacks’ (which make walled surfaces transparent or non-solid) put a game’s integrity at risk. Even just the threat of cheating could result in an exodus of sponsors, spectators and players alike.

Pirates, cheats and hackers

Luckily there is a solution. Application shielding can stop ‘modding’ and prevent API abuse so the in-game economy is preserved. It can also prevent someone from reverse-engineering the software, gaining detailed technical information and using it to impersonate a player online, while the esports armoury can include dark web scanning to reveal which titles are being hacked or cheated. Real-time monitoring of apps can also alert systems providers to take action as soon as there is a breach.

Pirates, cheats and hackers may have moderately different motivations, but they are all threats and need to be dealt with proactively. The value of esports rights might be on the low side now, but as telcos and broadcasters strike deals to compete for the prized youth audience, not only will rights start to boom, but new attack surfaces will open up.

Compounding the issue is the complex structure of the esports community. Sometimes it is games manufacturers and publishers that have most to gain from securing their IP. Or responsibility could be the remit of a publishing platform, broadcaster or tournament organiser. Yet those with the biggest stake, and those making the least money, are the esports league and teams.

Streaming services have changed the way fans consume content. The distribution of live sporting events is where the money is, but the advantages of streaming have also inadvertently increased the threat of piracy, with droves of bad actors hot on the trail of easy treasure.

The threat of piracy is real, and the imperative to protect business should be urgent. Now is the time for esports rights holders and broadcasters to make piracy a priority and implement content protection as a key part of their business strategy.

This article first featured in the Spring 2021 issue of FEED magazine.

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