Cybersecurity Landmines in the Growing eSport Industry

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As no-one has failed to notice, 2020 was a strange year. Nowhere was this more true than when it comes to digital security. The global pandemic meant that cyberattacks have spiked globally in the last year, and at home we’ve seen a worrying increase in the number of Israeli firms that have been targeted by Iran via cyberattacks.

And yet, it’s not all bad news. For certain industries – and perhaps for Israel in particular – the pandemic, and more specifically the increase in digital engagement it has brought, might just turn out to have been a positive development. One of the major beneficiaries, as WEForum pointed out in some recent research, will be eSports. And, since Israel already leads the world when it comes to both eSports and at keeping players safe from criminals, the next few years could very well witness a boom in the industry.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the rise of eSports in Israel, the risks this brings, and how we can meet the challenge.

Generation Fortnite

Though the rise of eSports in Israel has largely gone unnoticed by the mainstream press, any serious gamer will be able to tell you that the country has quietly become something of a Mecca for professional gaming.

This trend has been somewhat overlooked because it is largely focused on a younger generation whose habits (and sometimes values) are a mystery to their elders. But take a look at the statistics on eSports and you’ll soon see the value in the industry. Games such as Fortnite have more than 200 million gamers playing globally, making it the equivalent of a major social-media platform for Generation Z.

Some Israeli pioneers have been quick to take advantage of this. Israel hosted its first eSports tournament in 2017 in Tel Aviv. Game In Pro had all the trappings of a major esports event, with over 5,000 gamers in attendance and the support of partners such as Microsoft, Xbox and Lenovo.

In turn, these eSports events have catalyzed the creation of a variety of startups focused on the competitive gaming industry. As Guy Katsovich, cofounder of Fusion LA, a Los Angeles-based accelerator focused on Israeli startups, told Israel 21c recently, “There are over 40 Israeli startups in the space that define themselves as eSports related and that number is growing.” 

The Risks

Ido Brosh, president of the non-profit Israeli Esports Association established in 2010, also believes the sport will continue to grow in Israel, but is also keen to stress that the nascent industry will have to overcome some challenges in order to reach its potential.

A great many of these challenges relate to cybersecurity. Most eSports events operate in much the same format – connecting thousands of players together via super-fast internet and ethernet connections. Some of these events take place on the Stadia platform, some in physical buildings, and some are completely online, but the level of opportunity for hackers and criminals is similar no matter which approach is taken.

With so much data flying across these connections, and players focused on the competition rather than being safe, eSports events can be a hackers’ playground whether the goal is as simple as stealing trademarked information or as complex as locking up valued data behind an encryption scheme known as ransomware in order to extract monetary payments to release it. A third goal is simply to create havoc.

In addition, there are two factors that make eSports events particularly risky in terms of cybersecurity. One is that many of the individuals and companies who run these events have a poor understanding of professional liability, and so are unable to offer any reassurances that players will be compensated for damages incurred as part of these events.

The other, far more worrying complication is this – that Israel is arguably the country with the highest number of cyberattacks in the world.

A Perfect Storm?

At first glance, considering this last observation might make it sound strange that Israel has become so popular when it comes to eSports. But here’s the truth – though our country faces a higher level of cybersecurity risk than almost any other, Israel also leads the world when it comes to developing and deploying cybersecurity infrastructure.

In fact, many of the skills that allow players to succeed in eSports are precisely those that are also valued in the tech industry, and particularly in Israel’s large and important defense industry. Given this, it’s not hard to see why the current administration has been keen to promote the country as a venue for eSports pioneers. 

Not only is this growing reputation likely to bring significant levels of investment into the country, but eSports are potentially also a great starting point for the next generation of IT pioneers and cybersecurity experts. This, then, is the strange paradox at the center of the eSports industry – that while eSports events might be a magnet for hackers and online criminals, the industry also attracts those young people who are most likely to be able to meet this challenge.

The Bottom Line

And finally, of course, let’s not forget the more immediate point – that with eSports gaining popularity in Israel, home-grown players are more likely to succeed at the highest levels. For some, this is the most promising aspect of the current eSports boom in the country. “When you look at where the world is headed, esports will eventually be bigger than soccer,” says Ido Brosh. “Esports will bring in a new generation of fans who were not fans of conventional sports.”

In other words, and in true Startup Nation fashion, Israel might be able to use the existing tech talent of the country in a future bid to dominate eSports in global competitions. But even if it doesn’t, the excitement and inward investment that eSports can bring will be more than welcome in this strange year.

About the Author
Bernard Brode is a nanotechnology product researcher and believes that it might end up being the biggest tech story of all time.
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