Online skill gaming company Skillz has accused its rival AviaGames of using “bots” to cheat players on its Pocket7Games platform. The allegations came out during the pre-trial phase of a patent lawsuit. Skillz says it learned about the bots just before the discovery period for the case closed. In August, it successfully petitioned the judge for more time to examine AviaGames’ source code.
The case is an exceedingly complex one. Skillz filed the suit over two years ago, on April 5, 2021. Despite having produced roughly 500 docket entries in that time, it has yet to move to the trial phase. Much of the activity has pertained to issues of discovery of evidence and what information should or should not be sealed.
Real-Money Contests of Skill
Skillz and AviaGames both operate in the realm of real-money mobile skill gaming. Players using their products compete against one another for cash prizes, with the companies claiming a portion of the players’ entry fees. Skillz, AviaGames, and similar companies say their products are legal because their skill component avoids the “games of chance” portion of the legal definition of gambling.
Most such companies use matchmaking algorithms to pair players of similar skill levels. That protects novice players from “sharks,” but by the same token, makes it more difficult for anyone to come out ahead in the long run. Skillz has accused AviaGames of going even further with its matchmaking. Its lawyers say AviaGames is pitting human players against fictitious AI opponents whose win rate AviaGames can control.
Skillz says it learned of the bots while perusing internal AviaGames communications in which they were euphemistically referred to as “guides” or “cucumbers.”
Like many companies in a gambling-adjacent legal gray area, Skillz is no stranger to the courtroom. In the past, it has faced important lawsuits of its own, both from investors and disgruntled customers. The Skillz legal team did not respond to a request for comment by Bonus, and AviaGames could not be reached.
Skillz Lawyers Accuse AviaGames Execs of Perjury
Speaking on behalf of Skillz, attorney Christopher Campbell explained the “bot” issue to Judge Beth Freeman in a hearing on Aug. 15, 2023. A transcript of that hearing became publicly available on November 14.
Campbell’s law firm, King & Spalding, joined the case belatedly, just weeks before the hearing in question. Not long after, on October 31, Skillz terminated its previous representation, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan.
Shortly after joining the case, King & Spalding lawyers came across evidence Campbell described as “incredibly disturbing.”
Campbell told Judge Freeman:
So, it all starts with how Avia represents itself to the outside world. They hold themselves out as a trusted platform [and] that they have no financial interest in the outcome of the cash games. But that’s all a lie, and we figured that out because we got, after the close of fact discovery, a slew of documents that show exactly what they are doing. They are using robots, they are cheating the public.
So, Avia’s senior executives—including their co-founder, Ms. Vicki Chen, who is the CEO—she lied about the usage of bots under oath. She was asked directly that question. And as well, the VP of Marketing, likewise was asked the question about whether Avia uses bots, and he categorically said “no.”
So, when you play a bot […] you think you are playing against another person, but you are not[…] If you lose that game—and they can decide if you are going to win or lose, you are not going to beat a computer—they get to keep all that money.
Backstory on the Skillz & Big Run Studios Lawsuits
Skillz and AviaGames differ in that Skillz is primarily a business-to-business company, while AviaGames faces the consumer. Skillz supplies a platform for real-money skill gaming but relies on other companies to develop the games for it. Conversely, AviaGames produces both halves of the product and doesn’t work with other companies.
Skillz and one of its partners, Big Run Studios, accused AviaGames in 2021 of copying their products to make Pocket7Games. Each filed a separate suit, alleging a different kind of intellectual property infringement.
Big Run Studios filed a copyright infringement suit, asserting that AviaGames’ Bingo Clash is a copy of its Blackout Bingo, mechanically and visually.
Skillz, on the other hand, has focused on the underlying technology. It says that AviaGames violated some of its patents related to pseudorandom number generation and the use of unique identifiers in the game logic. Games on the Skillz platform (and AviaGames’) use “seeds” to ensure that competing players get the same randomized deal of cards or set of die rolls, etc. Thus, although there’s an element of randomness, the “luck of the deal” is removed for purposes of comparing one player’s results to another’s. That’s legally important since the companies are attempting not to have their products defined as “games of chance.”
Conceptually, this isn’t a new idea. In fact, it predates computers, with the first game of duplicate bridge dating all the way back to 1857. However, the patent concerns itself with the details of the implementation—where and how the seed for each game or tournament is stored in the game logic.
What Bots Have to Do With a Patent Case
Skillz’s accusations of bot use are a surprising twist in an otherwise dull (from a player’s perspective) and technical patent lawsuit. At the August 15 hearing, Skillz’s lawyers presented two arguments for why the accusations are relevant to the case.
Of these, the more straightforward argument to understand from a layperson’s perspective is that it’s relevant to damages. If all of what Skillz is claiming turns out to be accurate, then AviaGames isn’t only profiting from the fees it charges. It would also be collecting money won by its bots.
Hypothetically, if Skillz were to win the case, the court would have to determine what damages to award. Money won by the bots could factor into such a calculation.
However, Skillz also makes a more technical argument about the relevance of the bots to the claims of infringement themselves. The patent dispute centers on the use of unique identifiers (for tournaments or users) as seeds to generate the pseudorandom numbers for a match.
Skillz says it believes that AviaGames’ bots impersonate inactive but real users. That means using those players’ identification numbers. That, in turn, ties in with the pseudorandom number generation seeding at the heart of the patent dispute.
Another Skillz lawyer from King & Spalding, Britton Davis, explained this to the court:
It’s necessary for Avia’s product—and I think this is the key aspect—is the guide [bot] has a user ID and it’s spoofing an inactive user. So we believe this shows that it’s playing the games as a user with a user’s game ID, which would be direct infringement[…]
All of the disputes center around the phrase in the patents, ‘A stream of pseudo-random number seeds characterized by a unique match identifier.’
More Legal Drama Coming?
Transcripts for subsequent hearings in the case haven’t yet been released through PACER—the public access system for federal court cases. However, VentureBeat reports that in the latest hearing on November 6, Skillz told the court that a federal grand jury is seeking information about AviaGames in relation to these new allegations.
Depending on whether and how that case proceeds, it may shed more light on the situation. The Skillz case is highly technical and fundamentally about a patent dispute rather than fraud. That makes it hard to tease the details of the bot accusations from lengthy court filings dealing mainly with other aspects of the case. A separate case dealing primarily with the fraud allegations would likely receive more mainstream attention.