On Nov 22nd 2022 the Olympic committee announced the Olympic Esports Week. A potentially exciting announcement for the esports community. Until on March 1st 2023 the games lineup was announced.
We might expect the biggest esports titles to feature such as League of Legends, CSGO, Valorant, Rocket League. Surely at least they’ll use games with existing professional players, big tournaments, and big fan bases. But no. Instead the list included the likes of:
- Gran Turismo 7. Makes some sense. Gran Turismo has an existing world series and has previously been used in the World Motorsport Games and Olympics Virtual Series.
- Just Dance. This is a little more obscure but it does have an existing world series so could be argued for.
- Zwift (cycling game using real bikes), Virtual Taekwondo, Chess.com. I can see how the Olympics came up with these games. Not representative of the major esports community though.
- WBSC eBASEBALL™: POWER PROS, Virtual Regatta (a mobile game), Tennis Clash (a mobile game known for it’s pay to win micro transactions). All of these raise series questions.
- And then there’s Tic Tac Bow. A selection even crazier than those listed above.
Tic Tac Bow – The game no-one’s heard of
Tac Tac Bow is a mobile game that was released on February 24th, just a week before the Olympics announcement. It’s not even out on iOS, it’s only on Android (update: it’s now available on iOS). It’s not the latest game in a series, it’s something completely unknown. It’s not made by a big or well known developer. At the time of the announcement it had only 100 downloads. At time of writing it has a 1.4 star rating. This is a very very odd choice to include at the Olympics and it immediately raises the question, why select Tic Tac Bow as an Olympic esport?
The same question could be asked of the other titles but with Tic Tac Bow being the strangest, my fascination drew me there and the wild ride left me obsessed with its story.
The selection criteria
In previous years it’s understood that there have been meetings between game publishers/relevant parties and the olympics committee. The olympics basically said they would never use shooting games, not even a game like Splatoon, or fighting games because violence doesn’t fit with their values (I feel the need to point out here that both shooting and fighting are Olympic sports). We now know that they introduced the selection criteria that the game publisher must have a relationship with an international sporting federation so only games that are based on traditional Olympics sports will be chosen. A requirement that rules out almost the entire esports ecosystem. (again note that Motorsport isn’t in the Olympics so they’ve broken their own criteria at the first attempt).
So with that criteria set out world archery made a deal with Refract Technology to build a brand new “official” archery game.
Three companies made Tic Tac Bow?
If we dig some more it seems that even three companies wasn’t enough. Deep Dive Studios features on their website a video of an early Tic Tac Bow tournament broadcast (March 2022) by Maincard.gg, and featuring all the other 3 companies logos. And wouldn’t you know it looking on LinkedIn we can see maincard.gg is another Refract company.
Interestingly the announcement of the world archery x Refract deal mentions there would be an upcoming high-profile esports event that will use the game. So presumably the plans for inclusion in the Olympics were in place before the game was even built and the maincard tournament broadcast was something of a test run.
But still building this game in particular seems odd. Any existing sports game could have been used. Or even a less cash grabby style game could have been built. And that’s where we start seeing accusations of corruption.
Corrupt game selection?
The corruption accusations started straight after the announcement. Assumptions were made simply based on the fact there didn’t seem any other reasonable explanation for selecting this game. But soon these accusations had more weight to them when connections between Refract and the Global Esports Federation (GEF), along with links between Refract and the Singapore National Olympic Committee (SNOC) started being revealed (Singapore being both the home of GEF and the host country of the Olympics Esports Week).
Project 99 also have a Game Jam taking place in Singapore around the Olympic esports week with the winner set to display their game at an official Olympic esports week event. Another suggestion that the ties between companies is closer than an innocent game selection. Also of note is Refract was working to make their other Olympic title, Virtual Taekwando, a “medal event” as far back as Jan 2022 raising serious questions about how much they knew that wasn’t public.
We can assume the Singapore National Olympics Committee (SNOC) were involved/aware of the International Olympic Committees (IOC) decision to not use traditional esports titles. Singapore Esports Association (SGEA) is a member of the SNOC so would have this info. Members of that board then went and had their own game built to fit the IOC requirements by their company Refract, a game with ads and micro transactions they can profit off. They then could use their position as event collaborators of the Singapore based olympics event to select games to be used for the event. Tic Tac Bow is amongst those selections. With the announcement of inclusion in a major event Tic Tac Bow sees an influx of users that Refract can profit off. Corruption doesn’t seem like a big stretch, it seems a very real possibility.
The Tic Tac Bow Professionals
On the day of the Olympics game selection announcement Woody Butler put out a youtube video that was something of a call to action. “There are only 100 downloads of Tic Tac Bow. It’s a brand new game. There are no pros yet. 6 people will get a trip to the Olympic event in Singapore. This is our best shot, lets try qualify for the Olympics!” And almost overnight a community was formed.
A dedicated Tic Tac Bow subreddit and discord server were created with players looking to become esports Olympians. Everyone felt Tic Tac Bows inclusion was ridiculous but the chance to compete in the Olympics was so much of a draw. There were jokes about the issues with the game and jokes about being future Olympians. But it wasn’t just all laughs there was genuine effort by many to play through the game and unlock everything, learn how it all works, figure out the best strategies, and grind to be number one on the games leaderboards. And it was all being shared in this little community as players bonded over what bow they prefer, or how they think the tournament might work, or the shared frustration that there was no word from the developers or details about how qualification would work.
While most tried to understand the game by playing it there were a few opting instead to use their tech skills to try and reverse engineer the game. In a discord channel called “data-mining” they shared their findings. Things like a list of all the bow names, good we can confirm level 4 is the highest. A list of all the game modes, excitement when there’s one mode that isn’t available in the game yet, could it be the Olympics qualifying mode? It was all fun as community members suggested what they should try looking into next and speculated about what might be found.
Partly as a joke and partly as serious practice the community started hosting their own Tic Tac Bow tournaments. With a way to challenge friends in game these tournaments were structured events with an elimination bracket and specific rules. Despite the game crashing a lot and bugs making some games unfair the tournaments were raved about in the community. Players would even go so far as streaming their screens into discord with others spectating. Those that regularly did well became known in the community and friendly rivalries formed.
There was now a group of dedicated players practicing hard to be the best at the game. Tic Tac Bow had gone from brand new/completely unknown to now having a mini competitive scene in the space of a couple weeks.
Where are the players?
At the time of the announcement Tic Tac Bow had only 100 installs. At time of writing it now has 5,000 (update: as of March 26 it’s passed 10,000, as of April 21 it’s somehow passed 100,000). Yet it is a surprisingly small set of names that keep showing up in the games arena mode. Advertised as PvP, that’s player vs player, many still assumed there would be some bots in the game, particularly for low level players, to fill in when a match with a real person couldn’t be found. With the community sharing their experiences it quickly became apparent there was no PvP in arena mode at all, you always played against bots. When the game is advertised as PvP (in fact the games full title is “Tic Tac Bow: Archery PVP” and the store listing describes how you can “play in different PvP modes”) yet isn’t PvP at all that can only be considered blatant lying from the developers/publishers.
March 14th – The cheating saga
On March 14 the discord started out it’s usual quiet and friendly space but suddenly got chaotic. It started with a simple message from an unranked player
And to the top players dismay it wasn’t long before ph0t0shop got to 2 mill trophies and to number 1 on the leaderboard. A feat achieved in a matter of minutes. It’s impossibly fast with 30k an hour the commonly known limit the pros are operating too (890 is the most you can earn from a single game). Ph0t0shop then confirms in discord they’ve reverse engineered the game and are cheating just to experiment. Others members are annoyed and drama unfolds with people disagreeing over what should be done. Some players try to contact the devs who we have heard nothing from at this point.
In the discussion Ph0t0shop agrees to remove their name from the leaderboard after making their point but ultimately only reduces their points enough to drop to second place. But the real concern isn’t ph0t0shops spot on the leaderboards (their cheating is obvious and their account could easily be banned by the devs) the concern is what this says about the integrity of the game and therefor the integrity of the Olympic esports competition. Any number of other players could have also found these exploits and be using them quietly to slowly move up the leaderboard or gain rewards so as to go undetected. We still don’t know the official qualifying format but what’s stopping a player using these hacks to win the qualification event and take one of those 6 finals spots.
Ph0t0shop was also able to generate redemption codes for the game. He could create codes that reward players with any item or currency from the game. One code he created rewarded the highest level bow that takes hours to unlock. Another code rewarded players with 20 million coins and 20 million gems, the in-game currency used to unlock better items, an amount that would cost over 150 thousand real dollars to purchase using micro transactions.
It’s clear that this game has such bad security that it’s in no state to be used for a major world wide esports event.
March 17 – Olympics or bust
On March 17th an in game announcement goes out to all players that the Olympics qualification event has begun through a game mode called “Launch Party”. A lot of people scramble to play this new mode to rise up the leaderboard and improve their bow skills.
And then a couple hours later ph0t0shop messages in the discord again. They were the one who sent the in-game mail. Not only that, they’ve found a way to control the prices of items in the in-game store and set all items in the friendship points section to be free. Their hacking/reverse engineering has exposed more serious vulnerabilities and they’re exploiting them all to make a point that this game is not fit for such a big event as the Olympics. I spoke to ph0t0shop and confirmed that all of this was achieved through client side manipulation, they haven’t breached the dev servers. So it comes down to poor development rather than exceptional hacking skills.
And then another twist. Tic Tac Bow enters maintenance mode. No one can play. Seemingly the developers are finally reacting to the hacking situation. The message implies it’s originally scheduled for 11 hours but later gets extended to 17. Surely a sign the devs have taken notice of ph0t0shops exploits and are working to fix them.
When the game comes back online… not much has changed. The old mail from Ph0t0shop is gone and there is a message about being sorry for the maintenance but it was needed to fix security vulnerabilities. But sure enough it’s not long before Ph0t0shop puts himself back to number 1 on the leaderboard. This time however he then reports back that some of his previous techniques no longer work with changes to the store and mail meaning he can’t edit those willy nilly anymore. I discussed privately with him and he confirms there’s an api endpoint to set a players trophy count to whatever you want. So he isn’t even faking wins; the security failures are much worse than that. There might have been a couple of improvements after the maintenance but still the game has vulnerabilities that ruin any competitive integrity.
First words from the developers
On March 23rd the iOS version is finally released. There is also new in-game mail about an official discord server being set up to outline the Olympic qualifier details. After suspicion that the mail was from another hacker and the discord is the greatest troll so far the next day we finally get confirmation, via Project99s twitter, it really is official. So we know the format, a single player open qualifiers starting late April, the top 32 progress to a PvP tournament, the top 6 from that go to the Olympics event in Singapore.
At around the same time an update for the Android version is released (v0.4.32). The only confirmed change is the removal of facebook login but nevertheless it suggests the developers are awake and indeed could be working to solve some of the issues Tic Tac Bow faces. Whether they can redeem it in time for the Olympics event only time will tell.
Part of the olympics format for Tic Tac Bow is that 6 players from around the world will qualify for Singapore, but also 2 players from traditional world archery tournaments will also qualify. The first of these players was selected on April 18th at the Antayla World Archery World Cup event in a Tic Tac Bow tournament that was to be honest laughable. Traditional archery competitors were roped into playing in this event which they clearly had very little interest in. Most players admitting to having never played the game before. The live broadcast event was a casual affair rather than a competitive esports event. Not only was it not competitive it was not a fair playing field for the competitors. In what can only be described as complete failure by the organizers competitors where given accounts to play on that had different scopes equipped in game. The scope provides the way to line up your shots and with one player given a better scope than the other there was a clear unfair advantage. Even in the finals we could see this unfair situation play out on the broadcast. The advantage was switched around between games seemingly at random. There was no need for this difference, it just speaks to a complete lack of understanding from the organisers.
Update brings broken servers
After slowly sharing more details about the Olympic qualifiers week by week the developers warn of upcoming maintenance as they’re release a new update. On April 21 we get the new app update (v0.4.56) which coincides with the servers going down for maintenance. All is well until not long after coming back online the servers are unexpectedly down again meaning no one can play the game. In the brief time that the update was available players confirm that not all bugs are fixed and Ph0t0shop has remained in the #1 leaderboard spot with his hacked trophy count. It seems instead the update focused on changes to the in game economy making it harder to progress and unlock items, a move that appears designed to encourage more people to purchase micro transactions in order to progress.
Open qualifiers draws controversy over bot luck but all top players qualify.
Top 32 qualifiers runs surprisingly well with new 110 scoring mode.
Olympics Esports Week features exciting close games.
Game gets updates along the way to fix bugs and bring fun new features.
That’s everything that’s happened with the Tic Tac Bow saga so far. I’ll endeavour to update this page with any more wild stories we uncover as the history of Olympic esports continues to unfold.
At the end of the day esports is still not in the Olympics. The Olympics Committee still don’t understand esports. IOC are trying to use virtual sports to promote the traditional sports while trying to cash in on the popularity of esports. And I’ve been completely sucked in by it all and will definitely be watching the Tic Tac Bow Olympic Esports Series.
Some banging jokes
Tic Tac Bow: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=gg.project99.ttb&hl=en_US
Reddit post diving into why tic tac bow: https://www.reddit.com/r/esports/comments/11gsoc0/how_an_obscure_mobile_archery_game_became_an/
TEA Journalists follow up to the reddit thread: https://esportsadvocate.net/2023/03/olympic-esports-gef-refract/
TEA: Singapore got to choose the games: https://esportsadvocate.net/2023/03/olympic-esports-entanglements/
TEA: cheating explained: https://esportsadvocate.net/2023/03/tic-toc-bow-hacked/
Another article: https://www.esports.net/news/opinion/olympic-esports-series-is-a-mess-do-esports-need-the-olympics/
An article with IOC quote: https://www.polygon.com/23630221/olympic-esports-series-2023-sports-are-weird-heres-why
Olympic Esports Week announcement: https://olympics.com/ioc/news/ioc-confirms-singapore-as-host-of-first-olympic-esports-week-in-june-2023
Olympics games announcement: https://olympics.com/ioc/news/ioc-announces-olympic-esports-series-2023
Olympic esports home page: https://olympics.com/en/esports/
Tic Tac Bow archery federation announcement: https://www.worldarchery.sport/news/201096/archery-joins-olympic-esports-series-mobile-game-tic-tac-bow
Refract x archery federation announcement: https://www.worldarchery.sport/news/200887/world-archery-partners-refract-mass-participation-esport
Project 99 terms of service: https://project99.gg/terms-of-service/
Deep dive studios: https://deepdivestudios.gg/tic-tac-bow/
Project 99 Game Jam: https://www.lv99gamejam.com/
Maincard gg: https://www.linkedin.com/company/maincardgg/
SGEA member of SNOC: https://esports.org.sg/
IOC Esports week in collaboration with SNOC: https://olympics.com/ioc/news/ioc-confirms-singapore-as-host-of-first-olympic-esports-week-in-june-2023
Esports tier list. None of the Olympic titles even make the list: https://www.esportsguide.com/news/esports-tier-list-2022-q4-a-conclusive-look-at-the-year
Woodys video that started the community: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mr9jsajTG7E
The Tic Tac Bow reddit community: https://www.reddit.com/r/TicTacBow/
Official Discord: https://discord.gg/6FF4t94A
World archery interview: https://twitter.com/speljuntan/status/1636687573287591942
Pre-release tournament: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUoj_jsoSOk
2022 “Virtual Taekwondo a medal event in the near future”: https://techcrunch.com/2022/01/25/refract-raises-8-5m-sgd-funding-announces-new-game-development-division/
Drive folder of cheating screenshots: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1oDew0m-rn2GDNaMDVHitNlS9w2A17ogF?usp=sharing
List of bugs in the game: https://www.reddit.com/r/TicTacBow/comments/11ztluq/list_of_known_bugs/
Antalya world archery qualifiers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qR8mifZB4k