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Smart Mouths: Why Esports Needs to Grow Up

Controversy after controversy, but what's happening with esports pros?

  • Text: Sam Bishop
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If you've been following the Overwatch League recently (or esports as a whole for that matter) you'll have noticed that there have been plenty of stories revolving around organisers like Blizzard bringing the banhammer down on players who have been caught up in controversy, whether that's the use of Twitch emotes, on-stream comments made in error, or their general behaviour outside of the competition, which raises the question of responsibility in esports, and whether figures within this space - be they players, casters, or anyone else - have a responsibility to the community to set a better example to their fans.

Let's not get carried away and say that this is exclusively an esports thing though, because it isn't. In traditional sports like football we've had controversies aplenty in the past, whether that be comments made on the pitch in football like the exchange between Luis Suárez and Patrice Evra back in 2011, or off-the-pitch antics like West Bromwich players Gareth Barry, Jonny Evans, Jake Livermore and Boaz Myhill getting into an incident with a taxi just this year in Barcelona. People make mistakes, and as such they're addressed in the footballing world, either with bans or judiciary hearings, as they are in other sports like the NFL, Rugby, and Cricket.

There are several differences with esports though, the biggest of which has to be the prevalence of streamers in the community. If you look at several controversies in the past few months alone - Overwatch player Félix 'xQc' Lengyel getting banned for racially insensitive use Twitch emotes; CS:GO commentator Matthew 'Sadokist' Trivett using a racial slur while playing PUBG; and CS:GO player Nils 'k1to' Gruhne referring to fellow player João 'felps' Vasconcellos using a racist term - all of these incidents took place during streams, where - as others outside esports like YouTuber Felix 'PewDiePie' Kjellberg have demonstrated - what you say cannot be taken back nor can it be edited out. This leads to all kinds of controversies as things slip out and action is taken, and almost always leads to an uproar from the community and subsequent bans.

Sadokist is just one example of someone caught slipping up while on a stream.

It's also worth noting that, while sports stars are often quite young, esports professionals are almost exclusively under the age of 25. We'd rather not make the sweeping generalisation that all young people make regrettable decisions since that's frankly not true, but being thrust into the spotlight at a young age means you're not prepared for the scrutiny you'll receive, especially when it comes to consequences for controversial comments. What's more is that we've all said things in our youth that don't reflect our true beliefs, yet under the microscope, even the smallest comment under your breath can lead to pretty serious ramifications.

So, on the one hand, you've got this setup whereby people are placed in the public eye for so long and are scrutinised so heavily, but this works in combination with a widespread absence of media training to produce a boiling pot of controversy that, in hindsight, was always going to happen. Sports stars have had this for years, meaning that they know what and what not to say for the most part when in front of cameras, but most esports pros don't have this, meaning the lines between right and wrong are less clearly defined.

"This is a generation - and I think this particularly applies to players and fans - that have lost any concept of privacy, they've lost any concept of filter," the Esports Integrity Coalition's Ian Smith told us in the interview below. "In my experience in traditional sport, one of the best things the media brought to it was a filter, like 'do you really want to say this?' [...] There isn't that filter to that extent in esports. Guys engage with their audience very directly, and sometimes very badly, and terrible, stupid things are said. It's often not particularly malicious, it's just dumb, and I think if I was running a professional team [...] one of the things that would be utterly compulsory in that process would be media training for my professionals, because I don't want them screwing up my brand by saying something dumb."

Photo: Overwatch League