Controversy after controversy, but what's happening with esports pros?
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.
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."
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Of course people - adults - should know what is and is not appropriate to say, but many tournaments could do with setting rules in stone to make it clearer as to what won't be tolerated, especially when it comes to communicating with others via platforms like Twitch or even Twitter, where direct messages can easily be leaked (as in the case of Overwatch League player DreamKazper). Without this, bans will keep ensuing, and a big part of the blame has to lie with competition organisers themselves.
The OWL, for instance, has done a great job in making sure that those who don't abide by the rules are given the just consequences. Sure, there was some confusion about the rulebook in the first few months, but Blizzard has since revealed that players have had a copy of this since the league's creation, and that it constantly evolves based on player feedback. This means that people know when they'll get banned, which in turns leads to more apologies, such as for brushing against another team's staff. Guidelines need to be in place, especially for younger players new to competing at a professional level with this amount of attention. It's a simple move that will help shape the conduct of seasons to come as players know what is and is not permitted.
The aforementioned organisation ESIC is one of the bodies working to make esports a better place not only in terms of banning controversial players, but also working to make rules clearer and addressing other issues like match-fixing, doping, and more. This isn't an authority across all esports and competitions, but measures like this are slowly but surely making sure that esports professionals are aware of the risks that are out there, and making sure that they can educate teams, competition organisers, and the pros themselves moving forwards.
Why is all of this so important? Well, it's not just because the fact that these players will face consequences for breaking rules and causing controversies, and that the teams and organisations will face damaged reputations, but it's more the fact that esports is a field that a lot of young people engage with and increasingly aspire to become involved with, and so the behaviour of these role models becomes a lot more important. Anyone can watch a Twitch stream, for example, which means that anyone can hear whatever unfiltered comments are made, which doesn't bode well if the stars of the field have a reputation for vulgarity and immaturity.
Even Riot Games themselves, organiser of League of Legends esports, helped raise over $2 million USD for charity in the run-up to the World Championship last year, so the tournament organisers themselves have potential to set great examples too. This greater emphasis on personal accountability and player conduct, plus a growing realisation among event organisers that the onus is on them to set the standard, should hopefully make a real impact in terms of player professionalism both in the arena, and when they're at home playing for fun.
As esports grows and more big partners come on board, from sponsors to financial backers, controversy is going to be tolerated less and less, and become more detrimental with each passing incident, and the only way to clear it up is to keep cracking down and make it clear that it won't be tolerated. Lessons from traditional sports will help for sure, but this has to be a collaborative effort between teams and tournament organisers to help esports tidy up its wider image. It doesn't matter if you're young and inexperienced, because as a wise man once said: with great power, comes great responsibility.