The Battle Between Esports Culture And Professionalism
By Taylor Cocke
There’s a battle raging in esports.
Unlike the days of internet past, it’s not being waged on message boards or even on the field of play. It’s being waged on Twitter, in YouTube videos, even in the offices of some of the industry’s biggest leaders.
The war is between the culture of esports and the professionalism required to operate in a big business environment. And the ceasefire doesn’t seem to be coming any time soon.
Up until recently, esports has been stuck in relative obscurity — at least in the West. Only covered as a curiosity by more mainstream press, the scene has, for years, had only received endemic coverage done by those willing to put in time and effort to celebrate something that was almost guaranteed to not earn them a cent.
Up until the explosion of esports in the West on the tails of games like League of Legends, Dota 2, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, those that followed the scene were a dedicated bunch. The audiences were small, and the population of those taking it seriously enough to create coverage was even smaller. It was work funded by passion, not payment.
The result was a close-knit scene full of personalities that matched the audience they came to prominence catering to. They were, and often still are, brutally honest, steeped in internet culture, and unreservedly crass.
And you know what? It made sense. It was esports versus the world. In the truest of senses, esports was a community. Like so many underserved communities before it, whether they be punk rock, tabletop gaming, or gaming as a whole, they felt and earned an ownership over the scene that they had helped create.
As the competitive gaming scene began to grow, money started getting involved. The games that had toiled in relative obscurity began to draw the attention of investors. More and more tournaments started popping up, this time backed by money instead of pure passion. The conflicts popped up right away. Most notably, Major League Gaming’s failed attempt to establish a foothold in the fighting game community resulted in an inherent distrust of esports as a whole from that particular segment of the competitive gaming scene.
Yet still, the money kept flowing. The era of MOBAs came to the west in 2011 with League of Legends’ Season 2 World Championship and the first edition of The International in Dota 2. CS:GO came out in 2012, ushering in a new era for the long-running shooter series.
Then came the controversies and scandals. Match fixing, cheating, accusations of sexism, and even teams and owners being banned from play entirely became the norm. Sure, these were growing pains for an industry that was growing too fast for everyone involved to keep up with.
Why the history lesson? Well, it’s important context for what’s going on right now. With more people getting involved, the esports scene is rapidly diversifying. More and more companies are getting involved. Profits are flowing and as a result, more big business names are getting into the scene. Basically, it’s understandable that old timers are hesitant to embrace the direction esports is moving.
You see it everywhere. Coca-Cola and State Farm in League of Legends. Turner Broadcasting in ELEAGUE’s variety of tournaments. Hell, even the Olympics, which have famously shunned esports from its sports’ ranks, sponsored IEM PyeongChang. The list goes on.
The result is a scene perceived to be losing its original spicy flavor. Esports personalities that have spent years saying whatever they want with no one telling them no have begun to find that they’re beholden to both sponsors and growing audiences.
Some are taking it well, embracing the seemingly inevitable future. They’re hosting tournaments, keeping their mouths shut on social media, and generally just trying to make esports friendly for all.
Others are holding on to the culture they’ve cultivated for so long. Under the cry of “Banter!” they’ve continued the trash talk. Social media may have grown from message boards to Twitter and YouTube, but the flame wars have continued. Language and actions that were previously permitted due to esports’ underground nature have been shoved into the limelight, prompting both harsh criticism from relative outsiders and virulent defenses from scene veterans.
As writers enter the scene to write about diversity within esports, those who have been in the scene since the beginning have started to rise to defend what they perceive as attacks against what they’ve helped to create.
While much of the discourse surrounding the current state of esports culture centers around defenses of the those criticized explicitly within it, it exposes an underlying current: This debate is about much more than any individual incident. It’s indicative of an emerging cultural rift between the perceived “old school” esports community and those who have entered the scene since the explosion in the size of the audience. It’s about what rules govern the behavior of each group, and whether they get to be different.
The solution isn’t simple. Can esports retain its traditionally banter-filled personality while still appealing to new sponsors and those who typically haven’t been terribly interested? It will take work to pull off. But it’ll be worth it.
Fighting sexism, racism, transphobia, and any other prejudices within the scene is important. Toxicity should be removed. Making esports more accessible for those who have historically felt unwelcome in the community is vital for the growth of esports as a whole. Because, for this crazy experiment to succeed in the long term, we’re going to need the audience to continue to grow. Unless we want to be pushed back underground, sponsors have to be kept happy. It’s a rare moment where good business and good ethics are one and the same.
But it is a balancing act. Finding the middle ground is going to be key for the future of esports as a whole. As more and more people get interested, we have to make sure to not push them out. But we also need to make sure that the things that made esports so special in the first place remain intact.
Just, you know, don’t be a jerk about it.
You can follow Taylor Cocke on Twitter @taylorcocke