The commercialization of Esports, and the importance of community

If you were take a trip back into the past, 15, 10, or even 5 years ago, you would find a very different North American esports industry. You would find a niche, close-knit community that resided mostly online. When they did gather in person, it would be in smaller venues such as university study rooms, church basements, and if they were lucky enough, a convention center hall. Thankfully in 2018, an air of professionalism and quality as been breathed into the scene. As the spotlight begins to shine on esports, and investors are starting to open their wallets, each progressing year has seen an uptick in quality. Professional mannerisms from talent, cleaner production, bigger investors, bigger stadiums, higher prize pools, and higher stakes. Overwatch League is a perfect example of this, with money and pride on the line, international representation, smooth production, and consistent community engagement outside of the games. We even see the advent of esports-based law firms such as ESG, and cross-game player unions. Although we are excited to see the level of legitimacy and professionalism the scene can grow to, we’ve already how this can act as a double edged sword. The aforementioned Overwatch League has seen its fair share of criticism and controversy, particularly over the treatment of ex-Dallas Fuel player, Félix “XQC” Lengyel. If tournament organizers and gaming companies focus solely on generating revenue and pleasing investors by being 110% “politically correct”, they may lose sight of the values the gaming community was founded upon.

Overwatch League season 1 Grand Finals between Philadelphia Fusion and London Spitfire

For those unaware, Canadian streamer and current pro player for Team Canada, “QXC”, has one of the biggest online followings. His Twitch streams garner on average upwards of 10,000 viewers. He is known for his high energy, explosive, and consistent content. His streams often produce memorable clips of him yelling, throwing, dancing, and everything in between. His high energy impulsive behavior has led him to become a bit of a controversy, as in the heat of the moment he tends to act rashly, which have brewed a handful of controversial scenarios. This nature does not bode well when mixed with a large scale league like OWL, particularly when Blizzard is attempting to make a statement on the legitimacy of esports.

Félix “XQC” Lengyel

XQC has dealt with far more punishments than the average Overwatch League player, some warranted, some simply an excuse for Blizzard to demonstrate their power; or even worse, their lack of power and experience. A situation where a punishment was justified, was when Felix made a homophobic remark toward a player he was having a feud with, Houston Outlaw’s,”Muma”, who is in fact homosexual. Immediately after, XQC realized his mistake and apologized. The following is a twitter resolution between the two players.

Blizzard however was not nearly as forgiving as Muma, and suspended XQC for four games, with a $2000 fine. Felix’s team then proceeded to eviscerate any last chances of playing for the next year, when they suspended him for the rest of the season. This is an example of an understandable mistake from XQC, with perfectly reasonable repercussions. One that isn’t understandable however, is when one harmless message is taken completely out of context, and with no research, leads to the expulsion of a player from an entire league.

Overwatch League’s main broadcast outlet is Twitch.tv, a popular streaming site. On the site, users can interact with each other and the streamer via a chat box, where certain emojis can be posted. One such emoji is “TriHard 7”, a picture of black streamer “Trihex. It isn’t uncommon to find in larger streams, hundreds if not thousands spam this emote whenever any black person is either mentioned, or on camera directly.. During one fateful stream, XQC typed the emote“TriHard7”, when black commentator, “Malek” was on camera. This was the final nail in the coffin for Blizzard, sealing XQC’s fate and eventually leading to his departure from his organisation the Dallas Fuel, and the League as a whole. On face value this seems like an open and shut case, a controversial player with a history of homophobic remarks, types a racist comment into the chat….case closed, right?. A simple investigation into XQC’s chat log however, reveals that TriHard7 and other emojis are among his most popular messages. He simply had the unfortunate coincidence of typing that emote when Malek was commentating, and ultimately leading to the crash of his professional career.

The XQC debacle stems from a knee jerk panic reaction from Blizzard, which ultimately stems from their mentality; a focus on appearing professional and in the driver's seat. If the disciplinary team had taken their time with a calm and unbiased approach, they most certainly would have found a more reasonable solution. A further cause can be extrapolated from this situation, that is another contributing pitfall that new and old esports entities should watch out for. Esports and gaming culture has been set in a casual state for the majority of its lifespan, and before situation like XQC’s are evaluated, the context and background has to be understood.

One thing that is crucial to realize, is that the gaming community by nature is satirical, passionate, and filled to the brim with irony. Many of the players grew up and still gather with friends whether it be it in a call, or in person, to sit down and play some video games together. These gaming sessions are where the heart of esports is born, talking, playing, and having a good time with friends. Larger and larger friend groups come together, and suddenly out of thin air, as it was magic, a community is born. From communities, friendly rivalries are bred, and from friendly rivalries, competition is bred, and that is the true origin of esports. Even as the competition scales up to Overwatch League levels, the torch of friendly rivalries and late night gaming sessions burns on.

If we take a second look at the XQC and Muma scenario through a new lens now, it is revealed that XQC’s homophobic remark was not in fact spurred on by true homophobia or hatred for Muma, but in fact simply friendly banter that was taken too far. Friendly jabs and insults are all in good taste within gaming circles, and not only bring a round of laughs, but can also elevate a tournament matches stake all the more, especially between the two players. Context is chief here, XQC and Muma despite being rivals, are still peers, and they understand that despite their feud, all insults are not spurred by true hatred or anger. If Blizzard or any other big organisations for that matter continuously crack down on banter, we may enter a world of esports that is devoid of everything that makes gaming exciting; community and the memorable characters apart of them.

Eric Yeung