StarCraft II and E-Sports: A Culture Battle for the Mainstream, Part 1

WARNING: This article does not use any harsh language, but some of the linked pages may. Click at your own risk.

Recently, the prominent e-sports team Evil Geniuses (EG) ended a short-lived contract with a player named Orb, who was scheduled to cast their next tournament, the Evil Geniuses Master Cup Series VII. Orb was dismissed from the contract after some of his previous games were uncovered, where he used a racial slur insensitivity, and failed to take responsibility. The StarCraft community has all sorts of varying opinions on the matter, and it has become a very contentious issue.

The initial controversy started when a screenshot was posted on reddit of Orb making rude remarks (including the slur) after losing a game. Most of the comments on the screenshot were rather disgusted. Orb, relatively unknown previous to his participation with EG, made a post about how he didn’t say those things and it was, in fact, his friend playing on his account. This was suspicious for many reasons; including the fact that he claimed the reason his friend was playing was that they weren’t that interested in StarCraft, but at the time his ‘friend’ was playing at a Master’s league level with the same setup and hotkeys as Orb. Additionally, some commenters added that he had been banned from Team Liquid’s featured streamer list for his language previously, and some people noted that when he streamed during the StarCraft II beta he often spoke this way. After an uproar on reddit and Team Liquid, some people called for a boycott of EG and complained to EG’s corporate sponsors. Evil Genius’ CEO Alexander Garfield then ended the team’s relationship with Orb. Orb released a statement apologizing (safe for work) for his language, but many people still fault him for sticking to his story of his friend playing on his account, a story that’s hard to swallow.

Orb participated in a State of the Game podcast, where he owned up to his mistakes and expressed regret for his decisions. He seemed to be genuinely interested in improving himself and glad that he was able to receive a wake-up call, though he and other prominent StarCraft II figures were uncomfortable with people readily complaining to sponsors. They fear that all of e-sports and serious sponsorships rely on the ability for the community to solve these sorts of issues without sponsors worrying about associating their brand with a volatile community.

One of the many vague areas in this issue is when an individual represents their team. While EG has stepped forward to take a major stand on these sorts of issues, they have tolerated insensitive language in the past. One of the best known StarCraft II players, Idra, is infamous for his “BM” (bad manner), or trash-talking. Many people look to him as an example of an often un-sportsman-like professional gamer, and whether he deserves a higher level of scrutiny.

The big question that is raised in my mind is what defines the e-sports “community” and “culture”. Many people call on a more responsible “community” to “solve its own problems” instead of complaining to sponsors, but what distinguishes StarCraft II fans as a community?

OS X’s dictionary provided me with this definition of community, which I believe to be very relevant to the discussion:

Community: A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.

There are a lot of people interested in StarCraft II in many facets: the game sold 4.5 million units in its first year on the market (2010). Most of those people likely just played some of the campaign and maybe a few multiplayer games. Serious fans might participate in an online community. One of the biggest, Reddit’s StarCraft subreddit, has over 90,000 subscribers. Team Liquid, another major community, is just as active. Hundreds of players “stream” and put on live shows daily, with major events garnering hundreds of thousands of viewers. MLG reported a peak of 241,000 peak concurrent viewers for one tournament. There are hundreds of people who make a living from running shows, putting on tournaments, or playing professionally. Each of these different sets of people has different goals and wants.

The people involved in professional play and streaming want lots of viewers as well as sponsorships. Players ultimately want to be entertained. If a few players are upset about something, they aren’t going to just say “hey, ‘community’, what will we collectively do?”, rather, they will likely see what they can do. While there are organizations of players, such as teams, there isn’t an effective way to communicate and resolve issues. Teams might like it if players contacted them first, but its easier and ultimately more effective in players eyes to communicate with the sponsors. It was clear that Orb’s behavior was inappropriate, and the discussions were everywhere. It is unlikely that EG was unaware of the situation, and outraged players did not want that sort of behavior tolerated. The lesson I hope that has been learned is that professionalism is high priority for some fans, and if the levels of professionalism aren’t reflected by those participating in the content, their values are out-of-line with these players. Teams should recognize the liability of unprofessional behavior by their members and work to ensure a high quality of character before enlisting them to represent their brand. With an ever-growing spotlight on the e-sports nature of the game, the participants have to be ready to embrace mainstream sensitivities and morality that they might not have to in more niche environments. If teams and tournament organizers can effectively cater to viewer’s wants in their content, they can win larger audiences, respect from mainstream establishments, and the ability to call their healthy interactions with viewers “a community”.

Later this week, we’ll delve into Steven Bonnell “Destiny”‘s situation, CBSi partnering with MLG, and the “culture” aspect of professional gaming and e-sports.