The Esports Industry Grew; Now It's Time For It To Grow Up
from the get-some-new-skin dept
As we’ve discussed for some time, the esports industry has been the subject of unprecedented growth in competitive sports. This growth trend began nearly a decade ago, but its pace steadily increased and was then supercharged by the COVID-19 pandemic. The industry is now looking back at a year when it nearly doubled in size, basking in its new found cultural position. So, the esports industry has grown. Now it’s time for it to grow up.
What do I mean by that? Well, it’s time that the industry learn the same lessons many other sports leagues have had to learn: it’s the players that drive interest among viewers. Personalities are what become popular in competitive sports and those personalities need space to shine through, rather than be muzzled. And, unfortunately, the esports industry has a nasty habit of trying to muzzle its personalities.
The most glaring example of this came during the Hong Kong protests of 2019. During those protests, many esports athletes spoke out in support for the protests. This led to those athletes being punished, including bans of high profile streamers and others. Given all that’s happened in and to Hong Kong since, it’s hard to imagine companies like Blizzard arguing they were on the right side of history when it comes to Hong Kong. Frankly, I think I’d enjoy seeing them try.
But the Hong Kong protests are far from the only example of gaming companies and esports events taking a heavy hand to silence athletes. You will recall that Nintendo, after nixing a competition over its use of a mod that basically made putting the tourney on possible, likewise nixed a Splatoon tournament broadcast for the crime of some of the players criticizing the company.
And the latest example of all of this is a Mortal Kombat player being disqualified from a tournament all for mildly chiding the game developers about an over-powered character in the game.
During an official Mortal Kombat 11 Pro Kompetition tournament on January 16, finalist Titaniumtigerzz was disqualified after jokingly calling out developer NetherRealm Studios by labeling his Sheeva variation—a personalized moveset that displays a custom name to opponents—as “WhyDidNRSdoThis.”
The disqualification made for an awkward moment on the stream. When the official broadcast cut away from the top 8 match after just a few minutes, commentators Housam “Mitsuownes” Cherif and Miguel “Darth Arma” Perez were left fumbling for words to explain what happened.
If you’re thinking that there’s no way that a player was DQ’d from a tournament simply for having that moveset name and are about to go hunting the internet for an alternate explanation…don’t bother. That really was the reason. The Sheeva character is the subject of some controversy among Mortal Kombat fans due to a specific move she does that most agree makes her overpowered and nearly impossible to defeat if used in a certain way.
The variation name, Titaniumtigerzz told Kotaku, was supposed to be a very mild criticism of Sheeva’s strengths.
“It was meant to be funny since the character I was using is basically extremely easy,” Titaniumtigerzz explained to me via DM. “The joke was, ‘Why would they make such an easy character?’”
He went on to note that it was the first time he’d used the name, that he wasn’t given any notice or warning for using it, and that he wasn’t given any opportunity to change the name. The competition rules also don’t lay out any rules for this sort of thing, but they do give tournament organizers basically full discretion when it comes to banning players for pretty much anything. Meanwhile, this whole thing backfired anyway, with gamers hurling about the #whyDidNRSdoThis hashtag on twitter.
But, Streisand Effect aside, the point is again that esports needs to grow up. Part of that maturation process is going to require growing a thicker skin. Athletes criticizing their own leagues is incredibly common in competitive sports. It’s also common to see athletes using their voices for political and social movements. And, love or hate how athletes use their voices, its those voices that fans connect with, not league executives.
So grow up, esports leagues. Let your players be heard. And if that means hearing them criticize you? Well, that’s okay too.