Boys behaving badly: the ugly side of eSports, and how to fix it

Boys behaving badly: the ugly side of eSports, and how to fix it

Gaming as a spectator sport is growing rapidly, and that sort of growth can be hard to manage. It also makes it hard to do things such as enforce standards, and there is some question about where to draw the line when it comes to player behavior and sometimes shockingly offensive words and slurs being used by players.

This issue may have come to a head when Eurogamer released a video of competitive Black Ops 2 players screaming at each other, cursing at the screens, and gesturing towards their privates. The video has spread across the Internet, and it seems to prove every negative stereotype about games in general, and Call of Duty players in particular. Before we got any further, give it a watch if you haven’t seen it.

A quick warning: this is incredibly not safe for work, features some obnoxiously immature behavior, and is kind of hard to sit through in general.

I’d like to point out that this seems to have been the predominant mood in the room. No one asks the boys to calm down, watch their language, or take things down a notch. You can see a camera run towards a player as he screams at someone else. The message seems to be that this behavior isn’t just tolerated, but expected and encouraged.

It creates a nasty atmosphere for anyone who has gone through puberty, but the kids also seem to be playing to the camera and each other. I don’t think this is a problem in the greater world of eSports as much as it’s a terrible failure on the part of the events organizers to make the expected level of behavior both known and enforced.

An ESL representative sent Eurogamer the following statement:

eSports events such as the recent Electronic Sports League European Finals are highly competitive and evoke a huge amount of passion and excitement among the participants. This is no different to sports such as football and rugby, where competitive spirit and banter are part of the mind games that take place between teams. The events are always conducted in a professional manner, and this film does not reflect the generally sportsmanslike behavior we saw over the weekend.

Now, I don’t really buy that argument, and if anything the video makes competitive games, and the Black Ops 2 community, look terrible.

Enforcing standards

A base level of respect among players is something that has to be managed, maintained, and grown by the organizers of these events. I spoke with David Ting, General Manager, eSports and VP of R&D at IGN, about this very issue.

“You have to draw the sponsors in, getting enough money to be in the pool so people look at it like a job they don’t want to lose, instead of just letting their personality emanate because they’re doing it out of passion,” he told me in a previous interview. Once players are involved in the scene and there is actual money at stake, it becomes easier to enforce standards. Even mainstream sports hold their athletes to certain behavioral minimums on the field, and levy fines when those rules are broken. 

On the other hand, you don’t want to sand blast away all the personality from the game.

“Look at StarCraft, one of the most popular players is Destiny, one of the most outspoken, politically incorrect, racial slurs… there are going to be people like that mixed in, but what you need to do is, being IPL as a platform, you want to allow enough of that to a point where it’s not degrading to other people, just like sports,” Ting stated.

“You have to be an enforcing body and allow personality to come through but also train them to know they’re on the big stage, they’re on the big fight, they have a bunch of fans, and don’t they want to grow your fan base ten times? If you want to do that, your earnings are going to grow ten times,” he continued.

I looked up Destiny, and his history of racial slurs and negative behavior have caused not only controversy in the world of competitive games, but lost sponsors. At what point is sounding like a bigot no longer worth it? On the other hand, offensive behavior is sometimes said to be an important part of competitive gaming.

I spoke with John “Totalbiscuit” Bain on this topic during my trip to check out Planetside 2’s eSports push, and he agreed that there is a line between personality and being offensive, and the best way to maintain it is to hit players in their pocket books.

“One of the most bad-mannered players is IdrA. Everyone knows him, but he still gets invited to tournaments and, to be fair, he’s seriously got his attitude sorted out now. He’s able to walk the line between being edgy and being offensive,” Bain said. “I think because StarCraft took so long to evolve, and we have such a rich history with Brood War, there are certain standards that are already in effect.”

On the other hand, Bain said League of Legends is having to figure it out as it goes, due to the quick pace of its growth. This is why banned players are news. It sends a message: Behavior that’s offensive or alienating to others will hurt your career, and your ability to make money in the scene.

“Banning players and teams from what could be a very, very lucrative tournament is a great way to say, way out there, this is not acceptable behavior. If we had to do that in StarCraft I think it would have been the right thing as well, but thankfully we haven’t had to do that,” Bain explained.

Moving forward

Players who enjoy competitive games suffer from a bad reputation, some of it earned, some unfair. People who enjoy shooters, especially mainstream examples such as Black Ops 2, even moreso. When videos like the one above go viral, everyone loses. The critics get to have their stereotypes validated, and all gamers are suddenly painted with the same brush.

It's important for the organizers of these events to make it clear that kind of behavior won't be tolerated, and lay out explicit, effective punishments for when the rules are broken. No one is arguing for a lack of personality, but eSports as a whole need to be aware of the perception problem. It only takes one video of young men acting like animals to undo the years of hard work done by people who want the scene to flourish and grow.