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It Was Personality, Not Professionalism, That Put Esports on the Map

You’ll have noticed that eSports created another little ripple in the world of mainstream entertainment a few weeks ago. I’ve been on the road for some time and haven’t had an opportunity to put thoughts about it to paper. The moment was the Turner network’s “Road to Vegas” event for their upcoming foray into esports broadcasting, entitled E-League.

Full disclosure — I was part of it, but it’s not like at this stage in my career anything is to be gained from modesty. It was a good show, and we got to do a guest appearance on Inside The NBA alongside a panel of sporting legends. As it happened, they were sporting legends who thought eSports was strange, something of an oddity. They were going to poke fun at us, so we did what we do in eSports — we wrecked them. Thanks to years of trash-talking in-game and on Twitter, we had the requisite skillset to fly flags for nerds everywhere.

The reaction seemed to mostly positive, although I am sure it probably triggered Colin Cowherd harder than a holiday in the Dominican Republic. It was taken well by the likes of Shaq and Charles Barkley, and for the first time in a while it actually felt like they could see the common ground between “us” and “them.” It really isn’t so different, but we’ve had the mainstream media portray us as school-shooters, gaming addicts, terrorists, and now Adderall-popping misogynists. It doesn’t help that our most high profile talents have been happy to work with people that have perpetuated all those stereotypes in exchange for a few dollars. We’ll get to them in a moment.

You’ll have noticed everyone wants a piece of the eSports pie now. Competitive gaming has been in print media from Playboy to The New York Times. It has been broadcast on Sky TV, Eurosport, and ESPN to name but a few. It has venture capitalists and sports stars throwing millions into it. It’s seeing unprecedented growth, and it’s only going to keep going up from this point on. So why now?

The problem eSports has always had was how to package it. How do we draw a casual viewer in? How do we hold their attention? The answer, of course, was through entertainment and not taking ourselves too seriously. Sure, showcase the games, which take phenomenal amounts of talent to play. Showcase the professionals that have dedicated the bulk of their lives to obtaining excellence in their respective field. Handle these things with respect and understanding. What you don’t want to do is forget what you are or where you come from; that this was meant to be fun.

Unfortunately, for years the industry was influenced, controlled in fact, by a group of people so insecure about it that whenever the mainstream came calling, they pretended eSports was something it wasn’t. Like a bachelor throwing all the dirty clothes under the bed when he brings a hot girl home for the evening, they tried very much to pretend eSports was every bit the same as football, baseball, or basketball. Look at us in our suits and ties trying to emulate the real broadcast anchors. It was like watching a child singing into a hairbrush in front of their mirror, daydreaming about rock stardom that will never come. Because of this, for years the mainstream never really knew what eSports was about, and it could never attract the audience these people hoped it would. They made the decisions for all of us.

And they took massive paycheques for doing so, of course. The worst part is now having to hear them drone on about what great ambassadors they were for eSports, when in reality they got paid to make it into whatever the person signing the cheque wanted it to be. Think the Championship Gaming Series, a failed attempt at bringing eSports to the masses that was funded by News Corp.

“This Counter-Strike is too slow. It needs less rounds. We like first to 10.”

“But CS has this tactical depth and we do it this way because…”

“Oh we also need $16k start money because we want action from the start.”

“But the tactics…”

“And we’re doing it third person because a focus group said it was better.”

“But how will anyone appreciate the skill…”

“Who is paying you?”

“You, but…”

“Shut up and go and shill for us in public or you’re out.”

Great ambassadors, principled gods among men. I can say this because I too took a paycheque from these guys and was part of the shilling process. I was a young journalist at the time, and the money was too much to turn down. I can own up to it without ret-conning my contribution. However, when I was pushed out for the usual drama, after having people attach my name to copy that wasn’t mine and having articles squashed, I vowed I’d never do it again. It was the catalyst for the rest of my career and the types of story I have broken.

Now understand adding entertainment elements to an eSports broadcast is absolutely key to success. That’s always been my approach to doing a desk. Part Inside The NBA, part Top Gear, part Monday Night Football… It’s a blend designed to inform and amuse. In my opinion, CS:GO has a group of on-screen talent that is unprecedented in any eSport, even StarCraft at its peak. This, along with the fact that it is simply a great game to watch, is why it’s rapidly becoming the flagship eSports title alongside League of Legends. We are now packaging it the right way, unashamed of being who we are, refusing to try and conform to a fictitious standard we didn’t have to adopt. We’ve finally embraced our personality.

And that is key here. When we had our little break out moment in Las Vegas, when my colleague Duncan “Thorin” Shields had his back and forth with Shaq and came out the better, it showed we weren’t all basement dwelling neckbeards who will wilt in the spotlight. There was literally no-one better to pull it off, and the guys at Turner and on the Inside the NBA desk loved it. When you have a broadcasting legend like Ernie Johnson, Jr. telling you that you just made a great TV moment, you know you’ve done your job well.

Yet the guy who did that is the same person the community, even some higher-ups, in the industry point to and say, “This is not the guy to represent eSports on television.” Endless threads recycling past controversies, repeated so often they have become like urban legends, almost entirely untrue and played for shock value. Duncan is also someone who works tirelessly, puts out content every day while travelling the world near-constantly, and never misses an evening where he doesn’t provide something worthy of discussion. His work ethic is peerless in an industry of slobs, yet all I ever here is this guy isn’t professional.

Of course somewhere along the line the word “professionalism” was hijacked by the terminally offended and subverted to mean something it never did or should. It went from being a measure of how well someone would do their job, how reliable they were, to how subservient and inoffensive they are willing to be. If you don’t soak up every insult with a shit-eating grin, your integrity is called into question. Answer back, and anything you’ve achieved is null and void; in that moment you cease to be a “professional.”

That’s the beauty of them taking over that word. For them it means that, as we’ve seen from many a social justice driven mob, they feel perfectly entitled going after your job even if your fictitious offence happened outside of a work setting. You will learn to bend the knee and not express those troublesome opinions when they take away your livelihood. It gives unimaginative underachievers carte blanche to lash out at people whose contribution they can never match, and it feeds into the reality television mindset of being able to simply “vote off” people of whom you don’t approve.

The level of resentment it generates is hilarious. “I can’t say what I want where I work, so why should this person be allowed to do it?” Yes, they are comparing those who work as entertainers, journalists, and provocateurs to those working in the customer service industry and believing there’s some sort of consistent standard. Madness, isn’t it? An outpouring of frustration at the restrictions in their lives, divorced from context, and yet everyone accepts it as the norm because we want to change the mob from waving pitchforks back to waving dollar bills.

The StarCraft scene was notorious for chasing out the personalities that captured the audience’s imagination while constantly embracing the fake and banal. The flawed geniuses that make any sport worth talking about were repeatedly condemned. Johan “NaNiwa” Lucchesi, one of the most talented non-Korean players in StarCraft 2, was constantly hounded every time he listened to his inner voice. His outbursts on social media and his constant criticism of tournament conditions — most of it completely valid — was great box office.

His career ended after he walked out of a competitive game, complaining about the sound set-up. The fans were outraged. Industry people called for him to be blacklisted and said they never wanted to see him play again. He obliged. Then when the penny dropped and people realised it was a pretty boring space without players like him, they would routinely show appreciation and ask for him to come back. Why he would is anyone’s guess.

The same was true for Greg “IdrA” Fields, whose notoriously abrasive personality seemed to generate constant ire. Then, in an exchange on an internet forum, he described the community as “a bunch of fucks” and laughed about getting paid to treat them that way. This is textbook pantomime villain stuff, but instead of some mild booing, the resulting furor cost him his position within Evil Geniuses.

The fans that had contributed to his downfall also wanted him back. Reddit threads would periodically pop up trying to entice his return. The last time he commented on the matter, he dropped some truth bombs on the community. “That being said all of you complaining about how the community is boring now can go fuck yourselves,” he said. “You love ‘edgy’ shit until it hits a nerve and then you complain about it. If nothing else you let the obnoxious idiots who complain about everything and shit on players be the loud, purposeful voices in the community. Think it sucks all players give cookie cutter answers and interact with the community as little as possible? You brought it on yourselves.”

He’s right, of course, and it’s no different for on-screen and on-air talent. One thing is undeniable, that for all the crying that comes in the wake of those who speak their mind free from compromise, so does ratings. I’ve seen a lot of button-down, passive-aggressive boring professionals in my decade in eSports. They really don’t get the job done. To succeed, you either have to go full fake, shedding crocodile tears and screeching childishly while playing a jump scare game, or you keep it real and accept that you’re going to be divisive. Never underestimate the power of the Howard Stern effect: that if people love or hate you, they will have to listen to “hear what you say next.” Just don’t be boring.

Refreshingly, for now at least, the complainers are being ignored. The next wave of eSports broadcasting is going to actually let us be ourselves. It will finally be allowed to succeed or fail on its own merits. And it wont be the grey, safe clock-punchers that carry it.

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