This Is E-sports

A few days ago my box of brand new equipment arrived courtesy of my employers. A digital camera, radio microphones, wireless mics, and other assorted bits and pieces. The message was clear – go forth and be creative. Capture the real world of e-sports and put it out there. Sure, if anyone was going to do it, who better than myself? We all know the answer to that is “no-one” but while sitting around, slurping herbal tea as part of a 2012 attempt to become an evolved and enlightened human being, it seemed the stories that were slapping me in the face didn’t really jump out as the kind of thing that anyone would have in mind to focus on.

You see, there’s this problem that all e-sports reporters have. The industry we work in as amateurish at best. It has never let me down when it comes to entertainment. It remains a carnival of the inept, the greedy, the corrupt and naive, which ultimately is simply a nice way of saying “stupid” that spares the feelings of the recipient. Yet if you focus on those things you will find yourself out of friends and out of respect from the colleagues that supposedly matter. They will come to you and whisper in your ear “don’t you realise you making us ALL look bad? Why not write something good for a change? Show the outside world we’re not all hillbillies with too many digits…”

Had I been in the field over the last few weeks what would I have captured? For starters, the turn of the year saw me being fed information about a large gaming organisation that was forcing players to honour contracts that the organisation had already violated, trying to bully the unwitting players into riding out agreements that had meant nothing anyway as soon as one party breaks them. It prevented players from taking opportunities elsewhere quite erroneously and was quite prepared to try and make it look like they hadn’t reneged on anything from their side. Statements were already prepared in case of a “media leak”.

When it’s not contractual bullshit, e-sports lurches into out and out embarrassment. League of Legends is trying to convince a sceptical audience that it is a bona fide e-sport and not just an accessible and fun MOBA title. How then is it helped when a team, APictureOfAGoose, have players prevented from attending one of the biggest e-sports tournaments because their parents won’t allow them to go. So now you know, they got the name of their team from the last thing they saw in nursery.

The team captain’s (he’s the one who is closest to beginning shaving) ill advised statement that began “I AM A SAD PANDA” hardly helps reinforce that there’s a high level of maturity in the game. Surely this wretched business is better off behind closed doors. When thinking about e-sports does anyone really want to think that the people they look up to aren’t even allowed out after dark or don’t have hair on their balls? How am I supposed to report on this without doing a doubletake and realising that, on some UK council estates at least, I am old enough to be their father.

League of Legends managed to throw up plenty of embarrassment of late and the saga involving mTw and CLG had many of us facepalming. Again, rule of thumb so you guys know for future, if there’s dirt on both sides, don’t go public because nobody wins. First, I find it hilarious that an organisation such as mTw who has made such a song and dance about contracts in the past would then invoke the dubious binding powers of an “oral agreement”. The organisation only became interested in the team when they saw an opportunity to get their name plastered all over a game at another big event, so the idea that the organisation should benefit from the team’s qualification seems a little strange to me. Still, ESL rulings… What are you going to do?

CLG come off it looking like a bunch of greedy pricks, which is probably a fair summary, but equally what else is there in e-sports? The love of the game? Please. When you’re a player everyone knows the rule of thumb is grab what you can, when you can, where you can, and as often as possible. Why? Because this isn’t all the way legitimate yet. Unless you play SC2 to the highest level, making a living off this shit is near impossible and all you are is a walking billboard, pimped out by your managers to the sponsors with the biggest cheque.

The fact that the team then gloriously imploded was just another hilarious twist in a pathetic saga that sums up the feeding frenzy that happens when organisations go courting players. You put dollar signs in their eyes, make all the promises under the sun and hope that they sign with you before they sign anywhere else, and that they don’t notice you typed up the contract in notepad after intercepting an e-mail that had what looked like a real contracy in .pdf format attached to it.

The best part of the whole saga had to be the line in the mTw statement that read “It is truly sad to see, that the game and esport originally started as a way to spend time with friends has fallen behind blind obedience to fame and money.” I’ll give you a moment to stop laughing at the irony of such a statement from one of the biggest gaming organisations in the world and presume I don’t need to point out why saying such a thing, especially after such circumstances, is as hilarious as it is stupid.

At least the businesses know what they’re doing, right? I mean, no-one at a big company that focuses on e-sports as its target market is going to say anything that could be conceived as completely stupid, right? I mean, they’re successful. They know they lay of the land…

Well, I might have thought that too if I hadn’t been treated to the blog post from Kim Rom, head of global marketing and PR at SteelSeries, that pretty much said that you are wrong to exercise buyer preference based on who they sponsor. I mean, he doesn’t say that directly, but that is the distillation of the argument. Here’s why – SteelSeries took the decision to stop supporting improving SC2 player and WC3 legend Manuel “Grubby” Schenkuizen, which must be particularly galling given they seem to sponsor everyone and everything else relating to e-sports. Some fans of Grubby said they didn’t like this and they’d be taking their business elsewhere as a result.

Where’s the problem, right? That’s what happens. You sponsor someone in the hope it attracts more people to buy your products, if you stop sponsoring them it might have some sort of negative impact. That seems to be the nature of such affairs. However a few tweets prompted some sickly “aren’t we the victims” type diatribe from Mr. Rom who said:

“Really? After years of supporting a great player and a great person this is what we get? I feel comments like that are a slippery slope. If I was one of my competitors with budget to spare, I would think twice about sponsoring now – if it actually makes people consciously decide to avoid my products in the future when/if the partnership ends for whatever reason.

And it is quite frankly the first time where I started thinking about what would happen if I stop supporting other teams or players we sponsor – or if they stop the partnership with us, because someone else comes in with a bigger money cheque. Do I now need to choose teams/players/communities/tournaments/leagues with a total new metric in mind, and how do I as a professional marketeer start analyzing the emotional impact in fans?

Support the teams and players you love. Support their sponsors if they make products you like. But I don’t think you are doing anyone a favor, including the teams and players you like, by actively avoiding products or brands when a partnership/sponsorship ends.”

Well of course you don’t think that. You’re selling them. But you can’t have it both ways… You can’t revel in the benefits of supporting a player, and reap the benefits of an upturn in sales as you do, then bemoan the “fickle” fans that leave you when you ditch them. It’s an illogical standpoint. If people weren’t so fickle in the first place, how would you ever attract new business? Why would sponsoring players be on the agenda in the first place? It’s a business decision… You can’t expect brand loyalty from the sort of people you entice with such stunts. I mean, you could always just let the products do the talking… Or is it just me? Have I gone half mad? I must have. I see people out there agreeing with this standpoint as if it’s somehow an affront that e-sports enthusiasts might want to buy from whoever pick up Grubby next, or even weirder, just feel like they don’t like SteelSeries anymore. All actions have consequences – why should you be exempt because you feel you’ve done a lot for e-sports?

Still, he’s alright really is Kim (<– Sponsored backtracking by SteelSeries) and disagreements in e-sports are common place because as long as we’re having them we’re ignoring everything else. I mean, as e-sports becomes little more than a network of criss-crossing partnerships and secret handshakes, there’s always time for a good public spat just to keep everyone interested, Take TSL and fnatic going at it over the acquisition or non-acquisition of the highly rated Terran player aLive.

Fnatic, of course, were the team that acted all incredulous over SK Gaming “tapping up” their players on several occasions, producing lots of arguments, a clamour to try and prove who was the “good guys” in the matter (answer – neither of you) and yet here they are not much further down the road having to deny something similar themselves, ALMOST AS IF EVERY ORGANISATION DID THIS SHIT.

Instead let’s live in this grey area and say it didn’t happen, and use the word “allegedly” like we’re on Have I Got News For You. Still, for all the outraged reaction of TSL’s Coach Lee, who is even threatening legal action, it will of course all be settled with a “transfer fee”, which is pretty much the base of any “amicable agreement” these days. The player will end up at fnatic in the end, there’s just the usual hoops everyone has to jump through in a bid to appear professional and, more importantly, not hypocritical in an industry that is mostly populated by unprofessional hypocrites. Allegedly.

Even today I’m writing about some heinous bullshit that makes me shake my head and wonder when it will end. mTw, again showing how well researched their management team seems to be these days in the absence of more experienced heads, managed to pick up a Starcraft 2 player that had an outstanding arrest warrant for a robbery that prevented him from competing in Europe. Currently in exile in Dubai, there were no questions asked as they announced the signing, only for it come out later the same day that they would actually be dropping him as a result of that warrant. Although they may not want to talk about it I’d not rule out some self backslapping PR statement about how they “did the right thing” to be released soon. Let’s overlook the fact the right thing would simply to have done a bit of homework and ask a few questions.

Then you have the guys at Digifest just out and out stealing from players and sponsors alike in as brazen a fashion I’ve seen since I started reporting on e-sports. And yeah, I was told about 4kings management selling sponsor equipment out of the boots of cars at LANs, while they sent the team to budget hotels and blew the money on 5-star shit for themselves. Digifest went next level though, pocketing the prize money and sponsors equipment from two events to the tune of 11,500 Euros. As a final fuck you they e-mailed one of the players owed big and told him that he and his teammates could only “dream” of their prizes.

This is the industry we’ve all built for ourselves. We demand high standards from the people least equipped to deliver them, while secretly all being on the take ourselves. We have kids who are probably exploited, just not in a sweatshop way so it’s OK, and adults who act like kids. We’ve got organisations that will run another one down for pulling the same shit they pulled a few months ago, just in the hope that they can keep people on side and hawk them more products. The machine keeps on going and everything is for sale.

Even the good guys want their cake and to be able to scoff it down in front of you, a cake you paid for and will have to rebuy once it’s gone because they get hungry. But hey, they love e-sports right, it’s a “labour of love”™ for everyone who is in it… Although I see less and less “love” and more and more negativity, always aimed at the wrong people, while we laugh on wholesale theft and deception.

So anyway, I got this camera. When will you e-sports guys give me something good to point it at?