I was reading Kotaku’s esports-focused section, Compete, and I noticed a distressing pattern. The overwhelming majority of articles about the Overwatch League, Blizzard’s high profile esports venture, was about some form of controversy. Rather than cool tournament moments, player profiles, and results (of which there was some present), most of the headlines were about someone telling a racial (or discriminatory) slur, getting fired for doing something illegal, other race-related controversies, or other bizarre forms of internal or public-facing drama. And sure, other online personalities in other spaces have had similar events in 2018 so far, but Overwatch League seemed to sit at the eye of the storm, so to speak. Is there a culture problem with Overwatch League, or is it sensationalist reporting or a stream of unfortunate coincidence?
A lot has happened in the first few months of 2018. In no particular order, several players have ended up suspended or fired for using slurs or similar actions in various arenas. Multiple players called opponents some variation of “f****t,” or made other comments related to sexuality. One player did that ridiculous thing to their eyes manchildren do to make fun of Asians, and one of the more high-profile players, xQc, got the boot early in the year for all kinds of racially-charged “content.” Another player was suspended and quickly fired after multiple accusations of sexually preying on minors came out and were very easily corroborated.
Another report came out recently, after the league’s Texas team fired one of its highly skilled players along with the head coach. It came out that there were issues on the team based on uncomfortable social situations brought about by team members being hired out of the blue with little consideration taken to the team getting along, or important things like language barriers. Another bizarre incident took place in which the coach for the LA team publicly apologized for bumping into some people, which linked to other stories of players being punished for publicly posting memes of the WWII Japan bombings and other stuff that you generally wouldn’t expect public figures to come away from unscathed.
Another story that gained traction was of another LA team in the Overwatch League that seems to have been mining its own team drama for reality TV-style Internet content. Essentially, it came out that the team reserved the right to use video of its team members in other content production, which led to things like voyeuristic looks at a team member being reprimanded for their poor performance in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant. That’s just creepy and exploitative, no matter how you try to spin it.
Also, let’s not forget early Overwatch League drama concerning the fanbase, with WWE-style signs featuring memes such as the racist Ugandan Knuckles thing, which really doesn’t need any examination at this point. Just throwing that out there too.
I’m not really trying to condemn the Overwatch League here. I don’t have a horse in that race. I’m just observing a pattern I noticed out loud, and it’s a hell of a pattern. Is it similar to the recent drama in the Twitch and YouTube communities, with popular personalities having “heated gaming moments” and doing really stupid stuff with real-life consequences on several occasions? Perhaps it speaks to an issue of online personalities having to answer to advertising dollars and changing visibility algorithms, where constantly upping the ante and pushing boundaries is the only proven way to stay relevant and keep earning that living. Or perhaps there isn’t enough going on in the background to develop, maintain, and enforce codes of conduct. Or, maybe, we shone a spotlight and tossed tons of money at kids practically raised by the Internet, where in many spots are still very Wild West when it comes to what is socially acceptable. Either way, it’s going to be tough for some of these teams to do well in competition if they’re going to have to keep cycling people out whenever they drop a slur on a live stream.