Are Esports Professionals Role Models?
“I'm not a role model... Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids.” - Charles Barkley, former professional basketball player
SK Gaming’s Counter Strike team, currently the reigning major champion and undisputed best in the world, lost a 2-0 series this week which featured an embarrassing 16-0 loss on Dust 2 to Renegades in their ESL Pro League games. Marcelo "Coldzera" David, widely regarded as being a top two player in the world, tweeted out a complaint about his standing in teammate Gustavo "Showtime" Gonçalves, currently filling in for the team while Fernando "Fer" Alvarenga undergoes assorted surgeries. Coldzera also aggressively responded to a tweet from a random fan, who in a low-quality cellphone video jokingly implied that Coldzera was wall hacking. Coldzera would go on to deactivate his Twitter shortly after these posts, and has received varying degrees of criticism from figures around the community. Some are upset about his choice of words in responding to the young troll’s tweet, saying that he sets a bad example for his many fans and reflects poorly on the SK organization. Erik "Da Bears" Stromberg commented on Coldzera’s behavior during the broadcast for the ESL Pro League, calling his actions childish and disappointing from someone so visible in the Counter Strike community. Others are more sympathetic to the Brazilian star, arguing that English is not Coldzera’s first language (meaning he would not understand the complete meaning associated with the words he chose), and that the poor results of the recent match tilted him to tweet something he might regret. Prominent Counter Strike analyst Duncan "Thorin" Shields argued that Coldzera did not understand the implications of his statement, and was more understanding of the stress that affects players after an embarrassing defeat. Regardless of who is right, this incident reflects a growing discussion on how esports professionals should present themselves to the general public, whether in the interests of their sponsor, their potentially young fans, or their own self image and brand.
Coldzera’s case is one of many in which esports professionals, upset with their own performances in pro play, annoyed by random teammates in solo queue, or fed up with underperformance by teammates have taken to some form of social media to air their grievances however they might see fit. As the advent of the information age has shown, however, these regretted outbursts and decisions on Twitter, Twitch, or Reddit are saved and remembered forever. Ranging from Joshua "Dardoch" Harnett raging at a player on stream, Joseph "Mang0" Marquez's infamous answer to Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma on his AMA, or Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen's offensive username during the Season 4 World Championships, these types of incidents are etched by many viewers into their judgement of that player forever. In gaming especially, this can be a major problem for players whose personality and personal brand might be marketable; if viewers think you are a racist, a prick, or even overly sensitive (the opposite), they will likely turn off your stream, unsubscribe from your YouTube or unfollow you on Twitter. Moreover, teams and sponsors might be more hesitant to sign someone who might become a PR problem, potentially hurting their careers and future professional prospects. Simply because of the assorted ways esports personas expand their brand and produce content that do not include actually playing the game professionally (YouTube, their stream, social media, etc.), the eyes of the community are seemingly always watching even personal moments. Oddly enough, this gives esports athletes a certain closeness to their fans, as if when they stream, you might be hanging out with a friend. Thus, there is a sense that, in the interest of their personal image, sponsors, and idolizing viewers, they conform their actions and statements to a marketable brand. Occassionaly, the intended brand could be of infamous streamer "Tyler1," who attracted fans desiring an uncensored coarseness to the commentary of their gameplay, in which case he has a certain right to appeal to his fan base in the interest of his bank account.
The question remains, if, because of this hyper exposure, players should behave like role models for their fans. This is ignoring other motivations to behave, like sponsorships, team obligations, or their wallets: simply, should Coldzera act like a role model because of the kids in Brazil who watch and copy everything their favorite Counter Strike player does? For someone like Coldzera especially, who does not have a particularly large stream nor is particularly outspoken on social media all the time, each insight into the personality of Marcelo David might carry greater weight. In traditional sports, this question of being a model celebrity has been a constant and ongoing discussion, as fans idolize and obsess over their favorite players and even go so far as to write off their misconduct or wrongdoing simply because of their skills and athleticism. While this has nothing to do with their performance or their discipline, it presents a problem of the blurring between two distinct worlds: the world of the game and that of real life. However in esports, because of the proverbial magnifying glass held to a pro’s life, there is less distance between, say, Mang0 the player and Joseph Marquez the person. We, as viewers, are allowed to see into a player like Mang0’s life and personality because of his stream and social media. This can have positive or negative effects for these players: whereas a fan may root for Mang0 because they like his personality, one might root against Oleksander "S1mple" Kosyliev because they think of him as toxic. Few can say the same for a professional athlete like LeBron James, who, while having social media presence, never streams hours of himself talking about his life, feelings, or even basketball. Sometimes, there are traditional sports athletes that do garner fan hatred from their actions or social media posts, but streaming adds a greater level of personal exposure to esports that traditional athletes do not suffer from. But does this exposure even make a difference? Are esports athletes, just because of the nature of the industry, suddenly expected to heed the call of society to become a shining example of a model human? That obviously seems like an unfair burden to place on a young and emotional esports professional already faced with the stress of competition.
No matter the degree to which one thinks esports professionals should act as role models, their actions and lives are under constant surveillance and judgement from their respective communities. In all likelihood, searching for an exemplary person to emulate in a professional first-person shooter or MOBA scene reflects somewhat questionable judgement. Nonetheless, the closeness of esports fans to their favorite players often muddies the waters that distinguish their personal lives from their professional careers. Whether this is just a function of the information age and social media in general or of esports specifically, professional players’ lives and careers are increasingly intertwined as external community pressures continue to grow.