Esports: An Industry in Desperate Need of Professionalism; Part One: Social Media
Look, I’m not by any means a sensationalist-type writer, nor am I proud of the “clickbait-y” nature of this article’s title (it is certainly clickbait-y, but only just). However, I think there is a conversation that needs to take place regarding how to improve the professional atmosphere of the esports scene. Perhaps the title reads a bit extreme, but I would encourage anyone active in the esports industry to prove me wrong.
Until we have a culture where the “norm” is both professional and mature, the esports market will always remain a second-tier entertainment industry.
First, I acknowledge those bastions of professionalism and maturity that do exist in the realm of esports: the organizations that go above and beyond in promoting esports in general, the companies who bring their corporate culture to bear on otherwise immature organizations, and the individuals who have fully grasped what it means to promote a personal brand and to do so with a level of self-awareness and care.
Those people, unfortunately, make up a minority of what we consider esports. Therein lies the problem: Until we have a culture where the “norm” is both professional and mature, the esports market will always remain a second-tier entertainment industry. Let me be clear. I am a volunteer in this world of esports, giving my time and effort to help build it from within, so my criticism of the industry is by no means a condemnation, but an impassioned plea in the hopes that we might start intentionally building toward a more professional end. Hopefully, as a result, the scene can gain legitimacy, mainstream attention, additional corporate support and involvement, and truly operate at the same level as, say, the professional sports and entertainment industries.
Let me provide a bit about me, as I’m sure you might be wondering “who the hell is this guy?” In the esports world, I am an ex-semi-pro player who now serves as the Chief Brand Officer for Team eLevate. Outside of that sphere, I am an academic; a researcher in the education world, with a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership. My focus is on the intersect between people and technology. Amazing how gaming fits within that sphere.
I honestly think there is an even brighter future in store for esports if its members can collectively build upon what is already there.
At any rate, I entered the esports world first as a writer, later, an editor-in-chief, and finally, as a C-suite member of a fairly prominent esports organization. I’m sure luck had a lot to do with it, yet at the same time, I’m also aware that my maturity, intentionality, and educational upbringing centered on how organizations operate also contributed. While I’m still shocked at the journey I had over the past couple years that led me to this position, I am hopeful that I can use it to effect some change in the esports world, namely about the professional way in which we operate.
As a gamer in my mid-30s, I’m afraid my position may come across as complaining about the “good old days” but I honestly think there is an even brighter future in store for esports if its members can collectively build upon what is already there. But, on to the practical applications. Let’s start with social media.
Social Media: Wherein We Find the Best and Worst in People
This is a topic on which I have literally written a dissertation. The historic creation of social media, particularly social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, has created a new culture of communication and sharing far above and beyond anything in the past. In mere milliseconds, individuals can share their deepest thoughts, reactions, updates on immediate events, and pretty much anything else you can think of (or care not to). This has made sites like Twitter the place where some of the best and worst moments happen daily. One needs not look any further than today’s political discourse to see how easy it is for individuals to spout exceedingly divisive and extreme negative language; on the same token, social media has been the engine for revolutions around the world, a means to spread information and to connect individuals across oceans. As a tool, a website like Twitter has so much promise and upside that it is perceivably worth the downside.
That downside is also incredibly dangerous to an industry like esports, much like it is to most consumer and fan-based markets. I could likely write dozens of pages documenting the various events in esports that have been perpetuated or exacerbated by social media: “Gamergate,” CS:GO match fixing and the recent betting scandals, doping at LANs, not to mention the ever-prevalent #RosterMania drama that occurs between most games’ professional seasons and in many games’ mid-seasons. Social media truly brings out a lot of drama that would otherwise have been fairly low-key. Players may make a quick statement on their Twitter page, which gets amplified and repeated by fans and followers, and it quickly becomes “a thing.” (You know what I’m talking about.)
We are far too comfortable sharing every minor detail, thought, and reaction on social media such that we, at best, intensify what should otherwise be an immaterial concern or disagreement, or at worst, are misinterpreted as having far worse thoughts and have our emotional intent rocketed far into the stratosphere, where we never intended our comments to go.
Does that hurt esports? Perhaps not much. Yet, I would argue that this is one of the areas in which an intentional communication and public relations mindset would not only assuage some of the manufactured and intensified drama, but also help build esports’ legitimacy on a global scale.
My diagnosis is this: We are far too comfortable sharing every minor detail, thought, and reaction on social media such that we, at best, intensify what should otherwise be an immaterial concern or disagreement, or at worst, are misinterpreted as having far worse thoughts and have our emotional intent rocketed far into the stratosphere, where we never intended our comments to go.
I know the following is going to sound heavily prescriptive, so I apologize for sounding so absolute. However, I firmly believe that the activities and behavior I recommend would need to occur for at least a majority of organizations and individuals in the upper, most-viewed tiers of professional esports in order for us to achieve the growth and legitimacy that our numbers and following would lead us to believe we deserve. I do not expect the entirety of esports, even a majority of the scene at-large, to heed this call; rather, I understand the limitations of an openly public discourse created by social media and implore those in high standing to use their profile to perpetuate the positives.
It is hard to boil down an entire competitive scene that includes hundreds of games, thousands of events, and an ever-growing number of organizations, but it is also important to lay out a brief context so that my following points are well-situated. So, here goes:
Love it, hate it, however you feel, to many of the companies that invest, the esports scene amounts to little more than a marketing bloc, an audience, a customer base. In order to move the scene forward and continue to grow, the members of and movers in that target population must prove they represent minimal risk and are a sound investment for often highly-wary companies.
Without sponsors, the esports scene would not amount to much. Companies provide equipment, money, marketing, human resources, and so on, all for the chance to have their brand name reach your eyes and convince you that brand represents quality and a smart purchase. They often provide the lion’s share of tournament purses, which draw together the best players who can, in turn, provide high-quality entertainment to the viewers. The whole machinery of esports operates on a foundation of sponsors.
We need to prove to the sponsors that our market is worth the investment.
Now, do not get me wrong. For the most part, these sponsors are headed or staffed by individuals heavily involved in video gaming, and so it is a natural development for the company to support events that appeal to their personal interests. In addition, these companies truly do provide great services, products, and so on to us, the consumers. But if there was nothing to be gained out of the massive influx of resources needed to build up the scene, most companies would close up shop and find greener pastures.
We NEED to be those green pastures. We need to prove to the sponsors that our market is worth the investment. No, I’m not recommending that you immediately go out and buy up every piece of equipment made by Razer (but if you feel so inclined, use this shameless link. I’m calling every available individual, organization, or company interested in maximizing the growth and potential of the esports market to find a way to intentionally and steadfastly improve the collective professionalism and perceived maturity of the scene.
Advice for Organizations
Your team social media account is never the place to be generating drama. Look, I completely get it. At eLevate, we have had matches finish with questionable outcomes either due to seemingly disputable actions on behalf of the opposing team or networking issues, where our entire staff is crying foul and demanding restitution. Does that merit a public outcry via the organizational Twitter page? I would argue not, and I will do my best to explain why here.
Your first step in determining whether to say something of that magnitude on your team’s account is to ask yourself “What is this action intended to accomplish?” If what you want is a reversal of a match outcome, you are going about it all wrong. Every team knows there is likely a procedure in place to argue a match or ask for a rematch, but I guarantee you that a match organizer’s rules will not say anything to the tune of “If you disagree or have an issue with how a match proceeded, make sure to say it on your Twitter account so we can see what the public Twittersphere has to say about it.” Instead, you are just venting frustration, but doing so on your very public, hopefully professional, account page.
A valid second question ought to be “How will this be perceived, by my fans, fans of other teams, and the general esports community?” It is likely you will have unflinching support from your own fans, so that should not be the priority. What about fans of other teams? Will you just be perceived as “whining” about an outcome? Probably more so by taking it to Twitter than if you go through the prescribed channels to voice your concern. Will sponsors look highly on you for posting a very public opposition? Probably not. At best, they will just shrug and move on or ignore the comment, but you can also be damaging your own standing among your sponsors and other potential sponsors. All of this does not even include what happens if your messaging is misinterpreted. If your frustration is instead interpreted as anger or antagonism, you could have a crisis on your hands. There is no best-case scenario in using your public account that gives you the resolution you seek without damage, and many worst-case scenarios in which you lose something. Weigh those two sides before making the post.
I think it is imperative for organizations to be vigilant to stifle the rampant negative atmosphere often perpetuated by their fans.
Is there a time in which using your organization’s Twitter account makes sense? Absolutely. But that time requires you to be highly intentional in your messaging, mature and professional in demeanor, and to avoid direct conflict with other individuals or organizations, rather address policies, procedures, or specific incidents. If there is a systemic problem with a tournament organizer, or a repeated issue that ought to be addressed publicly for the sake of informing and galvanizing Twitter followers, then by all means, use the account. This, however, should not be the norm in typical disagreements, and I unfortunately see it happening far too often on even some of the most widely-recognized organizations’ pages. Not only does that set a bad example to up-and-coming organizations on how these groups ought to behave, but it limits the legitimacy and respect that the esports community could be enjoying.
Furthermore, I think it is imperative for organizations to be vigilant to stifle the rampant (yes, I said “rampant”) negative atmosphere often perpetuated by their fans. I’m sure you will immediately think of one or two choice organizations that are well-known for their passionate and often overwhelmingly harsh fans, but there are at least a few of these types of fans for all organizations, large and small (present org included). It is one thing to be highly supportive of your team, but it is entirely another to lash out at someone who prefers another team, especially to the point of using racial epithets, derogatory language, and physical threats.
While the organizations cannot be directly blamed for this type of communication happening, the onus remains firmly with the organization to make actual and explicit efforts to keep it minimized. Only then can we start to change expectations. When organizations allow it to happen without responding, fans are emboldened to continue the attacks. When fans are publicly confronted for going “too far,” it immediately signals to the broader community that such behavior should not be tolerated. This is not about being “PC” or responding to any complaints of hyper-sensitivity; it is building the scene toward one of expected maturity that will keep sponsors confident that the market is a worthwhile investment and that there is high potential for growth and continued returns.
Advice for Individuals
I do not care if you have 20 followers or 20,000. Your Twitter page has become your personal brand, whether you like it or not. When you use it to engage with the esports community, especially as a representative of an organization, you have become a participant in the scene.
However, my advice for individuals is far less prescriptive than it is for organizations, because, to be perfectly frank, what you do to your own personal brand and reputation is your own business. I can still share what I think are “best practices” for behaving in an online space that is rife with drama, conflict, and an overabundance of trolls. In the end, following this advice will likely keep you above the noise and conflict, and allow you to intentionally create your own brand, professionalism, maturity, and as a result, find yourself building up the scenes you care the most about.
Remember that you are representing something bigger than yourself when you post.
Much like the advice for organizations, I think you should always be considering the same questions an organization does before identifying individuals or organizations for their faults. Perhaps this is less of a requirement, as there is an implicit understanding that your posts on your personal Twitter are your own, but at the same time, your connection to an organization combined with any legitimate issues you manufacture can make your organization more likely to sever ties with you. I seriously mean that. I know personally that eLevate has had real conversations and had to make tough decisions regarding relationships with staff over what may be perceived as “minor tiffs” in the grand scheme of things.
The truth is that organizations have to be protective of their own brands. Look at any major issues that come up in social media for large corporations. Just by association with companies, employees have been fired, fined, even sued or jailed as a result of their behaviors on Twitter. Remember that you are representing something bigger than yourself when you post. I cannot tell you how many times I have just deleted the start of a tweet, knowing full well that it would accomplish nothing and really just put me in a worse situation. It might feel good to air your dirty laundry, but 140 characters gives you little chance to be complete and respectful, and allows the world to misinterpret everything you say. Have an issue? Go talk to the person with whom you disagree. Be the bigger person.
^ See that? That is a larger life lesson too.
The fact is, the drama that exists in the esports world is much of our own creation. It really is not surprising either. No offense to the audience reading this, but seeing as much of the scene consists of teens, tweens, and those in their early-20s, immaturity tends to be a fitting definition of esports as a consumer-, customer-, and fan-base. It is really the perpetuation of the drama that makes the scene appear as problematic as it does; when individuals and organizations continue to operate as if immaturity is the rule rather than the exception, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Resist the urge to RT hateful and loaded comments. Avoid confrontation that does nothing to improve the scene. Resist the urge to galvanize the manufactured drama perpetuated by individuals who are only seeking personal gain through their actions. Strive to make the esports world as great as it can be.
It will not be easy, but I promise you it will be worth it.
Stay tuned for Part Two, where I address the need for professionalism of staff within and between organizations.