Welcome to the bigs

A Blizzard announcement a couple of days ago caught my eye. Partial quote:

This past weekend at the Road to BlizzCon 2015 European Regional Finals in Prague, two players from two different Arena teams were disqualified on the day of the tournament. This resulted in a less-than-ideal experience for everyone involved, especially the other teams in attendance.

In both cases, the disqualified players were found to have been violating the Terms of Service of World of Warcraft. According to our Tournament Rules, players’ accounts must remain in good standing for the entirety of the 2015 WoW Arena World Championship. As these players’ accounts had been suspended, they were no longer in good standing, and thus disqualified from the tournament.

Blizz did not elaborate on the exact nature of these players’ violations, but a few usually-informed web sites indicated the players had been boosting at some point prior to the tournament. Predictably, howls of outrage went up from the perpetually-angry crowds on various forums. The main message from them seemed to be “So they cheated a little, it didn’t have anything to do with their tournament play. No fair, no fair!”

Well. Where to start? I am honestly not sure where I am going with this, but it seems to me that the big thing missing in eSports is the concept of role model, and a sense of the attendant responsibilities.

As with all professional sports, the key to success is to have an active, thriving farm system to feed the professional teams. Colleges and universities are the no-brainer choice for these farm teams. To that end, the larger eSports organizations have developed collegiate support systems to encourage eSports participation in the games each organization sponsors, and obviously to evaluate emerging stars as potential pros. Blizzard’s organization is The eSports Association (TeSPA — apparently the name was changed a couple of years ago to just eSports Association, but retains the same acronym which is not a real acronym anyway, all very confusing). Riot GAmes, the 500 pound gorilla in eSports, has the Collegiate StarLeague (CSL). These and other organizations like them encourage colleges and universities to form eSports teams for their brands. As incentives, they offer tournament equipment and infrastructure, academic scholarships, official recognition, t-shirts and other brand recognition paraphernalia, training programs, opportunities to meet developers and company executives, etc.

Now, of course, many of these blatant perks would not be allowed– at least overtly — for traditional college sports, no matter how much the pro leagues depend on them for a continuing stream of new players. But still, sports entities like the National Football League and Major League Baseball — working through the NCAA — do provide academic scholarships, sports research grants, and the like to colleges and universities. So in general, the eSports approach is not all that dissimilar from that of traditional sports groups, even if it is more direct.

There are some obvious differences, of course, the main one being that eSports does not have a single governing body either at the professional or collegiate level — nothing like the NFL or NCAA. Instead, eSports still has competing commercial companies vying for market share. And therein lie the seeds of a problem.

College players play because they have professional role models. Even if they don’t see themselves making a living out of professional sports, they aim to emulate the pros, because that’s how they define The Best. It is human nature to want to come as close as you can to being the best at whatever you do. And this is where the responsibility of professionals comes in — they have a duty, based on the privileges they have been given, to set an example to younger players in all aspects of their lives. This means they don’t skirt the rules off the field any more than they would on the field. And if they do cheat — as did the disqualified Arena players cited above — they publicly apologize for their disgraceful behavior and point out that it is absolutely not in keeping with the highest standards of the game. (Maybe these players did do that, but if so it certainly was not public enough to be picked up by any journalists or eSports outlets.)

One role of a governing body is to set standards of behavior for its players and staff, and to enforce not only the standards but also public apologies if players who violate those standards are loathe to apologize on their own. This is where fines and suspensions come in.

But in this fledgling sport, when there is competition for brand, players, audiences, and just about everything else, no one wants to be the Bad Cop or the Discipline Parent. No one sponsor wants to set standards that players might consider beyond the realm of their actual play. Because that could risk losing players and/or audience to the competition.

As a result, we have no real ethical standards in E-sports, only a pretty loosey-goosey set of game-related rules to be followed. Even the web sites for TeSLA and CSL have no public espousal of ethical standards, no lofty vision to inspire young players, only a few tournament rules and player academic eligibility requirements. Look, we all know that — almost without exception — college and professional sports are about the money. But no little kid ever came to love their sport because of the money potential — at some early point they were all inspired by a noble vision of personal challenge, or being part of a team, by that feeling of pride for a tough job well done, by representing something bigger than themselves. Lofty statements are words, and they are often ignored in favor of the bottom line, but make no mistake about it, they also sometimes truly inspire us to be better than we are.

If the eSports community and sponsors want to really go major league, then they are going to have to embrace the responsibilities as well as the huge perks. Even if they can’t agree on a single governing body, the major sponsors and teams can certainly get together and agree on some joint principles of ethical and personal behavior, they can agree to limit the kinds of endorsements players may accept, they can take some of the money they earn and invest early in things like player drug testing programs and arbitration boards. And pro players are going to have to grow up and accept their responsibilities as role models, it’s not enough to be a phenomenal mouse and keyboard acrobat.

eSports is at a crossroads — do they want to follow the pattern of professional football/basketball/baseball, or do they want to follow the pattern of professional wrestling?

Welcome to the bigs.

About Fiannor
I have a day job but escape by playing WoW. I love playing a hunter, and my Lake Wobegonian goal is to become "above average" at it.

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