League of Legends, as we’re often told, has done much to legitimise e-sports as a whole. So much so Riot don’t even like to use the term e-sports too much, preferring to use the term “sports” and continually comparing their game to mainstream pursuits such as baseball. Whatever you think about that it’s hard to argue – it has made wealthy men of streamers and professional players alike, sold out capacity crowds and has captured the attention of the mainstream media.
In tandem with this growth has come a generation of genuine League of Legends fans – lest we forget an abbreviation of the word “fanatic” – and all that entails. They love their team so much they will hand over fistfuls of cash for T-shirts and merchandise. Equally they love their team so much they may try and unduly influence a result by shouting out in a live crowd. Sometimes, because they love their team so much, they feel the opposite emotion towards those who represent rivals and will say some pretty unpalatable things as a result of this sentiment. These people can’t be pigeonholed as “the good”, “the bad” and “the ugly”. They are often all the same person.
Having read the comments of Mike "Wickd" Petersen recently about how the community has “gone in the wrong direction” I can’t help but feel some of the professionals are living out a naive sort of fantasy, one where they get to have their cake while simultaneously devouring large fistfuls of it. Petersen isn’t the first professional to comment on the pressures of community scrutiny, be it from fans or the media, yet he is arguably one of the most high profile to do so. His comments read:
I just want to express some random thoughts I've had for a while. It is an important topic for me, but I don't think it is something most people will think about.
Today, I read a tweet by sOAZ: "Gonna stay off from social media for the rest of the week. I dont think i will stream either, cya soon".
It reminded me of my state after the super week loss streak. I've seen a lot of hate lately for team losing, on reddit, on facebook or even on twitch streams, for instance, on reddit "Alliance will be the biggest disappointment this year".
This is the kind of comment that makes me want to avoid reddit, and even stop streaming, and yet I used to love hanging out with everyone, streaming, talking on reddit and so on.
We should encourage sOAZ, who is still in the team ranked first in the LCS, instead of scaring him away.
I feel that, as a community, we're going the wrong path. We stopped praising each other and we started mainly telling the bad things, often being brutal or just insulting. Preferring "the opponents were shit" over "they played extremely well".
In the past, it used to be a lot more friendly. Every pro I talked to loved browsing social media, and reading people's thoughts. This has changed. A lot.
I also loved to stream, but streaming and seeing people coming over just to insult the streamer makes it less fun to stream.
I am not saying that people should feel sorry for us, I just think that the community could be much better if this sort of behaviour stopped.
If the community as a whole tried to change for the best, I would probably like once more to stream for hours, and to take part in community talks. I know that I'm not the only one feeling this way.”
The gist of this message? Well you don’t need to be a Windtalker to read between the lines. It is essentially a ransom note – “be nice to us or maybe we’ll be around less” – and it is one that seems to completely ignore the double edged nature of being a recipient of fandom. Fan behaviour isn’t rational a lot of the time but that is something to be thankful for. It is no more rational to worship a sports personality than it is to hate them, and if we existed in a world of the rational I doubt anyone would be making a living from this at all. In short, you have to take the rough with the smooth.
Sporting professionals have had to adapt to this reality and the majority have come to realise that there is, be it rightly or wrongly, an implicit penalty for the rewards of their choices. High profile players are subject to some of the worst abuse from rival fans, an inverse mark of respect, as they try to mind-game them out of a good performance. David Beckham spent years listening to football fans across the country chant about his wife Victoria (AKA Posh Spice) and her proclivity for anal sex. I want you to think about that for a moment – your wife and mother of your children degraded via song, sexually explicit imagery tumbling from the mouths of drunken louts and it’s happening because of you. Even worse, no one is going to stop them because no rules or laws are being broken. It is considered a right of the fan to express himself at a football match within some very broad parameters.
While Beckham might not have been a shining example, for the most part he simply sat back and contented himself with the knowledge that the people singing on the terraces went back to their homes in the terraces. Already a multi-millionaire by his mid twenties, he went on to break records at club and international level, becoming a much beloved English icon even though the same adoring public literally burned effigies of him in 1998. Not once do I recall him complaining about his lot in life.
Of course, he didn’t have to contend with the social media era that we all live in now and I can sympathise with anyone expressing frustration towards what it has achieved. While it has certainly bridged the gap between players and fans, something mercilessly exploited for commercial purposes by the teams, it has also brought you closer to the poisonous and abusive elements that lurk on the periphery. Twitter and Reddit do next to nothing to protect the victims of such abuse, arguing that it’s not their rule to do so. When barraged with abuse it can be hard to keep a sense of perspective about the plus points of your chosen lifestyle.
Still, it’s rare to see a public request for a change in the behaviour from a professional athlete. The brilliantly named New York Jets Offensive Linesman Willie Colon (imagine high school for him folks) might not look like a man to be both reflective in succinct in his assessment of the situation. At six foot three inches and over three hundred pounds you might be inclined to believe he does not suffer the fools gladly. Yet he offered perhaps the most pertinent advice any sports person could receive back in a 2013 interview with the New York post.
“Follow my tweets from when that ‘I hate the Patriots’ thing came out. I had somebody say, ‘ I’d rather have colon cancer than to have Colon on my team,’ or some other guy was tweeting me horrible stuff. But that’s the world we live in. We get people who just … they take it to that level. For an athlete to have his opinion, or express how he feels, we got shot at so to speak verbally. … It’s tough. … You ignore it.”
Specifically referring to threats of violence he added:
“Sometimes sports is an avenue for these kids to kind of get their frustrations out, which is fine. Social media opened that door, and we have to be careful what we say, how we go about things, and if we do come out and say stuff, we have to be able to back it up. Sometimes fans don’t like it, and it is what it is.”
Of course, the reality here is that Petersen’s claims weren’t really levelled at the handful of lunatics that will use e-sports as a conduit for obsessive rage. In reality they are so few and far between in a horde of people simply handing over good will and money that they don’t warrant a Reddit post at all. The response was overwhelmingly supportive, people even arguing those who surmised “it’s a sport, you get paid, suck it up”. It rather feels that Petersen wanted us to enter a reality where no matter what happens the players are insulated from criticism.
The key to this is in the line “I've seen a lot of hate lately for team losing, on reddit, on facebook or even on twitch streams, for instance, on reddit "Alliance will be the biggest disappointment this year". It seems to try and lump in those earnestly assessing his team’s performances with those who would tell him to jump off a bridge for having a bad game. That’s not only not fair but it’s also incredibly delusional. Alliance have been a disappointment so far and have blown hot and cold since loopholing their way into existence. Fans are entitled to express that opinion as are the press. Such discussion is a cornerstone of what sports is about and to suggest this needs to be stifled to spare the feelings of the biggest beneficiaries seems a little self-entitled. In summary, as a player (or indeed commentator) you get the money, the status and the exposure – can you at least leave the fans the right to discuss the game in an open manner without it being branded as hate speech? Guess not.
Petersen probably doesn’t actually realise how insulated he is compared to other sports. For example, when a misplay occurs in game he doesn’t have commentators (generally people who never competed at a respectable level themselves, mostly from a journalistic background) line up to lambast them. This is a regular occurrence in mainstream sports. Miss an open goal from two yards out and you can be sure that not only will the commentator frame your embarrassing moment with a snappy soundbite, the clip will be used over and over again in end of year reviews, before being replicated for novelty DVDs sold at Christmas time. The League of Legends commentators very rarely twist the knife, all too often playing down mistakes that we should all feel secure laughing about. Even in a game that seeks to legitimise itself through over-analysis, no-one is highlighted for what they do wrong, only for what they do right.
This lack of criticism from commentators and pundits, Doublelift’s contrived trash talk notwithstanding, actually serves the opposite goal to what it hopes to achieve. It makes it feel less like the sports we know and love, more like an old boys club where the competition has the feeling of a pantomime to it all. Perhaps there will be a cultural shift soon enough but you’d have to say it is happening incredibly slowly. Even in other e-sports I can think of numerous examples where poor performances have been highlighted. During my time as a Counter-Strike colour commentator my partner and I regularly laid into players for choking or making mistakes because we understood if we tried to gloss over it the fans wouldn’t take us seriously.
I would also point out some latent hypocrisy in the sudden urge to defend his colleague from fnatic Paul "sOAZ" Boyer. Firstly it is, of course, transparently about himself and his team. While I have no doubt after a couple of defeats the fnatic player feels like putting some distance between him and the internet, I also think that the idea of people baying for the heads of fnatic players is greatly exaggerated. They remain top of the league, worlds apart from the teams at the moment and they are well liked. Alliance on the other hand have looked mostly poor, the win over fnatic excluded, and a lot of neutrals have revelled in their failings because of the people who run the organisation from the shadows. Petersen himself has been earmarked as one of those who have been holding the team back, so it is a reasonable assumption that he has felt the pressure more than most.
Secondly, there’s the fact that there is always one team who bear the brunt of the criticism each split. I haven’t seen the experienced player comment on this before and I think you can conclude that is because, mostly, his teams haven’t been this heavily criticised before. It’s new territory for him but something he should get used to as the game continues to grow.
Thirdly, he himself has engaged in the exact sort of bickering that draws divisions between fans and actually fuels the flames. Lashing out needlessly as he did at Edward "Edward" Abgaryan from Gambit Gaming is a great talking point for journalists who want to hype upcoming fixtures. Equally, it acts as encouragement for the baser element among the fans who are looking for excuses to get involved and ammunition to fire. Indeed, if he thinks criticism has been harsh now, should Alliance lose to Gambit Gaming he can probably expect more than a few jibes about it from their fans.
The reality is that for every one person who would tell a professional player to quit, or worse, there are dozens, if not hundreds, that would queue in the worst weather imaginable for hours on end just to see them play. For every Twitter hater, there are multiple autograph seekers. For every DDOS attempt there are many more stream donators. The realities of being a professional player are incredibly skewed in their favour, especially those playing now as opposed to the pioneers that made it possible who won mousemats and vouchers instead of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those same pioneers will say e-sports was more “fun” back then too, almost as if the lack of exposure and professionalism made it so. Fun’s great, it doesn’t pay the bills and those now retired e-sports veterans, probably humping soul-destroying office jobs, will look in at what League players are enjoying with envy, no matter how good a time they had.
Perhaps he too would spare a thought for those of us in the industry that receive none of the benefits and all of the downsides. I could happily tell him a thing or two about the nature of how far people will go on the internet to make you feel miserable and I don’t have a fraction of the money he’s made for doing my job. Still, I’d not swap places with the people who feel the urge to do that, nor would I ever seek to remove the right to comment from the balances and rational people who have an opinion to my work. They are as entitled to their as I am to mine and what a wonderful industry it is when that is tacitly respected.
Sports is a much richer place with discussions about which athletes are superior, which teams would win and what we’d do differently to coaches and managers. That wealth of debate generates both money and passion. In the world Petersen wants to live in there’d be no articles like this one. And, if I do say so myself, that’d be a damn shame.