I really enjoyed this article from GamesIndustry.biz on the challenges that a toxic culture poses to esports as they try to go mainstream. It takes the scene seriously by treating its problems honestly, and now that we’re past the question of whether or not esports will have a future, I’m glad we can start to ask more thought-provoking questions about just what that future will look like.
But I worry that the question of what audiences will tolerate from their entertainment is more complicated than presented here.
The argument in the piece is that, ultimately, morals follow money. If esports want to achieve mainstream acceptance, they’ll inevitably have to curb the fringes of their cultures that perpetuate “constant rape jokes, homophobic slurs and racist abuse” or risk losing the greater viewing public.
I want to hope that’s true in the long run, but I’m not sure mass audiences are that simple in behavior and choices. Gaming itself still wrestles with issues like race, gender, sexuality, civility, and more. Professional and college sports have been and remain rife with stories of domestic abuse, sexual assault, cover-ups, and corruption, among others. Twitter has faced persistent criticism for not doing enough to combat and prevent harassment and abuse from its worst users. But all of these mediums are still incredibly popular. In so many instances, a backlash against supporting problematic forms of entertainment or products rarely seems to materialize.
I don’t fully know how to reconcile that. It’s not that I think the public doesn’t care about these things. But I do worry there’s a base level of awfulness we are, collectively, willing to accept – or at least ignore – in the cultures surrounding the products, entertainment, and groups we like and feel a part of, especially when it’s less visible, minority members who suffer overwhelmingly from them. Being an informed consumer is a lot of work – staying knowledgeable about the issues facing the products you buy, food you eat, media you watch, and more requires time and effort that most people can’t be expected to maintain. Yes, there are instances where abuse becomes so egregious that the general public can’t ignore them anymore and collective action shifts into gear, and in those instances, money can indeed be an effective motivation for good. Those are sadly too often exceptions, however, not the rule.
But it’s because of that that I agree all the more that it’s important to be active in pushing for positive change now, as the rules and institutions that will define the next generation of esports are being made. That means pushing for more effective moderation systems, as well as greater diversity and representation in audiences, competitors, and on-screen talent. It means identifying, isolating, and taking visible action against offenders, but also building a support structure in which victims are protected from feeling isolated or invisible. A more mature community – whether it’s esports, traditional sports, gaming, social media, or otherwise – is one in which those things are valued because they make the product and the culture better – and not just because the bottom line is at stake.