Trash talking in sports is an art-form. Really. When used correctly it’s a psychological weapon, a way to get under your opponent’s skin and force them to apportion parts of their mental reserves to thinking about what you said. It can amplify the fear of losing and the subsequent ridicule an opponent will receive or it can make the person so irate that they completely forego the game plan to try and exact some form of revenge. I understand the mechanics of it all too well. In my youth I was known to talk shit on the rugby pitch, trying to bait players bigger and better than me to focus their attention on my mouth rather than the ball. Many a black eye or bust nose came my way and I took them all with a smile. After all, if you’re in the sin-bin for attacking me, you’re not on the field tackling someone and your absence might just be the edge bumbling amateurs like me need to get ahead. And every time it didn’t work, when better players held their discipline and applied their superior skills, I could only admire them and respect their mental fortitude. The best would never gloat in victory. They understood it was all in the game.
Of course at the other end of the spectrum there’s those very clear moments when trash-talking your opponent goes too far and actually becomes something that will leave you looking like a fool. The recent antics of Conor McGregor during the promotion for his fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov spring immediately to mind. Going beyond the usual denigrations that come with combat sports, McGregor unreasonably attacked key components of his opponent’s identity. Calling him a “mad backwards cunt” for declining his offer of an alcoholic drink, implying cowardice and “rat” like qualities over his Dagestani nationality and even verbally attacking his opponent’s father–it felt like it went far beyond trying to sell the fight. In retrospect, it should be clear to everyone what McGregor was attempting to do. He wanted to whip Khabib into a blind fury, so angry that he tried to fight and beat McGregor on his own terms. Anyone who knows anything about MMA knew that the puncher’s chance was McGregor’s only shot at victory.
Instead of throwing his opponent off, the nature of the insults had a galvanizing effect on Nurmagomedov. No longer fighting for a belt, he was fighting for his family, his religion, his nation’s pride and, above all, he wanted to beat some respect into someone he felt had absolutely gone too far. And that is what he did. The mauling he gave McGregor was as one-sided a title fight as you’ll see outside of a flash knockout. The audio of Khabib pounding his opponent saying “let’s talk now” and McGregor even apologizing in the octagon saying “it’s just business” have done more to erode the McGregor mythology than a defeat alone could. He was humiliated and may sports fans who watched, including self-professed McGregor supporters like myself, could only applaud Khabib prior to his explosive overreaction that sullied a fine victory. In the end McGregor’s over-the-top verbal sparring only served to make him look like a fool when he lost and any future words will sound hollow. His next opponent, whoever it might be, will feel all the more confident having seen that the Irish man can no longer make his bold claims a reality.
In esports things are a little different. There are no rules that apply evenly across the different games. In the sterile, South-Korean dominated Starcraft not typing “GG” at the end of the game could generate a controversy, a climate that saw some of its greatest personalities wrongly maligned until the game started its spiral out of being a top-tier esport. In League of Legends, everything is scripted, safe, played for the PG-13 audience that it always wanted to cultivate. In Overwatch. Well, the developers opened the door to some of the most easily offended the internet has to offer and entire careers can be ended over the matter of “bad taste.” At the other extreme, I am sure we’ve all seen the embarrassing videos of Call of Duty pros endlessly shouting about how their opponents are ugly, fat virgins every time they get a kill, spit flying out of their mouths as their Adderall fueled jaws zip from side to side.
At the other extreme, I am sure we’ve all seen the embarrassing videos of Call of Duty pros endlessly shouting about how their opponents are ugly, fat virgins every time they get a kill, spit flying out of their mouths as their Adderall fueled jaws zip from side to side.
So as you can see good trash-talking is about limits and equilibrium, one that the FGC and Counter-Strike seem to have mastered where other games fall into the extremes. The glory days of Counter-Strike will always stay with me, images of the best players in the world stood just meters from their opponents, celebrating in their faces, the mockery and derision worming its way through their headsets and into their brains. Iconic moments like, “What up now Swedes!” that transcend the competition. It’s mostly gone now as we move to big stages and stadiums, people demanding sound-proof booths and other barriers to spectacle. Yet there is still some room for it and certainly with social media the psychological warfare can now start days before you meet on the server.
Thankfully in CS we have a community that is, for the most part, mature enough to not demand someone’s head every time some trash-talk occurs. We tend to shut down the overly sensitive who whine about “toxicity” without even being able to quantify what it is. And we’ve produced a fine line of good trash-talkers down the years, people who knew when to dish it out and also when to switch gears to being humble. Wiktor “TaZ” Wojtas, Jesper “JW” Wecksell, Peter “dupreeh” Rasmussen. All of these pros, as well as many others, know the power of a good game-related insult but also always show respect when the game is over. We even have players content to be cartoon-like villains. Kristian “k0nfig” Wienecke has certainly crossed a line or two but mostly gets away with it thanks to his cheeky, little face. Aleksandr “s1mple” Kostylev ran his mouth consistently for years, taking on all-comers regardless of who they were. Now he is reformed and has become, if anything, too nice. Still, his outrageous comments always added a flavor to the matches he would play. You knew exactly who he liked and disliked across the professional circuit.
All of this preamble was basically to get to one of the scene’s emerging talents, Owen “smooya” Butterfield currently of German based BiG. After spending most of his developing years playing in the equivalent of the bush leagues (where else would UK talent be in Counter-Strike these days) he had achieved notoriety for being quite the shit-talker. There were mitigating circumstances. First, the UK is a hotbed of such behaviour, everyone focused more on settling personal scores than personal development, a fervent belief that if you try too hard to win there is something wrong with you. Second, he was forged in the crucible of some concerning but ultimately unsubstantiated cheating allegations that had certainly left him sore and sensitive when it came to the matter of proving himself.
Still, even then there were things he did in this regard that personally left people confused as to what purpose they served. He inadvertently sparked a match-fixing investigation by jokingly asking Reason Gaming management if they intended to lose a game in the ESL Premiership, which was recorded and released publicly. When the team was suspended from the league and an investigation started by ESIC he ignored requests to keep the matter internal by tweeting about it and saying that the investigation was wrong.
Then came his time with Epsilon. Bought from Endpoint for $10,000 he became the most expensive UK player in CS:GO history. This proved to be a great move for the player, with the line-up excelling in domestic competition winning the first season of the Gfinity Elite Series and Butterfield shone as the star player despite being alongside 1.6 veterans like André “BARBARR” Möller. What should have been the start of something great quickly soured, rumors that he was a difficult teammate circulating as well as he all too quickly wanting to exert his newly found star status by changing the roster to his liking caused conflict with him and the organisation. He found himself benched, a decision he didn’t seem to be able to comprehend, and then quickly took to Twitter to talk about how troubling his contract was. It contained a clause that meant his salary would take a significant hit if he wasn’t in the starting line-up. He also complained about his buyout being an egregious six-figures, a sum that Epsilon publicly denied was even close to the truth.
Benched in September, amid all the negative publicity the contract issues had brought and with people not wanting to pay a buyout eventually Owen got what he wanted anyway. Back in the starting line-up by December with the roster he wanted, the assumption by many was that this was a peacemaking gesture on behalf of the management. Even so, it was clear he had his eye on bigger things and despite having said at its inception he wanted the line-up to be long-term just a few months later he leaked on stream, again fallaciously, that he was frustrated that BiG had a $40,000 offer declined by Epsilon. In the end, he got the move he had wanted for some time and went on to excel in a team marshaled by one of the great in-game leaders.
All of this shows he had a propensity for airing dirty laundry at any given opportunity, no matter whose it was, which is what earned him the unenviable nickname “The Ratking.” That and the fact he was occasionally known to leak IP addresses, which could cause problems for the people playing the matches. Not that any hate that came his way, even from fellow professionals, ever seemed to bother him and his complete lack of filter made him a compelling professional player to follow on Twitter, even if you weren’t a BiG fan. Keeping up with every insult and jab he has thrown out is impossible not just because of their volume but because he has deleted more tweets than he has deleted people from the server when he plays.
Because of this the fans have inarguabley given him leeway they wouldn’t afford others. Ryan “Freakazoid” Abadir was famously hounded by the fans for telling the afore mentioned shit-talker extraordinaire s1mple to “get a tan.” Cloud9 had to publicly state they were sending the player, known for his positivity, to a “bullying seminar.” By contrast the same people didn’t bat an eyelid when Butterfield said he would happily “punch the teeth in” of someone flaming him in another language, especially if they looked like Danish pro Kristian “k0nfig” Wienecke.
The key to that forgiveness is twofold. First, as you saw in Abadir’s situation, if you play for a top tier organisation and people think you don’t deserve it they will use any excuse to try to take it away from you. No one I spoke to believed Abadir had gone too far or even done anything particularly wrong and yet the social media mob was allowed to steer that situation to its laughable conclusion. Butterfield is very much an underdog and a talented one at that. And that ties into the second reason for such forgiveness. Talent will always mean there are people willing to make excuses for your transgressions but this is especially the case if they feel you don’t have too far to fall. Make no mistake though, the phenomenon of fans building you to tear you down, especially if you don’t constantly pander to them, is very real and social media has only made it worse, the delusional now believing they have permanent access to you.
Safe to say Buttefield has had a lot of excuses made for him because he was getting it done as a player and honestly, it wasn’t all bad. That miracle run BiG had after being invited to ESL One Cologne saw him constantly talk trash to his opponents, threatening to beat them, or “bang them” as he put it and for the most part they did. Losing in the final wasn’t just respectable, it was an incredible achievement for a team people had complained about being invited in the first place. That form, and with it the trash-talk, carried over to the London Major, BiG making it to the final eight before being manhandled by Na’Vi. The team played like they were scared, looking like a shadow of themselves. All the previous bravado seemed hollow but still the community were forgiving, a big part of this being his burgeoning bromance with Kostylev who started a “Smooya” chant with the crowd after Na’Vi won the title. Despite all this yet again rumors began to circulate that Butterfield would be out the team soon.
The next controversy would see less sympathy proffered from the fans. In an elimination series against Mousesports at StarSeries Season 6 he managed to irritate his opponents in what certainly could have been construed as a deliberate tactic. After Mouz had shown sportsmanship after Butterfield had supposedly disconnected from the server during a pistol round that the international line-up had won. Having seemingly taken place after damage had been sustained the team was under no obligation to agree to replay the round but did anyway. After agreeing to the replay anyway by Round 4 Butterfield again demanded a restart because he had mistakenly bought an autosniper. BiG paused the game despite their being no rules that allow for this and needless to say this triggered the mousesports players, especially Chris “chrisJ” de Jong who was furious with the request. A close game ensued with Smooya screeching repeatedly when his team won key rounds. He did it one more time for good measure as they won and Mousesports felt utterly disrespected, de Jong publicly stating as much immediately after the game. Even Butterfield’s mother tried to defuse the situation saying that her son had always screamed like that. Here there is no doubt that the British player had gone beyond trash-talking, moving into the obnoxious as he treated each sporting gesture from his opponents with disdain. The subsequent interview trying to talk up a rivalry was tone deaf. The trash-talking novelty was starting to wear off.
Which is a shame ultimately. It takes a respectable fearlessness to continually risk ridicule as you constantly belittle your opponents because it has a tendency to backfire spectacularly when you lose. Not to mention, if you do it for every opponent, for every game, for every situation you encounter, it just becomes dull, part of your schtick. What should add spice instead makes everything bland. Clearly Butterfield doesn’t understand the balancing act yet and it’s not clear if it something he’s going to learn without a hard knocks. Even as of today he has yet again tweeted out that he may be leaving the team or getting kicked, then deleted the tweet and then put something more cryptic in its place. Fans are getting tired of it. It speaks to a level of narcissism and selfishness that most teenagers grow out of.
If mastered Smooya could be the player people love to hate, a heel in a land of babyfaces, a fine mantle to wear if you want constant attention and the rewards such attention brings. Unfortunately it seems that, like many sports personalities before him, he’s unaware of the fortuitous nature of the position he’s in. He’s no Conor McGregor yet, that’s for sure, and should he find himself in free agency, having only a couple of decent tournament runs to his name, he might find out the hard way that actually few people want to play alongside someone with his baggage. Sometimes you have to follow the lead of The Wildhearts… “Shut your fucking mouth and use your fucking brain.”