Today is the day I find myself back in action as a columnist. Even though it has been a while it is all too familiar territory. The old reflexes are still there… The grim foreboding that once again I will have to explain what an opinion piece is to an unyielding flock of morons who cannot made to understand the fundamentals of journalism. The questions, such as “is it too early for whiskey” and “what is the point anyway” are already not far from my mind’s lips. And yet what fuels it is the knowledge that brings a perverse joy, that these words will be read, and read by new and old alike, and some hearts will be won and some enraged. And it will be mostly the latter today because I’ll be writing about Overwatch, a foolish mistake for my first time out for whichever publication has bought this. There will be no traffic, no praise… They will think they made a grave error of judgement in paying me the exorbitant amount of money they agreed. They may be right. By having few positive things to say about the Overwatch League it is the natural instinct of its cardboard fans to reject everything I say. And yet they must understand why I would say those things. Why, to someone like me, it would be worthy of mockery and derision.
It is a “diet” esport, designed for both a younger audience and people who have never been interested in esports before. Think of Blizzard as the carnival folk you might have seen drumming up trade outside of grubby tents, using their articulate sales patois to draw the attention of passersby, enticing them inside with promises of a once in a lifetime experience before subjecting them to the shabby and mundane. “Step right up folks… Come hither and behold a gaming lore more diverse than any before” they shout “and enter a world where everyone is a winner and toxicity is a thing of the past. Oh you won’t care about balance or the tepid, repetitive gameplay, oh no… Only two bucks a head and be sure to pick up a lootbox or two on the way out.”
It’s a grift and I can respect it as such. While the game will never appeal to me as a playing or viewing experience, it will be for many newcomers to our industry the first thing they see and perhaps it will serve the net positive of being a gateway that leads to a love of harder esports. I have seen it said on social media that since as I have little positive to say about the Overwatch League I should say nothing at all and yet the league is impossible to ignore. Every week it throws up a drama that is unique to it in particular… The confiscation of signs with frogs on them, suspending players for using Twitch approved emotes that are supposedly racist, suspending consumers from their official forums for implying the balance team might not be up to snuff… It’s an endless stream of unintentional hilarity, which only becomes less funny if you take the time to look at just how much control they exert over the professional players. You could be forgiven for not doing that… After all, Blizzard deliberately didn’t release the rules so they could have a season or two “getting their house in order,” which of course means getting as close to it being a hermetically sealed, scripted, esports experience designed to make investors money as possible.
Because of this I actually welcome the laughable moments that underline the league’s amateurish foundations. It’s a lot more interesting to talk about than the fortunes of a bunch of newly created brands with no history or presence outside the Overwatch bubble. And so, with three paragraphs designed to drive away the militant fans of the league, my gift to them being that they can now type “I stopped reading at…” and feel intellectual, let’s talk about the latest embarrassment.
Following public allegations and a subsequent internal investigation by Blizzard South Korean Dallas Fuel player Min-seok “OGE” Son was found guilty of boosting accounts. For those who don’t know this is the practice of logging on to other players accounts and then using skills superior to the account owner’s to boost it into a skill-bracket where that player does not belong in exchange for money. Human nature’s greatest flaw – a steadfast belief that we are all more important, more significant and more skilled at things than we actually are – has meant there will always be a market for this in any game with a ranking system. The person who pays thinks that once they get away from the terrible teammates holding them back they will actually hold their own among the better players. What they find instead is that every multiplayer skill bracket has the same issues in regards to teamwork, only now they are so behind the pace as an individual that they more often than not are the reason their team loses. The account falls, the customer learns a lesson and the booster moves on to the next account.
This practice disrupts ranked play and developers spend a lot of time trying to clamp down on it. Most players agree that it is a bad thing and yet few think about the broader context. Boosting is slow, tedious, unrewarding work that certainly doesn’t reflect great value in terms of time expended to money earned. Generally it is the preserve of players who are either unable to secure full-time professional contracts at the time, or are significantly underpaid to such a degree that boosting serves the dual purpose of some vague type of practice while supplementing income. There are exceptions to this of course… In League of Legends South Korean player Jeong “Apdo” Sang-gil was so talented he could boost accounts at a phenomenally fast rate to the highest ranks and therefore made vast sums of money. His unrepentant nature made Riot Games hit him with a symbolic 1000-year ban on his main account and a two-year ban from professional play. I doubt he lost any sleep over that. Winning worlds wouldn’t have earned him what he could make on the boosting circuit.
He is by no means typical, but League of Legends should show you just how common professional players with boosting in their history actually are. Some of the most high-profile players have done it… William “Meteos” Hartman, Zaqueri “Aphromoo” Black, Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim, Kim “Trick” Gang-yun… There’s plenty and all have been hit with the same penalty. A fine, a suspension and the tacitly made threat that if they get caught again they’ll be managed out of the only place they can ply their trade professionally. Developers who run leagues have a lot of leverage of the pro players who boost. In this regards Blizzard got their punishment of Min-seok correct, a four-match suspension. That’s the end of that.
Except it isn’t. A strange protest among South Korean commentators started to become apparent on their broadcast when it was clear they were refusing to say the name of the player. It is difficult for me to comprehend that in a league where professional players have been suspended for making racist gestures, homophobic slurs and has even had players grooming underage girls, it is the sin of account boosting that has generated a talent protest of this nature. Not that I think it’s in any way excusable for any of those people either. Engaging in some 1984 style unpersoning exercise against everyone who fucks up or exposes them as an asshole is simultaneously childish, impractical and, crucially, disrespectful to the audience. After coming off a two-year stint working in broadcast television, I’m equipped to tell you it wouldn’t be allowed to happen. If anyone’s personal baggage impacts on their ability to do what is expected of them on a broadcast, they will be replaced and the broadcast will be better for it.
I apologize for the overly harsh language I used in criticizing the Korean OWL casters yesterday. I should not have been disrespectful to fellow industry veterans
I still stand behind the substance of my comments that players should be mentioned on broadcast as a part of the job
— MonteCristo (@MonteCristo) April 18, 2018
While they were a few people discussing the matter on social media, with translations of on-air mutterings (“Dallas has gotten better due to a player I don’t want to specify”) circulating on Twitter and Reddit, the debate came to a head when the figurehead of Overwatch commentary Christopher “Montecristo” Mykles spoke out about it on his podcast “Oversight.” I think that is literally unprofessional of them,” he stated. “It is your job to talk about the players. You are not responsible for the league’s decision to include these boosters. But as a caster, say the fucking players’ names. If you can’t say the player’s name because you disagree with the fact that they are there and they were previously boosting, if you have such a giant ethical problem with it, quit your job as a caster.”
It is hard to argue with this assessment. I’ve never seen anything like it in my time writing about sports or esports. And while Christopher had to walk back what he said in an apology, which he says he made after reflection, I’ll happily pick up the torch and say if anything his language wasn’t harsh enough. Blizzard rule their commentators with a proverbial iron fist on the English-speaking broadcast. There’s a list of banned words, phrases and rules that must be adhered to such as not coming up with fun nicknames for in-game abilities. Of course, South Korea plays by its own rules in esports and even the mighty developers struggle to impose their will. This is the only reason that these commentators are getting away with this petulant bullshit. It seems strange to me that so many fans are trying to peddle hollow excuses for broadcast talent when “professionalism” is the watchword of every social media mob that ever mobilized against a public figure.
I read the excuses and the opinion pieces trying to justify the unjustifiable. “You don’t understand… What he did is illegal in South Korea.” Do I need to list every athlete who has broken the law and gone on to have playing careers that were commentated on? Do we need to once again go into the rotten specifics of Michael Vick’s dogfighting activities, Jon Jones hitting a pregnant woman with his vehicle then fleeing the scene, West-Midlands footballer Lee Hughes killing someone with his car and serving three years, Ray Rice’s horrifying act of domestic abuse… Are we to believe that in the act of saying a name of any of these individuals the commentator is expressing support for these actions? It is a preposterous assertion.
Equally I have heard that it would be impossible for a Westerner to understand how a veteran of South Korean esports could feel about those who engage in activities that have such profound ramifications on the fabric of the industry in their country. After all, it is conventional wisdom that match-fixing killed Starcraft… This, like most conventional wisdom, is a grotesque over-simplification of the reality, which I can accept being peddled by fans, many of whom weren’t even there to witness the scandals that shook Seoul. When it becomes unbearable though is when those who know better push it as fact, without ever acknowledging the role that many businesses played in the long, drawn out demise of Starcraft, including Blizzard themselves. Even if this version of events were accurate, nothing justifies the commentators own values overshadowing the action.
So no, the attempt to justify the protest don’t ring true when compared to mainstream sports. I can’t think of an instance that comes close to this except maybe the recent refusal of some commentators to say the name of the “Redskins” in the NFL due to the perception of that name being a racist anachronism. Fortunately, there is no real need to say the term as simply calling them “Washington” will also suffice for the purposes of the viewer… In sports the commentators will say the names of the many athletes guilty of reprehensible conduct without question. They know their role, which is to describe and then contextualize what is happening on screen. Occasionally they will editorialize but only when what is happening is outside of the realms of the norm; a display of poor sportsmanship, an incident not caught by the cameras, an athlete with a record of poor discipline reverting to type once again. At this juncture, as the person paid to narrate these happenings, then you may insert an opinion that relates to the expectations placed upon every competitor. At no point should you be omitting the existence of players simply because you wish they weren’t there. They are and your job, whether you want to accept it or not, is to acknowledge that and tell the people exactly what they are doing, name and all. Commentary should not be a fiction you create based on your moral compass. It should be a record of what happened in a match that is committed to the historical record that can be referred to for the rest of time.
The old guard of South Korean esports have always been abnormally hypocritical in nature. It comes with working in a territory that is dominated by personal politics and petty corruption. The same commentators always happy to take a stand against the transgressions of players are always conspicuous by their absence when the companies who sign the cheques are embroiled in their scandals. They’ve all been complicit with KeSPA’s bullshit for years because to take a stand against that would mean being slowly pushed out of the space. So let’s state plainly why commentators would make this particular stand and, spoiler, it is nothing to do with principles. It’s just a cheap way to gain favor from their domestic audience, as well as placate their own ego and vanity. “Look at us taking a stand against the people who would bring down esports” they say, while conveniently remaining silent about the bribery and embezzlement of KeSPA executives. How fearless they are in their petty condemnations that manufacture a way to make them the topic of discussion at the expense of potential stars.
It has been suggested by some that the commentators have been pushed into taking this stance by their employers, a theory that doesn’t ring true without some additional piece of knowledge being made known. I find it hard to believe that someone as entrenched in South Korean esports as Mykles would not have heard if there were a puppet master pulling the strings. Equally, the idea of something like that not leaking out and being brought to public attention is laughable. People can search for the “why” as much as they like in the hope of finding something intriguing but I’d advise them to recall the old adage about hearing hoofbeats and thinking of zebras.