Competitive infractions have dissipated as brand-saving measures are on the rise. What does that mean for where esports are heading?
Rafael Suanes-USA TODAY Sports
Esports is so often considered a monolith — a reinvention and reconception of sport — that one can be forgiven for forgetting that there is nothing monolithic about professional gaming at all.
Indeed, perhaps the most under-discussed aspect of competitive gaming and esports is how the scene itself has its fingers in many different, often contradictory pies. From large-scale differences like FPS vs. MOBA to smaller scale debates between League of Legends and DOTA, the sport itself is fractured, albeit not always unproductively. Still, one must ask: Is esports destined to coalesce into a specific league — akin to the traditional structure of American sports — or will it remain a para-sports scene, filled with different leagues specific to particular games? Is esports a massive domain of enthusiast gamers, or will it be successful in breaking out of its niche into a nationally accepted form of athletic competition?
No one has the answers to those questions. But the best path towards that acquiring that knowledge and getting a grasp of any league's particular evolution is by examining how its rules have changed. In baseball, we can watch the steroid era's effects on the game in real time by tracking the change between MLB's relatively laissez-faire treatment of drugs in the 80's – "Slide head first so you don't break your coke vials!" – to the draconian drug penalties of today – "I'm sorry, but your cough syrup contained a banned substance, so it's a 50 game suspension." The same method can be used in football to track the trajectory of public awareness of traumatic brain injury. Rest assured, the NFL did not come up with their recent media blitz over concussions on its own.
In esports, the most relevant document for performing this rules analysis is the list of League of Legends rules violations at esportpedia. The list reads like a narrative of the starts and stops of a nascent organization, conveying the story of efforts to corral the elemental forces of a bunch of young, talented, possibly socially frustrated people into a coherent whole. A few early violations to get a flavor for the way these things tend to begin:
*On the 19th of October, 2012, WeiXiao was warned by the League of Legends tribunal because he engaged in Unsportsmanlike Conduct by "looking at the venue screens." On the same day of tournament play, five other players were penalized for similar actions, with two players (Stanley and Chaox) cleared of any wrongdoing, and one player (Woong) charged 20% of his team's winnings — which amounted to $30,000 — as a penalty.
*From December 4th, 2012 to January 23, 2013, six players engaged in various levels of "in-game verbal abuse," with penalties ranging from year-long bans from League Championship Series (LCS) competition to complete and indefinite permabanning from all League activities (for Veigodx and StunnedandSlayed). The harsher penalties seem to align with players who threatened physical violence or DDOS attacks. This hardly resolved the issue in LCS and other League of Legends competitions. But, after this run of penalties, it does become a bit less prevalent
*On March 19, 2013, 14 players were subject to 14-day bans from competition and the revocation of season rewards for ELO boosting, which is — to gloss over a million tiny exceptions and intricacies — essentially playing on a lesser player's account to boost their experience and ELO rating, which determines their relative level of competitiveness. Unsurprisingly, pay services that promise to boost ELO rating advertise prominently on Google and elsewhere, but this early moment in league competition serves as a sort of definition and Rubicon: "Here is what ELO boosting is; don't do it again or you're out."
These are menial infractions, baseline rule enforcement that sets the tone for how the game is to be played. Keep your eyes on your screen, don't be an asshole, don't cheat the ranking system. And after this spate of violations, the particular rule issues taper off, save a few instances of ELO boosting and more than just a few instances of hateful speech or "toxic behavior."
Which isn't to say all violations have disappeared. Rather, they've drifted away from these foundational, building-block style penalties and toward headier corporate brinksmanship.
On June 2nd 2015, Escalate Legion Gaming was penalized for "Using a ringer in an official match," which carried with it the typical penalties of prize renunciation and a short ban on championship play. Notably, though, ELG was banned from "sponsoring a League of Legends team in Riot-sponsored competitions until the 2016 Spring split."
Just a day later, on June 3rd, Deficio, a member of the Riot Games staff, was penalized for having unapproved conversations about an open management position with the Copenhagen Wolves team. This clearly represented a problem for a public and on-air figure who was meant to be impartial. Among other penalties, Deficio was banned from holding any management or player position through the 2015 and 2016 seasons and was suspended from all commentary of Copenhagen Wolves games.
And while by no means the first serious contract issues — that honor goes to the suddenly ubiquitous Copenhagen Wolves in 2014 — two of the five most recent rules violations in League of Legends tournament play involve teams being unable to provide proof of contract for their players or coaches. These bureaucratic violations carry with them points penalties — more abstract than any of the other infractions to date — but the penalties themselves are a far cry from even the relatively concrete sin of ELO boosting.
Collectively, they illustrate how the league has clearly shifted into a much more heavily regulated body. Teams are contractual entities, paperwork is needed, behavioral conditions are legislated and enforced.
It's a break from the previous norm of discerning what was "fair" or "not fair." Now, rulemaking amounts to legislating what is beneficial to the health of the league as an entity itself. Suddenly, the LCS isn't concerned only with structurally consistent play, but also in the cohesion and accountability of its management superstructures. If PEDs are the defining baseball scandal and concussions are football's, then the esports analog — at least within the confines of its most lucrative gaming property — is the transformation of the game from a loose group of enthusiast collectives to an brand-affiliated sport.
Now that the LCS sits squarely in the traditional league model mold, they're facing the age-old problem of contract logic and league oversight covering over the purity of the game itself. For every former Riot employee who opines about the blinkered quality of their rivals in DOTA2, there are redditors eager to champion the Wild West qualities of all other leagues out there.
What is a potentially revolutionary sports paradigm to do?
As the scene gains the attention of more mainstream viewers it's going to have to pick a persona, and that choice is going to hinge primarily on whether esports shifts into a corporate model or some hybrid model between sport and business. If the larger interests driving the league truly want to expand the sport beyond the niche ESPN2 audience and into prime time, they'd be wise to heed the models of already existing sports giants and mask the sport's corporate structure behind the veneer of fandom.
Esports remain ineffable and impenetrable to outsiders due to their particularized leagues, odd televised schedules, and, yes, their stigma as "not real" sports. But we watch sports because, in part, we want to watch people like us do things we couldn't possibly dream of doing. The ability to watch human achievement at its extremes.
Video games do allow for that most elemental appeal — hand-eye coordination is a thing, after all — but the esports community will have to coalesce into something more tangible in order to tap into it. Team names and player handles are already enough of a barrier for a casual audience. Factor in team CEOs, poaching scandals, Adderall addiction and wildly fluctuating league standards, and lots of people are going to be turned off. If esports' future truly is as a spectator sport, it is going to have to smooth out those edges, all the while remaining true to its base and its players.
Perhaps the best parallel is early 20th-century baseball. The sport then spanned several leagues, some of which would fold after a year or two and others that that endured for a decade or two. Each league had its own teams, its own champions, its own specific mores. Eventually, MLB emerged from the morass and codified baseball, to the benefit of a few and to the detriment of many others.
That's not a happy story, per se, but it is the story of a successful sports enterprise on the level esports seems to want to become. There are rules to those sorts of endeavors as well. But if the last several years are any indication, esports may define itself best by which ones they break.