Esports Faces Tough Questions in Wake of Madden Tragedy

These questions are going to take time (and effort) to answer and move on. And in the meantime, it's up to the teams and players to address these issues internally before they fester.

This weekend’s mass shooting in Jacksonville, FL, during one of three qualifying tournaments for the Madden Classic, has been top of mind for a lot of people in the industry. Two young men, Elijah “Trueboy” Clayton and Taylor “spotmeplzzz” Robertson (both professional Madden players), lost their lives and 11 other people were injured.

The usual suspects -- gun control and the need for better mental health support -- have come up quite a bit over the last few days, but these are only pieces that are part of a larger puzzle. Just as Immortals COO Ari Segal has said that diversity in esports is a “360 degree issue,” so is addressing the toxicity inherent in the gaming community, gun violence, and event security during conventions and esports competitions. We can’t look at just one aspect of a problem and expect to have a nuanced discussion.

This isn’t about shifting the blame from the perpetrator to his mental state, either. (We will not name the perpetrator in this story, out of respect for the victims.) The person who committed this crime walked into a crowded venue with two guns and extra ammunition. There is no way to offload that deliberate decision onto his state of mind, at least not entirely. But there’s a need to acknowledge that professional esports players need more than time in game (or time on a treadmill) to be trained up for competition. And they require more than a cursory glance at social before signing them onto a team. As with any other profession, pro players should be subjected to full background checks, which large esports organizations tend to do.

“Regardless of the league or talent level, athletes are, at the end of the day, high-end commodities. The fear of losing out on a job, and the millions in potential earnings that come with it, can dissuade players from disclosing mental health issues. To be different, to stand out or draw undue attention to oneself — these are things athletes are, by and large, encouraged to avoid.” - The Cauldron 

Professional athletes, including esports athletes, aren’t always safe to disclose their mental health issues. And in many cases, there may not be support if these issues do arise. For those leagues that do provide that level of care, they often do more than say, “Hey, here’s a person to talk to when you need it, but also they only work until 5pm.” They’ll provide wellness classes, educate players on how to exercise self care, and give them access to mental health support on their own terms (like through the Headspace app).

Source: Medium
Source: Medium

Some esports organizations give their players training on how to cope with disappointment (either in themselves or others) and how to talk to opponents (and not trash talk them into racist oblivion) during competition. These are crucial social pieces that are missing in regular conversation with players who are looking to move from amateur competitive play to professional esports. If players are used to being allowed to be loud, abrasive, and verbally abusive during play, then when they’re signed onto a professional team, there’s a level of resistance and reticence if they’re told to curb their toxic behavioral patterns.

GameDaily reached out to a number of large esports organizations with regards to player safety and mental health care, but almost all declined to comment.

Some players can’t seem to adapt to competitive play in a professional atmosphere, like Félix “xQc” Lengyel, previously of the Dallas Fuel, who was suspended for four matches and fined $4,000 during the first season of Overwatch League for racism and disparaging comments against Overwatch League casters and fellow players. Shortly after, Lengyel was dismissed from the Dallas Fuel. He has recently been suspended from competitive Overwatch play after abusive in-game language, but will still be eligible for the Overwatch World Cup in Los Angeles.

The fact that Lengyel, who is admittedly an excellent Overwatch player, has yet to learn the lesson of keeping himself under control during competitive play (and in general), but is still allowed to compete is a sign that esports as an industry is willing to tolerate a certain level of animosity and toxicity from its players and audience. Toxicity is (currently) unavoidable in esports and competitive play, even professionally. It doesn’t make it right. But it does make it pervasive.

When that toxicity bubbles over into real-world actions, beyond aggressive and racially-charged language, in a country where guns are as readily available as they are, there are real-world consequences. People are put in physical danger and, in the case of what happened in Jacksonville, can lose their lives.

“When we get to the point where we are afraid to host a favorite tournament or to go to a game show because we're afraid we might face harm, that can't stand. That can't continue,” Jen MacLean, executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), told GameDaily during a recent interview. “So, I strongly urge anyone in the US to think seriously about conversations we as a society need to have around gun control and around mental health and around why we are unique in our problem with gun violence.

“It is not the media we consume. It's not the games we play. It's not the movies. These are enjoyed by people around the world, but you don't see the mass shootings that we experience in other countries of similar socioeconomic status.”

Esports organizations and the venues that run the tournaments have a responsibility towards their players and theirs players’ safety, as a result. And if they’re not able to ensure the safety of either the players or their fans, then they have to act to rectify the issue at hand, just as EA has had to do in the wake of Jacksonville.

“We have made a decision to cancel our three remaining Madden Classic qualifier events while we run a comprehensive review of safety protocols for competitors and spectators,” EA CEO Andrew Wilson said in a prepared statement. “We will work with our partners and our internal teams to establish a consistent level of security at all of our competitive gaming events.  

“We’ve all been deeply affected by what took place in Jacksonville.  This is the first time we’ve had to confront something like this as an organization, and I believe the first time our gaming community has dealt with a tragedy of this nature.  Please take time to support each other through this challenging time.”

There have been questions about EVO (Evolution Championship Series), an enormous annual fighting game tournament that draws in thousands of competitors and fans in Las Vegas every year, and its security problems. Joey Cuellar, co-founder of the tournament, commented (albeit vaguely) on how they’re looking to improve security for EVO next year.

This year’s E3 security may have caused a serious hubbub among attendees (who weren’t allowed to bring large bags into the Los Angeles Convention Center) and press alike, but it was necessary. PAX East’s security lineup is horribly long (and usually in the cold, because it’s Boston in March), but it’s thorough, especially in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Attendees may grumble and groan at the inconvenience of increased security, but the alternative is what people are worried about.

“From a games industry perspective, it’s been nice to see an increase over the years in security at events,” Stephanie Tinsley, who owns her own PR agency and works with publishers like Devolver Digital and Deep Silver, said in a statement over email. “Games events have gone from something we do occasionally in the summertime like E3, Gamescom and Comic Con to basically all year round every couple of months – and that doesn’t even include the various esports events now happening each month for different games.

“As part of vendor teams, we’ve always had mostly positive experiences with fan interaction at conventions but what’s important to me is that crucial check-in security that is lacking at some shows. Badge-management is one thing, but when you have fifty or sixty or a hundred thousand people at one event and not even a metal detector or bag check that’s the kind of situation that makes me a little more cautious about the ‘what if’ type of scenarios.

“Part of a PR person’s role in planning and strategizing an event or any campaign is to look at a situation from all angles and think “ok, what’s the worst thing we have to plan for, and what’s our best-case scenario?” Plan for the worst and hope for the best – and when it comes to massive-scale events, there’s a lot of worst-case scenarios to plan for. But the point is that you’ve spent time thinking about them and hopefully are prepared as possible.”

Source: PlayStation Lifestyle
Source: PlayStation Lifestyle

In the lead-up to one of the biggest enthusiast gaming conventions in North America, PAX West, there have been calls to increase security at the sprawling venue. ReedPOP, the organizers behind PAX, issued a statement to address these concerns.

"First and foremost, our hearts go out to all of those impacted by the horrific, senseless act of violence in Jacksonville, Florida on Sunday. The entire gaming community is affected by this tragedy.

"The safety of our attendees, exhibitors, and staff is paramount to ReedPOP and Penny Arcade. As PAX has grown in popularity, we have responded with the addition of increased private security, law enforcement, and other personnel, each of whom are on-site at all times during our events.

"As a rule, we do not publicly announce or discuss the details of our security program in order to maintain its effectiveness, however, we work closely with the Washington State Convention Center, private security, the Seattle Police Department and federal law enforcement authorities to identify risks, assess them and develop our comprehensive security protocols for PAX West. We have in place extensive proactive measures; some that are visible during PAX events and many that are not. We are always working to improve our security plans and, if need be, adjust them, to ensure that we are doing all that we can to make PAX West, and all PAX events, a safe and secure environment for the community.”

It’s not enough for the venue or event manager to address security, unfortunately. Vendors (exhibitors, merchandise sales, and PR) need to consider what to do in case the unthinkable happens at the event they’re attending. Tinsley started off by creating general guidelines, but it’s evolved quite a bit over the last little while. No one wants to think about what could happen if there’s an active shooter, but as the saying goes: if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.

“So it started as a sort of one-off conversation whenever they’d broach the topic, and then worked its way into the code of conduct email that goes out before each show. Then over the last year really evolved into a sort of super detailed ‘guidelines’ type of document for various emergency situations – earthquake, fire, but especially an ‘active shooter’ type of scenario,” Tinsley noted.

“Each show is in a different facility with a different layout, so each set of guidelines is different. It’s not just a ‘stop drop and roll’ kind of thing, but rather it’s a blueprint of where we are located and the nearest two exits and what to do based on where we are. For the upcoming PAX West this weekend, we are doing actual walkthroughs before the show floor opens. I think everyone I’ve talked to about this particular upcoming show is more on edge about safety – from press to PR colleagues to developers.

“To plan, we reached out to emergency responders and had conversations and asked questions about probability and what to do. [We] referenced a lot of good, useful information on U.S. government websites. It sucks. I think it’s the worst part of my job.”

Only addressing one of these issues -- toxicity in esports, gun violence, or event security -- would leave us with a limited understanding of the deeply nuanced problems that we’re facing as an industry and throughout society. Being silent or turning away from the societal violence and overwhelming toll that it takes on all of us aren’t options anymore.

Jen MacLean said it best during our interview: “I think that we need to demand better from our government, and we may also need to start to look at whether or not it makes sense to have events in areas that have stricter gun control measures. Maybe that will make a difference. It won't come fast enough. The number of people who are killed with a firearm in the United States every day is shocking. We all need to take action to help address that problem.”

Managing Editor

Amanda has been meandering around the game journosphere since 2010, mostly covering indie games, culture, and industry news. These days, she talks about the business of making games through a critical cultural lens. She adores RPGs, weird narrative indie games, and strategy games that take forever to learn. Amanda is also the managing editor of SuperParent. You can find her on Twitter as @AmandaFarough or you can email her at amanda.farough@gamedaily.biz.