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Esports Management Needs to Mature

Nikhil Kalro

Unpaid leaves? Resignation? Disciplinary action? G2 Esports have endured a tumultuous time lately. And much of this is because their co-founder Carlos “Ocelote“ Rodriguez appeared in a video with controversial and alleged anti-feminist and self-described misogynist influencer Andrew Tate, who had been banned by several social media platforms, including TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Instagram. When backlash on social media was severe, Rodriguez went ballistic; his “I will party with whoever the fuck I want” certainly stuck out like a sore thumb. While he may have been entirely right in his stance, the statement reeked arrogance and lacked sensibility. 

g2 esports

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 08: The G2 Esports squad gathers backstage at the League of Legends World Championship Groups Stage on October 8, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Lance Skundrich/Riot Games)

For a top gaming brand valued at $340 million, one that takes gaming to the “next level”, this was a sickening blow because it wasn’t of their making at all.

“As a global esports organisation serving the world’s most diverse fanbase, we take responsibility for our fans, employees, team members, and partners across the world,” G2 said in a statement. “In this context, we want to underline that we do not support any form of misogyny. We continue to prioritise fostering inclusivity and supporting a diverse gaming community. We are fully committed to continue the legacy of G2.”

Initially, G2 and Rodriguez agreed to eight weeks of unpaid leave, a mutually agreed upon decision that worked well for everyone. Or so it was thought, until it cost the team a spot in the VALORANT Champions Tour. It meant G2 were no longer eligible to be a “partner organisation” with Riot, one that would give them the rights to participate in the highest tier of the competition from 2023. The move would also strip them of an annual stipend and several unique benefits.

It was a massive blow to not be among the 30 participants – a congregation of the top talent in the world. It’s one that has threatened to have a ripple effect over their performance. Sadly for G2, Rodriguez’s attempt at damage control by issuing a dressed up apology was far more detrimental.

“Last night we failed you,” read the initial tweet from G2 as they announced Rodriguez’ suspension. “The actions of our CEO spoke a language in stark contrast with the values and the culture G2 lives by and strives for. And for that we apologize.”

It told you how reputation or one’s place in the hierarchy wasn’t going to dictate the response to a disciplinary issue that threatened to cast huge shadows over the team’s future. Rodriguez’s was in essence an act of instinct, triggered by social media trolling, that essentially blew the lid over one of the most celebrated teams.

It was a massive dent to their brand, given they were on a wave of massive success having just won the 2022 League of Legends European Championships spring season apart from a runners-up finish in the summer. It was yet another chapter to a long drawn saga of teams coming under intense scrutiny for disciplinary issues that bring to light bigger problems.

Gaming company Activision Blizzard, the makers of legendary games such as Call of Duty and Overwatch, who were in talks with Microsoft for a deal estimated to be $68.7 billion – the largest all-cash deal in the history of the tech industry – at the time, saw over 20 people facing disciplinary action in October last year. This after numerous reports of transgressions were made.

That it came on the back of a lawsuit filed against them for harassment and discrimination against women only a couple of months earlier made things worse. At the end of a two-year investigation, the company was labelled as having a “frat boy culture” that made female employees feel vulnerable.

It touched upon tragic consequences of sexual harassment leading to a female employee committing suicide during a business trip with a male supervisor. Things hit the roof when this culture boiled over into employees being discouraged to bring the matter to the notice of the human resource personnel in the organisation.

Then there have been issues in pay gap and disparity between compensation of male and female employees, especially those who perform similar roles. How else could you explain the chief people officer drawing $655,000 annually, while the chief operating officer, a male, drawing over a million dollars? That women had to work harder and longer to earn the same recognition their male counterparts received in half the time brought to light a systemic rot that further led to their undoing.

Since then, the company has reiterated its commitment to foster a healthy working atmosphere and culture that includes an updated code of conduct to emphasise stricter non-retaliation focus, a confidential integrity hotline, and the creation of an employee relations team. That all Activision Blizzard employees were told in no uncertain terms to also undergo regular anti-harassment training made it another massive step.

The question to be asked, though, is why should it take ugly power abuse, harassment and bullying for the gaming industry to get into course correction mode? For years, sexism has been a toxic trait of the industry. For years, the contributions of women towards the industry have gone under the radar, perhaps even totally underrepresented. The new wave of changes have ensured it ain’t going to be an exclusive and coy all-boys club.

It’s no secret how women have been made to feel in such forums. Anyone who has played online multiplayer games over the years can vouch for the toxicity of the environment, perhaps some may have even indulged in it.

It’s as much the ownership of individuals as it is with the teams to prevent such practices. Objectifying and disrespecting women has become commonplace, which has had a trickle-down effect into every sphere of the gaming world.

Just like #metoo, #gamergate dominated news as Activision came into public light with the allegations. Sexual harassment claims were shining in the sun, and for reasons no one should be proud of. Gaming is a massive industry and one that attracts millions and earns billions. Disparity and power discrepancies only threaten to blow the lid and expose the truth everyone’s known for the longest time, but are only now waking up to.

The other issue outside of harassment is work culture and toxicity from a societal standpoint. How gaming companies regularly turn dream jobs into nightmares by throwing unrealistic outcomes and expectations on employees, who are saddled with hours and hours of work – the industry’s infamous crunch culture, stuff they’d do in months packed into a few weeks to meet unrealistic targets.

Yet despite this, several times, it has led to layoffs and lack of additional compensation for hours put in. These have clearly brought to light one harsh truth: the industry is not as glamorous as one thinks.

It’s time companies woke up to more empathetic rules, focused on employee-driven culture rather than having a set of rules shoved up people’s faces. Activision is an example of how a company can be blindsided by the riches and the enormous potential it can deliver if they slip up on their integrity and values.. G2 have learnt this the hard way too.

The company doesn’t know yet who will replace Rodriguez as CEO. A company synonymous with the esports industry is now fighting an uphill battle that pits them against their own fundamentals. The repercussions of the exit are yet to be ascertained, and only time will tell how it will affect the organization’s immediate future.

There’s little doubt that such issues can’t be brushed under the carpet. Fair outcomes must be sought, fair processes created to ensure all the stakeholders, fans and sponsors buy into the core principles without compromising on their integrity. Else, instances such as G2’s that result in high-stake punishment will lead to countless hours and time spent on conflict resolution that could cause irreparable damage to the teams and community at large.

Creating a healthy atmosphere that can sustain this incredible growth over the decade takes patience, and an uncompromising approach towards core principles. Procedural mechanisms can’t be compromised, and sexism has no place. Team ownership owes this much to the fans, who are the biggest stakeholders. It could yet be the biggest step esports will take.