It's an absolute fact that any discussion surrounding the business side of esports will eventually get around to the ways in which it is like and unlike traditional sports, and whether or not the former should take all, some, or no cues at all from the latter.
Well, here's one for you: esports, and the video game streaming industry in general, should be paying attention to one particular incident this week of traditional sports responding to a player's blatant racism.
Specifically, the industry ought to be looking at the situation of Kyle Larson, a professional NASCAR racer who, during an iRacing event last week -- NASCAR's current best alternative to live races given the COVID-19 situation -- casually uttered a racial slur over live communications while asking if his fellow drivers could hear him. He thought his mic wasn't live. It was. It also doesn't matter what he thought, as racism is still racism. The event was live streamed and everyone -- fellow racers and audience members alike -- heard it.
The event was on Sunday. Today is Friday. In that time span, Larson has been dropped by his team, Chip Ganassi Racing, as well as numerous major sponsors: Credit One Bank, McDonald's, Clover, and Chevrolet among them. NASCAR itself suspended Larson indefinitely, and is requiring him to complete sensitivity training before reinstatement. Essentially, Larson can no longer race for NASCAR, is making far less money from it, and has lost the biggest platform he ever had on which to say anything -- racial slurs or otherwise -- to a racing audience.
It is, dare I say, wrong to use your time, money, and platform to elevate racism
Has Larson been permanently canceled? Unlikely. Larson will be back eventually, probably sooner rather than later if society's history of quickly brushing off bad behavior by famous men in particular continues to play out. But I want to focus on the immediate response, which is that for now, everyone involved -- barring, bafflingly, sponsors Finley Farms and Plan B Sales & Marketing who are sticking by him -- seems to have made the correct call here. It is, dare I say, wrong to use your time, money, and platform to elevate racism.
Video games, however, do not seem to have figured that out quite yet. A number of the top streamers and content creators have headlines from the last few years out there about them doing or saying racist things. In fact, several of the most popular personalities have multiple such headlines over several years, either coupled with half-baked "apologies" or, in a few cases, fierce defenses of their racist behavior.
Granted, the industry has occasionally made feeble attempts at consequences for racism. Twitch revoked its partnership with (but did not ban) streaming personality Jenna, but only after years worth of racist, homophobic, ableist, and anti-Semitic remarks were dredged up from her public Discord server and shared around the internet. Just earlier this year, Faze Clan required Daniel "Dubs" Walsh along with the rest of its organization to complete sensitivity training after Walsh dropped a slur during a stream. He was also suspended from Twitch temporarily, though he appears to have returned after completing the training and issued a formal apology.
But then there's Turner "Tfue" Tenney, who's been suspended from Twitch multiple times for toxic behavior and racist language, but when he dropped another slur late last year -- seemingly a third strike that ought to have triggered a permanent ban -- the platform's response was radio silence. Guy "DrDisrespect" Beahm has suffered no apparent consequences at all for his racist mockery of Chinese accents. Meanwhile, over at YouTube Gaming, Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg didn't stop at racist slurs; he's also promoted anti-Semitic channels and paid freelancers to hold up signs that said "Death to all Jews."
Every one of these streamers has been able to return to business as usual relatively quickly after their public displays of racism
What do all these instances have in common? So far, the only commonality is that a popular video game personality said or did something racist. While some of the responses to that racist behavior were stronger than others, there is nothing resembling the clear, immediate, and mostly unified (still looking at you, Finley Farms and Plan B Sales & Marketing) response that there was to Larson from the organizations and sponsorships that empowered him. In fact, every single one of those streamers listed has, for the most part, been able to return to business as usual relatively quickly after their public displays of racism, with little to no discernable impact on their ability to reach their audiences or continue to make money off of the massive platforms they broadcast their racism to.
I acknowledge that in the coming weeks and months, NASCAR is likely going to prove an imperfect model for how the games industry should handle these kinds of things. It already has, given that there were sponsors that thought he should be unilaterally given a second chance without consequence. But the immediate response from Larson's largest sponsors, his organization, and his platform was to shut things down. That's in spite of the fact that Larson was one of the top-earning NASCAR drivers last year and finished in the top ten over the past four seasons. He was not (and should not be) untouchable by virtue of popularity or anything else.
That ought to be the same response we see from the games industry the next time (and there will, sadly, be a next time) one of its popular personalities broadcasts racism to thousands or millions of followers. We ought to see sponsorships immediately pulled, partnerships revoked, and platforms taken away. If racist content creators want to return, it is the responsibility of platform holders such as Twitch and YouTube to put forth some semblance of effort to ensure that they've learned a lesson and won't be broadcasting racist epithets to millions of viewers. That could take the form of sensitivity training or something else, but whatever the solution, handing a platform to speak to millions of viewers back to someone who engaged in casual racist behavior a few weeks later isn't it.
Plenty of video game publishers and adjacent brands continue to be happy to use these personalities to promote their games and brands, unconcerned with what else they might be promoting in between
There is no excuse for gaming's continued scattershot approach of half-heartedly suspending some and ignoring others. Platforms have the ability to moderate this kind of thing, particularly from their highest-profile moneymakers whose racist remarks immediately set off hundreds of tweets and a dozen or more articles wondering what the consequences will be, as if there wasn't a set of guidelines somewhere that outlined...well, what they should be. Sponsors and partners clearly have the capacity to pull their support, and do when the mood strikes them. For example, Disney did the right thing back in 2017 after one of Kjellberg's anti-Semitic outbursts and pulled its sponsorship. Asus pulled its sponsorship of Beahm not because of his repeated racist behavior, but waited until after he illegally filmed bystanders in a public restroom at E3 without their consent.
But plenty of video game publishers and adjacent brands, meanwhile, continue to be happy to use these personalities to promote their games and brands, unconcerned with what else they might be promoting in between (or even during) these segments. G Fuel, for instance, is happy to continue to support both Kjellberg and Beahm, and has them both featured prominently on its website. Beahm in particular recently inked an exclusivity deal with Twitch for a "life-changing" amount of money.
And though Turner's PR agent -- who is also his father -- told The Washington Post earlier this year that he has no sponsors (at least, not since he left Faze Clan last year), he's apparently being offered plenty of money anyway. EA, for instance, apparently offered him $140,000 to play Madden in a sponsored stream in September.
As for Larson, he will assuredly return to NASCAR, hopefully having learned some kind of lesson. But for now, NASCAR, Chip Ganassi Racing, and several major sponsors have rightfully decided that their money and resources are better spent on the numerous other drivers who both race well and do not say racist things. Similarly, there are thousands of content creators out there who make excellent, entertaining gaming content that is entirely devoid of slurs. NASCAR has proven this week that it is possible for companies, platforms, and organizations to do the right thing when one of their stars is behaving extremely badly. It's far past time gaming was willing to do the same.