Press Play to Start: Esports must play a bigger role in pushing for racial equality

A red graphic used as stock for the sports section.

Thanks to the work of various athletes and the Black Lives Matter movement, many sports industries are reflecting on their deep-rooted racism. The esports community should follow suit.

It does not take an expert to realize that racism in esports is rampant. Perhaps one of the most infamous cases was that of Terrence ‘TerrenceM’ Miller.

Miller is a Black professional player who focuses mostly on card games. In 2016, he participated in the DreamHack Austin Hearthstone tournament and reached the finals, which was live-streamed on Twitch. He played well, finishing in second place. However, as soon as the match ended, he was bombarded with racial slurs in the chat. The spam was so overwhelming that Twitch had to come up with a brand new strategy to combat these instances, but the damage was already done.

Maybe we are missing some important nuance. While there are common problems that are widespread in the gaming community, reducing the entire industry to its lowest denominators of racism is not fair treatment. One particular section stands out in gaming’s inclusion potential. Of course, I am talking about the fighting game community.

There are many reasons why the FGC is the exception to the rule when it comes to racial diversity. FGC maintains accessibility, adapts the “face-to-face” aspect of mass participation in tournaments and doesn’t shy away from political statements from its players. 

This last factor is increasingly clear to bystanders, especially with the rise of star player Dominique ‘SonicFox’ McLean. A gay, Black and furry player, McLean has been making headlines for their unapologetic dedication to their political beliefs and for their incredible fighting games ability. 

Their honesty and openness, paired with their master skill, guaranteed them the “Best Esports Player” award at the 2018 Game Awards. But it does not require a celebrity the size of SonicFox to realize the diversity present in the FGC. The tournament roster and content creator demographics, which top all other communities for esport pros of color, show it better than any article possibly could. 

However, even with the praise it has received, the FGC still faces one blatant issue that jeopardizes its survival: the relative lack of sponsorships. 

This issue translates into very tangible consequences, mainly the small amount of prize money in tournaments. For example, one of the most popular championships in the FGC is called “EVO,” and it has various manifestations based on which game people are playing. “EVO 2016” for “Street Fighter V” had the largest prize pool out of any EVO tournament to date, raking in just more than $100,000. While this may seem large, it pales in comparison to the last six “The International” DOTA 2 tournaments, all of which had a prize pool larger than $10 million. Pair this with the fact that many FGC athletes are not in a team, and it’s clear how hard it is to make a living as a professional fighting game player. 

All this leads us to one possible conclusion: If the esports industry truly wants to tackle its racism issues, it should support the FGC. 

Companies should begin sponsoring large-scale events such as “EVO.” While this may seem like a “top-down” approach that is doomed to fail, it fits the current context perfectly. 

The FGC already has solid foundations when it comes to racial diversity. In this scenario, more companies sponsoring events will lead to an increase in prize money. This increase means more people joining the scene, as well as maintaining the professionals already there. With the spotlight on the FGC, the standards for inclusivity would go up, especially if that is how companies decide which tournaments to sponsor. This pressure means that the FGC would have to maintain its diversity or risk losing the support it has gained. 

This suggestion does not translate into a permanent solution for racism within the gaming community. But it is a step toward a better, more diverse industry. Ultimately, video games are supposed to be enjoyed by anyone and everyone. If the professional side of it does not reflect that, then the industry is heading in the wrong direction. 

Guilherme Guerreiro is a sophomore writing about esports. His column, “Press Play to Start,” runs every other Wednesday.