eSports is growing incredibly fast. According to research firm Newzoo, the eSports industry generated $325 million in revenue worldwide in 2015, and is expected to grow to $463 million in 2016. What was once a small, young industry needs to grow up fast to meet the demands of a huge global market. Sometimes, eSports' immaturity still breaks through the flashy presentations and kingly prizes. For example, on Friday night, Valve, which operates one of the most popular eSports games Dota 2, fired one of its leading commentators after he made a series of offensive remarks on the air.
The veteran British host James "2GD" Harding was fired by none other than Gabe Newell, the billionaire co-founder of Valve and the mastermind behind the popular Steam digital distribution platform. Not only that, in keeping with the maturity eSports is known for, Newell called Harding an "ass" in a Reddit post announcing his decision.
Think of it this way, physical sports fans. It'd be a little like NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell publicly saying the same of Al Michaels and giving him the cleat as well.
"We've had issues with James at previous events," Newell said in his Reddit post. "Some Valve people lobbied to bring him back for Shanghai, feeling that he deserved another chance. That was a mistake. James is an ass, and we won't be working with him again."
It's quite rare for Valve to make any kind of public remark about Dota 2, its free-to-play multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) that currently hosts around 1.1 million players per day, but Newell was clearly having a really bad day. After all, he'd also taken the same opportunity to fire KeyTV, the producers responsible for broadcasting the event.
"As long as we're firing people, we are also firing the production company that we've been working with on the Shanghai Major," he said in the Reddit post. "They will be replaced, and we hope to get this turned around before the main event."
According to Harding himself in a sprawling, 17-page Google Doc in which he covers the conflict in rich detail, Newell specifically fired him (in mid-broadcast, no less) for calling Swedish player Niklas "Wagamama" Högström the "bottom bitch" to Dutch player WehSing "SingSing" Yuen. In Newell's words (via Harding), such language was "disrespectful towards players."
Skip to 3:50 to see the remark that got Harding fired (and the reaction).
Harding defended his commentary, though, pointing out through screenshotted text messages that Valve had told him to be himself and that "whatever you do is fine." (He later said in the same document that "honestly I doubt Gabe even knew that I was told to be myself.")
Earlier guesses for his firing focused on other questionable comments, of which there were plenty. During his opening remarks, Harding scoffed at how the broadcast was "police-monitored" (it is China, after all) and claimed he was ready to cover the "cans and cunts" of the 16 teams competing for the tournament's $3 million prize pool. That alone was enough to get nervous glances from the four other analysts sharing the screen with Harding. But then he expressed his regret that his Chinese hotel had blocked pornography to his room, leaving him condemned to masturbate to "Mr. Wang's amazing wheelchair antics."
Commentator David "GoDz" Parker laughed shakily. "Is this the rehearsal, by the way?"
This is the kind of stuff Harding's known for, but it didn't help that his off-color remarks coincided with a barrage of technical difficulties allegedly springing from producers KeyTV. The microphones for the commentators and the Twitch livestream itself often stopped working entirely. Harding himself seemed to have a hard time figuring out which camera to look at, and at one point the camera simply froze. The Shanghai Major may be a $3 million tournament, but the fumbles involved made it look like the kind of thing you might expect from a freshman production at a university communications department.
Harding's first controversial comments start mere seconds in.
Not long after Newell's Reddit post appeared, Harding took to Reddit with a response of his own before posting his 6,935-word (at current count) opus:
"Just for the record Gabe, I don't think you are an ass. But I don't think you are right about me (well maybe you are a bit of an ass for calling me an ass, but let's find out what others think shall we?"
The issue, however, may hinge on which "others" we're talking about. Newell's response—even with its fairly puerile name-calling—seems written out of a desire to get eSports to grow up. Neither side looks exactly professional in the aftermath, though, and it looks especially damning in an era when eSports are struggling for legitimacy on traditional sports channels like ESPN.
Some non-American viewers have tried to defend Harding's language by arguing that words like "cunt" don't have the same force in England and elsewhere as they do in the States, but that's not entirely true. In 2014, cricket commentator Andrew Strauss caused a stir when he accidentally called cricketer Kevin Pietersen the word over a live mic, and former Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson raised eyebrows when he called former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown one in 2009. And so forth and so forth.
Is it the language of the players themselves? Certainly. But just as the language in a football locker room doesn't make it onto ESPN, the language that cascades in chat channels and gets tossed about in voice chat probably shouldn't make official eSports commentary.