It was at MLG Anaheim where I first met Naniwa, both of us stuffed with sugar and creamy goodness from the IPL's after party ice cream bar. While I'll spare you the details, looking back, at least from a personal point of view, this chance encounter and its setting lines up in a fairly poignant fashion.
In a lot of ways, MLG Anaheim marked the true coming out party for eSports in North America. Never before had an event in the United States had such a high level of energy and excitement to compliment record attendance and stream viewership. Just being there, one could feel they were part of something in the middle of a metamorphosis... the moment when an entire industry and passionate fan base, which had been making a slow and labored climb up a treacherous mountain of obscurity and marginalization, finally crested the peak and got their first glimpse of the all the lands and riches that lay before them.
In short, Anaheim was the moment when most of us started to believe in a very visceral way that greater things were coming than we could have ever expected. And with all that potential laying before us, it was inevitable that the way things were viewed and approached was bound to change, as well.
With the Probe Rush Heard Round the World still ringing in our ears, the Starcraft community as a whole may be experiencing the most striking example of how the mindset of everyone connected to eSports has shifted in the last year. With both sides of the issue as vocal and heated as we've ever seen, one can't help but try to find the thread of truth and reason binding it all together. With this controversy only looking to burn even more violently following the announcement of Naniwa's Code S suspension, attempting to look at the picture as a whole and, perhaps, even drawing on experiences and realities of the major sports we all hope Starcraft II can rise to challenge, is essential if we're to find anything meaningful to take away from all the arguments.
Naniwa and The Heavy Crown
Few would challenge the assertion that no foreign player enjoyed more consistent success in 2011 than Naniwa. Just looking at his first and second place finishes is enough to make your jaw drop:
MLG Global Invitational
MLG European Invitational
Black Dragon League
European Battle.net Invitational
Homestory Cup III
Homestory Cup II
The Road to Korea
...which is to say nothing of his other dozen or so impressive top finishes.
With this success comes more than respect, prestige, fame, and the ability to command a higher salary, however. Along with all of it comes affection and devotion from fans. I'm not talking about fair-weather flag waving, which disappears the moment those top three finishes begin to wane... but genuine emotional investment in his performance. Fans that care, that fly hundreds or thousands of miles for a chance to see him play and to get his autograph. Fans that tune in at 4AM to see him play live in Korea, or, barring that, shell out their cash to get access to streams and VODs so they can keep up with him as much as possible. This is the weight of the crown... the cost of being a champion, and of being in an industry that relies on viewership and fans to keep the lights on. It's also why this relatively minor event-- the refusal to play out a game with nothing on the line-- has resulted in more controversy than arguably any event this past year.
Seven probes never caused so much trouble...
“So what,” goes the argument. “There are no rules against probe rushing, and the game was meaningless! Naniwa is there to win championships, not to play games just for the sake of playing them! Furthermore, it happens in others sports and competitions all the time!”
In fact, one of the more popular responses to the criticism Naniwa has been facing was penned by Ryan “Crashburn” Sommers on Team Liquid, and is probably the most clear and well expressed example of this argument. In it, Sommers compares the Naniwa situation to other superficially similar situations, such as professional baseball teams sending out their second string in meaningless late season games, or the Colts supposedly tanking their remaining games in a bid to acquire Andrew Luck in the 2012 NFL Draft. In the thread, he goes on to say:
A common refrain I've read is that Naniwa owes it to GOM, the sponsors, his team, the fans, etc. to play out the meaningless game. And that is just flat-out wrong. Naniwa's job is to win games -- that is, win games that matter. Winning that game against Nestea would not have done anything for Naniwa except earn a couple brownie points (in other words, nothing). And if it's not against official rules and the terms of his contract with Quantic Gaming, then again, he did nothing wrong. Likewise, fans who showed up to that Astros-Reds game on September 21 were not owed their money back. The sponsors were not refunded ad revenue, either (as some have suggested be done with GOM). That is the risk you take as a fan when you purchase tickets, and that is the risk you take as a business when you choose to advertise. Ultimately, if the fans and/or the sponsors do have a legitimate gripe about what happened, that is to be taken up with GOM, not Naniwa.
As a fan, you can hate Naniwa for whatever reasons you want, legitimate or not. When we're dealing with a player's livelihood, however, we need to have rational, adult conversations, and I'm just not seeing any of that in the community. When you calm down, take a step back and examine the situation, you should see that Naniwa is taking entirely too much grief for what was ultimately a decision made in his best interest.
While I would reject Mr. Sommer's chosen baseball and football comparisons as being false analogies-- in playing the second string, the teams in question were still making progress or working towards a goal while putting out a product... if they had simply refused to take the field, or taken the field and then intentionally struck out or fumbled each time out, it'd be a bit closer to the mark-- the majority of this should be agreeable to any sensible person. Unless the rules of Naniwa's contracts with GOM, Quantic, and his sponsors specifically bar the actions in question, suggestions of revoking his team status, of retroactively refusing him payment, or other assorted ways of calling for his head on a pike, are not only draconian and nonsensical, they're most likely examples of breach of contract or wrongful termination, and certainly examples of unethical behavior.
In this brief quote, though, stands one glaring contradiction... a contradiction which gets right to the heart of the matter:
Ultimately, if the fans and/or the sponsors do have a legitimate gripe about what happened, that is to be taken up with GOM, not Naniwa.
As a fan, you can hate Naniwa for whatever reasons you want, legitimate or not... when you calm down, take a step back and examine the situation, you should see that Naniwa is taking entirely too much grief for what was ultimately a decision made in his best interest.
If fans-- the people who pay the bills of GOM, Quantic, other sponsors, and, ultimately, Naniwa-- are free to love or hate Naniwa for any reasons they choose, and Naniwa has taken an action which has engendered ill will from those same fans and the community as a whole (which is full of potential fans), one can hardly say it's the fault of GOM, or that it was in Naniwa's best interest. In implying that the community upset over the fact that Naniwa didn't perform up to the expectations of his fans is somehow unjustified or laid at the feet of GOM is to remove the importance of the fan experience from the equation entirely, and make the focus of the competition about nothing more than players, sponsors, and tournament organizers. It's to remove the soul of eSports entirely, and to attempt to wave away the reality that public perception matters as much as prize earnings and a number in a win column.
Fans... they keep the lights on.
What it really comes down to are tangible versus intangible consequences.
In terms of the tangible-- such as the unthinkable revocation of Naniwa's Code S spot (more on that later)-- there isn't much that can be done, or, as Mr. Sommers has suggested, ethically should be done. Retroactive punishment for actions not deemed against the rules at the time of the “offense,” if such a word even applies, is sketchy territory that should be met with scorn, resentment, and distrust by everyone involved, be they fan, player, sponsor, or otherwise.
In terms of the intangible, though-- community ire, fan disappointment, tournament organizer anger-- not only are these unpreventable, but they're major factors which have to be considered by someone like Naniwa, who has played his way into the spotlight and must live up to the expectations and scrutiny that come with it. Those “brownie points” to which Mr. Sommers refers are not nearly the trivial thing he makes them out to be... those brownie points are the reason fans tune in, buy gear, and support sponsors. Those brownie points are why eSports have finally started to crack into the main stream.
Naniwa is indeed in no way contractually or obligated to play for those “brownie points,” and as such should receive no retroactive or arbitrary fiduciary punishment for his actions. However, in acting as if the disappointment or upset his actions have caused within the community-- including his fans and potential fans-- is unjustified or meaningless, Naniwa and those who support his line of thinking are turning a callous judgment on the same people on the backs of whom eSports has been built. To expect this to be met with anything but annoyance and resentment from a large portion of the community is, in a word, unrealistic.
It's in the North American and Korean markets where the largest swath of criticism seems to have taken root... which is hardly surprising, when one considers the cultural issues at play.
In the United States in particular, when one examines the way public perception plays out for other major sports like basketball, baseball, and football, “pride” and “character” are words that get used quite a bit. The list of players who've received severe public backlash for not “trying” when they had the chance to play, even if nothing whorthwhile was on the line, is long and storied, and the experiences of one player in particular come to mind as a similar situation to what we're seeing here-- Randy Moss.
Randy Moss hears where Naniwa is coming from.
Randy Moss was/is a Hall of Fame caliber receiver, and at one time one of the most popular and talented players in the NFL. At one point in his career, however, he found himself playing for the down and out Oakland Raiders... a team that had all but overshadowed its history of success with a years long downward spiral into mediocrity. While Moss was there, with the hope of playoffs a distant fantasy, it became obvious that unless the ball was specifically going in his direction, Moss just flat out didn't give a damn. He just didn't try.
The public reaction, out of Raider's fans and NFL fans at large, was similar to what we're seeing in the Naniwa situation. Despite the fact that Moss was in no way violating the terms of his agreement with the Raiders, and despite the fact that there's certainly no mention in the NFL Rulebook of a “Try-Hard Clause,” Moss was excoriated and the center of a lot of off the field controversy and discussion. His already somewhat tattered image was further tainted, and he quickly became a player about whom most fans didn't care, or worse, openly hated.
In Korea, where eSports and Starcraft in particular are akin to the NFL in the United States, things aren't much different. Even though championships and meaningful victories are, of course, the ultimate end goal of organized competition, the mindset of fans and viewers is much the same as those we see North America... there's a specific expectation that players take pride in what they're doing, and play not just for championships, but for the sake of competition itself, even in a setting where nothing meaningful is at stake.
Naniwa isn't much aided but his public expression of feelings of personal persecution, either. In an interview with Team Liquid, he said:
If I could do it again i would just 4 gate and then people wouldnt have complained, this is no different from what Stephano did against Cloud at Dreamhack [Note: After going 0-2 and being eliminated from his group, Stephano went for two very early pool builds against Cloud. Stephano's match against Cloud had ranking implications for other players in his group], People are just hating because it's me who did it.
Self pity never makes for attractive clothing, and responding with saying “I should have simply chosen another fast strategy” doesn't make the ensemble any more appealing. It shows a disinterest in fan reaction, and a heavier emphasis in simply doing the bare minimum required.
It's in this realm where Naniwa is in the wrong. To ignore the existence of these factors, and worse, to simply dismiss them as having no basis or value once they've made themselves evident, is to take the position that the only thing relevant in the discussion is the player and his prize pool. Worse yet, it's the sort of attitude that may cause others to loathe the play of one of the best players in the world, and the sort of attitude which flies in the face of what has carried eSports as far as it has come: the fact that there is an inextricable link between players and viewers that, before, has only existed in the established major sports of our era.
GOM Cures a Sore Throat with a Guillotine
Now, the second part of this discussion is the response of the other interested parties outside of the fans and viewers, namely GOM, Quantic, and other associated sponsors.
As touched on before, Mr. Sommers and those who share his opinion are thoroughly correct in their assertion that any reactionary punishment of Naniwa by the above parties is not only unwarranted, it's impossible to ethically justify. Barring some sort of unknown contractual agreement requiring him to at all times put forth “his best effort,” whatever that may be taken to mean, the idea of Naniwa being punished in the contractual or financial realm for a negative action in the “character” or “image” realm is just absurd. We should consider the matter closed.
Yet, here we are, with the news having just broken that Naniwa has had his Code S spot revoked for the upcoming season, and an entire international community rightfully abuzz.
GOM's given justification is that Naniwa violated the following rule:
Warning or disqualification
- 경기중에 과격한 행동으로 상대 게이머나 관중들에게 위협을 가할 때
- During a match, a player shall not offend the opponent or audience with abusive behaviours
Now, as much as I love GOM and very much wish to give them the benefit of the doubt, stretching the word “abusive” to include “upsetting fans with sub par play” is more than a little ridiculous. They may as well just expand the rule to include “shall not become emotionally upset by wins and losses.”
If, in the future, Naniwa were to have lost his place in Code S and Code A, and GOM then chose to not extend to him the chance to re-qualify, their actions would be a bit more tolerable, and even justifiable. As it stands, though, they've chosen to remove the the seed for which he's worked and still deserves. In the process, they've taken a situation where they were, if anything, a victim sharing little to no blame, and now put themselves in the middle of the same storm of controversy, scrambling for an umbrella the same way Naniwa happens to be.
GOM wasn't without its share of community backlash before suspending Naniwa, though. Supporters of Naniwa's actions, for whom I can say Mr. Sommer's written opinion largely represents, already laid a lot of the blame on GOM for featuring a tournament format which allowed for games that “didn't matter” in the first place. And, in truth, there's some validity to that claim... if GOM wants to use this format, they knowingly run the risk of situations arising which may lead to this sort of behavior. The tradeoff is that the audience gets a more varied viewing experience than they would in a typical single or double elimination bracket format. The only recourse they have is to either take the good with the bad and let the community and fans form their own opinion about players, or to put into place some specific rule which expressly and unequivocally spells out this violation and its resulting punishment. In opting instead to summarily dismiss a player, they've only made things worse for themselves.
All GOM had to do, and needed to do, was stand pat. A simple statement of disappointment in Naniwa's play, plus the introduction of a new, more specific rule at the beginning of the next season would have sufficed to please their viewers and the portion of the community upset with Naniwa's actions. What's been done is done, and can't be undone. The institution of a new rule for next season would have guaranteed that Naniwa wouldn't repeat his actions, or, if he did, GOM could sit comfortably in their ivory tower, waving a copy of the rule book at anyone feeling Naniwa was being treated unfairly.
Instead, in taking their chosen path, GOM has committed the same faux pas for which Naniwa is guilty-- they've managed to take pride and character out of the equation, and instead bend to the whims of anger and upset. They've set a horrible precedent which shows their willingness to arbitrarily and retroactively reinterpret their rules, and every player and viewer associated with the GSL, even if only as spectators, should be upset. This is not the way a world class organization behaves.
The Silver Lining
If there's any good that can be taken away from this mess, it's that the upwelling of emotion and support for both sides of the debate is yet another indicator that eSports, and Starcraft II in general, have grown past the humble days of being a simple diversion, and have instead reached the point where the fans love the game, the industry, and players in a way which rivals any other major international support.
In this situation, GOM and Naniwa both have much for which they can and will be held accountable in the realm of public perception. If there's any good that can come of it, it's the fact that players and tournament organizers are now both more likely to realize that we, the fans, care more about them than they can actually imagine... but with that affection comes a level of expectation they have to care about as much as our flag waving and currency.
Special Note: At the time of this writing it came to light that the Code S spot in question was not an award for Naniwa's performance at MLG Providence, but was instead a “gift” of one of two spots available following a change in the way the League Exchange Program functions concerning 2012. While the difference between a revoked gift and the removal of an earned position is an important one to note, the fact that Naniwa's Code S spot was earned by the previous agreement the community as a whole thought was still in place leads me to think that the circumstances of GOM's decision have not been sufficiently altered to justify a different evaluation of their actions.