In The Firing Line

Written by: Richard Lewis
Twitter: @RLewisReports

While this column very rarely gets “meta” and talks about the culture around Counter-Strike, it feels unavoidable this week. In sports, it’s easy to get bogged down with the drama.  Honestly, I find it tedious even if that has never stopped me from occasionally gleefully lighting the touch-paper. It’s not like there’s not plenty more to talk about. We’re an evolving industry with plenty of kinks to iron out, but a lot of the situations are too complex and seemingly unassailable. Far easier to focus on emotive, quick fixes of “person X bad – person Y good” over anything that require nuanced thinking. And so one of the old discussions reared its head again: When does broadcast talent go “too far” in their critique of a player.

       The resurgence of this debate – if it can be called that – came in the aftermath of the Northern Arena finals. G2 Sports lost to Optic Gaming, a mighty achievement by a developing North American team that has continued to take strides forward. As they accomplished what should have been the headline, the final round came down to a must-needed hold from G2’s sniper Edouard "SmithZz" Boudreaux. Armed with an auto-sniper, a gun that does have crazy recoil and bullet spread if the shooter moves, he fired sixteen bullets and only landed one. Had he killed even one opponent, his team would have had a chance. The commentators laughed and said something that could be interpreted as less than complimentary. Moments after the loss was confirmed, professional players took to social media to say the treatment was disgraceful.

       What could have caused such a furor? Well it was the phrase “Yo les noobs,” the last word meaning someone new, inexperienced or bad at a computer game. Appropriate description for a pro player? Well, maybe not, but let’s look at the context. Boudreaux has been in a slump for some time. Statistically, he has been the weakest player on his roster for months. He occupies a position in the team, primary sniper, that will attract a lot of attention. It has been noticed by fans. He has earned the nickname “Whiffs” and there are even four-line limericks dedicated to this on Twitch chat. Many pundits assert that if he was switched for another player, it would strengthen the team. All of this criticism clearly got to the player. He went on a French community website and defended himself, how it isn’t about statistics, or what he perceives to be selfish play, and how he does lots of unseen work on the team. The opening line? “Yom les noobs…” In other words, “I am the pro and you do not know anything about this game.” His sign-off was even less charitable. Feel free to Google the word “merde.”

         That was why the commentators used this phrase in his moment of failure. Some saw it as mean-spirited, but I am a believer that if you talk the talk, if you dismiss criticism as being the product of idiocy, you have to be able to deliver when game time comes. Here, he did not, and the commentator – who lest we forget has an obligation to the fans to describe the game in a truthful fashion – used this callback as a way to inject some humor into the game. 

        The arguments against this seem ridiculous. “You shouldn’t do that while he’s playing” is one. The player couldn’t possibly have heard it, so I fail to see why immediacy is an issue. “All professionals should be respected regardless of performance” is another. I think the other 99% of a broadcast where the focus is promoting these players and teams should suffice. If we can just be honest with what the problem is, it is that Dubourdeaux has been so poor and criticized for his performance for so long that he has gone from being perceived as the privileged player who needs to step up to a victim. People’s sympathies have kicked in on this case, and not the dozens other before it because they are empathizing with what it would be like to be in that position. In short, they have suddenly decided the joke is now “old” and want it to stop. None of that makes what these commentators did bad or wrong. If they had made a joke about almost anyone else, as I’m sure they did over the course of the tournament, it would have generated next to no reaction. Obviously, pro players will rally and try and improve things for themselves. They will state criticism is wrong and unfair because they all know too well that they could be next on the chopping block. They’ve been laughed at for publicly stating this sentiment before, but this time they aligned with what the community was thinking and feeling. As such, I am now supposed to believe any member of broadcast poking fun at a player underperforming is “unprofessional” and has no place in esports.

        Let’s expand on this idea. Is laughing at someone’s failings really so terrible? This isn’t a surgeon failing to save a life on an operating table, or a child tearfully frustrated at struggling to grasp concepts in the classroom. This is sports. There are DVDs dedicated to compiling the failure of athletes, with celebrity commentary mocking them. There are compilations on Youtube of football players fumbling the ball. Mainstream sports TV shows have entire segments dedicated to moments where athletes fell short. While we know players and maybe even their fans are disappointed, we consider this fair game for comedy. Why? Because we know, deep down, in the long run, it doesn’t really matter. It’s sports. It stirs our passions, it matters at the time, but we get over it and go to work on Monday. This is an area where we should be able to rage, rejoice, reminisce and cry. Oh yeah, and laugh too. Why not? When was that suddenly deemed inappropriate?

       Understand, it’s not that I don’t sympathize with any professional player having a tough time and receiving scorn and ridicule. I am, despite reports to the contrary, human and I have never taken any joy from seeing someone be down on themselves unless it was utterly deserved. That said, it is the person that stirs those feelings, not the competitor that goes out and has a job to do. As soon as game time starts, we exist in different worlds. They have to perform and win, while we have to entertain and analyze. We’re all walking a tightrope with so many different personalities to consider. Play it too safe and you’re deemed dull and might be out of work, be too over the top and you turn viewers off who want to watch the action. All of these considerations are made live on air, and often during long punishing days with little sleep. Despite that, broadcasting talent will never receive anything close to the same level of forgiveness as a player should they slip up while doing their job.

         It’s definitely not all one-way traffic either. There’s an entire segment of every sports broadcast designed to give ammunition to fans looking to attack a pundit’s competence; predictions. We do it and we know we’re not psychic, we know all we have is form and trends and a bunch of numbers, none of which will ever do you any good if there’s an upset. When we’re wrong, we hear about it from almost everyone. We hear it from the fans of the team we said couldn’t win, the players when you pass them backstage or at the bar after an event, and even our own colleagues who called it right. Get a string of bad luck and you’ll hear about it for a while. Some of those times it will be brought up in good humor. Other times, it will be used as evidence to suggest you can’t do your job. Only true clairvoyance will do.

       Very often, the other argument that gets made is that if you haven’t played at the highest level, then you cannot criticize those who have. It’s a rotten argument that makes little sense when laid bare. Speaking for myself, a decade older than a lot of veteran professionals, when would I have had the chance? People measure my casual play, which happens rarely between a busy work schedule as a salaried professional. I suppose rather than entertain the argument, I should immediately counter it by saying “if you’ve never been a TV host, then you can’t criticize me either.” Or, as my friends keep telling me “I don’t need to be a helicopter pilot to be able to say ‘someone messed up’ if I see a chopper tangled in a tree.”

     Those people are right. My mind might not be able to fathom all of the information and skills it takes to become a brain surgeon, but if I watch one of my betters take a slice that’d make Hannibal Lector think you were being greedy out of a patient, I can safely say the end product is worse than what was intended. Counter-Strike’s great strength is that it is simultaneously complex and simple, layers of tactical depth but, when all is told, it can be boiled down to who is quicker on the draw. When we talk about professional players, those who make the game look easy and can do what is, for us at least, unthinkable, you don’t need any special talent to point and say “that was below the standard.” You might need an incredible level of insight to contextualize the failure, but a failure is easy to spot all the same.

       Players also routinely dismiss everything we say. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a pro say “we don’t listen to journalists / commentators / analysts because they know nothing”, I’d be retired and not having to state the obvious in 2000 words or less. Every time this is uttered, it inflames the sensibilities of the fans and we deal with that backlash. You know what I think about that? I think it’s great. I like the “let’s prove them wrong” attitude. I like the fans showing a bit of fire that adds to the fun. This may be our living, but some of this is supposed to be fun and even if it isn’t, you get out there and sell it for the fans because they should get to enjoy themselves.

        I’ve been in sports a long time. I’ve fought many a battle to try and keep it authentic. What that word means to me is that we stay true to ourselves, that no matter how big we get, we can trash talk each other, be subject to ridicule, then shrug it all off and go out there and do our jobs. Hell, it’s not essential, but maybe somewhere in all of that we can grab a beer and shake hands. That’s what this has always been to me. If we start to sanitize what we’ve always been based on something so small, if we start drawing lines we’ve never had, I don’t know where we go next and I don’t know if it’s somewhere I want to go honestly.

           Players and broadcasting talent are all public figures with a growing audience. Criticisms and jokes at our expense are to be expected and they are not hate. Even if they are, suck it up. You’re a success. People will hate you. I mean legitimately, irrationally hate you. But, that’s not how talent feels about players and it should never be how players feel about talent. At the end of the day, we are all in the firing line and sometimes we have to shoot at each other. Let’s stick to using blanks.