Fighting the Rot in the Fighting Game Community Pt. 1 – Cronyism

Last time I wrote for the blog, I was covering my trip to the Evolution tournament in Las Vegas and the positives and negatives of that trip. As I was writing that piece, I found myself having to frequently amend it as the days went on because it seemed like there was a new scandal emerging daily from that Evo weekend: multiple instances of sexual harassment and drugging at the official Evo after-party, prominent photographer Chris Bahn being outed as a serial sexual harasser, Leah “Gllty” Hayes was banned from competition at any Capcom Pro Tour event and most major tournaments after similar accusations of sexual harassment, longtime figure Ari “floE” Weintraub was accused of sexual assault in an incident that took place at Evo. I probably missed some, but that’s the majority of it.

Suffice to say, all of them came from the same core: whether it was online or in-person, women were targets for harassment and other bile from members of the fighting game community. The fallout from these events has spurred a lot of discussion to come to light, and the stories keep coming. In the past week, Joe Munday, who helps run the subreddit R/StreetFighter, released a podcast that consisted solely of stories from various women involved in the FGC, anonymous mostly, detailing their positive experiences, but also many of their negative experiences, which all revolved around some form of sexual harassment, even from known players. One of the main organizers of the Michigan Masters event, TheIceyGlaceon, posted a long tweet in which they summarized the sexual harassment they faced in the FGC, many of which occured when they were underage. and several players from the SoCal area threatened another person with violence after screenshots from a private chat were posted, showing some of them engaging in misogynistic chatter.

Many have likened this to a similar movement happening in the spheres of Hollywood and other high-profile workplaces:

https://twitter.com/DrM2theJ/status/1161416312490299392?s=20

It’s not a bad comparison, but I feel like the talk in FGC circles hasn’t been quite as advanced as the #MeToo movement. More specifically, I think many have been looking at all these things happening as a few individuals and “randoms” who are acting up, and not the natural consequence of ingrained cultural rot. Since the FGC and many of its participants usually come from marginalized and lower-class backgrounds, it can be strange to consider that there are inherent power dynamics at play that cause this kind of behavior to be widespread. A lot of it also has do with the fact that there are many facets of general gaming culture that can instill misogyny, racism, queerphobia, and other societal problems that dominate mainstream culture as well.

That’s a lot to tackle, and there are many people more qualified than me to discuss that, so I’d like to keep the focus on the FGC. Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of people, in good faith, attempt to both alleviate the fears many women may have hearing of these stories and also try to find a satisfying, solitary explanation as to why this is happening. On the opposite side of the coin, I’ve also seen many write off this problem as one inherently unsolvable due to a variety of factors, and that the FGC actually does a “better” job of protecting women than many other enthusiast communities would. Both have their decent points, but I think the crippling flaw in both arguments is that they posit that the FGC is a victim of extenuating circumstances, whether they be bad actors or global social ills, and therefore not responsible for the current issue. This is the lie I’d like to address with this blog.

In my estimate, there are at least three different areas in which the FGC is uniquely set up to serve existing power dynamics that allow this kind of abuse to go on:

  1. Cronyism
  2. Cult of Personality
  3. Lack of Boundaries

I’ll go through these each topics one-by-one in their own posts, and my goal is to show that unless these areas are addressed and seriously discussed by the people in power in the scene, then there is little reason to believe the current problems with women having a hard time fitting in will suddenly solve themselves. The very reason I am writing this blog is because the FGC has had a profound impact on my life, so I have no inclination to watch it burn, but only to help it heal from this rot. I’ve been involved with the FGC since I was a kid, and I expect the community to grow up along with me; part of growing up is addressing the flaws that have kept you from maturing. I won’t claim to have all the answers, but I’d like to at least start the conversation


Cronyism

Cronyism is a term used mostly in political circles to define the method in which friends and associates of powerful people find themselves ending up in the upper echelons of power simply by having that connection, regardless of merit. Although it’s typically used in the sense of giving buddies powerful spots, it can also mean turning a blind eye to poor performance or, in this case, terrible behavior just because they are a friend, or crony. Cronyism is largely what keeps the imbalanced power dynamics in dominant culture stay intact, and the FGC is no different.

Since it’s such a small community, it is very easy to apply the six degrees of separation and connect all sort of FGC folk, probably in less than three connections. Almost every major tournament organizer or commentator or even some fighting game developers nowadays were a competitor first, and that has largely shaped how the scene has developed over the last twenty years or so.

In California, as an example, the biggest organizers are LevelUp, which is a company run by Alex Valle, one of the more prolific early Street Fighter players, (until recently) Mike Watson, who has been playing since Street Fighter 2 came out in arcades, and John Choi, another early Street Fighter legend. Evolution in Las Vegas was started in the Bay Area by Tom and Tony Cannon, Joey “Mr. Wizard” Cuellar, and Seth Killian, all arcade-era players who have gone on to work in the video game industry or, in Cuellar’s case, head Evo as a brand-named company. Eric “Big E” Small and Larry “ShinBlanka” Dixon have run tournaments on the East Coast for many years, and Small’s BigEGaming brand helps to run many of the major tournaments in the PA area. I could go on, but my point stands that pretty much all of the biggest tournaments are run by former players who are giving back to the scene.

I think it’s very cool that the scene has sort of come full circle in that some of its best competitors are now helping to run tournaments that help new talent find their way, but as wholesome as that is, there are also some issues that arise with it. I had a friend on Twitter describe the tight-knit nature of the old guard as “Omertà,” which is an Italian term describing a code of silence amongst a group, typically used in fiction as a way of life for Mafia-types. That usually means that the family takes care of its own, no matter the circumstance, and keeps quiet if ever questioned about it.

For the FGC, that typically means many tournament organizers take care of their boys. Running late? Not really a problem, you’ll get into a pool; Evo is especially bad at this, where you’ll see well-known players running late and the staff will take care of them, putting them in a later bracket, whereas most players would never get that luxury. It is also a very, very rare occurrence that a really well-known player would get DQ’d from their pool for tardiness if it wasn’t their willful withdrawal or a game that is clearly not the main game they play. Playing with brackets so friends/roommates/training partners don’t play also ran rampant for a long time, but in the modern era, that tends to get regulated a lot more. East Coast Throwdown 2014, organized by Joe “LI Joe” Ciaramelli and John “SweetJohnnyCage” Gallagher, was actually penalized by Capcom for floating a few players in the late stages of the tournament so they wouldn’t have to play each other.

Now while that all applies to actual tournament organization, there is a darker side to it, too. A common link among many stories that have been shared this whole month is that harassment comes from even very popular and well-known players, yet the victims are unwilling to name their harasser. Part of the reason is because of the players being such a cult of personality figure that speaking up becomes incredibly difficult (I’ll get to that one later), and the other is because speaking up against those players can be incredibly difficult due to how protected they are. Often it takes someone getting hurt for action to be taken, but even then, it’s not guaranteed. Inaction against known players behaving poorly means that they often get to do odious things, like harass or bother women, and there is no consequence for this.

I can think of no reason why Noel Brown didn’t receive a ban for the various amounts of things he’s been involved in other than cronyism. For those unaware, Brown is a player who used to play at the old Chinatown Fair arcade in New York, alongside such scene luminaries as Justin Wong, Arturo Sanchez, and Ricki Ortiz. He’s also been embroiled in several controversies: punching out another player in a heated moment after a loss, assaulting another player and his then-girlfriend in a heated moment (including an Alex Jebailey quote that aged like bread), and most notably groping a woman on stream, which lead to him getting a one-year ban from any Capcom Pro Tour-sponsored tournament, along with that year’s Evolution and the 2017 Combo Breaker tournament. As we’ve seen, however, that CPT ban doesn’t do much to actually dissuade anyone from attending tournaments, but only Evo and Combo Breaker took action.

Any other player who wasn’t Noel Brown probably would have received a ban from tournaments for any one of those incidents, yet it took someone not only getting goosed live on stream but having her text messages screencapped and put on Facebook by Brown in a pathetic attempt to defend himself for action to be taken. And really only Evo and Combo Breaker took action while everyone else turned a blind eye. Nothing about Noel Brown is particularly special other than he’s hung around for a long time and people know who he is, but he still was somehow afforded a bit of a lighter touch than any other player would get.

But you don’t even have to be grandfather’d into the scene to take advantage of omertà; take the cases of Chris Tartarian and Seon-Woo “Infiltration” Lee. Tartarian is the genius who threatened another player with violence that I linked earlier, yet when the official word came out, it wasn’t even a slap on the wrist so much as a wagging finger from Capcom. Part of that is due to the very bad idea of letting corporations act as moral authorities (again, more on that in Pt. 2), but it was also clear in the past that Tartarian had the moral support of Michael Martin, who is the operations manager for Capcom’s Esports initiatives, through which the CPT falls under. Not only that, Tartarian is a longtime member of the SoCal FGC, so despite this and other public posts that border on misogyny and transphobia, there appears to be no attempt from scene leaders like Alex Valle or any others to disown the behavior or attempt to correct it. Inaction like this would give the impression that this behavior is acceptable, although really it seems to be that if you’re well-connected, it’s acceptable. Again, I struggle to think of any other player who would not have just been instantly crucified for similar behavior.

As for Lee, I can only throw my hands up in disbelief at how that entire situation has turned out. Despite it being abundantly clear that Lee escalated a domestic dispute to violence and is aggressively unapologetic about it, it’s clear that his status will protect him from any future backlash. Very few of his peers were willing to speak out against Lee when the controversy was at its tipping point, and when he announced that he would be competing at Evo, you can look through the thread and see some pretty big names welcoming him back with open arms, including Cuellar. The endorsement from Evo staff is particularly baffling because they specifically changed their tune from a few years earlier. Lee was banned from entering any CPT event for a whole year due to the fallout of this incident, so like with Noel Brown, it would have made sense for Evo to stand in solidarity with Capcom like they did to Brown. Perhaps domestic abuse is just simply not a serious enough offense for Evo to stand with Capcom on this manner. Or maybe, as a consistently top player who has won Evo in the past, he has a lot of friends in the community who would help make sure he wasn’t off his feet for too long, given that he had avoided tournaments for about 8 months. Inconsistent rulings like this not only render any previous goodwill for the Brown decision toothless, but it also sends a terrible message to the community at large, and there’s no real rhyme or reason to the decision other than that he has the support of powerful people.

Some may ask why this cronyism would affect anyone, let alone someone just entering into their local scene, and it’s a great question. When I was at the Evo panel that featured 6 women discussing their roles in the scene, a question was raised about the origin of a lot of women-only Discords, Facebook groups, and organizations such as Combo Queens, and the answer was pretty poignant: those groups came to be because many women did not know who to turn to or trust in the scene when it came to discussing problems specific to them. Tacit support from the highest level for players who mistreat women can give the impression that certain behaviors are above reproach, which seems to make it difficult for a lot of women to want to get involved with open tournaments. If you look at the situation with Ari Weintraub, a girl speaking out and telling her story is met with hostility and counter-punches from Weintraub and friends that she is extremely mentally ill and telling lies, which has now become the dominant narrative. I don’t expect that situation to go anywhere, largely because the damage control already did its job and Weintraub is a well-supported public figure.

Simply hanging around for a long time can afford you brownie points with many of the scene’s more powerful entities, and this allows a stunning amount of people to get away with behavior that would otherwise be grounds for community ostracization. As I mentioned before, the behavior often has to get to high levels of violence for there even to be a little pushback, and by then, the damage is already done. And for what? To cut some friends some slack so they can hang out with each other at tournaments? The scene leaders should set examples to show that no one is above the most basic levels of moral integrity, and that means calling out your friends when they do something rotten. This cronyism isn’t just a problem with known players, and I’m sure there are plenty of regional problems where a player is good friends with a local TO that will let them push and push the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. If there is no structure that would give consequence to someone acting inappropriately, then a lot of people who would be more vulnerable to that behavior, usually women and queer folk, won’t feel like they can operate safely in the scene.

I’m happy to say my local scene rallied together recently to help out a woman in the community who was being harrassed by someone, but I know that story is isolated and possibly rare. There are many, many people out there who get away with pretty rancorous behavior just because they are older figures who people “just put up with,” and that can no longer be the standard. If people are really serious about cleaning up the FGC and attacking the rot, then holding everyone accountable for their actions needs to happen, regardless of how long you’ve known them or whether they are important to the scene. Until then, we will continue to hear many stories of women who deal with the burden of being harassed in the FGC because no one steps up to help them out against this crony culture.

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Fighting the Rot in the Fighting Game Community Pt. 1 – Cronyism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s