I heard a great story once:
It’s California in the late 30’s. A lawyer, fresh out of Duke University School of Law, is trying his first case in the Los Angeles Municipal Court. It’s nothing too serious – a civil case over some money owed. But what should be simple turns sour when the lawyer makes a boneheaded decision to try to bid for some property owned by the defendants as a means of recouping some of the debt, unbeknownst to his client. He bids the full amount owed, $2000, and is far and away the only bidder, so he wins. The property has two trust deeds on it, and the deeds are foreclosed on, leaving his client with nothing. Furious, his client’s mother filed a negligence complaint against him, which he responded by submitting an affidavit that appeared to clear his name. However, the affidavit was so “patently fraudulent” that the lawyer was instead reamed by the judge, who declared that he had “serious doubts” whether he had “the ethical qualifications to practice law in the state of California.” Further, the judge was seriously considering a recommendation of disbarment from the California Bar Association. He quit practicing law a year after the resolution of this case, which cost his firm $4,000 in 1940 currency.
That man would later become a U.S. House Representative, a U.S. Senator, Vice President of the United States and eventually the 37th President of the United States: Richard M. Nixon.
The old saying has always been that power corrupts, and that even the most sanctimonious individuals will wilt and turn vile once they get their hands on even a little amount of it. But, in the case of Nixon, one could also argue that he was always going to be a deeply unethical person incapable of telling the truth, and this trait was amplified greatly when he had the most power anyone could have, to the point of resigning the presidency in shame over a similar series of deeply unethical tactics. In that sense, power is not always a corrupter, but, as Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Robert Caro puts it, a revealing lens that uncovers the truth of a person’s character by showing you exactly what they have always wanted to do once they no longer have to work to get it.
I thought about this story a lot while I was reading this piece on longtime FGC figure Mike Ross regarding his sudden disappearance from the scene a few years ago. In his own words, Ross, who was at the forefront of digital FGC content creation in the early parts of the 2010’s, felt that his passion and dedication were being stripped away from him and taken advantage of by corporations like Twitch and Capcom, who were solely interested in using him as a tool for profit. Despite being arguably one of the most popular FGC figures, with connections at major corporations who would gladly make him the forefront of their content, he said no. Mike Ross had the power (in a relative sense) to be a big streaming star for the FGC and he rejected it on principle. For him, the toll on his mental health and his dignity was not worth whatever he was offered.
It was interesting to me that Ross has no problem with players making money or the higher levels of production, as those who are “anti e-Sports” are often claimed to be. Instead, he was disturbed by how many people he would meet that would just want something from him, and how his personal relationships were affected by the idea that he was somebody. But for him that somebody was artificial, a marketing creation jolted to life in order to hawk a product for the benefit of a corporation that was solely motivated by profit.
The only thing power revealed for Mike Ross was the strength of his integrity.
As we enter a new decade, the FGC has gone e-Sports, without question. The Capcom Pro Tour bug as infected nearly every major fighting game released in the years since its inception, to the point that even the modest, budget-priced nWay fighter Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid has its own months-long tour with thousands of dollars in cash prizes. Surprisingly, I don’t think this is a bad thing; sure, the actual tours themselves are usually very rough along the way and difficult to follow, but I’ve seen what a few years of polish can do, and it’s mostly fine.
The biggest difference is people actually get paid now! I feel like the days of the grifter who shows up out of nowhere promising big money and then just vanishes without paying is mostly gone. Even when an organization meets its inevitable doom, it’s usually the case that no one was owed money by the time that happens. Which, again, is very good! If people can make money doing this fight game thing, then by all means, go for it. Money may be the root of all evil, but it’s also necessary to survive, and if it’s not going to hurt anybody, I say do it!
Of course, that’s where the problem lies, isn’t it?
It’s not so much the material gain of e-Sports that worries me, but the deeply unsettling attitudes that comes with the want for wealth, be it materialy or socially. Wealth, after all, is the ultimate power fantasy: you can use it provide for yourself and loved ones, you can own things, and you can reach certain status that you may have wanted all your life. Even a glimpse, a smidgeon of that power is enough for some people to have a total breakdown between being decent and being cruel, to see anyone who might be opposed to the avenues of that wealth as an enemy, a “hater” who is only after the power that they want, too. Worse still, the purveyors of those potential riches may see that because they are distributing their wealth, they alone are doing much more for the community, and that anyone who would oppose them is regressive and against progress, no matter how morally dubious their actions may be.
Mike Ross saw through this tantalizing bait and stepped away from it, and while I have had criticisms of some of his public words, I respect that a lot. But not everyone is made of stone, and time after time I have seen people who I don’t think are bad people at all but have been swayed by the big talk and some generous gifts of comped travel/lodging for tournaments in exchange for an unyielding, zealous loyalty. Loyalty that persists even when the accumulated power of these orgs has revealed, either through the people that help run them or the actions of the orgs themselves, an ugly nature that I think is truly harmful.
Ross detailed some of the dubious things that Capcom has done when he got in their way, and while I could rail against their lackadaisical approach to the scandal with Seon-Woo “Infiltration” Lee or their attempts at putting a dividing line between “Pros” and lessers in the FGC, I think that they have more than enough people who have spoken out against them. Instead I’d like to focus on a story that came about recently, regarding an organization that has taken root in the Super Smash Bros. side of the community.
I don’t follow the Smash side of things very intensely. While I do consider them to definitely be a branch on the FGC tree, it’s a load-bearing branch that almost stands on its own. What the community values, its traditions, even things such as the jargon used for certain fight game terminology is different than the majority of the FGC. Despite that, just like the rest of the community, they too have had to deal with the influence of outside wealth being flooded into the scene. A lot has been for the better, but there has definitely been cases where it has been for the worse. I don’t know entirely what to think about this current endeavor, but recent actions have lead me to believe that it leans more toward the worse column than the better.
I first heard of Thunder Gaming on account of the first event they ran back in August, Thunder Smash, being the victim of a pretty big ribbing on FGC Twitter. From what I understood, Thunder Smash was the first big tournament hosted by Thunder Gaming, a new e-Sports org out of Long Beach, California that wanted to do a “high-roller” tournament for Smash Ultimate. The entry fee was high, but the prize was too – a guaranteed $20,000 cash for first place, to be precise. With high production values, big prizes and a who’s who of top US Smash players, Thunder Smash was to be a major step forward for the Smash community.
And it…sort of was?
The most important part, outright, is that the eventual winner, Team Liquid’s Samuel “Dabuz” Buzby, did in fact receive his $20,000 cash prize, presented to him on stage in fat stacks. There was no other drama at the time regarding payment of monies owed, which was a very good sign. The tournament itself, however, was plagued by a host of production and stream issues, in addition to some moments that were more than a little cringe-worthy. Despite the clear wealth of production staff and players involved, these little problems tended to make Thunder Gaming, still trying to prove its legitimacy, look very much like it was amateur hour.
Still, cringe is the human condition, and while I understand the prerogative to laugh at these people coming and flaunting their wealth with a big gaudy show, as long as people get paid and no one gets hurt, it’s probably fine. To expect folks who are largely inexperienced in running a big major FGC event to nail it on the first try is unreasonable, and although it can be awkward and silly to see certain production ideas not work I think you sometimes have to throw things on the wall and see what sticks.
That was the last I had heard of Thunder Gaming aside from the wealth of talent, both players and non-player personnel, that they acquired right out of the gate. This is typically a big warning sign, as no organization that has pulled that move has ever survived long term, but there’s always an outlier. The organization has gone on to do a few events that seemed to have gone off without a hitch, in addition to hosting smaller local tournaments at their venue in Long Beach. So far, so good.
Recently, however, Thunder Gaming has been in the hot seat thanks to a video from a Smash/FGC content creator named Technicals.
It’s a long watch, but the best way to sum it up would be to say that it is a stunning indictment of one Christian Bishop, who was at one time the CEO of Thunder Gaming and has since stayed one as ‘equity participant, partner, and advisor to the business,” a clinical way of saying he’s a shareholder. Despite this seemingly reduced role, he’s certainly one of the leading public figures representing the company, and like a lot of folks in the tech/e-Sports startup culture, he has a pretty sordid history of stringing along investors and shifting from zombie company to zombie company. I certainly don’t weep for your average wealthy stock-market hack, but the fact that Bishop so blatantly misled his investors in a bid to obtain more and more power is pretty damning.
But most revealing is both the combo of his past as a carbon copy of every tech bro whose found power in failing upwards as well as his tweets in reaction to someone’s earnest concern:
Mr. Bishop, seeming to have a very feeble grasp on reality, positions the multimedia enterprise funded by the very wealthy son of an Australian grocery empire as a “minority” getting “bullied daily.” He also aggressively touts the idea that helping to amass capital for individuals by writing their paychecks is a virtue, something that puts him above the level of Twitter trash who are skeptical of him and his company’s glorious intentions.
These are far from the only examples of Mr. Bishop seeking out any and all criticism of either himself or Thunder Gaming and puffing his chest out to boast about how much Thunder Gaming has done for the scene and how if people want to help, they, too, could wring some money out of their pockets to help. Moreover, the implication is that the people who are playing have a duty to assist content creators and players in “building their careers,” typically by lining their pockets, and if they don’t, they’re of no use. A true brain worm.
Now I fully understand how this could very well be the ravings of a rogue shareholder, but the fact that Mr. Bishop still refers to himself as an “advisor,” someone whose advice is sought out and heard by the higher-ups, as well as his general status as a public figure representing the organization, one could get the feeling that what he’s saying is an opinion shared by the company he works for.
Of course, I didn’t need to wait long to get confirmation.
Seemingly very, very worried that a video made up of entirely public information with less than 50,000 views by a YouTuber with even less of a following was going to be the downfall of the largest independent film studio on the west coast, founder and executive chairman of Thunder Studios Rodric David took action. Finding some time away from cutting bad real estate deals in Dubai and being found guilty in L.A. court of malice, fraud, and oppression against a former employee of Thunder Studios, David had the Thunder Studios Twitter post a public cease and desist letter directed at Technicals (who they had blocked, so he couldn’t see it).
In this era of e-Sports, I’ve seen a lot of craven things, but this might be one of the absolute dirt worst. I don’t know Technicals from mud, and he may not even be someone I’d get along with personally, but I don’t think making a video that was made entirely of publicly available information and opinion on his part in any way deserves this response. Posting someone’s private information, such as their zip code, can open the floodgates to something much worse; Technicals has already tweeted as such:
Beyond the senseless posting of private information, Mr. David and Mr. Bishop continue to play the victim, implying that a video with relatively little views from someone of a not very substantial following is going to lead to a threat to his employee’s safety and the company as a whole. It’s worth noting that Rodric David’s net worth is estimated at a cool $17,000,000, and he has a lot of money, as the letter remembers to remind the reader over and over again. Mr. David was also far too enamored with the idea of hinting at what he could do with all the power he wields over this individual, instead offering a faux-humble invite for Technicals to stop his “campaign” (one video) and visit Thunder Studio’s luxurious home office before it can get nasty.
The C&D letter was hastily taken down as the community response was intensely negative. Most saw the attempt at strong-arming for what it was, and condemned it outright, including many players associated with Thunder Gaming. What bothered me, however, was that the response very quickly glossed over “the former CEO/top advisor and the millionaire owner are trying to harass a dissenter” to “Yeah, they have bad PR, but they’re doing their best and are good for the community!”
We always say that the community doesn’t stand for harassment, doesn’t stand for bullying, and is willing to take the initiative to remove anyone who does those things. And yet, when those people also have their checkbooks open, they don’t get nearly the same scrutiny and fervor towards removing them from the scene. By any stretch of the imagination, posting someone’s private information with your large platform out into the aether is the kind of thing that gets roundly criticized when any popular figure gets a massive amount of scrutiny, so what’s the deal here?
Make no mistake, these people aren’t smart or particularly Machiavellian about their tactics, they just came to the very obvious conclusion that they need influential people to like them in order to plant a seed in the community. But as we can see with Thunder Gaming, that illusion fades away very quickly when someone even remotely threatens their power, and it could happen to anyone. One day you’re a crucial part of the organization, the next day you’re waking up to a phone call that you’re no longer needed because you’re a negative expense on a page, not a person. Someone digging at your prior history and doubtful of your capacity to actually be a good influence in the scene is worth the intimidation of having a multi-millionaire sue you into the ground. It’s sick, it’s wrong, and it’s the exact thing Mike Ross was talking about.
If someone in a position of power shows you their true colors, there’s no need to pretend that it isn’t exactly who they are. Don’t swallow the tripe about being threatened as a company fool you; a fairly small following on YT isn’t going to bring down anyone. I don’t discount anyone who’s working with an organization of suspect nature so long as the check doesn’t bounce, but at a certain point it becomes irresponsible, in my view, to continue associating with an organization that is very clear about how they will treat people when they have power over them. As with the Nixon example earlier, if someone has a long history of acting a certain way, more power will only lead them to continue to do that at a larger, more harmful scale.
Money, as a rule, is necessary for survival, and unless you belong to a very specific class, there’s a good chance you may feel as if you never have enough. There’s a concentrated effort by those same people, who have accrued a massive amount of power thanks to that money, to make sure you will never have enough to live comfortably without a sustained, lifelong commitment to joining their class. Any morally bankrupt action or ideology formed in the process of that pursuit can be waved off as a reality of life, something to not get upset about because everyone is doing it, and you need to live. “People gotta eat” is the common euphemism thrown out in defense, but is your personal comfort worth letting those above you to spit on someone else for daring to question their omnipotence?
I’ll end this post with a personal story: about a month ago I was very critical of an organization that is getting traction in the NRS community. To put it simply, they brought someone in for the explicit purpose of pumping money into that person’s idea, then, when that person brought up their grievances and threatened to quit, the organization attempted to take credit for the idea and market it as their own. To me, this was exactly the kind of thing that the FGC would normally stand up against, and it was being ignored because “we need them.”
Not long after that, I got a DM from someone close to the organization, and in no uncertain terms they told me that what I was saying was really unfair and ignorant to the whole situation. The person making the accusations was, in fact, a person not to be trusted, and everything was made up to cause drama on purpose. “But don’t worry,’ they said, “it’s not like I’m brainwashed or something. I’m telling you because I care.”
This person was also one of the featured players on the organization’s roster.
To pretend that capital or the potential of capital has no longing influence on how people act is just foolish, and when we look at behaviors that fail to measure up to the base standard of moral integrity, I think you have to look at what behaviors tend to come with strings attached. And funny enough, a whole host of behaviors can be overlooked so long as the person is “growing” the scene and ensuring that there is more opportunity to be had for the individual, and not for the group.
e-Sports, as a rule, is inherently founded in an industry that regularly falsifies its importance for bigger gain and thrives on massive inequality between the top earners and the rest. While there is a lot of good buzzwords about building communities and lifting up everyone, the truth is that this is an extension of the rat race to join the top 1% that big money is so often attached to. A very privileged few will actually break through, and the people running the show will tell the vast majority that don’t that it is selfish and wrong to prohibit a very small amount of people from having the potential of joining them at the top, and the only course of action is to give what little you have to the few so at least they have a chance of doing what you can’t. In order to let this mentality become morally acceptable, those with power will sow discord amongst a community by pitting it at as us vs. them, that they are the innocent, doe-eyed minority being bullied by a community that doesn’t know what kind of help they are denying. Eventually, the people who should be pointing out the inequality will instead perpetuate it, having been convinced by the lies that big money is just misguided at worst, and deeply altruistic at best.
Like Mike Ross said, I think it is wonderful that people who dream to play fighting games and earn life-changing money. Stories like that of Saul “MenaRD” Mena and Masato “Bonchan” Takahashi, who have used the gains they have made from fight games to help lift up their countries’ players has been nothing short of inspirational. And we have seen many companies such as Red Bull that exist as a good-faith provider, hosting events in various local communities and giving these lesser-seen areas a boost in awareness and opportunity. These are all great things, and I hope they continue.
What I think needs to be examined, however, is what behaviors and actions the community will let slide so long as it pays out in the end. As I’ve discussed before, if a certain type of behavior that goes against the values of a community goes unquestioned long enough, there is a scary potential for it to become normalized. Treating people like garbage and threatening anyone with serious financial harm for criticizing you is not normal, should never be normal, and anyone who does it needs to be put on notice by the community’s leaders, no matter how deep their wallet. The money is good, and we all need it to survive, but how much is too much? Is it worth giving up even a basic sense of moral integrity in order to host or promote an event that will please the powers-that-be into having a sustained relationship with you? It’s a difficult question, but ignoring it will get nothing done; now’s the time to start the conversation, because it will only get worse.