The Echoes of Silence

“If you just ignore it, will it eventually go away!”

This canard, best used to distract children who are crying about their sibling making faces, has taken on a new meaning as we all are increasingly more online. Social media demands that its users engage one another, and there is no better engagement than tapping into the isolation, fear, and loathing of a generation quick to pour their personal life out into the aether. There’s a very small chance that one doesn’t see a controversial tweet or news item pushed onto their feeds, taunting you almost: “Geez, doesn’t this piss you off! Say something about it!” No judgement, I’m just as guilty as everyone else.

“Ignoring” something, even if you take the time to curate your online presence with carefully worded block chains and mutes of certain profiles, is a near impossibility. We are bombarded with the worst the world has to offer and expected to comment blithely on it. Some people may see this very blog post despite wanting nothing to do with this topic or the discourse surrounding it! And yet, here we are.

It’s not all bad, however. Much like we can’t ignore our favorite childhood celebrities posting lizard-brained support of fascists, it has become increasingly hard to ignore the voices of the marginalized and downtrodden when they talk about being victims of abuse in some form or fashion. Small though their voices may be, embracing the chaos and bravely putting their story out into the aether can cause it to be amplified far beyond their reach. A web of shares can spread in a matter of minutes, sometimes getting to powerful people who may actually be able to take charge and find a solution to the problem.

As with any chaotic structure, nothing is guaranteed, however. And in the fighting game community, which exists as a cluster of different regions all over the world with no centralized authority, the chances are even lower. Appealing to an authority to try and explain an instance in which you were harmed can be difficult, especially when real, lasting authority is so limited and possibly incapable of handling these kinds of situations.

Or, worse, when one of the only real authorities in the community does the impossible and ignores the very loud calls for action around them.


The Evolution Championship Series is the most recognizable brand representing the fighting game community. Its tenure in the community is nearly unmatched, as is the prestige and legacy it has accumulated over the past two decades. It’s hosted right on the Las Vegas Strip and attracts people from almost every continent in massive waves; tournaments at even have reached as high as two thousand entrants in the past few years. The finals of the event are held in a large sporting arena that can seat a few thousand and has been broadcast on television more than a few times since its inception. There are very few tournaments that can compare to its scope, and none that have the name-value it does.

With that name-value and recognition, however, comes a tough reality: Evo, like it or not, has possibly the largest voice in the scene next to Capcom. When a game is or isn’t at Evo, that often leads the discourse about whether a game is “dead” or not. A sticker that says “Main Game at Evolution” is even used to sell fighting games to the mass market!

05_blazblue-evo01
The power of branding

When they make a move, the entire community reacts; this is the kind of power that comes with being the largest fighting game event in the world.

It’s also what makes their silence all the more frustrating.

Last year, Evo had a rough weekend. The spectacularly high level play on display was largely overshadowed by several incidents that cast the event in a bad light. Chief among those incidents were several instances of drugging and sexual assault at an afterparty that was promoted by Evo as its “official” afterparty.

As Kotaku reported, the event was hosted at the HyperX e-Sports Arena at the Luxor hotel and casino, and despite being an “official” afterparty, the only barrier of entry was being above 21. Two women reported being physically assaulted, with one going as far as to confront their attacker, who was then removed by the event security. Another person took a drink intended for his female friend and blacked out, indicating that the drink was drugged. The Kotaku article did not include the other instance of drugging that took place, which was recounted on Twitter.

In addition to the incidents at the afterparty, Evo caught flack for its fawning tweet over the performance of Seon-Woo “Infiltration” Lee, the winner of that weekend’s Samurai Shodown tournament. The tweet announcing his victory called it a “triumphant return,” neglecting to mention that Lee’s then-11 month disappearance from major international tournaments was due to the revelation of disturbing domestic abuse incident that he was fined for in South Korean court. Lee’s continued insistence on his own innocence, often through livestreams and tweets that were aggressive and defamatory of his ex-wife, the victim, was criticized greatly, especially after he announced his intention to play at Evolution 2019.

The last string of incidents didn’t have much to do with the event perse, but not a week after Evo there was a rush of FGC players and personalities admitting to or exposed for sexual misconduct. Leah “Gllty” Hayes, e-Sports photographer Chris Bahn, and Davon “Promaelia” Crawley all took to Twitter to give apologies, but the response was swift and brutal. Two of the biggest tournaments in the scene, Combo Breaker and CEO, quickly issued indefinite bans to both Hayes and Bahn, as did East Coast Throwdown and the conglomerate of tournaments under Big E Gaming. Even harsher was Capcom, who specifically stated that Hayes was forbidden from participation in their Capcom Pro Tour.

As you can see, the 2019 event was definitely marred by issues both internally and within the greater community. But you may notice something missing in all of the links posted above: there is no statement from Evo themselves on any of these particular controversies. There are no tweets, no news outlet article, nothing. Aside from the Kotaku article, which only specifically quotes HyperX e-Sports Arena as having no comment, their have been no comments from the main players on the very real issues related to the 2019 event, other than a brief statement during their 2020 game reveal regarding the inexcusably long lines to get in during the first day.

This is inexcusable.


Before I go further, it should be worth stating that I am not suggesting that Evo has taken no steps to deal with what happened last year. It may very well be that at next year’s event they choose to have a cover charge for their afterparty, or may even not have an afterparty at all. Privately they may have rebuked whomever was responsible for the tweet regarding Infiltration and relieved them of having that access. They also may have communicated privately to the players banned by other tournaments that they are formally banned and may no longer attend the event in any way, shape, or form.

We already know that Evo staff did their best in trying to help find justice for the victims of the drugging, as attested to publicly by Michigan Masters TO TheIceyGlaceon, one of the victims of the drugging, and I think that’s a distinction worth noting. It’s very easy to slag Evo as a brand and a corporate entity and disregard that there are human beings who make up that organization, human beings who may have flaws but are trying their best within the circumstances. As such, their efforts in this particular area should be acknowledged and praised, even if it was not made public.

With all that said, however, Evo has made a conscientious decision to not even allude that the incident in question happened. Unlike others, I do not share the opinion that Evo was under an obligation to report the names and faces of who did the drugging; as Icey stated on the r/SF podcast, it was the choice of all the victims involved to not have any of that made public. At the same time, this was an event that was promoted as the “official afterparty” of Evo. Regardless that the Luxor Hotel hosted it at the HyperX e-Sports Arena, the fact of the matter is that, at some point, Evo directed folks through their very popular Twitter account to attend a party that had lax security and ended with people getting hurt.

By any metric, there should at least have been an acknowledgement that people who attended Evo were hurt at a party promoted and endorsed by Evo as its “official afterparty.”  Again, specifics aren’t important, but I think it’s better to show future attendees that their safety is a prerogative. Anyone who goes to Evo shouldn’t have to wonder if an event that Evo is telling their attendees to attend is safe or not, and that’s exactly the kind of doubt that settles in after an incident like this. Just even the tiniest hint that they talked with staff at HyperX or Luxor into having tighter security would have been enough, but instead there is nothing. It was easy enough to give out a minor notice after the terrible Jacksonville shooting, also unrelated to the event, that security was going to be a major concern going forward. What has changed?


While the afterparty silence is troubling, the instance that I think is outright craven is everything regarding Infiltration. Joey “Mr. Wizard” Cuellar, the president of Evo, acknowledged a tweet thread that asked if he was banned, and even played around in his mentions; the organization knew full well that he was planning to attend and made sure to note that he was totally allowed. Prior to his grand finals appearance Infiltration appeared on stream during pools, a conscientious decision by Evo staff to give him some air time. When he finally won, he got the big celebration and name up on the stream and congratulatory, fawning tweet that everyone else gets. At no point did Evo do anything other than embrace Infiltration as just a regular tourney goer, as if the past year hadn’t happened.

That is, until it became clear people were upset with them. The “triumphant return” tweet, which is a clear acknowledgement that Lee had been gone for some reason, was never deleted; looking at the comments, you can see a wash of negativity and outrage at the wording in the tweet. The reaction was instantaneous, and on Sunday, when the production team put together a video package showing off the winners of the tournaments leading into finals day, one game and champion was notably missing. Almost immediately, Evo recognized their mistake and tried to erase it from the annals. This continued during the recent 2020 game lineup reveal, where they once again showed a montage of every game at the 2019 event with a small recap of the grand finals, but left off Samurai Shodown. When Samurai Shodown was announced yet again for Evo 2020, the clips used to show the game off were from Evo Japan, and not Evo Worlds.

The problem with that method is that this only serves to paper over the very obvious problem that Lee is attending their tournaments even though there is clearly a direct and measured instance to erase him from any recap or re-broadcast of the event. Clearly they understand that platforming Lee is a bad idea, especially since his Evo win in 2019 led directly to an interview with IGN Korea in which he once again appeared to slander his ex-wife, but they seem unwilling to do something about it other than pretend it didn’t happen. This inaction and willful denial that they are giving credence to a domestic abuser is an incredibly strange take from an organization that was more than happy to stream and highlight a panel from the same 2019 event hosted by women in the FGC, who spoke about how it is difficult to feel totally welcome in a space that so frequently has people that hurt them specifically in it.

If they aren’t going to ban him, that’s one thing, but at the very least deleting the “triumphant return” tweet and apologizing for doing that would go a very long way. If the FGC wants to lose its reputation for having little consequence towards abusers, I would hope that its biggest tournament in the world could find some time to show a hint of solidarity and own up to when they make a huge mistake. They were very willing to do that when Evo Japan put adult entertainers on the stream, tweeting out in a now-deleted post that the actions from the models went against their “core values.” Apologizing to the community, even in a fairly silly situation like this, has been done before when there may be potential for backlash. What has changed?

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Speaking of solidarity, I don’t think there is anything to say about Evo’s complete silence about abusers like Gllty and Chris Bahn as anything other than a stunning lack of it. Again, I could give the benefit of the doubt that they have privately told these people that they can’t attend, but it goes back to that issue of attendee safety as a concern. Hayes is a serial offender, with many women openly speaking about how she had spent years being consistently inappropriate, some even stating that they believed her intention was to get them intoxicated first. Someone like this should have no business attending an event, and if it was good enough for Combo Breaker and CEO to publicly announce it, what’s stopping Evo? Are they awash in so much corporate bureaucracy and needless PR that they can’t issue the same notice? Do they know something we don’t?

I feel as if I constantly repeat myself, but when you are the biggest tournament in the world, ensuring that people who have been known to harm other FGC members are not welcome at your events, and informing the community that you have taken those steps is critical. If you did it privately, great, but I think the community is going to notice that other TO’s and tournaments are willing to publicly stand up for the community and broadcast through their large platforms “This behavior is unacceptable, and we are no longer tolerating it.” What is to be gained from the public silence? Is your brand so much more important that you don’t want to risk sullying it by being mired in these communal issues? It was easy enough in 2016 when Noel Brown was formally banned from competing by Capcom and Combo Breaker, why isn’t it good enough now? What has changed? 

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As I mentioned before, Evo isn’t a shadowy cabal of anonymous figures looking to only line their pockets. It’s made up of regular people, just like you and me, who work very hard to get this giant show up and running every year. It’s hard work, it’s often thankless work, and probably not paying as well as it should, either. I think it’s important when you’re critiquing that you come from a place of good faith and acknowledge how hard it is not only to run a major tournament, but the biggest one in the world. Sometimes things slip through the cracks and there are bigger fires to put out.

With that acknowledgement, however, must come the recognition that the Evolution tournament, and by that I mean the people who are explicitly tasked with getting the event together, are leaders in this community. Part of the responsibility that comes with being a leader is communication to the folks you’re leading, and I think that is where most would agree that Evo has done a poor job in the last year.

Lest anyone accuse me of acting in bad faith and engaging in mere purity tests, it’s not that I want Evo to fall in line with how I think they should act. Of course I would like them to, but if they came to a decision that Infiltration should be competing, or that the afterparty situation was handled well, or even that people like Chris Bahn and Gllty don’t need to be banned, then fine. We can disagree ’til the cows come home, but at least I would have something to disagree with based on their own words and active decisions. Instead, I’m left speculating and thinking the worst because I have no idea what the rationale behind these decisions could be and they’re not very keen on transparency.

It’s not like people have just been quiet about it, either. If you look up the #Evo2020Reveal tag on Twitter, all the top tweets, the ones most liked and shared with that hashtag, are all asking about Infiltration. It’s nowhere near indicative of the thousands and thousands that attend Evo, but folks have been asking them to step up and say something about it. Same with the afterparty and same with the bans on problematic individuals. It would be unreasonable to expect a big organization to notice the protests of one person or a very small group of folks, but it’s a lot of people who noticed the radio silence this year.

What concerns me the most is, again, the precedent this could potentially set. If the biggest tournament in the world is willing to just no-sell safety concerns and the ethics of highlighting an unrepentant domestic abuser, then what message does that send to the hundreds of would-be organizers all across the world? “If you ignore something for long enough, it will go away and people will already be on to the next event, too busy to worry about that issue that blew up for a little while last year.”

We have already seen in the case of Infiltration that the expectation is that there is a predetermined period of time that you can just disappear from public eye for and everything should be fine again. I worry greatly that Evo is legitimizing that claim and opening the door to further instances where a freeze in time is seen as “good enough,” where real, tangible action is a slave to the sands of time. Ignoring something, especially now, is getting more and more difficult, and it was hard to ignore the people very openly angry at the support Infiltration was getting last year and the tweets from women who were assaulted at the afterparty. This is apparently clear to Evo as well, since they are censoring Infiltration out of their footage but curiously continue to stay quiet about it.

If we, the community, don’t get the privilege of ignoring the safety and ethical concerns of last year’s Evo, than neither should Evo. It is not asking too much for the event to hold themselves to the standard they have upheld themselves to in year’s past, and I hope they can correct course for 2020. Evo should be the gold standard, but its continued silence and the intangible echoes it weaves across the community is quickly turning it into the bog standard.

 

 

 

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