Confronting Labor Abuse in Communities

CW: Links to stories of sexual abuse

An owner that doesn’t want to pay the staff that organizes for him, let alone refer to them as “employees,” because “then I have to treat it like a business.” Management that sacks an employee the day after booking them a flight to a foreign event, forcing them to either stay home or attend the event and pay for room and board out of pocket. A gaming production company owned by the son of a billionaire grocery magnate defrauding a business partner of over $200,000 and acting with “malice, fraud, [and] oppression.”

All of these could easily be ripped from the headlines about any number of corporations in the world today, but these are true stories happening in the world of Esports today, all of them specific to the fighting game community. As the FGC continues to face a reckoning over widespread instances of sexual harassment and assault, as well as race and gender issues, the next step is figuring out how to move forward. Obviously there is a clear need for a more widespread awareness and behavioral change in the community, and that comes from examining the culture of the community at large to determine how such abhorrent behavior has been allowed to run rampant. Many different folks have been discussing the culture of sexual harassment in gaming communities, which is absolutely true and necessary to look into, but an area that frequently goes unspoken about is how often there are incidents of abuse of labor in gaming communities.

As described by Cecilia D’Anastasio in Kotaku, tons of insiders are well aware that the eSports industry, which naturally flows throughout all gaming communities, is terribly inflated and often relies on lofty promises based on faulty data, pitched to wealthy folks who like video games and aren’t really plussed about turning a profit or not. Bored, disinterested millionaires and billionaires investing in people selling pipe dreams who create organizations with severe hierarchical disparity, leaving a very scant few to reap the benefits. If you do end up getting consistent, paid work, it rarely lasts long before it all goes up in flames. The people largely responsible for the mess go unharmed, while all the people who worked hard to keep those initial hopes and dreams alive have to deal with the fallout.

Most of these organization owners are aware that they are on the gravy train, and seek to rise as fast as possible so they can ride out the inevitable crash smoothly. But that is too much for even the craftiest of individuals to do alone: creating a social media presence, streaming and organizing, drawing up a brand logo and/or merchandise designs are all areas necessary for any decent company. So they find the right people, only we now get back to that nasty business from earlier; they need your labor and the fruits of your labor but either can’t or won’t pay you for it. This is often seen as the necessary sacrifice to start a new business, and many use that type of language to valorize the concept, but that is stolen valor, only existing to justify blatant theft of someone’s time, brains, and muscle into a passionate endeavor. “I can’t pay you for your efforts,” they’ll whisper, “but think of the potential this could be worth in my hands as opposed to yours!”

When examining abuse in tech spaces, Valerie Aurora and Leigh Honeywell coined the Al Capone Theory of Sexual Harassment, which states that people who engage in sexual harassment often also bring harm to a workplace in other ways, such as embezzling funds or plagiarizing. “All of these behaviors” the pair wrote, “are the actions of someone who feels entitled to other people’s property—regardless of whether it’s someone else’s ideas, work, money, or body.” The two women theorized that any company that hears an accusation of sexual harassment should immediately look into other areas of misconduct as well. In the same vein, it may be important to consider that this theory works both ways – someone who feels entitled to the work and/or ideas of someone could easily slide into other areas of abuse as well.

Much like tech, gaming has seen astronomical levels of growth in a relatively short time. Everyone wants a piece of the pie, and the FGC is certainly no different; event expectations are larger than ever, and the biggest tournaments are almost literal fighting game conventions at this point, with panels from game developers, lots of merchandise, both intra-communal and otherwise, to buy, and “meet-and-greets” with popular FGC personalities. But as more and more investors and corporate brands have taken an interest in the medium as a means of making money and selling products, these smaller gaming communities also have begun to absorb some of the ills that weaken not just communities, but society at large. One of the most pervasive is the very fabric of what capitalistic societies are built on: in order for a business to make the profits necessary to survive in a competitive marketplace, there must exist a massive difference between the value of the labor put into a business’s product, and the value of the output of said product.

This imbalance is how the system works: labor, the human toll of production, simply cannot be worth as much as the output of the labor. That imbalance (and the things nations will do to preserve the imbalance) gets worse as the hunt for cheap materials and cheaper labor goes global. In this context, abuse of labor has to occur in order to maximize profit. This doesn’t mean every person who owns or operates a business is Ebenezer Scrooge; you could be the nicest business owner of all time and you’re still going to pay an oft-unlivable wage to employees or withold basic benefits and protections because it is the difference between surviving and not surviving in the marketplace. That’s just reality. Gaming companies are some of the most brutal in this regard. To put an example: a company spends $50 to buy materials to make a ladder, they have a laborer use their brains and muscle to construct the ladder using those materials, then they sell the final product for $150. The output of the final product was worth more than what was spent on the materials, and that $100 added value was the result of the work of the laborer who used those materials. But that $100 of profit doesn’t go to the laborer; only an agreed-upon wage that the company pays them does. If that wage is (generously speaking) the average AZ minimum wage of $11.00 an hour, and it takes an hour to build a ladder, that means the value added to the materials by the laborer is worth nine times what they are actually paid to do it. It’s not a terribly complicated subject, but the nobility of work is so valorized that many don’t see this system as inherently immoral.

However, hundreds of years of an economic system that plagues the roots of society isn’t something that will change overnight, and as mentioned, it doesn’t mean all who play the game are bad people. And the FGC certainly isn’t a unique or otherwise particularly pernicious offender. There are plenty of intracommunal businesses in the FGC that contribute a lot and are worth supporting. Tournament organizers are usually a good example: the good they provide to not just their local communities but very often their regional communities are the bedrock most tournaments run at a significant loss for the organizer involved, and while the reliance on volunteers to do some of the hardest work is unfortunate, many of the bigger tournaments are slowly trying to change that by adding either a direct payment or at least comping food and entry fees to help offset that imbalance. That is not a perfect solution, but it is a start.

Having said that, is difficult to ignore that many of the offenders in the stories of late, particularly in the Super Smash Bros. side of the community, were high-level influencers or high-ranking organization members, valuable brands that took years of concerted effort to build, with a large audience, exactly the type that is necessary to attract outside investment. An audience means that you have a following, and that following presumably has money to spend in support of you, so companies will pay for the influencer to promote their products in the hopes that audience will line their pockets in support of their heroes. That audience was just as much their key to earnings as it was their armor. Any time a serious allegation came up, legions of fans with unhealthy, toxic para-social relationships to the person were available to run interference. This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature; consumer culture relies on the idea that society is reduced to producers and consumers, with the nuance washed away in order to protect the virtue of the producer, who is seen as uncompromisingly good, even when they’re being abusive. And these figures are the community to a great number of people, which makes the toxicity all the more threatening.

Abuse is a complex topic often smashed down into being two-dimensional: either you intentionally harmed someone physically or you didn’t. Gone is the nuance of exploring the very real nature of emotional and mental abuse, the toll that gaslighting and manipulation can take on a human being. This kind of abuse happens in workplaces all over the world but because the abuse is the foundation of the system, few question it and most take inspiration from it. But to take someone’s time and the efforts of their brains and/or muscle for personal gain without compassion or compensation for the human being on the other end? That’s abuse, and as mentioned earlier, abuse in one area can and will lead to abuse in other areas; if you lack compassion for someone’s well-being to take advantage of their time an effort, it becomes far easier to take advantage of them in a multitude of ways.

Noble eSports has long been a suspicious organization that had a very clear history of labor abuse. From confusing, one-sided contracts to withheld earnings to, worst of all, evicting its members from a house with only a weeks notice after not paying them for so long that many on the team were suffering from malnutrition, it was very clear that Noble’s top brass clearly had very little respect for the human beings it chose to employ.

It was not shocking, then, to hear that its founder and former CEO, Paul “Recon” Radil, has a history of sexually harassing women as well. As detailed in this Twitter thread, Radil went as far as telling a woman in the organization’s orbit that she would have to have sexual relations with a member of the team in order to have access:

This was never addressed by the organization until recently, which was only immediately following the exit of its CEO, Jeremy McLamb, who quit in protest. According to him, Radil, who still operates Noble from behind the scenes even after numerous claims are made that he’s not, and his inner circle refused to let the organization give any validity to the allegations brought against him and told McLamb to bury it:

After McLamb’s departure he was replaced as CEO by former VP of operations and longtime Noble staff Maze, who, according to former members of Noble, was not only complicit in covering up Radil’s misgivings but also abusive himself:

Notice how, in all of this, Noble has not once considered the labor abuse as prescient or even worth consideration of discussion. How, then, could they be trusted to take other forms of abuse as seriously? Easy answer: they did not, and will not. Members of its top brass still operate within certain sectors of the community, and the potential for them to continue this cycle of labor abuse remains an ever present threat.

If the FGC wants to seriously consider ridding itself of abusers and ensuring that the culture around the community shifts for the better, it needs to consider how rampant abuse, in all forms, runs in the community. It is already an issue that most organizers are woefully unequipped to handle even the most black-and-white scenarios of abusive behavior, but it also doesn’t help that the warning signs so often go ignored because it is ingrained in general society that labor abuse is acceptable. As with Noble, how can one expect an organizer who knowingly puts tremendous pressure on staff in terrible situations or treats artists as if they are disposable machines that dole out logos to seriously handle a situation where someone’s being abusive? And this isn’t just restricted to small orgs like Noble – the CEO of the biggest entity in fighting games, Evo, was an abuser, too. These are situations that require an active defense, not band-aids like “more security” or better vibes.

If an artist is willing to mention how an organization ripped them off or stole their artwork, or someone is upfront about how their ideas and labor were taken advantage of by another, these are situations where harm was done that should be taken appropriately seriously. It always starts small, but nipping it in the bud and preventing that harm from exacerbating is worth the effort because the long-term ramifications can be very bad. No one could have predicted just how deep the well ran on Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios, the Smash player who was revealed to have solicited explicit images from underaged girls, but back in 2017, a popular FGC artist bravely discussed how Barrios had treated her at the 2016 Evolution event:

Abuse is, at heart, a fundamental lack of respect and compassion for a person to the point where one stops treating the other like a human being. Sometimes it takes the form of physical violence, but it can be in other forms, too. In Barrio’s case, it came in the guise of manipulating and intimidating people for favors. Even in this example, one can see that he had no remorse or compassion for this person and only wanted what she could give him. By this point the serious sexual harassment that Barrios did had already been done, but this is a clear window into the way he was willing to treat someone in order to get what he wanted. Were more people in positions of authority willing to hold Barrio responsible for it, perhaps he would not have gone on to benefit so much from the community while being the manipulative abuser he was.

The FGC is ultimately a very small sub-community in the greater gaming community, and it almost entirely revolves around the passion of its members to put on great events. This passion often goes unrewarded, no matter how hard people work to put on the best show. A lot of people realize that and take advantage, offering the world while only intending to extract that hard work for themselves and leave nothing for that person or the community at large. That is how eSports, as an industry, has survived even though it is hardly profitable, and that has trickled down into all of gaming as more and more people seek to cash out. It is an abusive way to do business, and when one type of abuse goes unopposed, so too will other, graver forms as well.

To stop this toxic cycle is to prevent it from happening, and while a firm Code of Conduct and education about certain topics is sorely needed and necessary, a baseline of ethics involving how businesses and people respect the work of others is going to be important as more people seek to create organizations and pro teams with people from the community. The answer may not be easy, but now more than ever, the community needs to look out for each other and prevent the worst aspects of eSports culture from taking over for good. The community doesn’t have the power to affect the kind of social change necessary to rid society of the toxic relationship it finds workers and employers in right now, but doing what we can with what we have is still important and worth doing.


One response to “Confronting Labor Abuse in Communities”

  1. From Ashes – Them's Fighting Words!! Avatar

    […] have followed Noble Esports throughout the years, marvelling at just how much sheer force-of-will powered the brand through all its scandals. Every time a new low would be reached, the official Twitter […]


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