“I think by burying conflict, we’re hiding the most interesting aspect of our personality.” – George Karl
One of the best aspects about esports is the conflict. It is what drives some of the best stories throughout esports history. In Starcraft 2 you had Greg “IdrA” Fields against himself, Johan “NaNiwa” Lucchesi against the world. In CS:GO, one of the great rivalries was after Astralis had kicked Finn “Karrigan” Andersen in 2016 and his return to the top of the scene at 2017. The best story to come out of the Overwatch League was Chan-hyung “Fissure” Baek vs London Spitfires. The most dramatic story to come out in all of 2018 has to go to the battle between Johan “N0tail” Sunstein and Tal “Fly Aizik. Their relationship and the fallout of it was all anyone could talk about during OG’s run to victory at The International 8. Conflict is a critical element in the narrative of esports and is a critical element in the growth of esports going forward.
To understand why conflict is important, we have to first understand the importance of sports or competition in general. I consider competition to be a metaphorical analogy of life. Life is after all a series of games in which everyone has to participate. Competition is a distilled version of that with it’s own unique set of rules and community surrounding in it. The difference is that life is far more muddied in terms of what it means to be a winner, to be successful, or to be excellent. Games and competition is far more concrete. The winner is the last one standing. And just as life has conflicts, so too does competition.
However, every once in a while you get a specific type of player or situation that heightens the stakes that are involved. These are the moments where the narrative can over take the natural conflicts of a competition and it can morph into something bigger. It taps into an emotional center at the core of every human. Moments where people get swept up into the drama and regardless of how much interest a person actually has for a game, they are interested in the clash between sides and the outcomes of those clashes.
In Starcraft 2, no two players exemplify this more than Idra or NaNiwa. Both were either villains or anti-heroes depending on who you asked. Both were able to buck social convention to the delight of their fans and the horror of their haters. In the case of Idra, he was one of the better foreigner players early on in Starcraft 2 history and was completely willing to shit talk everyone and everything. This was a facet of his personality that came from his competitiveness. He wanted to be the best and he wanted to show it. This could rub people the wrong way and one of the most common criticisms I remember was that, “He couldn’t do this if he was doing a real job.” Whereas a common praise of Idra was that he kept it real. That regardless of community pressure or hate, he had the cojones to say what he meant and put it out there.
This created an incredible dynamic in the scene where Idra’s games became an almost metaphysical contest between right and wrong. Every time he won, he was hailed as the greatest foreigner to ever play the game. Every time he lost, he failed because of some karmic balance in the universe. While that dynamic is ridiculous, it does point to an important thing about Idra’s career. Right or wrong, good or bad, he forced an emotional response out of every fan or hater he had.
The same could be said about NaNiwa, except even more so. While Idra was fine trash talking his opponents and the community, he was considered an absolute professional to work with. NaNiwa on the other hand pushed the envelope even harder. However the difference between the two of them was that NaNiwa was an even better player, so the opinions about he became even more polarized. This was a player that had bitter rivalries with some of the greatest foreigners to ever play Starcraft 2.
For instance, Marcus “ThorZaIN” Eklof was a regional rival, one whose accomplishments did not match NaNiwa’s. He was someone that the community consistently rated higher than NaNiwa around 2012-2013 and this annoyed NaNiwa to no end. Because of that he joined the eSports-SM tournament and told the interview why he joined, “I don’t want to be compared to ‘ThorZaIN’, I think I’m much better than him. The only reason I’m playing the Swedish Championships is to beat him.”
One of the most famous incidents came at MLG providence where NaNiwa won the MLG Global Invitational before the main event. In an interview afterward, he said how he was disappointed in Lim “Nestea” Jae Duk’s performance. Nestea heard about this and became enraged and tore through the tournament to have a rematch against NaNiwa could advance. In the end NaNiwa won the rematch, but the heightened emotions and tension around the match were palpable when it actually happened.
Sometimes the best story comes out of revenge. Everyone who has ever lived has had a moment where they feel unwanted or underappreciated. Perhaps that is why the Count of Monte Cristo continues to resonate so many years after as a novel. In the case of Fissure, he created his own trail of revenge in the first season of Overwatch League after he was kicked from the London Spitfire to the L.A. Gladiators. Fissure recalled the move in his Players Lobby article,
“I don’t really know the details, but I think the London Spitfire chose to sell me to the Gladiators because they thought the Gladiators were a weak team.”
Fissure was able to rally the team together and spent the entire season getting revenge against his former squad and teammates. In the stage after he joined the L.A. Gladiators, he matched up against London Spitfire. The London Spitfire didn’t take the game seriously as they used their subs in the first two matches. They were killed for their hubris and by the time they reverted back to their A-team, it was too late. Fissure and the L.A. Gladiators continued to beat the London Spitfire in the head-to-head. In Stage 3, they won 3-2. And in the final stage, they reverse swept the London Spitfire as they started the series 0-2 before coming back to win 3-2. After winning that series, Fissure famously said, “London, are you guys regretting it?”
The brilliant thing about Fissure’s story is that no one needs to understand Overwatch to get invested into it. Everyone has had times in their life where they were removed from the social group and felt undervalued as a result. They had that burning need to prove that not only were they as good as the rest, they were better. That was the brilliance of Fissure’s story.
Another more recent example from Overwatch comes from the Overwatch World Cup. Team USA decided to market themselves with a bit more edge and cockiness as they were willing to trash talk the other teams. This backfired spectacularly after they were taken out by the UK 3-1 in the playoffs, but this if anything shows how important having emotional stakes can be to draw investment from fans. If USA had been a vanilla team, no one would be as interested in watching them. But because they were so cocky and willing to put it out there, everyone wanted to see them either succeed or crash. It isn’t a coincidence that a tweet from Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles that is only this:
— MonteCristo (@MonteCristo) November 2, 2018
Gets to the top of social media. The audience loves to eat this kind of thing up. Competition is great, but if extra spice is added to it, it can become even more special.
An example of this from CS:GO was when Karrigan was benched from Astralis and then transferred over to FaZe. At the beginning of 2017, Astralis won the Major and were on their way to creating an era. However before they could do it, FaZe came roaring back as Karrigan was able to rally the team of international players together and along with Nikola “NiKo” Kovac stopped their chances at Starladder i-League Season 3. From that point onward, the rivalry between Karrigan and his ex-teammates became intense.
They conducted mental warfare against each other. At IEM Sydney, FaZe lost cobblestone against Astralis and said that they had hidden tactics. Gla1ve immediately called out Karrigan, saying, “One thing I can tell you is that Karrigan is definitely lying — nobody is hiding tactics from when you are behind 12-6, that would just be stupid. If you don’t even try to make the comeback, how would you even be able to make the comeback? I know for sure this is a lie, but we will see how the veto goes.”
As it turned out, Karrigan had pulled a fast one and FaZe were able to close out cobblestone against Astralis. Havard “rain” Nygaard recalled the intense rivalry between Karrigan and his ex-teammates at the time in an interview saying, “But for karrigan, it’s a totally different picture. He really wants to win and his energy level and everything, is maxed out when he plays against Astralis. He never wants to lose against them. Everytime we lose, like when we lost in Katowice, he’s watching everything and he’s trying to figure out new stuff to counter them. He has this extra will to beat them because they basically kicked him. So in his case there’s a rivalry, indeed.”
That was an amicable split that ended up benefiting both parties. However what happens when it feels like a betrayal. When it comes at the worst possible time at the worst possible moment? That is exactly what happened to OG heading into The International 8. Fly and Gustav “s4” Magnusson decided to leave OG right before TI8 to join EG because they believed that they would have a better chance of winning the tournament on that team.
This was a body blow to the OG players, particularly to n0tail. He and Fly were the duo. They had a long history of playing together that went all the way back to Heroes of Newerth. Both of them had preached the ideals of family and friendship in the team and they were left floundering. OG had to pull off a last minute shuffle where everything had to change. Their stand-in player, who was formerly their coach Sebastien “7ckngMad” Debs had to change role. Fly had to become a leader. Anathan “ana” Pham joined the team and went from Mid laner to Carry. Finally they had to get a rookie mid laner in Topias “Topson” Taavitsainen.
During their TI8 run, OG ran into EG. It was a battle between Fly and n0tail, once one of the most iconic duos in the game, now turned into bitter rivals. In the end OG won and then there was the handshake.
It was one of the most emotional moments in the entire tournament as everyone understood what was at stake in that game and in those moments. The conflicts that came out heightened the drama and it felt like everything had been put on the line.
When I look back across all of these esports and these stories, one thing becomes clear. Conflict is a critical element in growing and connecting new people to the esports competition. While people may not understand the game elements, they do understand the emotional conflict between players and the stakes therein. In an era where publishers and communities seem to be trying to avoid conflict, I think it’s critical that communities allow it. While you cannot let players go over the line, there must be some leeway and allowances for these conflicts to manifest and grow in the esports scene because these are the stories and battles that turn into unforgettable ones. That forces fans, both casual and hardcore to connect on the deepest emotional level to the games.