Well, it actually happened. After almost a month of escalation, finally it seems the Chinese government has intervened to ban two players from attending a Valve Major tournament on Chinese soil. Their offence? To use the onomatopoeic pejorative “chingchong” used to describe certain Asian languages, particularly Mandarin Chinese. This ruling, affecting former compLexity player Rolen Andrei Gabriel “Skem” Ong and current TNC offlaner Carlo “Kuku” Palad (both from the Philippines) represents the first time across any esport that the decision to ban players from an official Valve tournament was purportedly taken out of Valve’s hands.
Here’s a brief history of how we got to the point of Chinese government intervention. During the tenth season of DreamHack’s DreamLeague the compLexity player inexplicably typed “gl chingchong” during a match against the Chinese opponents Royal Never Give Up. Even writing this sentence, it seems mind-boggling to me why this would ever happen in a professional environment. No excuses were proffered by compLexity who swiftly punished the player and Ong issued an apology. Had this been a lone incident maybe that would be the end of the story, an esports staple no less; young player says stupid thing in public, is punished, lesson learned.
However, just a few days later Palad, while playing a public game, used the same word in response to another player typing in Chinese. Another fine, another apology, but not the end of the story. Coming approximately 48 hours after the Ong incident the inflamed sensibilities of the Chinese community came to the forefront. Fans took to social media to voice their disapproval and while Valve remained silent on the matter they then took to review-bombing Dota 2 on Steam.
Worse was yet to come. Both incidents happening ahead of another Valve major tournament in Kuala Lumpur, where TNC with Palad and three Chinese teams were competing, the professional Chinese players also wanted to show they were far from happy with the situation. Using a tag in their names that read [RESPECT], they took to their matches clearly disgruntled with the lack of intervention. Shining an even bigger spotlight on it all was the fact that TNC were in the same group of two of three Chinese teams both of whom they played.
On the first day of the Major, the coach of Chinese Team Aster, Xu “BurNIng” Zhilei also published an email exchanged that he had with one of Valve’s main points of contact for the Dota esports scene, Erik Johnson. In these exchanges, Johnson made it clear that while Valve absolutely did obviously not approve of or even tolerate the use of racist language from professional Dota players, they would only get involved should the organisation that employs them fail to act.
It was against this backdrop Valve released an official blog post stating, “We’ve been spending the past few days talking to various pro players and community leaders about this. From all the interactions we’ve seen over the years, we know that deep down professional players respect each other immensely. However, we want to be very clear that Valve will not tolerate racist language between pro players in any form.”
This should have been as satisfactory conclusion as can be reached after such incidents. The fact that Valve, notoriously hands off when it comes to esports matters, not only put out a post letting everyone know that further action could be forthcoming if there was another incident like it, they also reached out to a well-respected luminary of the Chinese scene to ensure their views were communicated. It is hard to understand what more they could have done. Issuing a direct punishment would not only establish it as a precedent moving forward, but it would also mean the onus would be on Valve to start policing it. In the case of the Ong situation, this maybe makes sense. After all, it took place during a professional match and while it was being broadcast. However, in the Palad situation this took place during a public game. The resources that would be required to police every complaint of this nature can’t be underestimated. If you think that’s a poor excuse then explain why Blizzard had to publicly explain how they were behind patching Overwatch due to focusing on combatting the dread “toxicity.”
Valve’s mindset is that with corrective, gentle guidance the professional community will operate the right way. It’s a viewpoint I can respect. Alas, the Chinese community does not share that viewpoint and it is no surprise to see further reprisals. It sends a worrying message that will be heard throughout the professional circuit, that Chinese tournaments can enforce rules that seemingly supersede Valve’s and that this is a luxury only this region will have. This is an alarming thought with The International due to be held in China. If the decision stands, what happens between now and then? What other players could find themselves effectively blacklisted from the biggest esports tournament in the world and for what reasons? It’s a misguided decision too, one that will not increase respect for the Chinese community and one that will only serve to create more division between two scenes that desperately need each other.
Let’s talk big picture now. I’ll never make apologies for racism. I can’t stomach it. Yet I’m also of the viewpoint you don’t enlighten people and create understanding by looking to destroy those that make mistakes. If anything, once you push people who could be made to understand why they were wrong to the periphery like that, there ceases to be any opportunity to educate. Such a scorched Earth policy when it comes to penalizing the foolish is not conducive to making the world a better place and this has been proven many times over.
The penalties that these players have faced cannot be downplayed. For Gabriel Ong, he has been dropped by his team for several reasons both practical and political. CompLexity management has moved the talented youngster to inactive and are looking for a team to take him off their hands saying in a statement, “There’s been some concerns over recent events that he’s not going to be representing our brand the right way. Additionally there are concerns about him being able to travel with the team as has been shown with his visa troubles in a couple of different countries already.” Yes, the implication is clear – good luck getting admitted to China again after this, no small consequence for a Dota player. So he apologized, was fined, made unemployed and now highly unlikely to get a visa renewal to the largest competitive country for his esport of choice. Do we really think an additional punishment is necessary for an eighteen year old?
For the slightly older Palad, the consequences were not as severe but still notable. He was reputedly given the maximum fine his contract allows for and was heavily reprimanded by the organisation who showed support for the community in taking a stance against the racially insensitive language. Not helped by the bizarre web of lies surrounding his excuses when caught, something his manager took the fall for although the truth is anyone’s guess. His broader penalties came in the form of an incredibly hostile reception from a vocal segment of the Chinese Dota fanbase, even going so far as to issue racial epithets towards his infant daughter (NSFW). It’s also not clear what will happen in light of these recent developments and whether or not he too is likely to be affected by visa issues to China.
There’s a much broader question of fairness at play here as well. During a game of Dota, Team Liquid player Ivan Borislavov “MinD_ContRoL” Ivanov stated that the world would be a better place if Hitler had successfully exterminated the Russians. If you don’t want to be charitable and view this as dark humor then this comment is undoubtedly worse than use of a term to mock Asian language. The player was fined, the money given to charity and apologies issued.
Then Mineski player Daryl Koh “iceiceice” Pei Xiang said during a Twitch stream that he didn’t like his first name because he felt that it was a name more suited to a black person rather than a Singaporean. And, yes, he chose to use the n-word while making this statement. He received a month-long ban from Twitch and was reprimanded by his organization who assured it wouldn’t happen again. To my knowledge the player has never issued a public apology for what he said. If he did, I couldn’t find it.
If this move was truly about making players accountable for the use of slurs, xenophobia, racial insensitivity and racism, then it must also extend to those guilty of such behavior towards others besides the Chinese. Of course, it isn’t about that at all. Even if you agree with the proposal to ban these two players from this event, which few I’ve spoken with do, you still know this is simply a powerplay by the Chinese municipal government to make a statement. It is about showing that they will dictate what happens on Chinese soil and not Valve nor anyone else can stop them doing so. It would set dangerous precedent for a variety of reasons. First, if such power is ceded to events in China then it certainly becomes abuseable in future – who is to say what other types of behavior could be used to issue such suspensions and who is also to say they would be applied evenly, to both Chinese and other competitors alike? Secondly, any player suspended from a Major in such a fashion can point to the other players guilty of such behavior that would be allowed to compete. Valve doesn’t need another situation like that surrounding Alexei “Solo” Berezin, where players who have permanent bans from Valve competitions for fixing matches have to watch the test case for such activity continue to compete at The International. Thirdly, once the door is open for the tail to start wagging the dog like this who knows where it could end? Simply put, Valve needs to have dominion over its tournament circuit no matter what.
Comparisons between Dota 2 and League of Legends are often something to be avoided, but it’s unavoidable here. You see, the LoL esports scene already went through this situation and it was handled in a manner I think most Dota fans would welcome given how this controversy is now threatening the very fabric of the competitive scene as we know it.
Ahead of the 2014 World Championships in South Korea several teams were practicing in Taiwan. For the usual edgelord reasons that a lot of gamers succumb to SK Gaming jungler Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen decided to call his account “Taipeichingchong” for the duration of his practice in that region. When screenshots of him joking about it with a Taiwanese player, who it must be said was incredibly polite about the whole thing even saying he would be watching him during the upcoming tournament, leaked into the public domain it was reported by the mainstream Taiwanese press.
After several Reddit threads the response from Riot Games was to issue a three-match ban to the player, which was served immediately meaning he missed half of the group stage of the biggest tournament on the calendar, and a $2500 fine. Johnsen issued a perfunctory apology that pleaded his ignorance on it being racist and everyone seemed satisfied with this resolution. This behavior undoubtedly had an impact on Johnsen’s career without the need for further intervention from the game developer. Every time he moved teams, it was a factor, very often representatives having to explain how they do not support his past actions but believe he has grown as a player. Some Asian players made the decision to refuse any interactions with him such as the standard shaking of hands. Shin “Seraph” Woo-yeong addressed this two years after the initial event when he said the following in a 2016 interview with OP.gg:
“I was given a chance to play against TSM with him. So, I wanted to show some ‘symbolic gesture for him and other players who had committed racial harassment. That is why I denied his handshake. Personally, I have no offense or bad relationship with him, though.”
And that’s fine too. I can’t say I’d be thrilled at the prospect of some contrived PR intervention from Riot making the players hug each other and pose for photographs. Not all competitors should get along and this notion of “respect all your fellow pros at all times” is one that has never held true in any sport. Johnsen, a high-profile player who went on to represent one of League of Legends largest brands in the form of TSM, inadvertently became a poster boy for the every day gauntlet of racial slurs Asian players endured when playing on Western servers. He has never been allowed to live down what he did. Crucially though, he has been allowed to compete, even in the face of glares from opponents that would rather not have to look at him and the attention of fans who will never let him forget it. He has most certainly paid the price for what he did and continues to do so. Despite all this he traveled to China without incident for the 2017 World Championships and it was never a consideration that this would not happen.
There are a few notable differences in this case that I won’t gloss over less I am accused of bias in some way. The most obvious is that even though the slur used is thrown in the face of many Asian races, the fact that it was the Taiwanese community that were directly insulted means that it was always going to exist in the blind spot of China’s watchful gaze. Hard to publicly recognize an incident occurring when you don’t even recognize the country it occurred in. By the same token, while this incident did happen ahead of a major tournament, the tournament itself wasn’t in Taiwan, which could have made matters a lot tougher to negotiate.
There’s a very crucial component in all of this that puts Valve between a rock and a hard place. The famously autonomous and clandestine company, one that makes more money per employee than Apple and Google, are used to simply doing what they want. They have stood firm in the face of pressure from the permanently whining games press to actively censor Steam games unless they are illegal in some way. When it comes to esports their rules are set in stone. There will be lifetime bans with no appeals for match-fixers and VAC banned cheaters. They will even intervene to stop big Western partners like ESL issuing bogus DMCA takedowns out of spite that more of the community won’t embrace a Facebook broadcasting deal. When Valve have to intervene it is swift and decisive and permanent. Just ask James “2GD” Harding. Despite this they have a mostly delicate approach to their ecosystem, only getting involved when it becomes absolutely necessary.
This situation though requires a lot of tact and diplomacy with no clear victorious outcome for Valve. On the one hand, everyone in the community can see that it is completely unfair for Chinese intervention to prevent two players from competing at a Major when Valve have said the punishment from their employers are sufficient. Dota Pro Circuit ranking points up for grabs that influence the entire calendar year of competition. It becomes even more clearly unfair when the aforementioned players who are also guilty of uttering slurs in a Dota 2 context are not going to be penalized because those slurs happened to not be relevant to the interests of China. Banning these players to kowtow to Chinese pressure is something that the majority of the Western community will not forgive easily, especially when a decisive public statement on the matter has already been issued by Valve.
And yet it is China. A huge market for Valve and one they have spent years cultivating. Their relationship with Perfect World has been imperfect for sure and yet for Valve’s purposes it works despite its notable public failures. This event is produced in partnership with ImbaTV another long-standing Chinese partner. Both are billion dollar companies that Valve need to do business in China and there are many market forces at play. The existence of “WeGame,” Tencent’s Steam equivalent, is certainly one of them. It was only in June that Perfect World announced they would create “Steam China,” which would functionally operate exactly the same as Steam with all games sold being checked by the Orwellian Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China. Without wanting to speculate too wildly, who knows what drastic decisions could be made if Valve refuse to publicly stand with their Chinese partners on this issue? Angry Chinese consumers review-bombing their games are the least of their worries right now.
Safe to say their Chinese partners will be watching and waiting to see which way Valve go. It’s clear the company not only love the game Dota 2 but also the community that consistently dig deep into their pockets to make The International the single largest esports tournament in the world. There is no way to appease all parties here, just difficult decisions that all impact on their business and the health of the game one way or another.
It’s easy to sit here and say what the right thing to do is with none of the considerations that Valve have to make. Because it’s easy, I will do it. No one tournament organizer can be allowed to overrule the people supposedly in charge, government intervention or not. Western players and teams were already in talks over a boycott for this event but didn’t pull the trigger on yet another seismic decision. Future events in China might start to look unappealing, especially if there is any truth in a visa blacklisting process for players deemed to not respect Chinese professionals to a suitable degree. Professionals from across the globe need the reassurance that it is Valve who are calling the shots and no-one else. If tournaments in China are going to come with a set of opaque rules external to the ones that all players understand for other tournaments, then sadly for the consistency of the Dota Pro Circuit Chinese tournaments might need to be something that exist in isolation.
A shame because Dota truly is a global game and this situation could have been completely avoided with just a bit more cultural empathy between us all. We all know the stereotypes that are widely peddled out there across the player base. The Europeans have their Russians, the North Americans their Peruvians. It’s a long list. Rarely do we spend the time to think of the opportunities afforded to us that we can connect with people from countries we may never visit and immediately have a common interest that is apparent. It won’t always work out but taking some time to bridge any perceived gaps can only improve the environment we choose to spend large amounts of time within. That won’t fix this situation but it might prevent the next one.