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Policing Behavior in eSports and 'League of Legends'

Captain Volibear and Constable Trundle from League of Legends (Riot Games, 2009)

How much would you charge someone for on-air bigotry?

Get your bag of popcorn ready folks, Riot Games just formalized their penalty index for their regional and global competitive events. This index includes a set of rules that all teams and players must abide by while participating in League of Legends competitive events. Violating these rules result in some strict penalties, from slap-on-the-wrist warnings to fines of $20,000 and indefinite suspension from League of Legends.

Many of these rules have already been punishable and have been enforced by Riot Games already, and this set of rules merely codifies and normalizes what has already been a normal process. By publishing these commandments, players know what transgressions are punishable and the extent of the punishment connected to them, new players to the scene have an easy reference of things not to do, and fans have some transparency into the punishment process. This should settle some of the drama that inevitably arises when Riot levies fines... maybe.

Alex Ich, now on Team Renegades, looking angry.

See, policing behavior is a bizarre endeavor, inevitably full of weird inconsistencies. We see this same project in other sports as well. In what is likely the largest fine in sports history, the MacLaren Racing Team was ordered to pay $100 million for spying on their Formula One competitor Ferrari -- ouch. The concern is, of course, that doing otherwise would result in the complete tarnishing of the faith that viewers put into the fairness of a competitive event. Many of the punishments listed in Riot’s penalty index include the same targets. Things like tool-assisted cheating, matchfixing, and bribing a referee are all, of course, punishable offenses.

However, as in other sports, some rules serve to regulate the culture of eSports and its players. For example, Elo boosting, the act of using another player’s account to increase an in-game ranking (usually in exchange for cash) is punishable by up to a 20 month suspension. Elo boosting is a problem -- absolutely -- as it erodes the integrity of League of Legends rankings, but the crime is against general players, not the eSports scene in particular. This is a concern unique to competitive gaming, so it’s fascinating to see it attached to one of the heftiest penalties.

Freakazoid looking apologetic.

More interesting are the rules against specific behavior both during and outside of competitive matches. We also see this type of behavior policing in sports. Tennis star Serena Williams was infamously fined $82,500 in 2009 for telling the line judge "I swear to God, I'll fucking take this ball and shove it down your fucking throat,” live on camera. This isn’t new in eSports either. Cloud9 Counterstrike player Ryan “Freakazoid” Abadir was just docked a month’s pay for verbally harassing another player on his stream.

Freakazoid has since apologized, stating “I have failed my community, teammates, and organizations,” but is he sincere? Are these fines actually effective? I’m not so sure. The salary that he forfeits is going to an anti-bullying campaign, which is nice, but there’s still a strange irony to monitoring behavior like this in sports. Athletes, eSports athletes included, are expected to both maintain a strong personality to bring in fans, be they in the stadium or online, while they’re engaging in some of the most heated competitions one can imagine. At the same time, they’re expected to put on a smile during these same events.

Sports fans are no strangers to extreme verbal insults hurled at an opponent by their favorite players. The NFL keeps a running total of punishments which you can check out here. The list, and it’s a long one, includes fighting, substance abuse violations, the wonderfully vague unsportsmanlike conduct, and, of course, excessive celebration. For many players, this is just part of the job. When you’re earning millions of dollars, a $10,000 fine is nothing. Many of the rules are laughable, so of course the world chuckled at Marshawn Lynch’s famous “I’m just here so I won’t get fined” press conference.

So why are you here again?

Of course eSports players don’t earn nearly the revenue that football players do, so these fines may be especially painful. Likewise, Riot is smart to attach the biggest violations to suspension time. Some players need the competitive circuit to keep both fans and sponsors, and suspensions can eat away at their real income.

Even so, these penalties represent the stick without the carrot and inevitably wade into potentially dangerous territory that few may feel comfortable addressing. For example, according to the global penalty index, Extreme Misconduct includes, “extreme bigotry, or speech intended to incite violence against a person or group of persons.” Who decides the difference between extreme bigotry and, say, what, minor bigotry? And considering the last part of that description is essentially the definition of hate speech, are we all happy with a maximum suspension time of 10 months, half as much as that of Elo boosting? How much would you charge someone for on-air bigotry?

That isn’t to say that I’m against the formalization of these measures. On the contrary, I’m all for getting ahead of the cultural curve and trying to establish eSports as a healthy community without needing to model it on football or any other sports culture for that matter. We have the unique opportunity in eSports to shape its player and fan culture before it has been written in stone. Regulations like these offer one possible direction, but I would love to see more positive encouragement for players and teams who exemplify strong role models. Many sports organizations recognize players for community building and philanthropy, and I would love to see more official support for this type of behavior.

Additionally, most of these penalties protect the eSports scene and its viewers generally. Noticeably missing is a more thorough list of penalties team owners and managers can face when they exploit or harass their players. The players have few resources for addressing such grievances, and Riot would take a huge step forward if they drafted a similar set of public expectations for team owners and manager.

Once that is out of the way, we get to the good questions. Such as, will they be hiring private investigators to look into allegations? Because that sounds like a dream job.

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