Sony’s Evo acquisition will be a good thing if it helps e-sports finally grow up

On Thursday, Sony shocked the e-sports world by acquiring Evo, the biggest fighting game tournament in the world. Reactions were immediately mixed. While some celebrated the new partnership, others lamented that the once plucky tournament had been lost to corporate greed.

The anxiety around the deal isn’t unfounded. Confused fans are now left wondering if games like Super Smash Bros. will still have a seat at the table or if Sony is going to strongarm its competitors out of the competitive fighting game arena. Evo claims that the tournament will remain platform-agnostic, but only time will tell how true that ends up being.

Whatever the long-term repercussions are, the deal is ultimately a necessary step for an industry that still desperately needs to grow up.

Harassment and e-sports

The e-sports industry is gigantic. The biggest companies in the world routinely line up to sponsor events and teams. Millions of dollars are up for grabs at some of gaming’s most high-profile tournaments. Before COVID-19, e-sports events like Overwatch League could pack an arena with fans just as easily as a WWE PPV event.

Despite those high stakes, there’s a dark underbelly that continues to threaten the industry.

Take Evo, for instance. The fighting game tournament had a sickening moment last summer that undermined its prestige. In July, allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against CEO Joey Cuellar. Evo fired Cuellar and brought in an interim CEO, but the damage was done. Major game studios like Capcom immediately pulled their support from the event and it was canceled as a result.

That wasn’t the only controversy in its orbit. The fiasco came amid a wave of similar allegations against several popular players in the fighting game community. One Reddit thread chronicles over 100 allegations made against players in the Super Smash Bros. scene alone.

Stories like this are depressingly commonplace in e-sports to this day. Just this week, Alienware reportedly cut off its partnership with League of Legends developer Riot Games after the studio’s CEO Nicolo Laurent was accused of harassment. Alienware was a major sponsor for Riot’s e-sports events, lending its branding to broadcasts.

EVO

Then there’s the fan base, which can be a hotbed for deplorable behavior itself. In 2016, pro Hearthstone player Terrence Miller was the victim of racist abuse from viewers on Twitch during an e-sports broadcast. The moment was one of the industry’s countless reckonings, forcing Twitch and Blizzard to get more serious about moderating e-sports fans.

These problems still persist at every level of the industry. It’s hard to write it off as a few bad apples when this degree of toxicity goes all the way to the top. Something has to change.

Corporate intervention

Usually a corporate takeover wouldn’t be a cause for celebration, but it’s a sigh of relief when it comes to Evo. After the tournament’s tumultuous 2020, it seemed like the event would be dead in the water moving forward. The organization’s failure to curb widespread harassment felt like a death sentence. Even if Evo wanted to turn things around, it’s difficult to ignore such an egregious situation.

A third party had to reset the narrative — and that’s where Sony comes in. The announcement came with a renewed commitment to fighting the toxicity that’s plagued the event. Both Sony and Evo itself put that idea front and center in their respective press releases announcing the deal.

EVO

“We want to reaffirm that harassment or abuse of any kind has no place within Evo or any of our future events,” said Evo. “We’re taking every precaution to make sure members of our community will always be treated with the respect, dignity, and decency you deserve.”

Sony pointed back to Evo’s statement in its own press release. “At PlayStation, we’ve always made that our highest priority. As a collective team, we’ll work closely together to ensure future Evo events are safe and welcoming for the entire community,” it said.

The careful corporate language is refreshing in the wake of last year’s chaos. Evo needed to be sanitized, and a huge company like Sony simply has the resources to get it done. It’s not just money that Sony brings to the table — it’s reputation.

That’s not to say there won’t be problems down the road. Massive corporate acquisitions like this should always ring alarm bells on some level. That’s especially true in the gaming world, where deals like this can have a negative impact on players. Just look at Microsoft’s freshly closed Bethesda purchase, which will make some of the studio’s future games exclusive to Microsoft platforms.

But protecting people from abuse and harassment has to be the number one priority. If this is what it’s going to take to get it done, it’s a deal worth making. Even if Sony decides to replace Super Smash Bros. with its own knockoff, that’s a miniscule concern when there’s a more dire problem to solve.

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