So in case you missed it, Valve’s Gabe Newell abruptly and unceremoniously dumped one of the company’s celebrity sportscasters over the weekend, announcing via Reddit that they had severed their working relationship with esports personality James ‘2GD’ Harding midway through the Valve-backed Dota 2 Shanghai Major.
Apart from the self-assuredness required of any corporate body to fire key people in the middle of an event like this, the incident is notable for what it says about the changing face of esports as a whole. As more and more mainstream publications have picked up esports coverage (Yahoo News and ESPN have both recently gone in), what once may have been seen as a safely insular place for Harding’s ‘provocateur’ humor now faces greater public scrutiny to shape up and act respectable.
For the record, I think that’s a good thing. Reading about what passes for color commentary in Harding’s book — Kotaku reports that he referred to a player as a teammate’s “bottom bitch” and opened the Group Stage of the Shanghai Major this past weekend with a masturbation joke, something he claimed he did to be “high brow” with his fans — I can’t say I find any of Harding’s antics particularly unusual for esports, but you can easily see why it’s not the image a company like Valve would want to project in esports’ quest for mass cultural legitimacy. A tournament as big as the Shanghai Major, which sees 16 teams competing for a $3 million US prize pool, is not on the same level as trash talking with your buddies on an evening Twitch stream.
Harding, who is well-known in the esports scene for his ‘bad boy’ persona (which allegedly includes making sexual comments about a transgender player), has fought back against Newell’s announcement in a long rambling Google doc. He defends his behavior as host, arguing that Valve knew what they were signing up for (he quotes a Skype conversation in which he’s encouraged to “just be yourself”) and that the issues come down more to interpersonal friction with a Valve employee than to his on-air behavior. Which all may very well have merit, for as little as Valve itself has commented on the issue beyond Newell’s Reddit post — but it’s difficult to look at Harding’s record and not see a conflict with how Valve wants to present itself.
Harding himself seems at least cognizant that there’s a cultural divide happening, as he writes in his Google doc: “We are pretending to be sports when we are not. […] I was pushing entertainment on camera. Sure with some edgy jokes here and there. […] God it all business business business with you guys.”
Which, yeah, of course it’s a business to Valve. It’s their game, their tournament, their (players’) money. And if Harding’s very public firing is indicative of anything (Rob Zacny in particular notes its predictability), this is only going to keep happening as esports’ presence continues to grow in the public eye. And so much the better, considering it sounds like Harding’s hotel room porno gag played about as well for a live audience as it does on paper.
(Top photo: James Harding at The International 2012, from Valve’s Dota 2 The International Flicker.)
Kris Ligman is the News Editor for ZAM. Their favorite sports moment was when Gretzy got the ball and then boom went the dynamite. You can follow them on Twitter @KrisLigman.