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Why Esports Players Can’t Afford to Be Apolitical

It was only a matter of time until it happened in esports. On Sunday afternoon, a 24-year-old man opened fire at a Madden Championship Series satellite tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., killing two and injuring nine before turning a handgun on himself. The shooter had reportedly recently been eliminated from the video game football tournament. Because it was an EA and NFL-sanctioned tournament, much of the shooting was streamed live on Twitch, and a horrific audio clip is now circulating throughout the internet, sometimes under the ghoulish heading of a “livestream fail.” With the first shooting at an esports tournament, gun violence has come to esports. It’s time for fans and players to take up a political debate that we have largely ignored.

Esports fans, by and large, don’t see themselves as an especially political lot. Part of the appeal of esports, for many, has always been that competitive gaming offered an escape from everyday life, acting as a balm in a world that is now historically unkind to its young. Compelling though this fantasy is, it is still a fantasy. Esports is not separate from society; it is made by it. What happens “there” was always going to happen “here,” because every “where” is also a “here.” Gun violence is not some aberration in American life; rather, it has been normalized, an ongoing, low-level threat of living in America today. What is most horrible about the events in Jacksonville is that there is nothing special about them. To esports fans, it may feel like an unprecedented violation. But for everyone else, it was another Sunday.

The response in esports has taken the form of an outpouring of support for competitive Madden and its community, which sits obliquely from more mainstream esports titles but is no less vibrant for it. While it would be nice if humans could muster this kind of response to every shooting, no matter where it is, or who is affected, this is not always the case. We respond most viscerally to that which occurs close to us and what we love. This is, then, a chance for esports fans to reflect on the costs of gun culture, to feel political in way they might not otherwise feel inclined to. If you are lucky enough to be an esports fan whose life has not yet been touched by gun violence, here is your evidence that it is anything but abstract. Like gaming as a whole, esports can no longer afford to see itself as apolitical. It’s political whether we like it or not.

It’s comforting to imagine that what happened Sunday was an act of individual evil. This makes it feel both like an aberration and something that can be managed with the right response. But every country has angry, unstable men and most countries fail to take seriously the mental health and well-being of its young people. The United States is the only one does not put up meaningful barriers to prevent them from arming themselves. Normalizing for every other variable, it is the presence of guns that correlates most directly with gun violence. And we have a word for a correlation that holds across contexts. That word is cause.

It’s important not to take the wrong lessons from the Jacksonville shooting. Politicians – especially gun advocates – often implicate video games in gun violence. This is usually hung on a 2015 study by the American Psychological Association which showed some correlation between aggression and video games, not violence, but aggression. The study has been so frequently miscited, that in 2017 the APA itself released a policy statement requesting that politicians refrain from making claims that draw a link between real-world violence and video games. Recent surveys of scholars who study video games also shows that a vast majority don’t believe there is such a link. And the violence inMadden NFL 19” is no different than the violence we see on television any given Sunday.

We’ve also mostly avoided the pig-headed “good guy with a gun” rhetoric that dribbles out of right wing ideologues. But in its place, coming from fans, personalities, and big-name tournament organizers alike, we have that position’s gentler sibling, the call for greater security. If there had been more (armed) guards or metal detectors, this logic goes, then this tragedy could have been prevented. Arguments of this kind often take the form of a trade-off – are esports fans willing to sacrifice a little bit of privacy or freedom for the sake of their security?

This trade-off is false. It is built on counterfactuals, and, what’s more, it assumes that security measures will work as intended. But that relies on so many if’s – that a guard is in the right place, will quickly identify the attacker and respond faster than them, will shoot accurately instead of injuring a bystander, etc. – going exactly as hoped that it’s a foolish comparison, and the best research we have suggests guards aren’t much of a deterrent anyway. Brian Smawley, who manages a gaming-themed bar in Atlanta similar to GLHF Game Bar in Jacksonville, put it this way: “A couple of [our staff] carry. What are we gonna do? Shoot into a crowd to kill the one guy we might see? At a tournament? This isn’t Time Cop you dunces.” In the months to come, we will no doubt see heightened security at events (or at least the ones that can afford it); this is understandable, perhaps even necessary. But we must not assume that security is the solution to gun violence; to do so is to mistake the symptom for the sickness.

If we are to live in a world where talented young players are not murdered for doing what they love, then it is not enough to call for solidarity or even security. Gun laws must change; gun culture must change. Until they do, people – some portion of whom will necessarily be esports fans and players – will die needlessly. On Sunday, it was Eli “True” Clayton and Taylor “Spotmeplzzz” Robertson. Say their names and mourn them. Tomorrow, it could be someone in your scene.

“Esports &” is a monthly column about esports, politics, and society by Will Partin, a doctoral student in Communication at the University of North Carolina.

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