A conversation about race and diversity in esports and gaming

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The killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25 set off a national conversation about systemic racism and the experience of Black people in the United States. The ripple effects included a greater public awareness of racism and prejudice in many aspects of everyday life and touched various industries across the country, including gaming and esports.

Since then, people in esports and gaming have taken to social media to speak up about incidents of racism and to voice their support of Black Lives Matter. ESPN Esports reached out to Ezra "Samsora" Morris (Super Smash Bros. pro), Erin Ashley Simon (host and journalist, VENN), Amanda Stevens (journalist and diversity and inclusion consultant) and Malik Forte (producer and host, formerly Overwatch League), who have all been outspoken in their support of Black Lives Matter, to learn more about the issues that affect Black people in the gaming industry, including the challenges Black players, content creators, hosts and casters face and what teams, organizations and streaming platforms can do to foster a more diverse community.

What are some of the issues, challenges or obstacles you have faced as a Black person in the gaming and esports community or that you have seen others face?

Ezra "Samsora" Morris: I haven't faced many challenges from my experiences. Of course, the occasional racist Black jokes may come around so often because people were spiteful of how well I was doing in Smash, but other than that, there haven't been noticeable challenges. Many of the top Smash players are minorities, including the best Smash player, Leonardo "MkLeo" Perez, who is Mexican.

One of the obstacles I've seen Black people face in the gaming community is always the blatant racism. From seeing clips of people just gaming and hearing the opponents say slurs to just the racist comments gamers make on certain gaming platforms, it was always transparent and they were never trying to hide it.

Erin Ashley Simon: My experience entering into the scene and developing myself as a broadcaster hasn't been the challenging aspect, but with being a public figure comes the blatant racism that Samsora mentioned. Whether it is on social media, in Twitch chat, it's a systemic issue that's ingrained in internet culture. And since the internet is heavily tied to gaming and esports culture, that's a part of it as well. So, I've been on broadcasts where I was called the N-word, monkey and other derogatory words in the Twitch chat. I've been very grateful for the various opportunities within my career, but it can be difficult at times, and especially when you are the only Black person on a broadcast, and even more being Black and a woman.

Also, it's important to understand the disparity within esports that oftentimes I don't think is really at the forefront of many minds, not intentionally. But this is an industry that pushes PC gaming. There are various people within the Black community who can't afford PCs, and so there's a level of disadvantage when it comes to other Black people entering into the scene. Technology is and can be a barrier for many but especially for underserved and underresourced communities.

"I've been on broadcasts where I was called the N-word, monkey and other derogatory words in the Twitch chat. I've been very grateful for the various opportunities within my career, but it can be difficult at times, and especially when you are the only Black person on a broadcast, and even more being Black and a woman." Erin Ashley Simon

Amanda Stevens: For me personally, I think my trans-ness comes up much more than my race when it comes to the discrimination I've faced in the esports and gaming industry. But I also acknowledge that due to the fact that I am biracial, I come across as racially ambiguous -- most times people usually either don't know I am Black or question that I am Black.

As Erin said, one of the ways that I have seen a disparity for Black folks in gaming in esports is access to technology. When people ask me, "Why don't we see more Black pros in esports?", I often have to break it down into a conversation the person isn't expecting. Specifically, the requirements that come along with being in the 1% of someone playing an esport title include having a personal computer and decent internet, and that just isn't the case for a lot of Black families.

Separately, just like both Erin and Samsora have brought up, there is both the blatant and coded racism in things like Twitch chat. Often, it feels like many Twitch channels for esports events do not have a robust enough auto-moderation, and this leads to a lot of the more subtle racist things in the chat getting by. As someone who receives a lot of disparaging comments because of my trans-ness, I imagine it's the same when you try to sneak in comments about race. You notice them, and they can mess up your flow.

Malik Forte: I'd keep you here all day discussing every little microaggression and beyond, but what stood out to me the most were moments where my work was viewed under a microscope -- to the point where communities and colleagues didn't allow me room for growth. It's already daunting, as is attempting to integrate yourself within a culture where you are the minority (most of the time I was the only Black person involved in my endeavors), so to be judged on a completely different scale and allowed very little room for error was extremely frustrating. There were moments where this brought out the best in me, because I knew that there wasn't much opportunity for me to slip up, but most of the time this can be very stressful and even demoralizing.

Read more: Pokemon Company announces $5 million in donations to nonprofit orgs | Riot Games' LCS broadcast observes moment of silence for Black Lives Matter | Activision Blizzard pledges millions to fight inequality

How can teams, organizations and streaming platforms foster a more diverse community and make it more welcoming for Black people?

Samsora: I think teams, organizations and streaming platforms can foster more diversity in the community by partnering more with Black people. In the Super Smash Bros. scene, it is very well done because there were plenty of partnered Black people before COVID-19, so a lot of the scene is diverse with everything. But when you look at other games such as League of Legends who have only one Black person (Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black), it doesn't seem diverse. But I think it's based on game by game. ... For Smash, it was always diverse.

Simon: Teams, organizations and streaming platforms can foster a more diverse community and make it welcoming by making it clear that they will not tolerate any form of racism, sexism, etc. And (2), by providing resources that will help to develop people and talent so that they can enter into this space. Aligning with colleges and schools is a great way to get the youth engaged in PC gaming early on even if they themselves don't have one at home.

But also, career and talent development is important for sustainable growth. ... There's so many talented Black streamers, content creators, casters, broadcasters and journalists, but there's very little support in terms of explaining what they need to do to take things to the next level. Most, for example, don't even know how to set up an appropriate reel, and neither did I, but I had someone within traditional media who helped to develop me. If I didn't have that development, could I have missed out on opportunities? Possibly. And especially for those who come from low-income areas, that information can be a big difference.

Stevens: When I think about this question I think the first thing organizations really need to consider is making sure that they come from a place of authenticity. Obviously, at some level, every org wants to be diverse -- whether that's in the players they retain, the staff they hire or the initiatives they activate. But it can easily go wrong if the community doesn't view it as authentic. The easiest way to be authentic is to not be thinking of what to do for, say, Black History Month, but how do you promote diversity year-round? When I talk to clients, I often remind them that you don't have to overreach to achieve this.

Do you have merch? Then use Black models. Do you work with influencers? Then try to find Black influencers who fit your organization. Need a host? Look at Twitch streamers and YouTubers who are Black or actively put out casting calls for Black content creators. One of the things I really want to touch on is that often people talk about finding the "most qualified" person for an opportunity, which sounds great in theory. But when we already admit that there is a lack of diversity in our space, how do you think people build up those qualifications? At least in the non-player sector, we really do need to explicitly be working toward diversity or we won't see any change in this industry.

Forte: There needs to be more Blacks, people of color and women in positions of leadership everywhere. From the community organizers, to the teams, to the broadcasts and productions, there needs to be more representation across the board so that everyone feels accounted for and welcomed. And it doesn't just start with diversity -- there needs to be inclusion on all of these fronts as well. The entire landscape of people should have an opportunity to see things and weigh in on decision-making instead of it always being only white men speaking for everybody.

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How receptive would you say the gaming community has been to the Black Lives Matter movement? How has that changed since the protests following the death of George Floyd?

Samsora: I think the gaming community has been highly receptive to Black Lives Matter. Many top gaming platforms/streamers/personalities have been very vocal about the situation, and a majority of gamers agree with them. I can say the Smash community has been vocal about the situation and has highly positive reactions to Black Lives Matter. It changed for even more powerful reinforcement following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. More fundraising campaigns for the cause and more people from the gaming community were being vocal.

Simon: I think the world and the gaming community woke up about Black Lives Matter with the death of George Floyd. I think the reaction was highly receptive on social media, and it was great to see so many people come together. But I can't quite speak on what that long-term effect looks like because it'll take time to see how much the message resonated with different teams, people and organizations. ... I'm optimistic, though, and have been working with several organizations that want to change things. So, it was a great start, but this is a marathon and not a sprint. The next steps are crucial.

Stevens: I've been a little disappointed honestly in the way esports has handled Black Lives Matter and talking about the murders of individuals like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. While I am appreciative of the supportive messages from most teams in the Overwatch League and in the various League of Legends leagues -- that's all they were in most cases. Just words. We've yet to really hear anyone talk about diversity initiatives or discuss how they plan to empower Black and brown folks to be able to break into the esports industry.

Sure, some players and orgs donated to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, but that's only one axis of supporting BLM. That was June. What about July? Or currently, October? Like Pride Month, organizations are very quick to change their social media avatars or sell some merch, but also like Pride, commitment to BLM cannot just be a one-time thing. If these orgs really want to commit to improving the diversity gap in esports, there needs to be some tough conversations and systemic changes happening in the industry, and I honestly don't see anyone making the effort.

"Obviously, at some level, every org wants to be diverse. ... But it can easily go wrong if the community doesn't view it as authentic. The easiest way to be authentic is to not be thinking of what to do for, say, Black History Month, but how do you promote diversity year-round?" Amanda Stevens

Forte: I think there's been a good amount of awareness and outreach made by companies -- even with a lot of it coming across to me as performative. I think it's very important to be persistent about civil rights issues because a good portion of the core demographic of gamers is affected by them. And many notable streamers within the gaming community have definitely been very vocal, such as Benjamin "DrLupo" Lupo and Tyler "Ninja" Blevins -- all of which has been relieving to see. The allyship is very important, and I think that despite the often tone deafness of many white males in the gaming community, many have taken it upon themselves to position themselves to be better allies moving into the future.

It has been several months now since the widespread protests and so much of a spotlight was put on Black Lives Matter. What do you think is the best way to keep the conversation going?

Samsora: The best way to keep the conversation going is to push the issue even more and to remain vocal about it. As of recent, I have been hearing ZERO things about the BLM movement in the gaming community. The gaming community is especially trendy because of new games always coming out, and that would be the next big topic. The main way to keep the conversation going is to remain vocal about it.

Simon: The best way to keep the conversation going is to keep talking, amplify the message, educate the community and take action. And especially addressing issues within the community consistently. This shouldn't be a conversation that is happening only when it's trending on social media. It requires ongoing action, planning and adjustment/support. And especially for those who are already established in the industry, it's our responsibility as well to help continue the conversation and push for change.

Forte: Well, first I'd like to say that the protests are still happening. Every day. It might not be getting the same national media attention, but there are still folks out there putting their bodies, lives and freedom on the line for the greater good. The best way to keep the conversation going is for the gaming community to elevate and champion individuals who live under the rain cloud of racial discrimination on a daily basis. For us, this is not just a movement or a one-off scenario -- this is our experience from when we wake up to when we lay our heads down to rest. And for that reason, you'll often hear us sounding off about these matters regularly, reminding people that the problems still persist.

Stevens: I think everyone kind of hit the nail on the head. The protests haven't stopped happening. And, if I'm to be frank, I don't expect them to stop until we see widespread police reform in this country. While it is important to keep the conversation around why people are protesting going, I think it is equally important to talk about the "Black Lives" part of BLM more.

There is so much more to the Black experience in the U.S., and around the world, than being murdered and brutalized by police. That's why I continue to find a lot of the BLM statements made in esports and gaming to be a farce. So you matched some donations to an overloaded bail fund. You said you stand in solidarity with the Black community and are shocked by the senseless murder of George Floyd. OK. That was months ago.

What are you doing today? What do you plan on doing next week? Next month? Year-round? The way we, in esports, keep the conversation going is empowering Black folks. We KNOW there is a diversity problem, and although everyone says they want to do something about it, I don't see it. Unfortunately, the conversation will be kept going by us -- the folks who are in the crosshairs -- because it doesn't seem like our community completely has our back.