Why dank memes are killing the discussion around esports

Let me start this week’s column off with a confession—I love a good meme. Most of us do, in fact, and that’s not quite the problem in and of itself. Esports can be a little weird and a little wonderful, and even as the industry gets more professional and polished, it’s still a little absurd. This isn’t an insult—in fact, it’s part of what makes esports so beautiful to watch and be a part of. The players and casters embrace the quirkiness and lean into it hard, and the result is that esports is bursting with personality and fun stories and authentic laugh out loud moments. Of course, things can get... complicated. Let’s take a look at what, exactly, memes are doing to the way we look at players and talk about narratives. 

An era of memes 

When I say meme, I’m referring less to a picture of a frog on a unicycle and more about Dawkins' theory of memetics, the idea that information is transferred through ideas that are hosted and transferred. Ideas that are complex and difficult don’t jump from host to host as easily as quick and easily understandable ideas. A picture of Arthur clenching his fist with a clever caption can be understood and shared in seconds, but a longform essay on an idea is dramatically more difficult to understand and share. Of course, it’s not quite so binary—there’s a host of ideas across multiple medias of varying degrees of complexity. Some thrive, others are vanquished.

Consider for a moment that most League fans get their news on Twitter and Reddit. Neither of these mediums really favour a long form approach. Occasionally, a longer piece will thrive on Reddit, but the problem lies in the vote algorithm. If I submit, say, a hypothetical long form piece on ADC mechanics, this could reach the front page (and in fact, many links along these lines do thrive if the content is good enough). However, upvotes are weighted based on frequency and speed, and the longer a piece is up, the less an upvote counts. Early downvotes—even from just a handful of people!—can also sink a piece, making even a great idea virtually unnoticeable. 

If you want to get a lot of upvotes in a very short amount of time, make something easily digestible or very exciting on the surface. Many content creators have caught on, and off we go, leading us into our second problem. 

Surface attention 

How many times have you seen a piece posted on Reddit with a really attention-grabbing quote in the title, and then you read the piece only to find that there was a whole lot of necessary context around those inflammatory words. If you check the comment threads on social media, the top comment is often a tl;dr that sums up the piece or expands on the headline quote. It’s not uncommon to see people engaging only with that headline quote. A wealth of detail and context and content falls between the cracks, and people move on with a surface impression. 

The end result is that there are a few “sound bites” that end up getting repeated around certain players, with varying degrees of truth. Here are a few of those bites that probably sound really familiar, if you follow League discourse at all: CLG’s Huhi is terrible, Huni must be restrained from picking Lucian top by the rest of the Immortals, Doublelift loves to go HAM, Dumbzz (and the succinct counterpart of Smartzz), and Xmithie is underrated. Even the players seem to realize that these phrases have lost all meaning, with the aforementioned Xmithie saying about his “underrated” reputation: “I'm pretty much just a meme now.”

It’s easy to look at players and sum them up both professionally and personally with the opinions of the hive mind. It’s not as though there’s a problem, right? It’s just a meme. Well... 

Out of control 

Consider, for a moment, that Doublelift has been a professional player for the better part of a decade; he’s a veteran with a long career and a nuanced history. When he’s summed up with some of the worst parts of his career condensed to quick, unflattering phrases, and judged based on that, the result can get a little ugly. On one hand, fans love to urge on trash talk and watch players speak their mind. On the other hand, Doublelift has been honest that it's a frustrating experience for him, because he gets torn apart afterwards. Most of the negative criticism isn’t necessarily at Yiliang Peng, but at the Memetic Doublelift who has been solidified from years of tweets and Reddit threads and soundbites. The Memetic version of a person is always simplified to the point of caricature, and much easier to insult and tear down than a full person.

Mitch “Krepo” Voorspoels knows this better than anyone. After Twitch personality Ali “Gross Gore” Larsen made serious allegations against the caster on stream, Krepo was hit with a wall of hatred, spam, insults, and threats. Gross Gore later recanted the statements and was banned from Twitch, but the damage was done—it had become a meme. It wasn’t really about Krepo anymore, in a lot of ways. It was about the Memetic Krepo, repeating the same joke and putting new spins on it to get the biggest laugh. Krepo has spoken about how it has seriously affected his life and job, but the joke still continues. After all, it’s just a meme, it’s not serious, right?

Esports is still incredibly young as an industry, and it shows in many ways. One of the things I find most beautiful about esports is the personalities and passion on display. I love a good joke, and I think most of us do—but the culture around esports, and the shorthand of memes, can cause things to go too far, too quickly. There’s no easy response, and that’s troubling when the problem spreads so quickly and evolves rapidly. That being said, it’s an issue worth exploring in a sincere, authentic fashion.