A lot has been written about Black issues and the varied initiatives to improve things in the community. Take, for instance, our following pieces: “Diversity in Esports: People of Color in Gaming,” “Gender and Esports: The Long Road to Equality,” and “LGBT+ Representation in Gaming.” However, rather than talking about how to make things better, it’s often more important to listen to the individuals with firsthand experience on the subject. Recently, four Black esports professionals, Ezra “Samsora” Morris, Erin Ashley Simon, Amanda Stevens, and Malik Forte took the time to talk with ESPN about the issues of race and diversity in gaming. With race relations in the United States and elsewhere attracting much-needed attention following the tragic killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the countless other instances of state-sanctioned violence against Black citizens preceding it, it’s become more apparent than ever that the voices of Black individuals in this country need to be heard. This applies to conversations regarding race in esports just as much as it applies to the Black Lives Matter Movement.
ESPN is not new to the task of covering the intersection of politics, racial inequality, and sports. With the increased visibility of the Black Lives Matter Movement, when it comes to traditional sports and the protests, acts of solidarity, and activism of athletes across the various leagues, there’s no way they could avoid it. However, covering esports is a bit more novel and, unlike as is the case with some other traditional sports, the esports industry isn’t as diverse. While there are fewer Black pro gamers in esports, the truth of the matter is that the Black Lives Matter Movement should be as much a part of the conversation when it comes to gaming as it is for other sports. This makes it all the more warranted that in their recent interview, ESPN spoke to four prominent Black figures in gaming to talk about their experiences and perspectives.
Ezra “Samsora” Morris is a pro gamer from New Orleans specializing in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. He shares that personally, aside from the occasional spite-filled, racism-tinged comment or joke, he hasn’t faced any so-called challenges related to being a Black pro gamer. Part of it may be due to the relative diversity of Smash competitors. However, Morris does note that one of the obstacles “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.”
Hailing from New Jersey, Erin Ashley Simon has established herself as a respected esports host and broadcaster. As someone who is both Black and Latinx, Simon has made it a point to speak out about issues of social disparity in esports across her career. When asked about how teams, orgs, and streaming platforms can be more welcoming to Black gamers, Simon’s response centered on these systems “making it clear that they will not tolerate any form of racism, sexism.” It seems obvious, but how can BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color)/Women be expected to feel welcome in spaces that allow for racism and sexism to be exhibited, often casually and without consequences? Only by clearly stating that such behaviour will not be tolerated can an environment actually be welcoming to everyone. Simon goes on to stress the further importance of resources for career and talent development. As she says, “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.”
Journalist and content creator Amanda Stevens has been in the esports industry since 2014. According to her website, one of her causes is “tirelessly working to improve esports and gaming for all marginalized individuals all over the world.” As a Black trans woman, her experiences have surely provided insight to her work as a Diversity & Inclusion Consultant. When asked about how the gaming industry has responded to the Black Lives Matter Movement, especially following the death of George Floyd, Stevens’ response was frank and honest: “I’ve been a little disappointed honestly…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.” Stevens did make sure to note that she appreciated the supportive messages coming from various teams and orgs. At the same time, she’s clear that those supportive messages are as far as things go and are not enough on their own. One-time donations are great, but in the grand scheme of things, the fight for racial equality and justice in the face of state-sanctioned violence against Black people is a long-term struggle. Stevens notes the similarities between what some might see as performative acts of allyship and how teams and orgs behave during Pride Month, with short-term logo-changing and merchandising opportunities. “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.”
Malik Forte, an esports interviewer/reporter and host, is probably most well-known for his work in the Overwatch League Broadcast Team. When asked, given months have passed since “widespread protests,” how best esports can maintain the Black Lives Matter Movement conversation, Forte points out that protests are still happening. For the esports industry, as is the case with many communities that don’t find themselves directly impacted by societal injustices, it can be easy to have an out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality. That is a privilege unavailable to Black individuals who have to face such realities on a daily basis. As Forte says, “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.” In terms of how to keep those realities on the radar of the wider esports community, Forte suggests that “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.”
ESPN’s interview with Malik Forte, Amanda Stevens, Erin Ashley Simon, and Ezra “Samsora” Morris ultimately does a good job of offering some insight into the Black experience in esports. Hearing the different perspectives of each of these individuals serves as a useful reminder that these experiences vary, even among these four interview subjects. On a larger scale, there are sure to be more thoughts and opinions on the current state of things and best ways to improve the experience of Black professionals in the gaming industry. The most important thing that the esports community can do is to engage with these thoughts and opinions.