'Fake' eSports names contribute to gaming culture and connect players to fans

The same old argument crops up every time players who aren't familiar with eSports discuss the latest big event: "eSports must use players’ real names instead of their online aliases. It’s hurting eSports’ respectability and stunting its growth."

It’s a frustrating argument. Getting rid of aliases would be destructive to the future and established culture of competitive gaming.

The primary reason people give for ditching aliases boils down to the fact that some people feel kind of silly cheering for "Dendi" and would rather cheer for "Danylo Ishutin." Which is fine. You don’t have to enjoy the practice of using aliases for pro players.

The problem is that this isn’t any individual person or organization’s decision to make. Not even Riot Games, who controls every aspect the League of Legends competitive scene, should consider ending this practice. This is a cultural artifact dating back decades; eSports teams, players, and fans from dozens of countries have decided they want to use these aliases in event after event.

There's also the branding issue: These players spend years developing reputations and gaining fans under these names. Asking them to change that harms their careers, and their ability to connect with the audience.

This culture should be respected in the same way we respect the idiosyncrasies and traditions of athletic sports. These aliases are part of the roots of international eSports as a whole, and they serve as a bridge between the wider gaming community and those who play professionally. No other sports asks players to change the name they're known for when they get signed, and neither should eSports.

Cultural DNA

Like any tradition, these aliases help form a sense of singular community. It helps make players – whose cultures are often vastly different from that of their fans – more relatable. These names have stuck because they’re useful. They help familiarize fans with players whose real names could be difficult if you’re from another culture. It’s a part of the international DNA of eSports.

These aliases are a reminder that if you play these games online, these professionals are your peers and your champions. They’re not separate from you, and they play in the same online community. They came up through the same online ladders, and they use the same types of names you do. It’s a reminder that these tournaments and leagues are not separate from the online environment, but are a continuation of it.

People on the outside may find it jarring to move from traditional sports, which of course use players real names, to eSports, where colorful nicknames are expected. Looking at the situation from the inside is different: It would feel artificial and almost fake if players had to shed their hard-earned online names when they moved to the highest levels of competition in order to conform to an arbitrary rule.

It's a self-correcting problem, especially if these names hurt the ability of players to attract sponsors.

An op-ed on this subject at eSports site ongamers.com makes perhaps the best point yet, arguing that players may feel more comfortable acting childish due to the masks of their personae. Give someone a stage name and a character to play, and they may not be quite as somber as when they play under their own name. There may be some merit to that, but throwing out aliases altogether is a long-term, global solution to a problem that is likely temporary and local.

Young and immature

While there are "bad" aliases in every eSport and in every part of the world, it’s strongly concentrated in North America and in MOBA eSports like League of Legends and Dota 2 where you can occasionally find players like "ima_sheep(sux)" playing for teams with names like "Pretty Boy Swag."

It can be tough to tolerate some of these aliases when you see the occasional goofball pro playing under a name like "imaqtpie" or "NintendodudeX," which are real names of professional players. These types of names are rare, but it’s easy to feel silly for taking this video game competition seriously when the announcer shouts, "cowTard is dominating the mid lane!"

It’s a symptom of a young eSport being played in a young North American professional gaming scene. The concept of full-time professional eSports leagues and organizations is still much younger in North America than in Asia or Europe, and as it ages the problem of immaturity will likely fall away. New players will rise to prominence who have grown up watching eSports, dreaming of fans chanting their name. And in those dreams I can feel confident there isn’t a stadium full of people screaming, "Crumbzz! Crumbzz! Crumbzz!"

It’s tempting to demand that companies and tournament organizers force players like "cowTard" or teams like "Supa Hot Crew" to change their names if they want to play in front of the world. I hate those names, but they’re actually doing me a great favor. They’re telling me everything I need to know about cowTard and Supa Hot Crew: They aren’t taking this seriously, and they’re not the type of player(s) I want to cheer for. It's a self-correcting problem, especially if these names hurt the ability of players to attract sponsors.

Ultimately, these aliases are useful. They tell us something about the players. They help us cross cultural borders. They connect the people who play the game for fun with the people who play as a career. The problems will fall away as the sport, and players, grow up. What's left will be culture, and it's worth preserving.

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