Richard Lewis: Why ESL must get rid of the US Air Force sponsor

Adela Sznajder/ESL Gaming via ESPAT

In his latest column, Richard Lewis, Dexerto’s Editor-At-Large, calls on tournament organizer ESL to cease its partnership with the US Air Force.

Esports as an industry is steeped in hypocrisy. There’s no changing that now. Too many people made too many backroom deals to get themselves paid. They sold out the industry and now, like everything else, it’s impossible to walk a straight moral line. I could tell you how it didn’t have to be that way but in reality it was the only way it could turn out. Too many people wanting too much, not wanting to pay for it, too many people of low moral fibre in positions of power and before you know it you’re owned by the oligarchs and the regimes desperate to wash the blood off their hands.

Still, you have to at least try and so today I come to you with a very modest proposal, one I reckon we can agree on even if the opening paragraph immediately put you in a bad mood. Given the current geopolitical situation and the resulting decisions our industry has made in light of the death and destruction in Ukraine, I would very much like esports companies, particularly ESL, to stop advertising the US military. It seems to me to be utterly incompatible with our current trajectory and is doubtlessly upsetting to the many people around the world who have been served up a tactical strike of Western democracy.

Adela Sznajder/ESL Gaming via ESPAT
The US Air Force has been an ESL partner since 2020, sponsoring a number of CS:GO tournaments

Since this is an opinion piece in an era where the worst thing anyone can do is have a slightly non-mainstream opinion, let’s frontload the article with all the childish caveats needed in such times. I understand the need for a military for defensive purposes. I understand that without one, any country would be at the mercy of a hostile force. I think there is nothing immoral about defending one’s country under such a threat. I do believe people should always have a choice in this. As such I do not support conscription, a draft of any kind or even national service. This article mostly addresses the United States military and to a lesser extent the British Armed Forces. Right, let’s begin.

I do not want the military adjacent to esports and down the years I have argued about this quite consistently. The first half of the argument will be the easiest to get on board with. I think there is something perverse in the way the military recruits, the way it insidiously inserts itself into the lives of young, working class people and their interests. When I lived in one of Britain’s poorest towns, every week outside where I worked the big military bus with the fold out sides would roll up and a physically impressive man in uniform would step out and encourage the unemployed to enlist. “What else are you going to do with your life,” he’d say and for those people it was a valid question. You see, we can pretend otherwise if we like, but it is the working class that are targeted by the military. They come to you when you’re broke, depressed and riddled with self loathing and fill your head with nonsensical dreams of travelling the world, shooting guns, and making friends, all the while glossing over the fact that you will be expected to kill and die to further the agenda of the same government that left you to rot in the shit town they’re now airlifting you out of.

It might surprise you to learn that I am from a military family, which also gives me insight into the way returning veterans are treated. On the way in you’re told you will learn a trade that will put you in good stead for the rest of your life. On your way out, often with your body mangled and your mind shattered with PTSD, you’re given a derisory pension and maybe a job as a night shift security guard. Your best years behind you, the government throws you on a scrapheap as you are no longer useful for their global machinations.

To say it’s a bum deal would be a real understatement and yet we allow military entities to falsely advertise the soldier’s experience without batting an eyelid in a society that runs ‘awareness’ campaigns on drinking, smoking, gambling and fast food. My generation was propagandized by TV commercials showing us a character called Frank windsurfing, hang-gliding and drinking with a beautiful woman on his arm. “To be Frank, join the army,” they’d tell us. Why are they not legally mandated to show Frank with his guts hanging out around his knees, the same way tobacco companies have to show me lung cancer?

As you get older you just get tired of The Machine and its endless stream of bullshit. Our industry is for the young. Our industry has a lot of impressionable and undersocialized teenagers in it. I’ve dedicated the best years of my life to trying to keep them safe from bad actors. There are few bad actors more malevolent than the military in the United States and Britain.

So I’m of the viewpoint it would always be a bad thing to advertise the US military to a young and impressionable audience. However, it isn’t just tasteless; it is actually grotesque. Why? Because we, as an industry, have currently agreed that all Russians must be held accountable for the actions of their government and that anything we can do to reduce the quality of their lives is ethical as it will serve the long-term goal of them overthrowing Putin’s regime. It’s not a philosophy I subscribe to nor do I think it’s logical to believe it will work in what is functionally a dictatorship, but fuck it, I’m along for the ride with everyone else.

Adela Sznajder/ESL Gaming via ESPAT
ESL has banned orgs with ties to the Kremlin.

We’ve seen the horror unfold in Ukraine. We’ve seen pictures of the bodies in rubble and the broken cities that act as their final resting place. Many of us know people who have either fled or gone to the frontlines. We know the reality is that the Russian military have targeted civilians who have refused to leave and they have not discriminated between men, women and children. We value human life and because of this we want peace and so we believe we can morally justify doing everything in our limited powers to apply pressure to anyone in a position to protest Putin’s megalomaniacal behaviour.

Here’s the thing. I’ve also seen the horror unfold in Afghanistan. I’ve seen pictures of the bodies in rubble and the broken cities that act as their final resting place… Are you not similarly outraged? Do you not value that human life, the type snuffed out by American bombs dropped on civilian targets by ‘accident’ because the US government views the people they will kill as acceptable collateral damage? What about drones killing ten people, including seven children, for the act of trying to take water to refugees? The US did that and said it was little more than a tragic mistake, one for which no one will be punished.

Let me give you a rundown of what’s been happening in the invasion of Afghanistan. There have been thousands of civilian casualties in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001, with record levels being reported in 2021.. The bulk of these are caused by shootouts between Taliban and pro-government forces, with 64% of the total number of dead being attributed to the former. Let’s just focus on the ones directly attributed to the US Air Force. Between 2016-2020 there were 2,122 civilian deaths and 1,855 civilian injuries as a result of US air strikes. Thirty-seven percent of the deaths were children. This period coincides with a significant increase in child deaths. Why? Because in 2017 the then Secretary of Defence General Jim Matthis announced that they would “loosen” rules of engagement for Taliban forces, meaning more bombs dropped overall and now in areas previously deemed off limits.

That right there is what they mean when they speak about the banality of evil, that a man in uniform decided with the sweep of a pen that it would speed up the defeat of a military enemy if killing children was something we would be willing to accept. This is why you can’t just explain these things away as tragic mistakes. A choice was made, the value of those children’s lives was deemed to be lower than the cost of a longer victory with fewer civilian casualties. The logo of the people doing this is on your favourite esports products.

Maybe you’re still not convinced. Maybe you need international outrage, right? Those of us who were around at the time Iraq and Afghanistan were invaded can tell you all about that. The UN charter, which is ratified by the member countries, including the US, states that a member country can only use military force in self defence or when the security council approves of such force. The US-led war in Iraq was illegal and recognised as such by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Marjorie Cohn, a former president of the National Lawyers Guild, described the US and British attack on Afghanistan as “a patently illegal use of armed force”. Yet we exist in such absurd times I have to see former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice nodding furiously in agreement to the statement that invading a sovereign nation is a war crime, one she herself advocated for repeatedly.

Bring any of this up and people cry “whataboutism”, usually because they’re very smart and know all the words surrounding internet-based argumentation. But that isn’t what it is. It’s trying to find a consistent moral framework where we hold everyone equally accountable for what we deem to be transgressions. These are times when people are being fired from their jobs even as they condemn Putin’s actions. Meanwhile, we emblazon the logo of the preferred apparatus of international war criminals across your screens.

Now the reason we could all tolerate this and make it nestle into our collective conscience without it being too uncomfortable is because we’d accepted as a rule that individuals exert little-to-no influence over government policy. That it is the political class that make the decisions they want to make and they will find any means, any lie, necessary to justify it. Even in the most open of democracies we’re a hostage to that reality. We have now decided that we no longer believe this to be the case, a belief that if followed through leads us into a very long process if we are to be fair to all nations that make up our global community.

We must start with the easy ones. The US Air Force as an entity is viewed as morally reprehensible. It goes beyond just being politically divisive. It is very simple… If esports is populated by people who want peace then it cannot be acceptable to advertise those that would wage war. It is non compatible with our collective values.

The solution is straightforward enough. To ESL, you don’t need the money. You sold out to the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund. It will not harm you financially in any significant way to immediately terminate this relationship and in doing so you will show a continued commitment to using your platform for good works. I would also suggest taking the total amount of the money you earned from this sponsorship deal and distributing it among the many fine charities that try and assist the civilians whose lives have only been ruined, as opposed to ended, by US bombs. You must also ban teams that have sponsorship deals with this entity from showing the logo on your broadcasts. Once this is in place we can move on to more complicated matters. We’ll have the conversation about Yemen next week. I’m sure a conversation about Taiwan will also be in our future.

If I sound jaded it’s only because it’s hard not to be. The one thing I used to be was an idealist and as I’ve parroted down the years I believed in esports because I saw the untapped potential. I believed it could be a space where technology allowed people from all across the world to come together, be who they want to be free from judgment, all of us unified in a shared passion that transcended all of the other noise.

Here, in our digital space, we could have chosen to fill it with anything we wanted. Sixteen years later I look at what we chose and I cannot abide it. Every week it feels we’re at some new crossroads, uncharted territory that our young industry is expected to navigate with aplomb. Obviously we’re not going to always get it right but this one is easy enough. The guiding principle is righteous. As things stand it’s only the execution that’s rotten.