As esports make their way onto mainstream TV, they’re going to have to play by mainstream TV rules.
ESPN made that evident this weekend when they broadcast a portion of the Street Fighter V tournament from Evo 2017 — one of the biggest fighting game tournaments of the year. During a match on Sunday, word came down from ESPN to the main stage that one of the players needed to choose a different costume for their character, ESPN confirmed via email. Specifically one that showed off a little less butt.
Street Fighter V pro Ryota "Kazunoko" Inoue was playing as the character Cammy on Sunday, whose default costume is a green singlet that tapers down into a thong-like bottom. It reveals quite a high percentage of her butt.
But after the first round of his match against Du "NuckleDu" Dang, an Evo staff member approached Kazunoko and the two had an inaudible exchange of words. Next thing you know, Cammy is wearing a different outfit.
You can see the moment here, about 6:45 into the video:
When the Evo staffer approaches Kazunoko, Kazunoko appears a bit confused at first and then seems to agree with whatever the staffer tells him. Kaunoko’s agent Hiroaki Inaba said via email that this is because the Japanese player does not speak English very well.
Inaba’s statement is edited for clarity:
"Kazunoko says he was asked to change Cammy’s costume by the staffer," Inaba said. "The staffer told him something in English but Kaz is not [fluent in] English so he couldn’t understand what he said. Then the staffer led him to the costume select screen and Kaz understood what they wanted. It was no problem to change costumes so he changed Cammy into another skin."
ESPN confirmed that the request to change Cammy’s outfit was "made per broadcast standards," not going into any further details.
A similar situation occurred during last year’s Street Fighter V Evo tournament, where ESPN asked the player Keita "Fuudo" Ai to choose a different outfit for the character Mika, whose default costume has a similarly revealing bottom.
Fun fact: Fuudo was required to use the "Story 1" costume after his first match because the default was deemed too revealing by ESPN.
— Ryan Harvey (@fubarduck) July 18, 2016
Things that fly on online streams aren’t always acceptable on TV, it seems, and as esports pop up more and more on mainstream TV channels like ESPN and TBS, they have reckon to with the increased scrutiny.
It’s likely that ESPN was trying to make its broadcast of the Street Fighter tournament as family-friendly as possible. If there’s an option for a less-revealing outfit for a character, ESPN is probably going to request that.
Staying family-friendly is important for many TV channels, which wouldn’t want parents forbidding their kids from watching their channel because they saw part of a cartoon butt. That important family-friendly branding is part of what led NBC Sports to choose Rocket League as its first step into broadcasting esports.
"We thought that the nature of the game not being a violent game, not having any concerns about content for families and kids, things like that, really made it a good fit for us," Rob Simmelkjaer, senior vice president of NBC Sports Ventures, said after the announcement was made in June.
If some games in esports cross certain lines with violence or potentially obscene images, TV channels like NBC Sports could downright refuse to air them.
Even when violent games are broadcast on TV, like when TBS’s esports brand ELeague hosts Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournaments, adjustments can still be requested.
During ELeague’s first Counter-Strike season in 2016, a French player named Simon Florysiak was substituting on the team G2 Esports. His alias is Fuks, but he went by his first name, Simon, when he was playing. It’s likely that the team, knowing that Florysiak would be playing under their banner on national television, didn’t want him to use a name so similar to an English swear word.
Both ESPN and TBS are cable stations, which means they don’t have to play by the FCC’s rules on obscenity, indecency, and profanity, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to show anything that toes those lines either. Meanwhile FCC-regulated channels like NBC, CBS, and Fox may not want to test those boundaries at all.
With that in mind, game developers of popular or growing esports might soon feel the need to add accommodating features and settings in their games to ensure they don’t run into any broadcasting problems or miss the boat on opportunities for them. Some games already have settings for toning down violence with a feature to decrease blood splatter on the screen, for instance. Will we soon see a setting to censor indecent language, though? More character skin options with the specific intention to be deemed acceptable by a wider audience? It’s likely that game developers of titles that have an opportunity to go on TV will want to cater to more mainstream TV channels. They aren’t just aiming at online audiences anymore.