‘If someone wants to hate us for that, I’ll welcome it’: Misfits Gaming CEO Ben Spoont debriefs on esports industry’s muted Roe response
The overturning of Roe v. Wade last month sent shockwaves through the business world, with companies across the advertising, tech and media industries issuing public statements against the ruling and offering to help employees travel to regions with superior access to abortions if necessary.
One sector that has been notably silent during the post-Roe outcry is esports. Few esports organizations have issued public statements of any sort regarding the ruling. Even League of Legends developer Riot Games was tentative to speak out: A Riot Games skins producer, rather than a public relations manager, shared the company’s internal memo in support of abortion access.
This relatively muted response is surprising for an industry that expressed forceful support for Black Lives Matter in summer 2020 and was rife with rainbow-themed posts and banners as recently as this past Gay Pride Month.
To explore esports brands’ response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Digiday caught up with one of the few esports executives whose organization did respond to the news: Ben Spoont, CEO of Misfits Gaming. When Spoont heard of the ruling, he moved quickly — immediately circulating an internal message promising Misfits employees that the organization would support them in any efforts to travel to states with abortion access. He went on to share the statement in a public-facing tweet, writing that the Supreme Court was “destroying the rights [of] women.”
“It was very simple: I sat on my computer, went into Slack, typed it and hit send,” Spoont said. “And if you read my message, I even put my own neck on the line.”
Read more of Spoont’s thoughts on the esports industry’s reaction to the Roe v. Wade news below.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On the industry’s mild response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade thus far:
“It was incredibly surprising to me,” Spoont said. “My belief of the gaming industry is that it is way more progressive, and should be more progressive in nature, because our core audience is younger, and generally speaking, the younger you go, the more progressive and liberal you go.”
Spoont’s answer to this question reflects his strong understanding of the demographics and ideological preferences of the modern gaming and esports audience. However, misconceptions about gamers continue to abound, and the industry is only a few years out from the widespread stereotype of the gamer as a basement-dwelling incel — not necessarily the most progressive demographic. Furthermore, some esports organizations are localized to markets where the majority of the audience is against abortion rights, making it risky for them to speak out publicly. (This was arguably a source of concern for the Florida-based Misfits Gaming, but Spoont did not express concern.)
It’s also possible that privately-held esports organizations that would otherwise be inclined to speak out are afraid of disgruntling their current or future investors. The millionaires and billionaires investing in the esports industry are not as progressive as the average esports fan, and esports organizations certainly take their opinions to heart.
Still, the DNA of the esports industry is younger and more liberal than the average population, and it’s likely that esports organizations will provide quiet support to their employees following the ruling, regardless of their public statements on the matter. “I assume that many of them, privately, posted similar messages like I posted, and they just didn’t publish it,” Spoont said.
On the potential to turn off fans in conservative markets:
“I say this with peace and love: I don’t want them as my fans,” Spoont said. “Our community, and the fans that we are looking to attract, need to represent our values. And when you think about the communities that we are aggregating, the content creators that we have, it is one of intense diversity and inclusion. The core is that we really do stand for diversity and inclusion, championing women’s rights and LGBTQIA and the rights of humans. And so if someone wants to hate us for that, I’ll welcome it, because that means we’re doing something right.”
Beyond the ideological fervor of Spoont’s statement, supporting abortion rights is a wise business move. After all, the majority of Americans support the legality of abortions in all or most cases. But despite the logic behind the decision, even other esports organizations that spoke up about the ruling are skittish about going too hard on the issue of abortion. The only other prominent esports organization that has made a public pledge like Misfits’ is Evil Geniuses — but EG declined to put a representative forward for an interview about the decision, with a public relations representative saying that the org didn’t “want to be centerstage on the issue.”
On fans’ and brand partners’ responses to Misfits’ public statement:
Brand partnerships are a major revenue stream for most esports organizations, and Misfits is no exception. Although many non-gaming-endemic brands have made their own statements in support of abortion rights, Spoont’s public statement still risked provoking the ire of politically averse fans or sponsors.
“They’ve reacted positively, and I think that is an indication of the partners that we wish to have,” Spoont said. “I want to be clear: I respect other people’s opinion on the matter. I think they’re wrong, but I respect the fact that I have an opinion. At the core, we simply believe that this is a health care decision.”
Although Spoont’s statement puts Misfits in a more unstable position than some of its more silent competitors, there are potential benefits to be reaped from making such a move. Esports has expanded more rapidly than some organizations have been able to adjust, creating lingering issues of brand safety for orgs whose past toxicity issues or problematic opinions lurk just beneath the surface.
By putting itself front and center, Misfits is aligning its brand with equity and social justice, potentially getting ahead of esports’ brand-safety reckoning — and presenting a more positive vision for the esports community. “Esports is a great place for brands to get involved, because you’re looking at people who are representative of that community,” said Michael Baggs, strategy director for the social media agency The Social Element. “They’re people that have a great-sized audience most of the time, and within esports, there’s a big push for diversity to be honestly represented.”
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