On James Harding, the Shanghai Major, and the balance between humor and professionalism

It's possible to be casual, funny, and professional all at the same time. When we criticize James Harding, we shouldn't attack the off-the-cuff attitude that makes esports commentating special.

About a week ago, Valve fired Dota 2 event host James "2GD" Harding over remarks made during the live panel segment of Valve's Dota 2 Shanghai Major tournament (you can find a full recap of what happened on this very website!). The short version: Harding made a number of bad jokes and Valve fired him for it.

The controversy between the two parties became widespread enough that even non-esports websites caught wind of it, which usually only happens with big tournament wins or bad shows of conduct. A lot of the coverage in this case had to do with the tone of Gabe Newell’s response after Harding was fired. Newell wrote that “James is an ass,” which is notable for a company who have said they prefer no communication to bad communication. But I think a lot of the discussion surrounding the incident has created a false dichotomy between the kind of humor Harding was going for and the idea that esports need to grow up, something I’m uncomfortable with for a number of reasons.

When I first saw the whole fiasco blow up, I was conflicted. On one hand, I happened to watch the live segment James hosted that was likely the final straw in getting him fired. In particular, his referring to one player as another’s “bottom bitch,” as well as dancing around the notion of not liking a player because they were too “into the game,” rang as some of the most uncomfortable parts of the whole broadcast. While watching them, I was glad they occurred too late at night for most people I know to see them.

On the other, I felt a little strange about the tone of some of the dissent. I won’t defend the remarks Harding made in the slightest (and will in fact scrutinize them more thoroughly in a moment), but many of the comments by mainstream websites seemed to peg Harding’s humor as inseparable from the esports milieu, the implication being that Valve was doing the right thing for divorcing themselves from that.

That’s the part I find unsettling. The idea that esports should be more “professional” has always bothered me, because a lot of what I like about them is that they don’t feel professional. I like that a lot of esports commentary involves this loose, off-the-cuff banter that would probably be out of place at your average sporting event. One of my favorite parts of watching big fighting game tournaments happens before the matches start, when two commentators who’ve been tasked with entertaining viewers at eight in the morning have to find something to talk about. This atmosphere produces some of my favorite moments in the scene. They’re part of what makes viewers invested in the communities that form around their favorite games; like so many internet-famous celebrities, these people can often feel like friends you’ve never met.

I think Valve knew that coming into the Shanghai Major. They wanted to create that sense of community by making the host and commentators more familiar with each other, like friends riffing on the couch. The whole idea of their new Majors system was to give every fan around the world an event they could attend locally.

One of the segments that got Harding in trouble One of the segments that got Harding in trouble

But as we’ve seen, Valve made a ton of mistakes in organizing the event, and Harding’s hiring was one of them. For one, they didn’t give him proper direction as to what they wanted his role to be. Dota 2’s mysterious curator and balancer, IceFrog, gave Harding one signal (“whatever you want to do is fine,” he told him) and he never got a signal to the contrary from Valve until it was far too late. Perhaps, as Harding chronicles in his letter, internal politics at Valve played a role. But when people on Twitter or Reddit say “they shouldn’t have hired him in the first place” it implies that what Harding wanted to do shouldn’t be present at these events.

I get the sentiment. It gestures towards wanting esports to mature a bit so they’re a little more presentable. Still, my biggest problem with Harding wasn’t that he was “too hot for esports.” My problem is that he did what he set out to do poorly.

For starters, the first joke Harding made was about how he wasn’t his usual self because he wasn’t able to masturbate, since the Chinese government was blocking porn websites. There’s a time and place to challenge the notion of internet censorship by the government, but the introduction of an event sponsored by a videogame company is not the place, especially not in a country that’s taken to banning porn on social media. Even though the Chinese were probably not his primary audience, he had to know those kinds of jokes weren’t going to fly with the Chinese production company and Chinese host of the event, MMO giant Perfect World.

Speaking of the production staff, I can’t help but imagine Valve (who may not have been hosting the event but was certainly keeping close eye on it) would have been more lenient on Harding had he not antagonized the production staff during the broadcast. During the same broadcast where he made those remarks I mentioned earlier, he at one point refused to cut to a break. This might have made the segment more entertaining in the midst of the interminable delays the event was facing, but you don’t just leave the staff hanging out to dry like that. Maybe they needed to reset the stream equipment to fix the lag issues they were having. Maybe the staff was working long hours and needed a break. If you’re going to ignore someone’s call to cut to break for an hour, you better have a damn good reason.

Harding’s reasons were jokes that weren’t really that good. The jokes he made had a habit of dehumanizing the players he was covering, when they weren’t outright insulting them. He may be on good terms with all the players he was lambasting, but if the audience doesn’t know that it doesn’t matter. His edgier jokes lacked any sort of purpose. He wasn’t pushing buttons worth pushing.

In his letter, Harding makes the case that he was just giving his fans what they expected-- that he had to go a little blue, or otherwise it wouldn’t be ‘being himself.’ But the way he did it doesn’t seem artful or consistent with an ideology; it seems lazy. I’m sure he put a lot of work into what kinds of segments he’d have as host, but he should have extended that same thoroughness to evolving his schtick, rather than simply meeting expectations. It’s easy for entertainers to settle into rhythms and tell the same kinds of jokes over and over, and that’s how they end up falling by the wayside.

So Harding’s performance amounts to this: he didn’t know his audience, punched down instead of up when it came to making banter, never seemed to evolve his schtick, and antagonized the support staff. These aren’t the traits of a provocateur or someone working within the margins of a medium to make a point. They’re the traits of a bad entertainer.

And in all honestly, the panel did fine without him. Not only did his replacements (Dakota “KotLGuy” Cox and Jorien "Sheever" van der Heijden) handle the upheaval with grace, they delivered some good moments without ever stooping to pick on anyone. They knew how to treat the event with the importance it deserved while maintaining the casual, humorous tone that makes the scene so likable.

That’s why I have problem with everyone connecting Harding’s ousting as a move towards some sort straight-laced future for the scene. It creates a false dichotomy between being “professional” and being funny or amusing, and the awful way Harding’s firing (along with the rest of the Shanghai Major) was handled is going to lend more credence to the idea that the two are mutually exclusive.

I don’t believe that’s true. Esports’ jovial atmosphere is a big part of its identity, but Harding’s brand of humor at the Shanghai Major was disruptive and, frankly, boring. And when his firing is hailed as the end of casual esports commentating, it does a disservice to the commentators who actually work hard to make sure their jokes land.

I hope Valve and especially Harding take a good long look at what people expect of them. I hope they realize that good banter doesn’t require an offensive attitude. I hope Valve don’t walk this too far back, and I hope Harding comes out this whole thing a better entertainer. Most of all, I hope neither of them take the easy way out.


Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who’d like to see a Valve-hosted Major event in South America soon, and hopes Valve gets on that. He’s written for ZAM, Paste, Playboy, and several others. You can follow him @SurielVazquez.