Why marketers should care about the blowback to G2 Esports’ sexism scandal
The esports organization G2 Esports has been embroiled in controversy since Saturday, Sept. 17, when its CEO Carlos “ocelote” Santiago posted a video of himself partying with Andrew Tate, an anti-feminist influencer who has drawn internet ire over his comments about mental health and the role of women in society.
Tate, who has gone viral on TikTok for his viewpoints, is a former kickboxer and Big Brother contestant.
The widespread fan blowback to the scandal — and G2’s speedy response — could mark a turning point for the industry’s approach to such controversies, as brands crank up scrutiny of their esports-org partners.
G2 has already suffered consequences as a result of the fracas. On major social media channels, for every three positive posts about G2, there are roughly two new negative posts at the moment, according to the sentiment tracking tool Social Searcher.
And reports surfaced yesterday that G2 had been excluded from Valorant franchising, a decision made by Riot Games executives during an emergency meeting following the controversy. Given the industry-wide consensus that Valorant is going to be the next major esport, the loss of a franchise spot could be a major financial blow to G2, with franchise spots for large esports traditionally valued at millions of dollars apiece.
Although none of G2’s brand partners, which include prominent companies such as BMW and Logitech, have issued public statements about the situation, it’s clear that the video resulted in significant behind-the-scenes conversations. Both G2 and all of its brand partners declined to respond to Digiday’s requests for comment beyond pointing to the org’s public apology, but G2 quickly announced that Santiago would be taking eight weeks of unpaid leave due to his actions.
“The way that they’ve approached it has been very textbook, very PR-based,” said Michael Baggs, strategy director at social media agency The Social Element. “It was absolutely inescapable; I think there’s every chance that the brand partners had PR companies and similar flag the story as soon as it broke over the weekend.”
The scandal comes only a few weeks after the launch of G2 Hel, G2’s new all-female League of Legends squad. Female esports can help drive revenue and secure brand partnerships, but initiatives like G2 Hel are only meaningful to both fans and brand partners if they reflect organizations’ genuine efforts to support women in the community. Videos such as Santiago’s — which the G2 CEO doubled down on hours before posting a PR-inflected apology — can directly undermine such efforts.
“Either Carlos is an idiot, and he didn’t comprehend that tweeting it the way he did was going to bring this on him — or he completely understood what the situation was, and that was why he tweeted it in the provocative way he did,” said Rod Breslau, a veteran esports industry observer and consultant.
The scandal encouraged some esports industry workers to speak out about their experiences with sexism in and around G2. In a Twitlonger describing her experience at an Apex Legends event, Twitch streamer ConfusingQT claimed that she had overheard G2 team members yelling a sexist chant about “e-girls” that ended with the phrase “when they’re dead and long forgotten, we’ll dig them up and **** them rotten,” though one of the team members denied the accusation in a tweet of his own.
But to many in the industry, the news was unsurprising, evidence of a problematic work culture that had existed at G2 for much longer. In December 2021, G2 sparked controversy when a report by Dot Esports revealed that its contract with League of Legends player Luka “Perkz” Perkovic included an unorthodox clause limiting his ability to transfer to a specific rival team; Santiago often placed his brashly confident personality at the center of the organization’s front-facing content, including a meme video posted a day before the most recent controversy. As far back as 2015, esports analyst Nick “LS” De Cesare tweeted claims that Santiago had called him a “retard” and made fun of his sexual orientation.
One longtime esports industry worker — who spoke to Digiday on condition of anonymity because she had been harassed by G2 fans the last time she publicly spoke out against the org — said that she was shocked by Santiago’s seemingly callous approach to the industry’s gender issues during a job interview with the G2 CEO earlier this year.
“He was very much really into the fact that G2 doesn’t do things for brownie points — that they’re an entertainment company, and they entertain, so all of that social justice BS that other teams do for brownie points is not them,” she said. “Reflecting back on my interview with Carlos, it made me uncomfortable.” She eventually decided to accept a job offer from a competing organization.
As non-endemic brands involved in esports react to this kind of controversy, they are likely to increase their scrutiny of teams that claim to have missions of diversity and equality — and the unsavory side of esports could cause more crisis-averse brands to shy away from the industry as a whole. While many esports orgs are starting to use the language of social justice for initiatives such as all-female teams and diversity-themed brand activations, the controversy surrounding G2 shows that such plans can often be limited to the surface level.
“When most of the executive C-level is very male-dominated, all these words about how they want to support women are kind of hollow,” Breslau said. “If they really did, they would put women in positions of power.”