Let’s Learn About Public Relations: The Unintended Consequences of Salem Stealing Online Tournaments

Salem-holding-EVO-2017-trophy.png

Before we get into today’s topic I want to muse on something. It is utterly fascinating to me how powerful ANTi’s social media presence has become. He is a brilliant model of success if you want to study self-branding through social media. Every tweet he makes about the Smash ecosystem demands a response from top leaders in the community. He could bottom out and drop even lower on the next PGR, and still likely keep gaining followers and retain his Immortals contract. If any players reading this are curious about how to get signed to a good team, study what ANTi does. Shoot me a message and I’ll help you identify exactly what makes it work so well, and how you can adapt those strategies to your own brand.

Get On With It

Right then, on to last night’s drama. As mentioned above, this is actually pretty old drama but ANTi’s commentary demanded responses from MVG higher-ups which created a perfect opportunity for learning.  Yay learning! For those unaware, here’s the scenario:

Salem is ranked #11 on the PGR. With a slightly better start to his season, he’d easily be top 10. He is sponsored by Most Valuable Gaming, an esports company with Melee god M2K as its spearhead. They are a solid company and a great force in the smash world, but by no means a top tier sponsor in the grand scheme of esports. Over the last few months, Salem has entered a number of online tournaments where the prize was a paid trip to a major event. He won the Naifu Wars that awarded a trip to EVO, and ANTi’s recent tweet was in reference to Salem’s registration for the Nairo sub tournament awarding a trip to Shine.

There are two “problems” that some people have with Salem participating in these events. First, many feel that it is unfair for Salem to be allowed to enter. He is obviously at a far higher skill level than the majority of entrants. Second, he already has team that should be funding his trip to big tournaments. Since he does not strictly “need” the prize, he should not be depriving other players the opportunity to attend these events. First, I want to clear up a couple facts of the situation, and then explore the optics and public relations consequences of those facts.

The Facts

Fact the first–these tournaments are run by Nairo. He is the tournament organizer. You can only enter these tournaments by subscribing to his Twitch channel. Nairo has the right to decide the parameters of his tournament, if he chooses to allow Salem to enter, that is entirely his decision. Salem also had to pay the entry fee like every other entrant. He received no special treatment. Remember, every single smash tournament ever is a simple open bracket. We don’t block top players from attending locals, monthlies, regionals, etc. In fact, there are many who want top players to attend more minor offline events. Salem being allowed to enter Nairo’s sub tournaments actually represents consistency across all smash events–you pay your entry, you get your shot.

Fact the second–MVG has gone on record stating that they are more than happy to pay for Salem to attend these events. His decision to enter the sub tournaments, according to MVG representatives, has nothing to do with their inability to pay for plane tickets. According to them and Salem himself, Salem would rather earn his trip to big events and get some good practice along the way through these online events. We’ll get to the opinions and optics on this, but these are the facts as they have been relayed by the parties involved.

Fact the last–Salem is not evil. If you’d seen any content or talked to any player, you would know that Salem is a genuinely good person who loves the community and is grateful for his opportunities. His entry into these events does not represent some malicious act to deprive Cosmos or Icymist of their chance to attend a big tournament. I am willing to believe that Salem’s reasons for entering these events are pure regardless of the optics. That said, it looks really really bad.

The Optics

If you follow me on Twitter, this is a phrase you’ll hear me use a lot. When we talk about “optics” we’re referring to a public relations/marketing idea. Essentially, the optics represent the way a situation is perceived by people who do not have all the behind-the-scenes facts. For example, let’s say you come home to find some dude stabbing your wife repeatedly in the chest. As soon as he sees you, he drops the knife and starts to run towards an open window. In your rage and surprise, you grab the dropped knife and chase after him. He escapes out the window and you can’t follow. You run back over to your wife and attempt to stop the bleeding by pressing on the wound with your hands. Suddenly, the police burst in and they see you hovering over your dying, super stabbed wife with blood all over you, a knife with your fingerprints all over it, and no sign that anyone else was in the house. The reality of the situation is that you didn’t kill your wife, but the optics make it look like you are super duper going to jail.

You may have heard the phrase “perception is reality”. It’s an old cliche but it remains relevant. In public relations, we go one step further and say that “perception creates reality”. Optics are everything in my business. The matter more than reality because most people build their opinions and make their decisions based on optics rather than truth. Truth should always matter more, but it’s the responsibility of the public relations team to make the optics match the truth.

So, let’s look at the optics of this situation. Again, this is not 100% reality, but it is how the situation looks to people without 100% of the information. You have the 11th-best player in the world, now an EVO champion, entering amateur subscriber tournaments in order to win a trip to Shine 2017. When he wins (and he’ll probably win) it means we will not get to see a popular unique player like Cosmos or Icymist attend that tournament. Now those players won’t get the chance to improve their PGR stock. Clearly MVG must be a fake sponsor since they couldn’t even shell out the money to get their player to the most prestigious tournament in the world, and now they also can’t pay for Shine? What do they even do for Salem? Is this just another weird org that doesn’t actually do anything to help their players? Salem better ditch these guys soon and get a real sponsor, MVG clearly doesn’t value him if they can’t pay for the travel of the EVO-freaking champion!

Stay With Me

Now, as we said above, that is very clearly not the full reality of the situation. However, it is a reasonable conclusion to make based on the available data. The general public did not know that Salem declined MVG’s offer to pay for his EVO trip. They don’t know that he considers these tournaments to be a great practice opportunity. All they see is the EVO champion having to fight a bunch of unsponsored, promising players for the right to attend a tournament. It is the cross-section of Salem’s skill and his team that make the situation a PR problem. Were Salem still in the 20s on the PGR, no one would really care that he was in these tournaments. Were he still a free agent, more people would likely support his decision to try and get his trip covered.

What lead to me writing this article was this tweet from M2K. Because he has all the facts, he sees ANTi as intentionally spreading misinformation. However, ANTi and I drew the exact same conclusion based on the information we had at the time. I saw no press release from MVG stating that they’d offered Salem a plane ticket and he declined. Nothing from their side of the story came out until enough shade had been thrown their way to demand a response. What I want to make clear in this article is this: the general public are not responsible for the optics of a situation. That is the responsibility of the player or organization. If you are in a situation with bad optics, you didn’t do the work necessary to protect yourselves.

This is true in every area of life: you cannot blame people for reacting based on the available information. If you have only given me some of the data, I can only draw a conclusion based on what I know. It is unreasonable to expect someone to say “hey Salem, it’s sort of weird that you are still entering these sub tournaments. Did MVG offer to pay for your flight, but you refused because you want to earn it yourself?” Because Salem is entering a tournament who’s prize is a trip, it is reasonable to assume that Salem could not get that trip another way. You cannot attack ANTi for spreading “misinformation” when you did not give us the correct information to begin with.

Smash isn’t grassroots anymore. We were on the freaking worldwide leader of sports! Even minor organizations within the community have to level up in terms of their marketing, public relations, and professionalism. You have to consider the optics of every decision. It is the job of the organization to protect their players from PR scandals, and to also protect their image. Salem said that he entered these tournaments because he loves his sponsor and doesn’t want them to have to pay if he can go another way. Unfortunately, in the eyes of many he may have done more harm to MVG by attending these tournaments. It is the job of a marketing or PR representative at a company like MVG to consider these unintended consequences and develop strategies to prevent them.

Let’s Chill Out

Now, all of this being said, I still have not stated that Salem did anything wrong by entering a sub tournament and winning a trip. The tournament rules allowed him to attend, he is well within his rights to compete. He did not commit some sort of crime, he just played in a Smash Bros tournament. That being said, every player in this scene is now more in the public eye than ever. When you have a public profession, you don’t get to avoid optics. It is your responsibility to think about how a situation my be perceived. Then, you can decide whether or not to continue with your chosen course of action.

Further, MVG is a fantastic smash organization. They put on solid events, they provide awesome content with both Salem and M2K, and they’ve enabled Vayseth to keep pushing for the inclusion of Japanese competitors at US events. We should absolutely support them. The fact that Salem has not already dropped them to try and court bigger teams should tell you just how much they support their players. The reality of the situation is very clear–MVG and Salem have a wonderful working relationship, and any fre agent player should be excited to get an offer from this team. Unfortunately, they didn’t do a great job of protecting themselves from the optics of this one weird situation.

Salem is completely within his rights to attend a sub tournament. The public are also completely within their rights to view this as a problem. Anyone who’s actually attacking Salem and saying anything overly rude or hurtful is a stupid jerk and should stop. However, discussing whether or not top players should be allowed in these events, being disappointed that free agents can’t go, even wishing that top players wouldn’t participate–these are all completely reasonable things for the public to do.

The world of Smash is changing. Players and organizations are going to have to change along with it, and that means putting more time and resources into considering optics, and adjusting for them.

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