As competitive gaming strives for mainstream acceptance, one of the biggest organizations is forcing out a sponsor that specializes in pornography.

ESL (Electronic Sports League) is blocking any association with pro group Team YP because its primary sponsor is the adult entertainment website YouPorn. The organization, which holds tournaments and ongoing pro seasons for a number of games, is enforcing one of its rules that prohibits any sponsors “widely known for pornographic … or other adult/mature themes and products,” according to an email that ESL officials sent to Team YP. This move comes as a direct order from ESL’s directors in what is a clear effort to purge YouPorn from ESL-backed events despite constant efforts by Team YP heads to separate its esports brand as a “safe for work” spinoff that does no direct promoting of XXX entertainment.

In an email correspondence GamesBeat got its hands on, Team YP made several appeals to ESL and even offered to rebrand in a way that did not refer to YouPorn or even “YP” in any way, but the ESL turned down that offer and solidified the expulsion of Team YP from its events.

This move comes as esports is on pace to generate $463 million in revenue this year. Most of that money comes from sponsorships, and that is certainly where ESL makes the bulk of its cash. Additionally, ESL often works with game publishers to promote their games through tournaments and other competitive events, and the organization told Team YP that some of those publishers draw up contracts that prohibit any participation from pornographic brands.

ESL provided GamesBeat with the following comment in response:

“Advertising pornography is not legal in the markets we operate in, and the vast majority of partners we’re working with have strict ‘no drugs, no alcohol, no pornography’ rules that we’ve contractually taken on board. These aren’t new rules but ones that have been in our rulebooks for a long time. We have spoken to Team YP manager earlier this year, and in that conversation we’ve explained the situation and rules in detail and offered to look for potential alternatives in a bigger group. At the same time, we’re consulting with our legal teams about this. We will inform the team and the management as soon as we have any updates.”

For Team YP, this is going to limit its potential to compete, which — in the end — is going to hurt its members and those who enjoy watching them compete.

“I am disappointed that Team YP’s growth is being stunted by this decision, not to mention the effect that this will have on our roster of players,” Team YP manager Claire Fisher told GamesBeat. “While for some, our participation in esports has been controversial, stopping our players from competing because they are sponsored by us, in spite of Team YP operating as a completely SFW [safe for work] brand, clearly separated from any adult content, seems unfair to say the least.”

Team YP has always known that it would have to bend to appease its corporate partners, and that’s why it does not use the full “YouPorn” brand in any of its promotional materials.

A blurred-out Team YP logo.

Above: A blurred-out Team YP logo.

Image Credit: Team YP

Additionally, Team YP has gone to some extreme lengths to ensure that when people go looking for info on Team YP on search sites like Google, they’ll end up finding the safe-for-work Team YP blog as opposed to the adult YouPorn site.

But when even all of that work was not enough, Team YP has gone as far as completely removing all references to even the two-letter “YP” identifier. In December, publisher Capcom wouldn’t permit Team YP to wear its typical jerseys, so the group introduced a censored alternative instead.

The censored shirt is clever, but it’s also not exactly subtle. And Team YP understands this, which is why it offered to go through a complete rebranding in the face of ESL’s new rule.

Here is how Team YP put the appeal to ESL’s operations bosses in an email late last month:

“If the division had to go through a rebranding and remove the YP for something else, if the sponsor is still technically ‘YouPorn’ but the YP is not actively present in the branding, would you be allowed to let my teams play? If the two letters are removed, our sponsorship will be implied due to the fact that we are somewhat well established as a sponsor at that point, but ESL would not be placed in a difficult position since you wouldn’t be promoting YouPorn directly at all since that would be removed.”

ESL responded by pointing out that the rule prohibits any team to accept a sponsorship from a site like YouPorn. Since YouPorn is the only adult site actively backing a team at ESL events, this rule only affects Team YP at this time.

“In the end, this is mostly impacting the income of gamers who want to be sponsored,” said Fischer. “Without which, esports wouldn’t be able to operate in the way that it does.”

Of course, the ESL and its publishing partners have every right to decide what kind of companies they do business with. But it also seems like a potential overreach for ESL and those publishers to tell players that they cannot compete if they take money from the wrong sponsors — especially when ESL and publishers often do not pay a salary to those individuals. So this might come across as a couple of corporations attempting to protect their image at the expense of the people who make their competitive games worth watching in the first place.

“We feel like this rule has been implemented in direct connection to our sponsor’s efforts,” Team YP’s Rainbow Six: Siege and Evolve captain Eril “YP_Nightwane” Djoehana told GamesBeat. “It was only created after we started entering ESL cups and started getting noticed.”

Street Fighter pro Anton “Filipinoman” Herrera points out how this has him frightened for his personal income.

“[ESL is] taking away opportunities for players to compete,” he told GamesBeat. “At any time, my sponsor could revoke their sponsorship from me or from any of their teams because we are unable to perform with [the YP] tag and branding.”

This is frustrating for these pros because they see how Fisher and the other leaders have put a ton of work into building Team YP as its own brand apart from YouPorn, and they don’t understand what else they could do.

“What is even more upsetting for my team in particular is that we were worried about these kinds of problems,” said Nightwane. “We decided to be proactive, and we asked both [Evolve publisher] 2K and ESL how they felt about our sponsorship, and they were both very happy to accept Team YP as a participant. This leaves us confused on why this ruling has been made. We would love to continue competing with other teams within the ESL while being sponsored. We have always strived not to cause any troubles, and we want to follow the rules properly.”

None of that seems to matter in the face of the ESL’s new rules, and that is leaving Team YP in a situation where its YouPorn overseers may want to pull the plug on the entire project. For now, however, the group is looking to charge ahead.

“Luckily, we have an understanding team, team manager, and vice president,” said Filipinoman. “And they are equally level-headed when having discussions with the heads of the eports competitions we are trying to get into. Sadly, finding a middle ground has always proven to be near impossible, as there is no room for any open discussion.”

Nightwane echoes that sentiment.

“Our experience with Team YP has been nothing but positive thus far,” he said. “We are well-treated by Team YP, and we are never pushed to promote or be linked to any mature content. Moreover, none of their content is harmful to anyone. I do not think there is any cause for this harsh punishment for a sponsor and team, especially since they are only trying to support the scene and its players.”

Updated at 1 p.m. Pacific on April 24 with a comment from ESL. 

Updated at Noon on April 25 to correct implication that the ESL rule is new.