PlusHeart Issue #5 - The Art of the (Twitter) Dunk
An in-depth look at a particular Twitter dunk, why it worked, and the cautionary tale of those who try to jam too hard.
Hello friends. As a warning, this is going to be a long issue. Wasn’t sure whether I should split this into two issues or not, but at the same time, it’s nice to get a good roll on something and keep going.
We’ve all seen it before: an esports Twitter account replies to another in a way that feels particularly satisfying. The crowd goes “OHHHH” in a way that implies that yes, this was a particularly successful dunk.
In this case, it was KRU Esports, a South American esports team playing VALORANT, and competing in VALORANT Champions 2021, the game’s year-end, international tournament.
Their target of dunking is Zombs, a player for Sentinels’ VALORANT roster. Zombs is a Rolex collector, content to trash talk, and will not hesitate to flash that he is the highest-earning prizewinner in VALORANT‘s competitive history.
All of these things are things he’s earned.
Prior to the event, he said that he “[couldn’t] wait to beat your shit region again” to a commentator for South American VALORANT and League of Legends. Sentinels, arguably the biggest brand in English-language VALORANT, were eliminated by KRU Esports 2-1 (losing two straight maps) from VALORANT Champions 2021.
Arguably, the dunk tweet after the match was something that KRU Esports earned, too.
Breaking a Dunk Down
In my Issue #0 for PlusHeart, I said that “I am not going to comment on Internet slapfights unless the way a team handles it severely impacts their branding, or if I’m explaining why a marketing technique might have bombed.”
I think that this is one of those opportunities, because if teams are going to attempt to use this kind of rhetoric in the future, we should be able to tell why it fails or succeeds.
We can look at this in three areas: the setup, the execution, and the results.
In this case, the setup encapsulates a couple different avenues:
Zombs is part of a top team roster in the game. If he was not, the position of power would not be as distinct. In many games, South America is not a dominant force in international esports they participate in, and are traditionally an underdog.
Zombs was not speaking from a point of humility. This is fine, because this article isn’t about whether Zombs was able to receive the dunk well, or not. That’s a completely different article.
Zombs’ villain behavior involved both a status perspective (his team’s better results) and a wealth perspective (his ability to afford Rolexes, an expensive watch brand, and recent postings about a new car, etc). These are somewhat intertwined, as Sentinels’ dominance in their region (winning their slot at the tournament via circuit points) and as a brand (being the English-language top dogs in VALORANT) are pretty undisputed.
Plainly, Sentinels were expected to do well, and South America was expected to do badly. Zombs not being able to wait to “beat your shit region” cemented that as a mentality that didn’t just represent fan sentiment, but professional player sentiment, as well.
It feels extra-special for South America to win this exchange, both in-game and out, because it validates their region as competitive, and also knocks down a player (and by extension, the brand he represents) from the lofty perch they’ve placed themselves on.
And while perhaps it isn’t fair to place Sentinels and his teammates along with him, it's part of the package: your words affect not only the relationship between yourself and fans, but also how those fans see your teammates and org. “You play for Sentinels, and Sentinels failing means you fail, too” is a pretty simple equation.
The “poor underdog beats the rich snob” has been part of fiction forever, and for good reason: part of sports in general is that in-game skill is supposed to be the great equalizer for people who may find themselves disadvantaged otherwise.
While I’m not supposing too much about South America, KRU, or their players, it’s about the shared context and connection of sports: if you’re part of a region that is hungry for better results, and when those results come at the expense of someone higher that you dislike, it feels extra sweet.
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In professional comedy (and I guess other areas), there’s a concept of “punching up” and “punching down”, which refers to the target of a joke in relation to the person telling it, and the people expected to enjoy it.
For instance, a rich person joking about poor people to other rich people (mocking “the other”) may seem funny in the moment, but to an outsider, there’s definitely this feeling of “Okay, you’re just being a dick. You’re punching down from your superior position to people who don’t deserve it.”
Punching up and punching down describe who should be the butt of the joke. It carries the assumption that, relative to the comedian’s socio-political identity, comedy should punch up at the powerful not punch down at the marginalized.
That’s that important aspect that prompted me to write this article, mostly because due to my experience with team social media strategy, I see people trying to wield the power of the dunk without knowing how, when and why it should be used.
This isn’t to say this from a moral perspective of who you should dunk on, because there are ways of misusing and weaponizing the punching up/down dichotomy away from its intended guideline. I’m more saying that there are reasons why a dunk does more bad than good, even if a team expects the opposite. In the context of team branding (and building a better brand), the dunk is increasingly becoming part of a toolkit, and it should be understood, whether when using it or defending against it.
Before I go into that further, I want you to remember the four parties that I just mentioned:
The sender of the dunk
The target of the dunk
The audience of the dunk
The bystanders of the whole affair, who may come late or not have the full story.
It isn’t just the sender and target: the reason the sender is making the dunk goes far beyond “being personal”. It’s done for the interaction, the retweets, the brand-building, and the shared feeling of “we win”; this is what leads to it becoming a drug for social media managers, because when it works out, the numbers are pretty sweet.
However, ignoring both the audience and onlookers increases the risk of flying too close to the sun: without understanding the emotional triggers you’re playing with, you fall out of the sky like Icarus.
Even major sports brand struggle with this. An exchange between the Nashville Predators and Nolan Bianchi, a Detroit-based sports journalist (Detroit being home of the Red Wings, who share an NHL rivalry with the Predators) backfired.
Bystanders interpreted it as a mean-spirited dig by the Predators at the economic conditions of Detroit; it also was interpreted as a potential racially-charged comment due to the demographic makeups between the two cities. Saying “Lol, Detroit is a terrible place to live” has a lot more feelings and emotions associated with it, and that’s something the Predators SMM didn’t take into account.
While I could look at this and say “Okay, this brand saw someone being a smart-ass, and decided to be a smart-ass back”, the Predators likely would not want to opt with that public relations headache if given the choice again.
Things to Consider
This was all Wendy’s fault.
In the late 2010s, the account for the fast food chain Wendy’s decided to take a risk and let their Twitter persona morph from the typical corporate-friendly voice to one that decided to actively drop its competitors names to tease them.
This kind of ball-busting was risky, but it was different: the novelty of seeing Wendy’s shit-talk McDonald’s about their frozen patties (while Wendy’s has always touted theirs as never being frozen) was something safe that Wendy’s would always “win”. If McDonald’s did change to address the ball-busting, Wendy’s converted them to the “better” option, and looked smarter in the process.
Soon everyone and their mother decided that this was a great social media strategy, because if you got enough good dunks, you got the bystanders, who didn’t give care about either brand, showing up to enjoy the show. Those bystanders had the potential to become customers of the "cooler" brand; the snark became an onboarding strategy.
In the desire to be authentic by seeming "real", it's now evolved into this snarling, rabies-inflicted beast that sometimes doesn't even make sense.
This arguably has its roots with OREO in 2013, whose timely tweet “stole” that year’s Super Bowl, which was affected by a blackout. Despite not spending any ad money on the event itself, they still profited the most. Suddenly, any brand was pouncing on any event happening on social media, regardless of whether it in good taste, or even relevant to their brand.
I swear to god I’m not trying to make a pun about “dunking” when I say that Oreo’s tone was a “dunk” without a victim. It was taking advantage of circumstances and just happened to have the perfect moment to do so.
In both these cases, the goal was getting people to think “Wendy’s said what on their corporate account? They responded how to McDonald’s trying to beat them at their own tone?” Any wins resulted in a lot of numbers going up on analytics dashboards across the marketing departments everywhere.
To the people who didn’t understand its effectiveness, it became an arms race as to who could talk trash the hardest and minimize the effects of the resulting response. Note how I don’t say “talk trash and back it up”: that’s on purpose.
Instead of cultivating the mentality of “we have a better product, we can back up our trash talk because you know you can’t compete”, it became about getting the bystander attention, and praying to god that your audience wouldn’t notice if your mouth wrote checks your quality couldn’t cash. So sure, shit-talk that brand. If they actually had a problem with that, or had something to prove otherwise, they were try hards who couldn’t appreciate the banter. They weren’t fun.
Days later, it would be forgotten, and anyone trying to still win that fight would be seen as lame. This deflection and subsequent drama unfortunately overruns the bandwidth and messaging of the social strategy, because you’re either picking fights, defending yourself, or trying to course correct in-between.
It’s very difficult to sell a charity campaign around anti-bullying when you’ve been trash-talking a lower-tier team hours before. Your actions and intent have to align, and you have to have enough goodwill from past interactions with both your fans and onlookers to be able to navigate and move past these slapfights without operating at a loss.
I have a personal bias here because I think it’s a more productive use of time to act with dignity towards losses or wins. In the case of deflecting dunks, not engaging with the culture enables you to look like the bigger person for not stopping to someone’s level. In the event you do lose to a team you shouldn’t, at least you weren’t a dick to them beforehand, and that situation results in a lesser loss of goodwill.
I’ve always referred to this as “not alley-ooping our competition”. To those people who don’t follow basketball, in an alley-oop, an extremely precise pass from a teammate makes dunking the ball really easy: you are being gifted an easy dunk.
You don’t want to gift your opponents more dunks than they deserve, especially if they have more to gain from it than you do.
Shit-talking and ball-busting is more easily forgivable from smaller brands because they have more to gain and less to lose. It can be brushed off as ironic bravado, because “they weren’t expected to win anyway.” If they do win, they look like gods for calling their shots; if they don’t win, they can do the “I was only pretending” deflection and lick their wounds.
If they’re principled (but really, who is?) they can win and lose with dignity, giving credit to their opponents either way. This means that there’s a potential for a net gain of goodwill to offset the loss: they earn respect from their audience, their opponent’s audience, and the bystanders. Those principles end up affecting their long-term reputation and brand perception.
I’m going to do some short “risk equations” for the concepts of positive outcomes vs negative ones when engaging in dunking.
The factors are play are:
Where is the team on the scale of “underdog” to “the favorite”?
Are the team’s results consistent, or spotty? Dominant, or close?
Where is the team on the scale of “heroic” to “villainous” tone with their messaging?
Where is the team on the scale of “heroic” to villainous” tone with their actions?
The same questions should be asked of their opponents, or the target of the dunking. Each one affects how the action is perceived and what the risk is for success or failure.
I feel like I should be able to put together some mathematical formula for this, but hey, let’s get visual.
Forgive the crudeness of the screenshot.
This makes some assumptions:
Heroes are looking to be agreeable to both their fans first, and outsiders second
Villains are looking to be agreeable to their fans, but not necessarily outsiders
In general, outsiders (fans without stake in the matchup) want heroes to win (to reward their conduct) and/or want villains to lose (to punish their conduct). This can be mutually exclusive (i.e., you don’t care if a team wins, but you want their opponents to lose)
Victories while dominant are less impressive than victories while an underdog
Villain/Villain and Hero/Hero match-ups are muddled because the relativity of their positions becomes a factor. Someone ends up playing the hero/villain role regardless, as the lesser of two evils or the greater of two goods
"Arguable" results depend on dynamics, and how well the brand has set itself up to "take the L" with grace
From a marketing perspective, we can see where the risk mostly lies: a dominant team talking trash means that they must make good on that, because in all cases, losing means they risk having the trash talk thrown back in their faces. However, they have least to gain from the trash talk “paying off”, since they already stand in a vulnerable position. Heroic teams also risk having their conduct judged based on the “punching up/punching down” dichotomy, according to the audience seeing it.
The only case where winning is an arguably bad thing is in the case of dominant villain brands, because they risk “punching down” too hard at weaker teams. Regardless of whether those teams “deserve it”, there’s a potential for it to be perceived as too far, and reflecting badly on the brand.
Conversely, winning as a trash talking underdog is always a good thing, because you have much more to gain from the victory. If you’re defeating a superior “heroic” team, you’re executing the narrative of the underdog; if you’re defeating a villain, you’re doing the community a favor.
Losing represents bigger risks to dominant teams, but with the Dominant Hero vs Underdog Hero matchup (HH3), you at least are part of the positive story of the underdog rising. Depending on the severity of the trash talking, your alignment on the hero/villain scale is affected. The tone of “trash talking” vs “confidence” is part of the spin that defines heroic narratives vs villainous ones.
Losing while an underdog risks less, because there’s a perception that playing the villain while in a lesser position is “part of the role.” The only place where it hurts more is losing to a shit-talking, dominant, well-liked team; duh, people like them more than you, and they’re content to see you “get what’s coming to you.”
We see this in esports, but also in traditional sports: Conor McGregor made a whole career off of it. It has its roots in pro wrestling, where a well-crafted bad guy will draw audiences and money to see him get beat: the balance between “keeping the good guy chasing” and paying off the feud properly is what builds brand trust and makes your fans go home happy.
The ironic thing is that the only reason this works is that wrestling is pre-determined: trying to posit yourself as a villain in esports “for the good of the sport” only really works if you’re good at backing up your words, and are prepared to take on the burden of people disliking you.
Determining Risk Tolerance
So we come back to the idea of risk, and how we determine tone as marketers. Is it really worth it to open yourself up to the risk of the alley-oop?
As usual, the question becomes “who benefits most?” and “is this mission-critical?”
I think the difficult aspect is having to be so in-tune with a community’s scene that we’re able to grasp the greater cultural narrative of the ecosystem. The disconnect between fans of your team, the opponent’s team, and the greater bystander crowd is so distinct that you need to make sure that the context of your dunk comes through; if it takes too much reading or understanding to grasp the feud, you can end up looking like a jerk when to your fans, you’re justified. Either that, or you look like you’re coming across too strong onto a feud that doesn’t really exist.
This went a lot longer than I’d planned, but I’m pretty happy with how much I could dive into the subject. The concept of bullying, and pseudo-bullying to support entertainment is something that’s fascinated me for a long time, and even as I dislike “savagery as marketing”, I need to make an effort to understand it; it hits some part of an audience’s lizard brain.
As usual, I stream on Twitch weekly (usually Saturdays at 3PM EST).
If you’re an esports organization or publication, I’ve opened a consulting page if you’re interested in working with me.