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‘Gears 5’ Will Eliminate All Smoking Depictions After Concerns Raised by Youth Anti-Tobacco Org (EXCLUSIVE)

Variety — Todd Spangler

Gears 5,” the forthcoming installment in the “Gears of Wars” third-person shooter game franchise, will be a smoke-free establishment.

The game, set for Sept. 10 release, comes from Xbox Game Studios and game developer The Coalition. The decision to remove all smoking references from “Gears 5” came after not-for-profit anti-smoking organization Truth Initiative approached Turner, whose ELeague esports division has broadcast rights to the title, about making the change. Turner collaborated with The Coalition to strip out smoking from the game.

Turner is promoting the partnership with Truth for this weekend’s ELeague Gears Summer Series Invitational. The esports tournament is taking place July 13-14 with live coverage on Twitch – the first time fans will see “Gears 5” in action.

In a statement, Rod Fergusson, studio head at The Coalition, said: “I’ve seen firsthand the devastating impact of smoking. It’s always been important for me to not use smoking as a narrative device, which is why we made the conscious choice to avoid highlighting or glorifying smoking in ‘Gears 5’ and throughout the Gears of War Universe moving forward.” According to a rep for Xbox Games Studio, the decision was done solely by The Coalition.

Past “Gears of War” titles have included occasional scenes with tobacco use, with certain characters holding cigarettes or cigars. The removal of tobacco depictions in “Gears 5” has been months in the works, said Seth Ladetsky, senior VP, Turner Sports Sales and head of Turner Sports Digital and ELeague sales strategy and revenue.

“This took a lot of time and a lot of good thinking,” said Ladetsky. “It’s the right image for ELeague — and the game itself — to project.”

Of course, “Gears 5” still includes a ton of shooting and, arguably, glorifies violence. The game is rated “M” (for audiences 17+) for blood and gore, strong language and intense violence, according to Microsoft.

Is there a double standard in keeping the violence while the parties involved congratulate themselves for their anti-smoking stance? For one thing, as the video-game industry has repeatedly noted, there’s no evidence of a causal link between violent crime and gaming. Ladetsky said the elimination of smoking doesn’t change the nature of the game itself, and he cited research that shows a correlation between higher exposure to tobacco depictions in entertainment and a higher incidence of smoking adoption among younger people. “As you remove these images, it does have an impact,” he said.

News that “Gears 5” is stubbing out smoking comes after Netflix last week said it will cut out tobacco imagery in its originals rated for younger viewers, with the exception of maintaining “historical or factual accuracy.” That came after Truth released a report finding that tobacco use in TV series popular among those aged 15-24 had surged in the past year — and that Netflix original series “Stranger Things” and “Orange Is the New Black” among the worst offenders for showing smoking.

Truth, which is dedicated to ending tobacco use among young Americans, has targeted smoking imagery in video games given their popularity among younger consumers. For example, 62% of esports viewers in the U.S. are 18-34, according to research by consulting firm Activate.

“In the midst of the pervasive reemergence of glamorized smoking imagery in pop culture, we commend [The Coalition] for taking smoking out of ‘Gears 5’ and ELeague for featuring this tobacco-free game during this weekend’s competition,” said Robin Koval, CEO and president of Truth Initiative. “We are hopeful that this decision will encourage other game developers and streaming tournaments to follow this lead and level up the gaming experience by going tobacco-free.”

“Gears 5,” published by Xbox Game Studios and developed by subsidiary The Coalition, features five different game modes and promises the “deepest campaign yet.” Here’s Microsoft’s description of the game’s storyline: “With all-out war descending, Kait Diaz breaks away to uncover her connection to the enemy and discovers the true danger to Sera — herself.”

This weekend, ELeague Arena at Turner Studios in Atlanta will host the first esports tournament for “Gears 5,” featuring eight of the top “GOW” pro teams. The single-elimination ELeague Gears Summer Series Invitational will begin Saturday, July 13, at noon ET, with live coverage available via ELeague’s Twitch channel. It will pick back up Sunday, July 14, at noon ET and continue live until a winner is crowned.

In addition, ELeague has produced six one-hour feature episodes chronicling pro “Gears of War” competitions and following star players as they train and perform around the world. “ELeague Gears Summer Series: The Bonds and Betrayals of Brotherhood” will continue Friday, July 26, at 11 p.m. ET/PT airing on TBS.

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