During the first stage of competition for the Overwatch League, a second drama was playing off screen. Dallas Fuel player Félix “xQc” Lengyel was playing on his personal stream after the Fuel had been swept 4-0 by the Houston Outlaws. Lengyel had not played during that match, and when Outlaws tank Austin “Muma” Wilmot (who is openly gay) taunted Lengyel for his performance by referencing Lengyel’s infamous taunt “rolled and smoked,”Lengyel, in turn, retorted in an explosive way.
“You didn’t smoke shit,” he said. “Shut your fucking mouth. Go back there. Suck a fat cock. I mean, you would like it.”
Lengyel was clearly speaking out of anger, noting that taunting a player not on the starting lineup during a game was like taunting a sports player who was on the bench due to a broken arm. Immediately after he finished his rant, his jaw dropped and his eyes opened; it’s clear he only realizes the impact of what he says after the words have left his mouth.
Immediately after, Blizzard fined Lengyel $2,000 and suspended him for a total of four matches. The Dallas Fuel agreed to uphold that suspension and benched Lengyel for the remainder of season one’s first stage. He will be able to return to competitive play on Feb. 10, at which point the Fuel will work with him and provide “additional resources, focus coaching, physical training, and support.”
While this particular chapter is closed, especially since Wilmot and Lengyel have exchanged apologies, this kind of issue may be a large thorn in the Overwatch League’s side for months or years to come.
Let’s talk briefly about the concept of “shorthand.” Essentially, we often say things that are not fully fleshed out or include the entirety of our thoughts, because we understand that our peer group will understand what we mean. It’s why you can say “I sexed a cat” in your local veterinarian's group, but not at your grandmother’s Thanksgiving dinner. When Lengyel’s fans argue that his punishment is unjust or overkill, they’re essentially arguing that telling a colleague to “suck a fat cock” is shorthand.
Gaming spheres, especially in anonymous online communities, tend to rely on this shorthand quite a lot. If you jump into a game of Overwatch, there’s a very real chance that you’ll see or hear similar language. Different online communities have different standards. League of Legends’ developer community has been extremely vocal about their desire to weed out this kind of behavior. Blizzard would likely agree; its latest player policy is titled “Play Nice, Play Fair.” That doesn’t mean that this is a globally agreed upon attitude, or one that has been instituted by other developers. In countless online communities, telling your opponent to interact with genitals can be seen as either jocular shit talk and all part of the fun, or at least accepted and understood to a degree.
The Overwatch League, on the other hand, doesn’t want to buy into that shorthand. It goes against its player standards, it creates a negative atmosphere, and of course it devalues what they want the League to stand for. The League wants viewers to look at the crowds of families and young fans, to look at couples screaming in joy as their favorite team wins, to see a heavily female fanbase, and ideally to have them associate the League with the positive values of diversity, tolerance, and family so strongly sold by the base game of Overwatch.
You now have a divide between a greater culture that many of these young men have grown up in, which can be problematic enough to tackle on its own. Now, let’s consider some other factors that lead into the upcoming personality problems the Overwatch League might face. First, these young men are making a pretty healthy amount of money and working in an unusual profession. During the immediate aftermath of Lengyel’s controversy, many people correctly noted that you could not get away with making a similar statement to your coworker at nearly any other job.
This is, of course, absolutely correct. But this isn’t any other job, and the Overwatch League is a very unusual place.
These players are in the public spotlight, often with very few private moments where they can make mistakes or learn lessons. They’re representing very large brands, and when they’re not on stage, are often in front of a camera for interviews, brand content, or their own personal streams covered with logos. Some players have cultivated large individual fan bases of people who are constantly in touch.
These are during the early days of the League, where many of these factors are new to these players. Every team wants to use their players to grow their fan bases and carve out market share among 11 other competitors. We’re seeing theatrics slowly increase, with teams using even their entrances as a way to show off their personalities. Is it any surprise that this combination of factors can create a pressure cooker?
This situation isn’t as explosive as it may seem at the outset. At the Overwatch League Media Day before the tournament began, I spoke with several teams about how they plan to focus on player welfare and avoiding these kind of issues.
Chris “HuK” Loranger of the Boston Uprising spoke about how the team worked and trains. They live in shared apartments 15 minutes away from the training facility, and then a staff house. With three different facilities (player apartments, staff house, training facility), there remains a separation between work and play. Furthermore, the players regularly head to the staff house to hang out, watch movies, eat Korean barbecue, and generally build a community.
The Uprising has HuK, a former Starcraft 2 pro, and former Korean Overwatch pro Da-hee “Crusty” Park on staff. These two staff members are uniquely equipped to watch out for their current players.
“I would say we’re keeping a really close pulse on to whether we need certain services and how far those services go,” HuK said regarding further player infrastructure. In the meantime, the Uprising coaches work on helping the team operate as a team, to avoid individual players from feeling the pressure from a loss or a bad play.
Rob Moore, majority owner of Phoenix1, noted that “It’s a combination of infrastructure, in terms of the coaching staff and the sports’ psychology. Having the support network for the players, but also trying to arrange things, like we all went to the Rams game two weeks ago and hung out, and just got away from video games for a day. [The players] have people there to help them, but also to make sure that part of our schedule is to make sure they have some time to get away, relax, and have some fun.”
Part of this, Moore said, is because there are “a lot more resources coming into the space now.” Improved infrastructure should hopefully lead to less pressure on the players.
“[Before], you potentially would have teams that were organized just by the players,” Moore said. “They didn’t have very much. They didn’t have a lot of financial resources, and therefore, there wasn’t a lot of places to turn to.”
The Gladiators is meant to be a counter to this kind of situation, albeit an untested one in the early days of the Overwatch League. “The support network we hope that we’ve built, will really help them to grow and develop as people, because that’s a big part of success in esports, it’s that team chemistry and people working well together, and if you have people who are feeling isolated or burnt out, it really goes against the teamwork you need to succeed.”
The core of the Overwatch League’s personality problem is this: Players are encouraged, and many of them likely want to, to be able to engage in trash talk with their opponents or display their big personality. This is a way to engage with colleagues, maybe gain new fans, and clearly on some core level it’s fun to trash talk. (God knows I’ve had fun saying some ruthless stuff to my brothers over Smash growing up, or my husband when we play Starcraft.) That being said, the well of language many people draw on and our overall culture means it’s easier than we’d probably like to go too far.
As the spotlight on the Overwatch League grows, and as increasing amounts of pressure from factors like a long loss streak or a stressful playoffs feature increases, its in everyone’s best interest to avoid issues like this. It’s going to likely take a long term effort. When organizations like the Fuel give their players resources, that’s the right call. It’s important to recognize the root of these problems, and work to build a culture where the Overwatch League can maintain its values and viewers don’t get caught in the collateral damage of what should be sporting trash talk.