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Overwatch Contenders team embroiled in identity controversy (update)

Overwatch esports controversy reignites an important conversation

Blizzard Entertainment

Second Wind is one of the organizations competing in Overwatch Contenders without the backing of one of the Overwatch League teams. Two weeks ago, the group announced it was adding a DPS player who had managed to climb the highest ranks of the solo queue ladder to their roster. Normally, this announcement wouldn’t make waves. What was unusual was that this player, Ellie, would have been the first woman to play in the North American Contenders League.

Women are everywhere in the Overwatch League. Season one champions, the London Spitfire, have a female general manager in Susie Kim. The Washington Justice have Molly “AVALLA” Kim as the league’s first female coach, and Kate Mitchell as an assistant general manager. Soe Gschwind-Penski is one of the most prominent faces of the League as a host and commentator. There are countless women working in social media, management, and marketing among the teams in the league, all of whom are passionate about the esport. The Overwatch League also has a huge female fanbase, especially in comparison to other esports.

Despite this, Se-yeon “Geguri” Kim is the only female player in the Overwatch League. Many fans hoped Ellie’s addition to Second Wind would be a step toward seeing more women on stage in the Overwatch League.

On Jan. 2, Second Wind announced that Ellie would be stepping down.

“Unforeseen reactions”

Predictably, many of those reactions to Ellie competing in Overwatch Contenders were largely negative. On Dec. 22, Ellie posted screenshots from Discord showing an Overwatch community member planning on doxxing her.

There is an ongoing set of allegations that Ellie is not a woman, or not Ellie at all. These community members allege that Ellie is a handle that multiple people share, or that the voice of Ellie is an actress while the gameplay comes from a different person altogether. The amount Ellie speaks, or the length of time before she replies, has been used as proof. Community members are combing through her account history, as well as looking at her alts, for discrepancies.

According to Justin Hughes, the owner and manager of Second Wind, this was a major part of Ellie’s decision to step down. “On one side, we had people questioning her legitimacy, issuing threats, etc,” Hughes said. It’s also worth noting that Second Wind does not have the backing of a larger Overwatch League organization; their resources for player protection and mental health are likely much more finite. In response to a fan asking why Seocnd Wind did not act to protect Ellie, Hughes wrote: “We do what we can for our players, but when it comes down to it, there are only so many things we can do when safety of a player comes into question.”

Heroes Never Die reached out to Second Wind; the organization declined to comment on this article.

Hughes also noted that there was a wave of positive reactions that Ellie found similarly overwhelming.

“We had people acting like they had found their Messiah,” Hughes wrote. “Between needing a player to live up to huge expectations and having to question their own safety, it seems that the OW community isn’t ready to view a player as just a player.”

Hughes’ statement has drawn backlash from Overwatch fans, claiming that he is equalizing the action of being a fan and supporting a player with harassment, plans to dox, and questioning the legitimacy of a player’s identity.

Regardless, it’s easy to see why a player could easily become overwhelmed. Contenders is not the same as the Overwatch League; there is far less expectation of fame and public visibility. Most Contenders players fly under the radar; other Contenders leagues outside of North America have fielded female players without incident. Ellie had become a flashpoint of interest, speculation, and acclaim.

The myth of meritocracy

It’s a noble sentiment to hope that players can just be players, and Overwatch can be built on simply being a meritocracy. However, the case of Ellie — and Geguri before her, and the Justice’s AVALLA — show that it’s not so simple. Ellie drawing so much interest, both positive and negative, is unusual. It makes sense that even a high amount of acclaim can shake a player who is not used to it, especially while backed by a smaller organization with limited resources.

Geguri, while playing in Korea at 16 years old, was accused of cheating after her performance in a tournament. She attended a demonstration to clear her name, but did so while masked and clearly affected by anxiety. She later spoke out about being used as an icon among feminist organizations, writing that she was “simply a shut-in who likes video games and dreams of playing professionally.” Not an icon, nor a symbol — just a player.

In an interview with Heroes Never Die, AVALLA noted: “I also dreamed briefly of being a pro myself, I went between 4400-4500 SR and I also hit a two digit rank on T500. I even trialed and was accepted into a team, but I gave up quickly because of the difficulties of joining a team house with other [male] players. So I turned my attention to coaching.”

Fans have noted that Ellie had a target on her, even in non-Contenders games.

That’s not a problem specific to Ellie, either. The director of social media and community for the Los Angeles Gladiators, Analynn Dang, posted about her climb to grandmaster rank before the end of the latest competitive season. (Full disclosure: I am friends with Analynn and previously worked in the same field as her in Overwatch League social media management.)

Meritocracy goes out the window when one’s gender is so clearly apparent and draws such a high level of scrutiny, both in the form of affirming praise and harassment. It’s not that women can’t compete; they just need to make it through the gauntlet of “unforeseen reactions” first. This is part of why so many people are so angry about the case of Ellie — the message it sends to young female players who might have the goal of climbing the path to pro.

Right now, there are no real structural barriers stopping a woman from playing Overwatch until she hits grandmaster, getting scouted by a Contenders team, and playing in the Overwatch League after a period of success. There are just strong societal disincentives from her doing so, likely from the time she is young. That is the message many female fans will see — anyone can play, as long as you can deal with the scrutiny, the accusations, and come out the other side gleaming and proven to be free of sin.

In many ways, the standard for equality in the Overwatch League won’t be measured by the amount of female players we have, but the imperfection of players we allow. At the end of the day, the path to professional success that Blizzard advertised included compliments from Serena Williams, signing contracts, getting into tournaments.

Granted, the path to pro has proven to be far less star studded and glamorous than that trailer advertised. It’s important to consider the core promise there, though, which is that anyone can climb the ladder if they put the time and effort in, and that any crashes or slips come from a lack of pure gameplay expertise. The case of Ellie shows that things are clearly more complex than that, and it helps breed a dangerous ecosystem around Overwatch esports.

Update: More information on these allegations have emerged, with Cloud9 streamer Becca “Aspen” Rukavina saying on stream that Ellie is a false identity donned by a player named Punisher, saying: “The whole thing was meant to be, in a way, like, a social experiment. He [...] did not expect it to get out of hand, so that’s kinda the juice around that.”

We’ve reached out to Rukavina for additional comment.

Reporter Rod “Slasher” Breslau also tweeted that Ellie has spoken to her teammates about the situation, saying Ellie is a 17-year-old girl who is “not good” at Overwatch. According to Breslau, Blizzard is currently meeting with Second Wind players and management.

According to Breslau, Second Wind players and management were unaware of this. Second Wind’s in-game leader and shotcaller posted as well that no one in the team was aware of Ellie’s identity.

Second Wind has since released a statement with confirmation that Ellie is not who they claimed to be, with context as to their decision. The statement notes that the team “desperately needed a substitute”, and “due to our need to fill a main position as well, a closing in deadline for roster submissions, and our team having experience with the player, we extended an offer to play on Second Wind as a substitute.”

The statement also noted that there was “nothing that would spark suspicion” with initial contact, and the team “reached out to Blizzard early to help verify their identity and calm the suspicions about our newest player, doing the best we could for the time being.”

The statement concludes with an apology, noting: “We apologize to the community as a whole for not handling this situation better when we should have, and we will aim to do better.”

Update (Jan. 6, 2:55 p.m.): In a statement, Blizzard said that it has investigated the matter and confirmed that “Ellie” was indeed a fictitious identity. But it did not identify who the account belonged to — though details Blizzard provided implied it knows.

The full statement from Blizzard:

”After investigating the matter, we found that ‘Ellie’ was a fabricated identity and is a smurf account – created by a veteran player to obfuscate their identity. The owner of Ellie’s account is a player with no current or prior involvement with any Overwatch Contenders or Overwatch League team. ‘Ellie’ was never formally submitted to the active roster of Second Wind and never played in a Contenders match.

”As part of the process to officially add a player to a Contenders or Overwatch League roster, we do background checks to ensure that players are who they say they are as well as meet other eligibility requirements, and will take action against players if we discover any behavior that warrants it”