Disclaimer: The following article was written freely based on the author's opinion, and it may not necessarily represent Inven Global's editorial stance.
IG Editor's note: Just three hours after this article was published and received a significant amount of attention, Dallas Fuel has announced a mutual parting with xQc.
For many veteran Overwatch esports fans, the announcement in late 2017 that Felix “xQc” Lengyel would join the Dallas Fuel for the inaugural season of the League was met with apprehension and exasperation. xQc has long been one of the largest streamers in Overwatch, and his manic behavior and penchant for inflammatory remarks about other pro players have not gone unnoticed. Fans simply assumed – naively – that xQc’s behavior would be tempered by the League; by seizing a prestigious, highly coveted opportunity to turn dreams into reality.
But in a truly shocking turn of events, xQc has been suspended for four matches, effective March 12, and fined $4000 by the Overwatch League for disparaging remarks about League casters and the use of an emote in a racially disparaging manner in the official Overwatch League Twitch chat.
These infractions will have little effect on xQc, but they have established a precedent and demand for a hitherto unknown level of persecution of League players under a needlessly broad, vague Player Code of Conduct.
- xQc feels the heat, but he has not been burned
Though a $4k fine and a suspension may seem a steep punishment for referring to League casting as “cancer” on Twitter and the use of “TriHard 7” in Twitch chat, it is nothing more than an escalation in Blizzard’s ongoing struggle to subdue xQc. The dance between the player and the League goes like this: xQc lashes out; the community is whipped into a frenzy; Fuel releases a vague public statement professing their commitment to xQc’s success; and, finally, the League announces a punishment, whether it be an account ban, a fine, or a suspension.
But then, xQc’s stream viewership grows. Any fine is matched within minutes by new subscriptions and donations – indeed, two hours after the League’s statement was released, xQc went live to more viewers than average and recouped over $1500 within minutes – and his passionate, too often virulent fan-base retaliates by wreaking havoc on the community at large.
After he was suspended for homophobic comments about Austin “Muma” Wilmot, said fan-base flooded his fellow League player’s Twitter DMs with hate speech and death threats. This time, “TriHard 7” consumed the Overwatch League Twitch chat for the duration of the broadcast like no other chat spam has before, and anyone connected to the incident has been inundated with vitriol from Dallas fans.
“Today was a new experience for me in getting shouted at by the Internet for decisions I did not make and don’t fully agree with,” wrote commentator Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykkles, who is no stranger to online controversy and backlash, on Twitter.
" The League has already unnecessarily burdened themselves with this task in regard to the use of Twitch emotes. "
In a few weeks (assuming he does not step down from the team, as is rumored), xQc will return to competition, welcomed back by a community that will question his decorum, but applaud his Winston play without hesitation. And more likely than not, within the span of a month, he will find himself in deep water with Blizzard yet again. The cycle will repeat, perhaps with ever steeper fines and suspensions.
The invincibility of xQc is only one example of a larger phenomenon in which e-famous personalities are insulated by their ever-growing, passionate fan-bases from the consequences of their actions. As external backlash mounts, so to does internal validation.
The reality for successful-streamers-turned-professional-players is that consequences mean little when each fine and suspension are rapidly overturned by stream growth. “I can always make more money streaming” is an easy attitude to adopt. For xQc, this reality is exacerbated by the fact that his personal brand is built upon maintaining a standard of ostentatiousness and nonconformity.
None of this is to say that Blizzard should not take action against xQc or any other player or coach who uses discriminatory language. The League has a responsibility to stand against blatant bigotry from its players and has gone to great lengths to do so.
But in their well-meaning earnest to quell one unruly player, the League is setting a standard of conduct contingent upon a hypervigilance on their part that cannot possibly be maintained consistently and fairly. The League has policed players without defining the laws. Doing so has and will continue to earn Blizzard the ire of League pundits, players, coaches, and, most importantly, owners.
An easily overlooked line in the official press release regarding disciplinary action taken against xQc concludes this: “disparaging language against Overwatch League casters and fellow players on social media and [personal streams]” is a punishable offense. In xQc’s case, this is likely in response to a since-deleted tweet in which he said that League “casting is cancer,” but the sweeping claim that players and casters are to be exempt from disparaging language does not bode well for the esport.
“Disparaging language” is such a broad, vague phrase that it grants Blizzard the power to penalize, at their discretion, any trash talk within the League.
Esports is, first and foremost, entertainment. It is entertainment derived through competition, and that competition thrives on rivalries and storylines. Rivalries and storylines emerge from and are fueled in part by healthy doses of trash talk among players – and casters.
Monte was quick to fire back at xQc on Twitter after being called “cancer,” admonishing the player for relying on “tired memes and unoriginal phrasing” and saying that “[b]eing a living embodiment of Twitch chat isn’t a substitute for having a personality.” Spicy, right?
But the casters’ retaliation did not end there. On the League’s official recap show, Watchpoint, “Dr. DoA” diagnosed Monte with “xQc – Xtremely Questionable Conduct” and warned that it could lead to amputation.
The League endorsed and promoted a blatant dig at a League player’s out-of-game behavior, and yet still slammed said player with a fine for “disparaging language.”
It is readily apparent that casters and fellow players do not need the League’s protection or patronization. All involved are competent adult professionals who are able to defend themselves or, as the casters have demonstrated, give as good as they get.
Insults are inherently unkind, but so long as they are not discriminatory in nature, then they should be allowed to stand. If not, then Blizzard solely claims the power and discretion to smother a fundamental appeal of sports and esports.
If, in truth, the issue is not with xQc’s belittling of casters, but with his use of “cancer” as an insult, then the League (a) is erroneous in its claim that disparaging language is punishable and (b) has opened the floodgates for a new, highly subjective brand of punishable behavior.
Consider for a moment a recent clip of Jake “JAKE” Lyon, a member of the Houston Outlaws. Recently, he was recorded on Calvin “aimbotcalvin” Chau’s stream referring to xQc’s “retard f*cking fanboys” in voice chat. The r-word is perceived by many as discriminatory language, just as saying something or someone is “cancer” or “AIDS” is, but all are exceedingly common synonyms for stupid, idiotic, agitating, etc. in everyday lexicon.
In this instance, no disparaging remarks were made about League casters or fellow players. The same is true, however, of Timo “Taimou” Kettunen who was fined for using a homophobic slur on his personal stream.
Thus, the League’s power to punish behavior on players’ personal streams that does not involve other League affiliates brings up yet another issue – what is and is not public for a pro player? Jake was not streaming himself and was in fact on an alt account when the clip was made, but the incident has the potential to bring him into “public disrepute,” which the League’s summary of the Player Code of Conduct classifies as a punishable offense.
Similarly, regarding xQc’s punishment for the use of a Twitch emote in a racially disparaging manner “on the [Overwatch League’s] stream and on social media,” the question arises – could he have faced similar punishment for use of the emote on his personal stream? How about in another League player’s stream chat? Or in a Discord server, maybe – if Discord is classified as social media?
" In taking such a strong stance against one player’s actions, Blizzard has introduced an unexpected level of subjectivity and speculation to League discipline. "
And suppose Blizzard were to determine that the r-word, or even “cancer,” is finable. In doing so, they will have chosen to undertake the perilous task of finding, contextualizing, judging, and penalizing each and every instance of League players’ use of such language.
The League has already unnecessarily burdened themselves with this task in regard to the use of Twitch emotes. Twitch emotes can be and are used with discriminatory intent, but it is impossible for the League to consistently and reliably discern a user’s intention.
As such, there is no correct method to police the use of global emotes. Banning an emote that depicts a person of color because it can be used in a discriminatory manner only erases, as pundit Richard Lewis put it, “black people, Asian people, Arabic people, etc. from the Twitch lexicon” which is a “blow for diversity.”
In taking such a strong stance against one player’s actions, Blizzard has introduced an unexpected level of subjectivity and speculation to League discipline. The broad justifications for disciplinary action give the League the power to act as judge, jury, and executioner however and wherever they see fit, with little accountability -- little accountability, that is, but not none.
Blizzard may not have a responsibility to be transparent, consistent, and communicative with the Overwatch community, nor the League’s players, but it does have an incentive to maintain team owners’ happiness. And if recent public discourse is of any indication, then their collective patience is wearing thin.
Outlaws coach Tae-yeong “TaiRong” Kim was issued a warning this weekend for posting an “offensive meme on social media.” The incident occurred several weeks ago, but both the League and the Outlaws remained silent on the issue until March 9th. Comparatively, xQc’s use of homophobic language was promptly responded to by the League and the Fuel within a day.
On February 11th, Fuel owner Mike “Hastr0” Rufail questioned the inconsistency, writing on Twitter, “We are collectively in this league together. I don’t think this is a matter of dragging someone else into the problem so much as it is a matter of sending a consistent message. Members of many teams including yours had much to say [regarding xQc’s first suspension]. We took a tough stance on it and you should too.”
The lack of consistency appears similarly grating for Jack Etienne, owner of the London Spitfire, who questioned the severity of Joon-yeong “Profit” Park’s fine in light of recent disciplinary action taken by the League. Profit was fined in late January for his allegedly accidental use of a profane gesture on camera during an Overwatch League broadcast.
Similarly, Tucker Roberts, president of the Philadelphia Fusion, expressed his disappointment that “the league [gave] such a light punishment for using a slur on stream.”
Taimou received the same fine as Profit for his use of a homophobic slur. Ted “silkthread” Wang was fined the same amount for account sharing (i.e. selling or giving away an alt account), while Su-min “SADO” Kim was suspended for 30 matches for account boosting, but issued no fine. Furthermore, the Los Angeles Valiant player’s violation of the Blizzard End User License Agreement allegedly occurred nearly five months ago.
Meanwhile, Blizzard allegedly intended to fine TaiRong for his transgression, but reduced his sentence to a warning in light of his having previously donated $2000 to the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation of his own accord.
In the mere three months that the Overwatch League has been underway, the subjectivity and resulting inconsistency of the League’s disciplinary action against players and coaches has only escalated. Transparency, communication, and consistency are being asked of Blizzard on all fronts, but while they remain the sole arbiters of an expansive, vague Player Code of Conduct, there is little satisfaction in sight.
If anything good is to come of xQc’s time thus far in the Overwatch League, then perhaps it will be – and should be – the establishment of a players union under which pro players can negotiate for a robust, comprehensive Player Code of Conduct and an effective appeals process. If not, then players and coaches run the risk of remaining at the mercy of an omnipotent and temperamental, albeit well-meaning, governing League body.
All photos inside the Blizzard Arena stadium taken by Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment and subsequently released by Blizzard for publication.
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