Why Overwatch’s recent gender controversy is a worrying moment in gaming
Over the past fortnight, the Overwatch community was abuzz with controversy surrounding the appointment and resignation of an Overwatch Contenders player known simply as “Ellie”. Some questioned whether she was a legitimately high-skilled player, the product of a social experiment, or the scapegoat in a public relations stunt by independent team Second Wind. No matter the player’s true identity, though, the witch-hunt of a female-named player is a very, very disappointing reminder that female players are viewed as creatures and not regular people.
The controversy began shortly after Overwatch Contenders (a localised support league for the main international Overwatch League) team Second Wind recruited a player mononymously known as Ellie. The game’s Esports community immediately raised questions about Ellie, allegedly due to her account’s relative inexperience with the game and fuelled by the fact that all of her teammates’ full names were listed on the team’s official website while hers was not. Speculation arose and, possibly due to unintentional sexism, players took it upon themselves to verify her real gender and/or real identity.
Cloud9 member Becca “Aspen” Rukavina suggested, during a livestream, that a male player named Punisher was actually Ellie, and that he was conducting a “social experiment”. This prompted Ellie to run her own stream featuring him to prove that they were different people, but players continued to harbour doubts including Esports journalist Rod “Slasher” Breslau.
During this past week, Second Wind announced that Ellie had stepped down from the team in light of the controversy surrounding her identity, with team Owner and Manager Justin Hughes tweeting that the team was also unable to ensure her safety following threats made online. Some media outlets lamented the loss of a female professional Esports player – which is still a rare occurrence, unfortunately – but Ellie’s team may have made these mournful statements seem misguided.
In an interesting turn of events, Second Wind has since issued a statement referring to Ellie with gender-neutral pronouns, confirming Ellie’s earlier claim that she had been targeted for distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, and revealing that Overwatch developer Blizzard Entertainment had confirmed that Ellie’s account information did not match what the team was originally told.
“As of today, Blizzard [has] gotten back to us on the background of Ellie, and notified us that they were not who they claimed to be, and discovered that the Ellie account was used for purposes we do not support,” Second Wind wrote. “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.”
This final point adds weight to the possibility that “Ellie” is someone else impersonating a female professional player, and a Blizzard representative reportedly confirmed this to Unikrn in a brief statement over the weekend.
“After investigating the matter, we found that “Ellie” was a fabricated identity and is a smurf [i.e. a veteran posing as a newcomer] account – created by a veteran player to obfuscate their identity,” the representative said. “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.”
Moreover, Breslau has continued to pursue his line of investigation into the possibility of Ellie being Punisher’s fabrication, and tweeted that a female player known as “Catsui” told him that Punisher has approached multiple female Overwatch players to conduct similar “social experiments”. He also noted that another female player named “bunnyadore” claimed that she had spoken with Punisher and that he made “creepy jokes” while laughing alongside an unnamed female voice. Punisher has yet to issue a public statement as of this writing.
Whether Ellie is who she claimed to be or the product of a twisted “social experiment” is not the point, it’s the fact that there was such a concerted effort to unmask and defraud her that acts as a worrying sign that players still don’t see males and females as equal participants. This is not a problem that can be fixed by one group alone; game companies, professional teams, media publications, and players alike need to work together to make gender equality a common ideal in gaming.