Gaming can be unwelcoming if you are a woman. Whether they be a journalist, cosplayer, developer, or esports player, women can feel intimidated by this (seemingly) all boys club, and as a result, it is exciting when a woman does break through in this male dominated field. After all, women succeeding inspires other women to believe that they can make it in the games industry too.
This was why Ellie being named the first female player to join a pro team in Overwatch’s Contenders League was initially so exciting. Per their website: Overwatch Contenders is a high-level tournament series for aspiring pro players who dream of ascending to the Overwatch League. This was a minor league farm where talented hopefuls look to be taken into the Big Leagues, and Ellie had a shot at making it. Her joining the team could have marked the moment when significant barriers standing in front of women in esports started to come down.
Many observers, such as Overwatch pro player DaFran, however, were skeptical of Ellie’s identity. Where all other Overwatch Contenders League players had their identities listed, Second Wind (Ellie’s team) let her remain anonymous which caused many to suspect that Ellie wasn’t a real person despite Second Wind’s claims to the contrary. Anonymity did little to stop the online harassment that Ellie received over Twitter where she ultimately stepped down from the team due to the online bullying.
At least, that’s what we thought. Turns out Ellie was in fact not a real player.
“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,” Blizzard said in a statement to Game Informer. “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.”
It later came out that Ellie was actually a male Overwatch player named Punisher. Overwatch streamer Aspen and friend of Punisher confirmed over Twitch that: “Ellie is not Ellie. The whole situation was meant to be, in a way, a social experiment.”
In a statement, Second Wind apologized for not confirming Ellie’s identity and justified their negligence for both the sake of Ellie’s privacy and to expedite the need for a substitute player.
“As soon as Ellie was announced, many questions came up regarding the legitimacy of the player,” reads Second Wind’s official statement. “We reached out to Blizzard early on to help verify their identity and calm the suspicions about our newest player, doing the best we could for the time being. During this time, we worked with Ellie to improve their public presence by prepping them for interviews, streams, and encouraging an environment where they could play with other team members publicly. This unfortunately fell through due to Ellie opting out for ‘personal reasons’ we did not want to press them for. Ellie began receiving doxxing and personal threats due to their anonymity. In a bid to respect Ellie’s request for privacy, we contacted Blizzard about not having their name published on the Contenders website. As a team, we admit we handled this poorly.”
Second Wind’s apology suggests they had pure intentions. Fighting for the privacy of the league’s first female player is understandable given the preponderance of bad actors in the online gaming community and the history of harassment directed at women in all of gaming, not just esports, but Second Wind could have nipped this in the bud before it became a controversy and at least confirm for themselves that Ellie was a legitimate player.
Unfortunately, it’s too late. The damage has been done on multiple fronts. Some players now fear that teams will look at women specifically with more scrutiny and be less forgiving about legitimate privacy concerns. After all, a team’s trust was abused. Worse is that these same bad actors who spearheaded a harassment campaign against Ellie (or Punisher as the case may be) over Twitter will feel vindicated for their cyber bullying which will in the future threaten women’s careers and, in more extreme cases, their lives.