Like it or not, video gaming is now a professional sport. Whether it’s a respectable sport, one that’s outgrown its juvenile stereotype, remains an open question.
This month’s debut of the new Overwatch League tournament may settle that question — though it’s as yet unclear in which direction.
Fans of Overwatch, a hugely popular team-based game released in 2016, couldn’t have hoped for a better start to its inaugural tournament. A reported 10 million people streamed the opening games, when teams from around the world gathered inside Blizzard Arena in California to play — essentially — an elaborate variation of capture the flag. They played on computers, yes, but with all the strategy, skill and speed of prizefighters.
A tall, thin 22-year-old named Félix Lengyel — or “xQc” in Overwatch — controlled a sort of superpowered ape, his specialty character, in one of the most-anticipated matchups. He helped his team, the Dallas Fuel, capture an arena in less than two minutes. The announcer said he’d rarely seen a round end so quickly and decisively. Here was Overwatch at its best.
And then came the worst. Despite the good round, Lengyel’s team lost that game. Then they lost the match, then the next one, and the next. By Thursday, Dallas was 0-3 in the tournament and a frustrated Lengyel did something else he is famous for: he got mean.
“Shut your f—ing mouth,” he screamed at a rival player, who is gay. Then he followed it with a homophobic suggestion.
Lengyel covered his mouth and widened his eyes, as if realizing what he’d done, but it was too late. He had shouted this live on his personal stream.
So on Friday — barely a week after setting a milestone in the history of competitive video games — the Overwatch League suspended and fined one of its top players over a base slur. And this, in short, is the eSports dilemma: sophisticated games, often spoiled by players who act worse than children.
Lengyel apologized for his outburst. “Gonna chill a little,” he wrote on Twitter Friday, as his team announced that he would have to sit out rest of the tournament’s first stage.
But it’s telling that the player he insulted, Austin “Muma” Wilmot, didn’t seem surprised that a man he called a “homophobic piece of garbage” was representing Overwatch to the world, playing in the same elite league as himself.
“I really don’t care,” Wilmot said on his own stream.
Before the league existed, both Lengyel and Wilmot learned to play Overwatch exactly like tens of millions of other people: in randomly assigned matches on Blizzard Entertainment’s servers, where it’s common to hear homophobia, misogyny, racism and naked rage over the voice lines.
Not that traditional sports are immune from the same behavior. See baseball star Yuli Gurriel’s infamous mockery of Yu Darvish’s eyes last year; the NBA’s $100,000 fine on Kobe Bryant for uttering a gay slur from the bench in 2011; Andrew Shaw’s suspension from the NHL for similar reasons a few years later; and Cam Newton’s casual denigration of “a female” taking an interest in football, among countless other examples in every pro league.
But verbal abuse is so common in Overwatch, and most multiplayer games, that there’s a colloquialism for it: “being toxic.” And while Blizzard has tried many times to abate the problem, it’s rare to hear of anyone being seriously punished for it. Outside of pro games, many abusers still openly mock Overwatch’s player reporting system as they continue to hurl slurs.
Now that Blizzard is trying to take the game pro, some wonder how it will keep the toxicity from spreading.
“These players are young, ranging in age from 18 to 22, and new to the bright, artificial lights of a corporately owned and operated competitive scene,” Kotaku wrote after Lengyel’s suspension. “This recent string of incidents seems to suggest that everybody — Overwatch League players, organizations, and Blizzard — have some growing up to do.”
As Kotaku noted, this was not Lengyel’s first outburst — even if it was the first to involve accusations of homophobia. He had such a bad reputation for toxicity that he wrote an apologetic note to his fans last summer, but he didn’t end the behavior.
“It’s kind of part of his Overwatch personality,” said Jason “Dibz” Chiu, who streams the game for a living. “I think he would have said it even if the player wasn’t homosexual … The community is quite toxic, and if the pros are doing it, everyone else feels ‘if they can get to that level and act that way, I can too.’ ”
Chiu has watched with interest, and some optimism, as Blizzard tries to crack down on the problem in time for its eSports debut.
Lengyel is almost a case study. His Overwatch account was finally suspended for abuse in November. It was so unexpected that Lengyel’s mouth fell open when it happened in the middle of a streaming session. And while it only lasted three days, some noted that was an unusually harsh punishment in Overwatch.
Still, the suspension didn’t seem to have much effect. A few weeks later, a video circulated showing Lengyel throwing nonprofessional matches — essentially forcing his team to lose by playing as a stationary turret when they were trying to assault an enemy base.
He was a member of Dallas Fuel by then, though the tournament had yet to begin, and the team suspended him for a week.
Lengyel apologized, again, and this time blamed grueling 16-hour practice sessions for making him short of temper.
“It’s not because I’m a bad person,” he said. “After long days and being strained from ranked play, and the pressure, I tend to just let go. That’s not good. I should have just turned off the computer and done something else.”
With millions watching the tournament, it’s now been turned off for him.
This article has been updated.