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‘I blame myself’: A fallen e-sports star reflects on video gaming’s image problems

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Depending on who you ask, Félix “xQc” Lengyel has become either the central villain of the e-sports scene or its fallen martyr.

At 22, he was one of the most talented players recruited into the Overwatch League — an international tournament for the popular team-based shooter game Overwatch, which publisher Blizzard said drew 10 million online viewers in its first week in January.

Lengyel was suspended and fined in the event’s second week, after insulting a gay rival by referring to his sexual orientation during a live stream in front of thousands of viewers. Then, on Sunday, he was dismissed from his team, the Dallas Fuel, after being accused of yet another bigoted outburst.

So-called “toxic” behavior — whether it’s anti-gay, anti-female, bigoted or simply rude — is common in Overwatch and most multiplayer games. Lengyel has always had a particular reputation for it, especially on his personal livestreams where thousands of fans egg on his behavior.

But severe penalties for toxic behavior are uncommon, so xQc’s removal from the tournament — and a string of lesser scandals involving other players’ behavior — has started a debate about whether e-sports is grown up enough to go mainstream.

An esports star had to be removed from a landmark tournament over accusations of racism

Lengyel is now living in a rented space in Los Angeles, still playing Overwatch live, for his fans, for hours on end, even though he’s been kicked out of the tournament that brought him here from Canada

In an interview with The Washington Post, he denied doing anything improper.

But he also set aside the manic personality he’s known for in the gaming community, and reflected on his behavior, on video gaming’s reputation in the wider sports world — and where he and the e-sports movement might go from here.

The following email interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

THE POST: Was leaving the Dallas Fuel your choice?

LENGYEL: Not really, I think it comes obvious to anyone it was a 99-1 thing. I did try to fight very hard though.

THE POST: You’re an interesting personality in e-sports, because on the one hand you’re an extremely talented and dedicated player who could demonstrate to skeptics that competitive video gaming is a legitimate, skill-based sport. On the other hand, in your comments and behavior on streams and on social media, you represent what some see as a gaming culture that is toxic, juvenile — some say even hateful or bigoted.

I’ve seen several Reddit posts etc. worrying that the Overwatch League and your prominence in it has set the e-sports movement back for those reasons. How do you see yourself — both as a representative of the e-sports movement and of gaming culture? Is there a conflict between the two?

LENGYEL: I sort of became a representative by getting myself into something that was much more serious or big than I could understand.

Even after the first punishment, I was still unsure of how incredibly strict the behavior had to be. Being a representation of gaming fits me much more than e-sports. I always saw my stream as something 100 percent detached from professional play, something entirely different. Like an outlet, somewhere to vent.

My own place to do my thing if that makes sense. 

So from an e-sports perspective, my stream made me look pretty bad, or made esports look bad anyway probably.

THE POST: Do you act in real life like you act on your Twitch stream? [Disclaimer: Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose chairman Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.]

LENGYEL: For the grand majority of time yeah. I have a lot of energy and when I’m comfortable with a certain group or on my own, I do crazy stuff all the time. I love it.

The Post asked Lengyel about two incidents that led up to his exit from the tournament last week.

While watching a match on Twitch, he joined other viewers in spamming an emoji of a black man’s face while a black announcer was on the screen. The emoji, known as “TriHard,” is not inherently racist. It’s been popular on Twitch for years, and Lengyel says he and his fans routinely use it innocuously on his channel.

But spamming TriHard has also become a way of racially harassing black streamers, and Lengyel was accused of doing this to the announcer.

He was also penalized for “disparaging language” after tweeting that a broadcast of the tournament “gave me cancer.”

In both incidents, Lengyel said that he was using popular memes with no intent to offend, and that his actions were taken out of context.

LENGYEL: I 100 percent know that some people ABUSE the TriHard emote by using it only when seeing a black person on screen, making that person, or host a mere “black person.” Terrible, really.

The logs do show that I type it every time I come in chat to greet the members of my community. After I type it I always see at least a couple dozens of them in chat and I think it’s a really cool way to interact with one another.

When Malik Forté [the black announcer] was on screen, I was in practice and really (genuinely) didn’t fully compute or understand people would automatically jump on the gun of me using it for RACISM, after using it over 127 times in Overwatch League chat, so I did not feel like I did a mistake at all, or regret it.

I immediately closed the chat after staring at it for a couple seconds and went back to practice. I do regret it now of course, because of how people painted me for it.

Cancer is a very commonly used term in online gaming [to express displeasure with something], something I’m trying to stop. I was very upset that night and was looking for something to lash out on.

I do recognize it reflects poorly on Blizzard’s attempt to make [e-sports] mainstream.

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THE POST: You have thousands and thousands of fans and Twitch subscribers. A lot of them are young. After the announcement you were leaving Fuel on Sunday, you looked into the camera and asked your fans not to harass people in retaliation, not to make death threats “again.” 

That was kind of remarkable, that you felt the need to dissuade your fans from committing a crime. Do you think your fans have a responsibility to behave themselves if they’re associated with you? Do you have a responsibility to them? You spend hours and hours in front of a screen with them. Do you think they might be a bad influence on you (or vice versa?)

LENGYEL: I mean, the Twitch culture is very vast and complex. Streamers have a certain responsibility to contain and moderate certain behaviors, but there is a limit.

Being a “crazy” person attracts the same, so the following I have is much more unpredictable, but there really is only so much I can do. Sometimes doing something as little as saying “don’t bully this guy that is tweeting at me” or something will result in the exact opposite outcome.

Sometimes people will disguise themselves as a fan to make me look bad also, something to look out for.

I think I am a little loose with Twitch chat, I let them explore areas that other streamers might not, while still shutting down things like racism sexism etc., very very severely.

So my answer to this is both. We influence each other, learn from each other and go through the good stuff and the bad stuff as a community.

THE POST: Some people have pointed out that other players in the Overwatch League, who have not been punished, routinely drop slurs and insults in their streams, and maybe it’s only a matter of time before the league cracks down on everyone. 

If hypothetically, players were banned from streaming entirely — or otherwise restricted so that you couldn’t be yourself on camera — would you choose streaming or pro gaming?

LENGYEL: Before, I would say pro gaming because of my competitive nature, but now I would definitely say streaming because of how flexible it is and how fun it can be to make exciting content and things to look out for.

Having such a big community is a lot of fun because it opens up tons of avenues for me to play with.

THE POST: What’s your opinion of how the Overwatch League and the Fuel have handled all these scandals. Were they fair to you? Anything you blame yourself or them for?

LENGYEL: I think the Overwatch League and Fuel react mainly to community outcries, who tend to jump to conclusions VERY fast when I’m in the center of it. I am rarely given the benefit of the doubt or anything like that when my name shows up, so threads involving me always gain a lot of traction very fast, up to the point where defending myself against everyone’s already set-in-stone opinion becomes impossible.

I genuinely think some of it is not fair, and some of it is.

The last couple weeks have been very good for me in terms of progress and “reforming”, but it’s a little too late.

I blame myself for not analyzing every single move I do or thing I say. I blame myself for not thinking of the possible worst ways these things could be seen by the mainstream people too.

THE POST: What’s the reaction been like from other league players to what’s happened to you? Any of them reached out privately?

LENGYEL: A lot of them reached out privately, the grand majority of them are on my side, know me and support me. Them being familiar with the Twitch community makes it easy to understand how things are and what I meant.

THE POST: Do you plan to return to Canada? Do you think another team would take you? Do you even want to keep playing pro?

LENGYEL: Probably stay here for a while, evaluating options for now. Even if another team wanted to take me I would really take my time in making decisions this time. Playing pro is a lot of fun, but making content around it and exciting things is also a lot of fun. We will see what the future holds.

More e-sports coverage from The Washington Post:

 What do owners of the Patriots, Rams, Grizzlies and Flyers have in common? A big bet on e-sports.

The myth of the lonely gamer playing in solitude is dead

Here’s the dramatic video game tournament that made a world leader declare ‘e-sports is sports’