The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

First, a fast-rising female esports star was threatened. Then she quit. Then she didn’t exist.

(Courtesy Blizzard)

In December, a minor league esports team thought it had signed a fast-rising, highly ranked female player who played under the nickname of Ellie. As the news of the signing reverberated around the Internet, Ellie shared screen captures of threats from online attackers and less than two weeks later, Overwatch Contenders team Second Wind tweeted that she left the team, “due to some unforeseen reactions.” The circumstances only grew more mysterious from there.

After a few days of online rumbling on Reddit, what seemed like yet another case of toxicity and misogyny in gaming turned into something far stranger, and problematic. Ellie was revealed as a fraud, a fake account operated by a male player posing as a female.

“We found that ‘Ellie’ was a fabricated identity … created by a veteran player to obfuscate their identity,” an Overwatch League spokesperson said.

The hoax reveals the unique challenges esports leagues and teams face as they try to move the sport towards mainstream respectability, as well as progress beyond the longstanding instances and accusations of sexism within the gaming community from both players and game-publishing companies.

Ellie would have been the first woman to play on a Contenders North America roster. Following the signing, the Ellie account, which ranked No. 4 on North American competitive servers, endured scrutiny due to a lack of history on the competitive circuit. Such scrutiny has also often been directed at women gamers from those who believe they could not be as good as their scores suggest. Female gamers are often accused of cheating and in one notable example, a young South Korean woman, who plays under the name Geguri for the Overwatch League’s Shanghai team, disproved claims directed towards her by showing her hand movements while playing.

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As the scrutiny intensified, the team stood by Ellie, though it had never confirmed the player’s identity.

Contenders is the minor-league feeder circuit that aims to develop players for the Overwatch League. Some Contenders teams are owned by franchises in the OWL, but others operate independently. Those independent teams do not usually provide salaries to their players, though they can keep any prize money won from competitions.

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Second Wind is not affiliated with a major league Overwatch team and, according to current and former players, is not sponsored, does not pay salaries nor does it provide a team house for its players. As such, the team had no need to obtain personal information from the player posing as Ellie. In the Contenders league, as is common in competitive gaming leagues aside from the elite tiers, teams play remotely and communicate via chat apps, like Discord. Thus players can compete together without ever laying eyes on one another. The player posing as Ellie also reportedly used female acquaintances to speak on his behalf during game chats.

Further complicating matters, gender is a sensitive topic in the gaming community due to the persistent toxic behavior often directed towards women. Such recurring harassment, including the threat of doxxing -- having personal details revealed online -- has made some female gamers reticent to reveal information about their identities or life outside of the game. Ellie’s account posted a transcript of an individual issuing such a threat. According to the team, respect for Ellie’s privacy prevented them from pressing for details that would confirm Ellie’s identity.

Even after the online community began questioning Ellie’s identity and abilities, Second Wind management and players didn’t share those suspicions.

“Ellie is 100 percent, definitely a girl. She was in our Discord channel multiple times,” said Nathan “frdwnr” Goebel, 19, before the hoax was revealed. He perceived the Ellie character to have a “more quiet personality,” when communicating on Discord.

Goebel thought her story, and decision to quit, checked out because a teammate said he knew her and “Its probably hard being a girl that’s that good,” he said.

In a gender neutral statement posted online, the team said there was “nothing that would spark suspicion“ with Ellie initially. The statement claims, “As soon as Ellie was announced, many questions came up regarding the legitimacy of the player. We reached out to Blizzard early on to help verify their identity and calm the suspicions about our newest player…”

Late Friday, a streamer named Becca “Aspen” Rukavina, said that Ellie was a fraud. In the video, which had close to half a million views in two days, Rukavina claims another player, using the handle “Punisher,” was playing as Ellie. She claims “Punisher” was doing this as a kind of social experiment.

Asked about Rukavina’s video, Goebel texted, “I am not sure, we are just as confused.”

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Several messages to the person Rukavina named were not returned. Blizzard would not confirm the identity of the gamer playing as Ellie, but did confirm it was a male.

Beyond Ellie’s request for anonymity there were other signs that suggested Ellie may be a fabrication, such as the recent creation of social media accounts as well as a lack of gaming history, something that would be unusual for someone ranked in the top 10 of North American Overwatch players, as Ellie was.

The League said it does background checks on all players who are officially added to an Overwatch or Contenders League roster, but that Ellie was not checked because she was not submitted on Second Wind’s active roster and did not compete in a Contenders match.

The scandal accelerated thanks to a Reddit thread, which exploded with speculation about Ellie. The comments quickly devolved into a proxy war on the gender and social issues roiling the community, with some users being accused of “white knighting” for female gamers and others being labeled sexist.

Through this divided lens, Second Wind was perceived by one camp as a team fighting for social justice or undertaking a publicity stunt, something owner Justin Hughes addressed in tweets after Ellie left his team, saying, “…It seems that the OW community isn’t ready to just view a player as just a player. We wanted a player, but it seemed like the public wanted something else.”

Dakota Berard, 21, a former Second Wind player, saw the developments as somewhat predictable, owing to the anonymity element.

“The more you try to hide, the more people get suspicious and try to pry,” he said.

Male players are also known to create new accounts to evade vitriol, dodge bans, and other reasons.

It is unclear whether Blizzard will change its policies in the wake of this hoax or how it plans to balance competitive player privacy and security with transparency in the future. It is also unknown if Second Wind will be disciplined by the league of if there will be any punishment for the gamer that perpetrated the Ellie hoax.

In response to Second Wind’s official statement about Ellie after the reveal on Twitter, a string of identical replies from users suggested the pervasive feeling among observers:

“xd,” social media shorthand for laughing.