There’s also another reason, tied to both of the above events, that the spotlight has followed McLean so closely and been so reluctant to stray — his status as a champion to the gaming world’s LGBTQ community.
First came the simple declaration after winning at Evo: “I’m gay.” The statement, part of a longer boast posted on Twitter, received around 19,000 retweets and 78,000 likes. It was also only the beginning. At the Game Awards in December, his acceptance speech reverberated around the Internet as he doubled down on embracing his identity. “I’m gay, I’m black, a furry, pretty much everything a Republican hates,” he said then. “And the best esports player of the year I guess!"
McLean’s declaration at Evo was not a revelation to some of the competitive gaming community. Those around fighting games knew he was gay since 2016, and his status as a furry became clearer over time, as he slowly added more costumery to his person. What started with a tail and a pair of knitted ears has become a tailor-made fursuit complete with a wolf mask that he wears during competitions. According to McLean, it cost “over $1,000.”
What has been so captivating has been his willingness to own and publicly flaunt an identity that could have been used to marginalize him. He has incorporated it into his swagger, drawing strength from it as he has dominated the fighting circuit.
"I stopped caring what other people think about me,” McLean said in a recent phone interview. “I never expected to be so happy. When I really came to terms with myself, everything changed for the better."
And in issuing two full-throated declarations, while at the pinnacle of an already decorated career, he’s been helping a number of others find a new measure of happiness as well.
The birth of a battle cry
McLean, 20, has long been regarded as one of, if not the best fighting game players in the world. In order, he won back-to-back-to-back championships in the Mortal Kombat pro league, placed first in 2017's Injustice 2 Pro Series, and has taken home four different Evo titles in three different games, since going pro. With everything accounted for, McLean has earned over $500,000 in total prize winnings, as well a professional contract with Echo Fox, the esports organization owned by former Los Angeles Laker Rick Fox.
In other words, McLean's a prodigy; a kid from Delaware with twitchy reflexes and the discipline to grind out the hours necessary to stay ahead of his competition.
He says he was always a trash-talker online, but his early attitude at live competitions was a bit different. Back then he didn't have anyone's attention, because he didn't want anyone's attention.
"I knew he was really good, but he seemed really shy,” remembers Jon “dekillsage” Coello, a fellow Echo Fox fighting game pro when asked what he remembers about his first encounter with McLean. “Talking to him online, I always knew that's how he was, [boastful and confident], but he didn't want to show it [in person]."
He has since learned how to flip that switch. Over the course of his wild 2018, not only was Sonic winning at an unprecedented clip, he was also getting cockier and less afraid. After taking Evo, the first thing he did was bang out his now famous tweet. “im gay. also the best dbfz player on this [expletive] planet dont forget it.” Since then every time he's won, every time he devastated another opponent, he reached for the same exclamation. “I'm gay.” At this point, it's practically a battle cry.
Strength in Sonic’s swagger
McLean's childhood was comfortable, and his family and friends have been supportive “for the most part,” since he came out during high school. (His oldest brother, Christian, is a fellow fighting game pro, and continues to make it out to his tournaments.) He describes his self-actualization process as being mostly internal — the trials of understanding and becoming comfortable with himself rather than overcoming any specific adversarial force. He is not interested in grinding axes, and in conversation he's soft, and reticent, and full of nervous laughter. The bombast is strictly reserved for moments of victory.
McLean says he’s cocky because it fulfills him on a spiritual level. After a life of not being sure of himself, the impetuousness is intoxicating. Yes, he’s aware that he’s the most popular queer esports star in the world. And to date he’s been pleased to wear that mantle. Messages from people questioning their own orientations fill his inbox everyday. But while he’s inspired those in a familiar position, foremost he’s being himself for himself. It’s where he’s learned to draw his strength. And others are finding strength in McLean.
When McLean sounded off about his identity, Carson “Pixel” Allen heard him loud and clear. He's 20 years old, living in Dallas, genderfluid, and said he has been a furry for about a decade. Pixel's first love was Super Smash Bros. Melee, and today he competes in Smash Ultimate. His voice was raw from a recent Genesis 6 tournament when he answered about what McLean has meant to him.
“[My identity] was always something I had kept to myself,” Allen says. “Seeing SonicFox wear his heart on his chest, it was really encouraging for me to see someone successful show me that I don’t need to hide these aspects of who I am.”
Allen says he started to open up about his identity in the autumn of 2018, shortly after McLean’s ascension to the throne. It's no coincidence. Finally, Allen had his blueprint.
“Seeing someone that successful, succeeding at everything they’re doing, and being the kind of person that I want to be . . . It made it really easy for me to just sort of have a general model [to follow],” Allen said. “'Okay, this is how I can do these things that I want to do.’ And if someone says, ‘That’s stupid,’ I’m like, SonicFox has hundreds of thousands of followers, and is the best Dragon Ball player in the world.”
While many, like Allen, have embraced McLean over the past year, there are others who would prefer he’d silence the many social media reminders about his orientation.
One critic wrote in McLean’s Twitter mentions: “Is being gay a personality trait now? I’m vegan then please treat me differently while I remind you every second of the day that I'm vegan. Praise me.”
Another reads: “You have repeatedly shoved 'im gay' into tweets and down our throats. This is what [expletive] me off, I'm fine with LGBTQ+ people, but I'm not fine when they try and force it.”
McLean says he pays no mind to the ire.
"They're going out of their own way, to go to my Twitter page, to see my content, to say, 'Stop saying you're gay all the time,' I think that's the silliest thing I've heard in my life,” he says. “I stopped caring. It gets people heated for some random reason. . . . If it's gonna upset you guys, I'm just gonna do it again.”
A few days after the interview, McLean flew out to Los Angeles for the “Mortal Kombat XI” reveal, a game in which he'll be competing for the rest of the year. The following weekend he went to a furry convention in town. By the summer he'll be back in the spotlight, taking aim at more trophies while firing off verbal and digital jabs.
“The only way they can stop me is by being better at what I do,” McLean said. “I have everyone’s attention now, and the only way you can get that attention off of me is by [outclassing] me. A lot of people have absolutely no choice but to look at me, and that makes them more upset. … If they have a problem with it, what are they gonna do about it?”
Luke Winkie is a journalist from San Diego, currently living in Brooklyn. He has written about esports for Vice, Rolling Stone, PC Gamer, Polygon, and Kotaku.