Oakland, CA — A mysterious online gamer known as “Ellie” was applauded for breaking barriers for women in gaming after being recruited for a prominent professional esports team. Then she was accused of cheating. And then it turned out that she was actually a “he” all along.
Esports is a rapidly growing, multi-million dollar industry that organizes professional and amateur gaming competitions. Competitions are broadcast live to non-playing viewers.
Which is why it was a big deal when Overwatch Contenders, a professional league that plays a popular first-person shooting game called Overwatch, announced its North American division would have a female player for the first time ever.
But the story didn't end there. Because less than two weeks later in early January, league officials confirmed rumors that the "female" player was actually a man posing as a 17-year-old girl.
For many, the story of “Ellie,” the non-existent female Overwatch player, is just the latest blow to the pursuit of equality for women in gaming.
“I'm disappointed that she didn't turn out to be real, since I was already a fan of her team and I was excited to see her play with them,” said Jasmine "Eevee" Scott, a high-ranking Australian player, in a Twitter DM to YR Media. “I just hope it doesn't demoralize girls who looked up to her in the small time of popularity she had.”
Here's a full breakdown of how the whole bizarre story went down, and how women fans and gamers reacted:
When Overwatch Contenders — considered the minor league to the Blizzard-sponsored Overwatch League, one of the largest esports organizations in the world — announced it had recruited “Ellie” (which is a gamertag, not a real name) to the high-ranking team Second Wind, women in the competitive gaming industry erupted with excitement and encouragement on social media.
But before long, the enthusiasm was met with sexist and toxic responses from a particularly vocal minority of the game’s fan base. The biggest point of contention was inspired by the team’s decision not to publish Ellie’s real name, which they said was to protect her privacy. This led to rumors that Ellie cheated to achieve her high player ranking, conspiracy theories around her real identity and threats by Reddit users to doxx (reveal the true identity of) the mysterious new player.
And then, only 12 days after Ellie was officially added to the team’s roster, Second Wind announced on Twitter that she had resigned.
Many prominent female gamers and esports community members — including Overwatch League’s own interviewer and host, Mica Burton — took to social media to express their disappointment, assuming Ellie had quit in response to the harassment.
This wasn’t the first time that a female Overwatch player had been accused of cheating to appear more successful in the game. Back in 2016, Overwatch League’s first female player, Kim “Geguri” Se-yeon of the Shanghai Dragons, was accused of hacking the game to enhance her win rate. The rumors were quickly debunked by Blizzard (Overwatch League’s sponsor), but Geguri opted to prove her remaining doubters wrong by livestreaming herself playing for over an hour.
Two days after “her” resignation, Second Wind released a statement saying that Ellie was, in fact, not who they thought she was.
“Due to the fact that we do not have any physical contact with our players, we wanted to verify their identity but also wanted to respect their privacy as well. We genuinely had no idea of what was to come, and at the time we underestimated how important it would be to set an example as the first team to take on a female player for Contenders,” the statement reads.
The announcement was preceded by a series of tweets by longtime esports insider Rod Breslau in which Breslau said he spoke with a male player and Twitch streamer called “Punisher.” According to Breslau, different women players said Punisher asked them to help him pretend to be a woman online as a “social experiment.” Around the same time, another streamer, Becca “Aspen” Rukavina, said that Punisher had told her the same thing.
“Ellie is not Ellie,” Rukavina said during a livestream. “The whole situation was meant to be — in a way — like a social experiment. ... Ellie is Punisher. He did this as a social experiment thing and did not expect this to get out of hand.”
The Overwatch League and Blizzard have declined to confirm whether “Punisher” was really behind the “Ellie” account, but clarified in an email exchange with YR Media that whoever was behind the account never actually played a match on the team:
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. 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.
This bombshell sparked understandable anger and confusion for many people in the Overwatch and esports communities, including other female professional Overwatch players around the world.
Samantha “Leveret” Marson, who plays on the Australian Contenders team Kraken, said the news about Ellie also made her feel “pretty disappointed, mainly in the fact a man would want to take something this far, knowing how much drama it will create.”
“I think that masquerading as a woman was mainly just some drama for this guy to pass the time with,” Marson continued. “I'm concerned that women entering the scene who are more private with their home lives/identity will be horribly harassed, with the outcome of what's happened with Ellie as an excuse to back up their actions. ... I think this is going to discourage a lot of female players, as it's likely they'll end up with an ultimatum of harassment vs. full exposure to satisfy naysayers.”
Many more women shared similar concerns via Twitter in the days that followed.
Among the many responses to the scandal, one common theme prevailed.
In today’s competitive gaming climate, any woman’s ability to compete alongside male players is all but guaranteed to be called into question, and this “social experiment” added fuel to the sexist fire that burns within so many gaming-centered communities.