Blizzard’s Overwatch League is currently undergoing the sort of teething problems that only happen when you try and invent an entire esports landscape almost overnight and rush through what other titles have had in place for years. One of the chief criticisms has been the lack of a transparent code of conduct despite the league having to make repeated rulings on disciplinary action, primarily regarding player conduct on social media. This air of uncertainty has led to a series of embarrassing public incidents, such as coaches apologising for accidentally bumping into players and players having to delete tweets that include images of a cartoon frog on the grounds that is offensive.
A wave of player fines and suspensions were announced on March 9th. These included a fine for “anti-gay slurs,” tweeting a reference to the Hiroshima bombing, account sharing, and most contentiously of all, a player supposedly engaging in “racially disparaging” behaviour for using an emote on the streaming platform Twitch. That last case involved Félix “xQc” Lengyel, already one of the most controversial players to grace the Overwatch League in its short life cycle. The four match suspension he received led to his team, Dallas Fuel, terminating his contract. Inside sources have indicated to us Blizzard have stated they do not want the player to return to the league.
On the surface the punishment seems harsh as it has its root in a lot of assumptions, which we will get to in a moment. The league commissioner Nate Nanzer has done a series of interviews that address the code of conduct and potential unionization of players. In The Telegraph he stated plainly that the reason for not publishing the rules players are bound by is that “we just haven’t gotten around to it.” He added “We definitely want to publish the rules on the website – if you go to NBA.com you can download the rules, right? We want to have the same thing – it’s something we’re working towards, I don’t know the exact timeline, but it’s something that we’re working on, and I think we’ll have it published within the next few months.”
Nate Nanzer, League Commissioner Of The Overwatch League (img courtesy of DBLTAP Esports)
Some good news for Mr. Nanzer then. After a public appeal on Twitter this publication has obtained the code of conduct in its entirety and as soon as any potentially incriminating metadata from the whistleblowers has been assessed we will publish it in full. However, what we wanted to do today was take at the contentious Lengyel case and see how this code of conduct applies to penalising a player in the circumstances they did. It will probably come as no surprise to you to know that the document is fairly flimsy, thirty-five pages by our count, with ten pages of that dedicated to what players can and can’t do on their personal streams.
Let’s look at what we assume is the rule under which Lengyel was punished. We have to assume because despite the existence of a codified rule book the OWL has never addressed it specifically in any of their statements regarding punishment of players, which is amateurish at best. We refer you to section 6.4, the Anti-harassment section. It reads:
“(a) The League office is committed to providing a competitive Game environment that is free of harassment and discrimination.
(b) In furtherance to that commitment, Players, Team Managers, and Owners are prohibited from engaging in any form of harassment or discrimination (either in Game or outside of the Game) including without limitation that which is based on race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other class or characteristic.”
That is the rule. Now, I believe it’s stretch to characterise a single posting of an emote as “harassment” but even so, why are Blizzard adamant that it was racially disparaging to begin with? The Blizzard statement regarding why Lengyel was punished read “Félix “xQc” Lengyel, of the Dallas Fuel, is suspended for four matches, effective March 12, and fined $4,000. xQc repeatedly used an emote in a racially disparaging manner on the league’s stream and on social media, and used disparaging language against Overwatch League casters and fellow players on social media and on his personal stream.”
There are a few things that certainly trouble me with the way this is expressed. First it states, without equivocation, that Lengyel’s use of the TriHard emote was inarguably “racially disparaging.” Blizzard clearly do not mean in the singular instance in Twitch chat that was caught via a screenshot either (https://i.imgur.com/3KthSao.png). First they use the word “repeatedly,” when on the day in question he posted it once. Also by saying “and on social media” they also open up his Twitter history, where he has also used the term “TriHard 7,” which wouldn’t be appropriate for the allegation that he had used the emote because he saw Malik Forte on screen. Why? Because on the day in question, March 2nd, he didn’t tweet the emote or any variation thereof. That means that Blizzard feel other instances of him using it on Twitter have also been racially disparaging. This certainly pushes Blizzard to explain what these instances were because the issue had never been brought up before. If they had issues with his use of the term prior to March 2nd then they had an obligation to address it with the player.
For the sake of providing some examples here is video footage of Lengyel posting the term in the chat on January 12th while Forte didn’t appear on screen . Recorded chat logs of Lengyel’s interactions in the Overwatch League Twitch channel also show he has repeatedly used the term since January without any admonishment from the league itself. Why, if this conduct was so reprehensible, was this never noticed and addressed? These instances are all enough for any reasonable person to conclude his typing it while Mr. Forte was on screen could indeed be just a coincidence.
By contrast their statement asserts, with only circumstantial evidence in its favour, that Lengyel was only using the emote because Forte was on screen. The fact that Lengyel frequently uses the emote, almost always when he arrives in Twitch chat as a form of announcement, and this is verified by Twitch chat logs, that should leave enough doubt about the accuracy of this assertion. Sure, based on his history you are free to presume the worst. However, the heads of a league, that are supposed to investigate these matters in an impartial and fair manner shouldn’t be assuming anything and should only be issuing punitive measures based on what they can prove. Here, we know he happened to use the emote at a time that was questionable from an external viewpoint.
In the Washington Post, who gave Lengyel a right to reply after they reported almost verbatim Blizzard’s version without any scrutiny, stated that he wasn’t even paying attention to the broadcast when he typed it. “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” he said. “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.”
Felix “xQc” Lengyel
There is a much broader debate to be had about the use of the emote in the first place. Based on their reaction it is fair to assume Blizzard seem to think using “Trihard” in Twitch chat, whatever the circumstances, is clearly racially charged. If that is the case why have they not simply banned the use of the emote on their channel? Even if that wasn’t an option for them to do, which it is, a company that has engaged in a multi-million dollar broadcasting deal with the Twitch platform surely has the influence to be able to ask for some special privileges regarding use of emotes. Blizzards views on it were made clear in the aftermath of the situation. The moderation policy for the Overwatch League channel was anyone using TriHard in the chat, or a variation of it, were permanently banned, on site, a policy that prompted multiple complaints on social media.
It seems that the issue isn’t really with the people using the emote at all. Twitch evidently feel the emote is a healthy part of their identity and something that can be wielded responsibly by their community members and consumers. Blizzard do not feel this way about it but have taken no measures themselves to prevent the use of the emote prior to their banning of Lengyel. If they believe that it is “racially disparaging” then I suggest they have a long talk with their broadcast partners rather than singling out a professional player for using an emote in a manner they cannot prove was malicious.
I’ll editorialise for a moment. My views on the emote are very clear. I do not think it is racist in and of itself but if you’re one of the people spamming it every time a black person is on screen then I feel comfortable suggesting that you may have an issue with race. I have no qualms about anyone doing this being banned from the Twitch platform and welcome this discussion, which honestly should have happened a long time ago. Any perceived defence of Lengyel in this piece is simply down to what I see as a lack of evidence to make the assertion that he engaged in “racially disparaging” behaviour, an allegation that has very real implications should the player ever decide to leave the gaming world and apply for jobs in other fields. Sometimes when being objective you will find yourself on the side of people you never imagined you would be. Regardless, I think it’s fair to say a company of Blizzard’s size shouldn’t be playing loose with this type of language. Ever.
Perhaps then Blizzard is using another rule from their code of conduct in order to justify their punishment being so harsh and definitive. Maybe it has nothing to do with their anti-harassment rules at all. We shall then refer you to section 6.7 entitled “Non-Disparagement.”
“(a) Teams, Team Members and Owners have the right to express their opinions in a professional and sportsmanlike manner, provided, however, that Teams. Team Members and Owners may not make public statements that call into question the integrity or competence of match referees or the League.
(b) Teams, Team Members and Owners may not at any time make, post, publish or communicate to any person or entity or in any public forum any false, defamatory, libelous or slanderous remarks, comments or statements concerning any member of the Blizzard Group, the League Office, any of their respective Representatives, the League, the other Teams, or their respective sponsors or members, the Game or any other product or service of the Blizzard Group. In addition, Players, Team Managers or Owners may not encourage members of the public to engage in any activities that are prohibited by this Section 6.7.
(c ) This Section 6.7 does not, in any way, restrict or impede a Team Player, Team Manager or Owner from complying with any Applicable Law or a valid order of a court or competent jurisdiction or an authorized government agency, providing that such compliance does not exceed that required by the law or order.”
In terms of rules that specifically cover this instance that is about all there is to it. Blizzard, and in particular Nanzer, have talked a good game about social media training for the players and other participants in the league but little of those specifics seem to have made it into the rulebook so far. Unless we missed something there are as many official rules about what players can and can’t wear when in the league’s studios as there is regarding social media behaviour and community interactions.
Blizzard’s handling of the matter also doesn’t resemble any of the kind of neutral investigation I’d expect from a league. We know that Blizzard themselves tried to backchannel directly to the organisation that employs Lengyel (let’s pretend the franchises are separate entities with some vague sense of autonomy for the purposes of this piece) and asked them to drop Lengyel from the roster prior to their announcement. This has been stated by Lengyel himself and this version has been privately verified by other sources. Nanzer himself has publicly denied this to be the case in an interview with ESPN. It seems highly unlikely that the league wouldn’t do this, especially given the active amount of influence they have with each franchise. Without an exact timeline of events there will have to be some assumptions made but it seems that the time between the incident and supposedly contacting Dallas Fuel to drop their player was short, almost as if there was more time dedicated to having lawyers draft their public statement than there was to any comprehensive investigation making sure this was the correct decision. The total time from incident to punishment was just seven days and Dallas Fuel were contacted before that and told to drop the player. It seems that it was treated as a fairly open and shut manner. Maybe that’s appropriate, maybe not.
The Overwatch League hinted that xQc would be “amputated” before they issued punishment
There’s also a matter of the almost perverse relish that Blizzard seemed to get out of issuing the punishment. On their Watchpoint broadcast which aired March 7th, the show included a skit where commentator Christopher “Montecristo” Mykles visited a doctor, played by his long standing commentary partner Erik “Doa” Lonnquist. In the skit Mykles is diagnosed with a disease called “xQc”, which they say is an abbreviation of “extremely questionable conduct.” The cure? According to Lonnquist “In extreme cases, I’ve seen amputation. So we’ll have to circle back and talk about that one a little bit later.” This was in response to the second charge leveled at Lengyel, that he had publicly criticised some of the commentary by saying it “gave him cancer.” This might seem like humourous tit-for-tat but it certainly takes on a sinister complexion when you assess that last line about him being “amputated.” Given he was punished just two days later and released two more days after that, did the commentators know what was coming? Why would they be “talking about it later” if they didn’t? And also, if Blizzard think these charges of using the word “cancer” are so serious that they would enforce them so strictly, why are they making merriment about it on a broadcast they themselves script? To say that this is unprofessional is an understatement and there’s real signs here that people outside of the operations team of the league knew that Lengyel was going to be released. This alone should raise some serious questions about Blizzard’s handling of the whole case, their impartiality and their integrity.
Given the non-disparagement clause is pretty vague and focuses on untrue comments, it seems that stating something such as “that casting gave me cancer” would be enough to warrant a four match suspension, even for repeat offenses, when clearer violations such as using “anti-gay slurs” only warranted a $1000 fine. In short, the whole thing is a mess and it’s incredibly difficult to see any other rationale of his suspension and eventual termination beyond Blizzard not wanting Lengyel in the league.
Fortunately what the code of conduct potentially leaves the door open to is the possibility of an appeal conducted by an independent body. This is something I would urge Lengyel to do if I were to speak to him, not just for his own reputation, which will always be sullied to some degree by the insinuation he is in some way racist, but also for that of his fellow professional players. The talk of unionization is moot if players are too afraid to go ahead and make full use of their legal rights. It would also be a fruitless endeavour if Blizzard can simply refuse to give players the right to appeal. Lengyel has nothing to lose it seems and should jump at the chance to present all of this before someone not involved in a league that Blizzard desperately want to make a profit from.
In the last section of the code of conduct it outlines what players can do if they do not feel the league has acted in a fair and impartial manner. Section 9 entitled “Resolution of Disputes” reads:
“(a) Disputes Regarding League Rules. The League Office has final binding authority to decide disputes with respect to the breach, termination, enforcement or interpretation of Sections 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 of these League Rules (“Rules Dispute”) as well as related relief. Rules Disputes and Team Member violation reports should be submitted to the League Office at email@example.com
(b) Binding Arbitration for Arbitration Disputes. Any dispute claim or controversy that the League Office may have against Team Members or that Team Members might have against the League Office, and any dispute, claim or controversy arising out of or relating to the League or these League Rules or the validity thereof, including the determination of the scope or applicability of these rules to arbitrate, and that is not otherwise subject to the League Office’s final, binding authority (whether under Section 9.1 or under separate written agreements entered into with the League Office) or otherwise subject to arbitration under separate written agreements entered into with the League Office (“Arbitration Dispute”) will be finally settled under the Rules of Arbitration of The International Chamber of Commerce by a single arbitrator appointed in accordance with the said Rules. The place of arbitration will be Los Angeles, California.”
This isn’t the entirety of point (b) as it runs to quite some length getting into the minutiae of who would pay for what in this matter of the dispute but it seems that the league is willing to at least have an external party review some of their policy enforcements should a party demand it.
Even as a passionate advocate for player rights in the esports space I also acknowledge that players have responsibilities. All too often this side of the debate gets lost in the noise created by drama. In this case does anyone look at it, with all the evidence laid out as it is, and think that this was a fair decision meted out on the merits of what we know? I find it hard to believe that even Lengyel’s biggest critics believe and if the decision stands as is, it will be a big stain on the league and their treatment of the players they hope to groom into becoming professionals. Hopefully sense prevails but where the OWL is concerned that valuable commodity seems to be in short supply.