When the Second Wind Overwatch minor league team signed a player named "Ellie" back in December the team was, by its own admission, in desperate need of a new substitute player. The team didn't know then that the decision to sign Ellie would kick off a firestorm of controversy that arguably left all parties involved worse off than before.
The Ellie incident is a case of false identity, online harassment, and sexism in video games that exploded over course of last week. Ellie, it turned out, was not really a teenage woman as initially claimed, but a fake account belonging to a male Overwatch player for reasons still not fully known. But the messy lead-up and fallout of the Ellie situation is proving to have a ripple effect in Overwatch and esports as a whole.
How Overwatch's Ellie controversy began
The incident began in December 2018 when Second Wind announced it had signed a player who went by the online handle "Ellie." No other information on the player was available at the time other than she was a teenage girl on North American Overwatch leaderboards ranked #4. Her rank, and impressions of her skills after Second Wind's team members played with her online, were enough for the Contenders team to sign Ellie.
According to a recent statement released by Second Wind, the need to fill the position, closing deadline for roster submission, and a remote conversation with Ellie over phone and private messages, pushed the team to sign Ellie onto the roster. If the situation played out like that, Ellie would have been the first woman to play on the semi-pro Overwatch Contenders series.
However, women in competitive Overwatch, and any competitive esports scene, are scrutinized intensely online. One only needs to recall how Overwatch pro player Kim "Geguri" Se-yeon of the Shanghai Dragons fought through tears during a live stream of her playing just to prove she wasn't cheating. Like traditional sports, fans of competitive Overwatch follow the game and listen for potential signings to pro and semi-pro teams. But Ellie was a mystery and the fact Ellie seemingly came out of nowhere as a top-ranked woman player fueled an intense hunt for her identity.
How the "social experiment" was revealed
Ellie soon was under threat from online harassers and doxxers who promised to expose Ellie's personal info in order to find out their identity. Ellie stepped down from Second Wind and the team announced that they left "due to some unforeseen reactions." As it turns out, "unforeseen reactions" was more than just PR speak as days later it was revealed that Ellie was in fact a "smurf account," or a false identity for another player online.
Unfortunately, due to some unforeseen reactions, Ellie has opted to step down from the team. We hope you continue to support her in her ventures in Overwatch as we will— Second Wind (@SecondWindGG) January 2, 2019
Neither Second Wind or Blizzard confirmed the identity of who was running the Ellie account. But esports journalist Rod Breslau published private Discord messages and claims from other women Overwatch players that the identity behind "Ellie" was a male player named "Punisher" who asked various women to pose as Ellie while he played. In a video, Overwatch streamer Aspen named Punisher as Ellie and said he assumed the identity as a "social experiment."
Punisher named at the 1:50 mark in the video above.
Though Second Wind eventually released a full statement, the team didn't comment much on Ellie as the situation unfurled last week. That was during a period when some Overwatch fans still understood Ellie to be a teenage woman who was facing threats of doxing and harassment. This led to accusations that Second Wind wasn't doing enough to protect its players. For some this was another instance of a woman being harassed out of video games.
"We did not properly allocate enough time to communicated with the public as a means to support our players, and as a result caused more questioning that could have been avoided," Second Wind eventually said in its statement.
In a more detailed account of the events leading to the Ellie controversy last week, Second Wind confirmed that in trying to respect Ellie's privacy, the team opted not to dig too deeply into Ellie's personal life. But as questions began to arise, Second Wind said it reached out to Blizzard to help verify Ellie while encouraging her to make some kind of public presence. But it was at this point that Ellie stepped down, and Blizzard later confirmed that Ellie was not who they claimed they were.
"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," Blizzard wrote in a statement. "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."
Women in esports have decried the whole incident and ESPN published an op-ed calling the situation a "setback for women." The problem being that while in this particular case Ellie wasn't who she claimed to be, the initial scrutiny of her identity and gender had overtones of misogyny. Driven by the disbelief that a woman could be as good in Overwatch as Ellie also fueled the dogged investigation into her "true" identity.
I am seven goddamn thousand levels of livid about this Ellie situation. People involved aside, this "stunt" will have lasting ramifications for ANY woman/nb person trying to get into Contenders. They will ALL now be subject to "lol are you real??" harassment.— Liz Richardson (@mizliz_) January 4, 2019
Ellie being a social experiment my fucking ass. This could have been a true, REAL thing. We could have finally had a professional female player in OWL. I’m actually sad to hear that this whole thing was a facade. Y’all don’t understand the pain female players go through.— ? (@Iisnoir) January 4, 2019
the ellie “social experiment” did more harm than good. why didn’t you just LISTEN to the women speaking up instead of needing to experience it yourself to believe it?? now every new pro female will be questioned.— Kat(@princesshyruIe) January 5, 2019
Critics say that the resulting situation has made women in esports more vulnerable to the same kind of accusations that Ellie faced before they were revealed to be a false identity. There are fears that this will encourage similar harassment of women in gaming, and that doxxers will use "Ellie" as a justification for doing so.
Meanwhile Blizzard says that while "Ellie" was never formally submitted as an active member of Second Wind, the company does do "background checks to ensure that players are who they say they are as well as meet other eligibility requirements[.]"
Nobody leaves this Ellie situation looking better off. Overwatch has been called out for having a toxic community, and the most recent flare-up in the Overwatch community shows that there's still a lot of work to do. Esports, which continues to rely on deregulated pro communities, will encounter unique problems like fake identities that don't exist in traditional sports. And women in esports will continue to fight against the same kind of sexism that ignited the Ellie controversy in the first place. Only the men in esports aggressively suspicious of women in games are left with any sense of satisfaction.