Imagine if going to an Overwatch League event could get you killed.
That horrifying image pierced my brain as I spoke to a friend of mine, Dom McLennon, about how the Overwatch League blacklisted me because a former Overwatch League player was “uncomfortable seeing me on TV”.
What started off as a friendship had turned into a classic case of ghosting and miscommunication. Rumors spread that I was trying to get close with players for clout, which was categorically false. I didn’t react well to the confusion and just wanted answers. I became desperate. I started drinking heavily. Yet the reputation of the league and the illusion of “power” it promised certain members of the community were more important, and the result was a final rumor being spread that a restraining order was involved against me. There was only one problem.
None of that was true.
So how could I have been killed? Mr. McLennon bluntly pointed out the very obvious reason.
“The thing about it that’s fucked up is that [people who believe it] don’t understand what that rumor implies,” he says. “Even if they were lying about the restraining order, if someone believed it and saw you in a room with them, they may feel liable to call the police. On you.”
Which could have ended very badly.
This hypothetical situation is a prime example about how black women have been seen as a threat to the point that instead of having actual evidence of behavior that warranted a restraining order, I was the latest casualty of an industry where minority figures, especially black women, are ignored, mistreated, or unceremoniously fired via text.
The Loudest Minority
In June, social media blew up because of protests around the world due to the murder of George Floyd along with other countless black men and women due to police brutality. I knew immediately this was going to be a trend, so I treaded lightly as people messaged me asking what they could do to “help.”
Then the Los Angeles Valiant opened the door with a single tweet.
His name was George Floyd.
We cannot be silent in the face of racism and injustice in our country. It is irresponsible not to speak up while innocent people face insufferable discrimination each day.
"Hatred is born of ignorance: fear is its father, and isolation its mother."
— Los Angeles Valiant (@LAValiant) May 27, 2020
Even I could admit, along with former OWL Host Malik Forte, that this was a big and necessary step for the Overwatch League to understand what they refused to acknowledge since the beginning. Except at first, they didn’t.
“Seems like [OWL] want to keep this human rights issue away from the league, a play we’ve seen before,” Forte said. “Maybe they thought retweeting the Blizzard message would cover all the bases. Or maybe [they’re] just out of touch with just how diverse their fanbase is, because a vocal minority of bigots are also the ones often on various message boards and social media criticizing the league.”
But maybe leadership and the decision makers are open to the possibility?
“I can tell you a lot of people who make the decisions are glued to sites like Reddit and will steer towards whatever the consensus seems to be there,” Malik says.
It’s this vocal minority that prevents real change from happening as it needs to start from the ground up and framed within the game itself. Overwatch has been catastrophically negligent when it comes to dealing with inclusivity for black people. This was confirmed by Vivian Phillips, an Overwatch fan who wrote directly to Jeff Kaplan back in 2017 regarding the lack of black female characters in the game. She actually got a response, with Kaplan stressing he hoped diversity would be the norm. But over three years later, she still isn’t satisfied.
“When it comes to representation, Blizzard leaves much to be desired,” Vivian states. “The sad part is, Blizzard is above-average but that’s because the bar for respectful representation in the gaming industry is on the floor.”
We arrive at this subterranean level that brings us to Sojourn, the sole female black hero shown and whose long-awaited debut has been talked about for years. Yet, when I saw her at Blizzcon 2019 and I still had a pit in my stomach about her. I didn’t know why.
“As a black writer, you get a sixth sense for black characters that definitely weren’t written by black people,” Vivian explains. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘I bet her first draft name was Harriet.’ There’s nothing wrong naming a character after [Sojourner Truth], but there was nothing in her visual design that showed she was a poet or used her words to sway politics.”
I told Vivian that I was so caught up with the hype of being represented, but that it was a very fleeting feeling.
“That sentence there is how I feel about Overwatch/Blizzard personally as a black fan. Even when we’re given a morsel, there’s no sustenance; it’s like eating cotton candy..”
So if the game itself is unwilling to do the bare minimum when it comes to racism, even when the community asks for it, maybe they will listen to the black employees they do have?
One employee was Jasmine Kitterman, the former Director of Marketing for the Atlanta Reign and FaZe from 2019 to this past June. After declining to sign an NDA by the organization, she told me how she was initially grateful for the opportunity to work in the field.
“I love gaming, so this was a dream job for me,” she explains on a phone call. “I wouldn’t say I was deep into esports or the gaming community, but it was always a part of my life. I love being a professional communicator, I love writing, and I love communicating with passionate people like me. It was like a ‘right place, right time’ thing for me.”
But her dream job turned into a nightmare. The lack of communication from management along with racial discrimination between Jasmine and another white male co-worker took its toll.
“Most of my contact with leadership, primarily with the Controller, was limited to only five to six conversations. The way she treated me compared to my white male coworker was night and day. During my time there, I received no instruction as to what we were supposed to be doing. I didn’t think it was too weird that they didn’t specify what they wanted, yet as time went by, it became clear that they didn’t have any goals set. The company was more…reactive to dates, matches, trends.”
Despite this, Jasmine was optimistic and keen on making the position her own, especially as current events provided the entire esports community an opportunity to influence real, lasting change. And this was something she wanted to make sure was done right.
“After Valiant broke the seal by tweeting about George Floyd, we needed to get our own statement out. We didn’t have an immediate response for it partially because my coworker and I were discussing how we wanted to respond. It seemed disingenuous and fake to put out a statement just because all of the other teams were. When we brought this to leadership, they stated they did not want to do a donation. I ended up calling the Controller to let her know where I stood. I asked her, ‘Why wouldn’t we be able to do that? She said they don’t usually disclose their charitable donations, and that it seemed to her like putting out a statement and doing a donation would be ‘a fake marketing ploy’. She just wanted to put out a statement just like every other team. She wasn’t listening. And I explained that, ‘Speaking as your BLACK marketing director, I’m telling you it’s okay. You hired me to do this.’”
Ultimately, Jasmine declined to author the statement, as she knew it wasn’t enough. The Controller responded that she respected that and ended the conversation. That same day, on June 2nd, the Atlanta Reign released their statement on the protests.
28 days later, on June 30th, Jasmine was informed that she was being fired. She wished she was even remotely surprised.
“I literally cannot think of any other reason why other than that final conversation. If I was being let go due to low results, the fact remained that there were no expectations, there were no goals. So that had to be the reason.”
Five months later, the posts died down while the protests continued. The n-word still continues to be used heavily during Overwatch gameplay, Overwatch Twitch streams, and even by fans. The OWL broadcasts are devoid of BIPOC talent. No one seems to have learned anything. And if employees speak out, they are fired. It’s business as usual, and it seems it will never change.
Never Stop Fighting for What You Believe In
To Malik, there’s always hope. “It looks like from the league’s end, they [were] sincere in striving for change. Now it’s up to the community to uphold the anti-racist standard that’s been set, for league to hold the community accountable when/if they don’t meet standard, and for everyone to continue to KEEP MAKING PROGRESS.”
And in the game itself? Vivian even has ideas, based on what Blizzard has done in the past.
“Looking at [Sojourn’s] futuristic-tech design, I thought her name should have been ‘Octavia’ in honor of Octavia Butler- a well-known, yet not mainstream black sci-fi writer. How wonderful it could have been for Sojourn to be an homage to a prolific writer and possibly lead fans to look more at her work.”
“I do think about the fact that Jeff Kaplan was moved by my letter,” Vivian continues. “However it comes down to those in power who give the final OK for things to be published to also be compelled to as well, and at the [rate] they’re going, it’s best to set expectations to zero.”
For Jasmine, the problem can only be solved if gaming companies took on a more grassroots mindset. “The way I see it, there is hope. It can be improved. Look at Xset. The problem is making esports corporate. The problem is trying to lean on Blizzard as an esports giant, or trying to sell teams to people who have no business investing in them. That’s the biggest danger to communities and the OGs of the industry. We need them because they are in it and stay in it for the right reasons.”
But at this stage of the game, we are way past that. The voices who cried out for change are now silent, realizing that their comfort is more important than our desire for basic human rights. This runs much deeper, requiring systemic change to a systemic problem, which begins with coming to terms with our bloody history, a concept that is outweighed by a preference to avoid overwhelming personal and professional shame. And when a company does not address this, it’s hard to believe that anything will ever change. Even now, when being around certain people allows me to see Overwatch as an enjoyable experience, I fail to convince myself that I will ever truly belong. I will always have to watch my tone, speak softly and intelligently, and God forbid that I disagree with the status quo, as I will be seen as a troublemaker. As painful as it is, I accept that people will rely on their preconceived notions about us or will ignore our cries completely for comfort’s sake. It is a statement that crosses the line between fantasy and reality, where even despite Jeff Kaplan’s best efforts to provide an escape from the dark world that surrounds us all, not even he can provide us an escape from this harsh reality.
So it’s just easier to disconnect.