When I first heard of "Ellie," I was excited.
Following the successful debut of Shanghai Dragons starting off-tank Kim "Geguri" Se-yeon in the Overwatch League last year, there appeared to be a woman rising up the ranks in the amateur North American Overwatch scene. Contenders squad Second Wind announced the signing of Ellie, who'd skyrocketed to the No. 4 position on the North American Overwatch competitive servers.
But before too long, rumors began to swirl about the validity of the Ellie account. How did she rise so quickly without anyone noticing? Why was it the case that when she was in games with popular streamers her voice comms were often delayed or she didn't speak at all?
In the end, it was discovered that a male player on the North American server known as "Punisher" was behind the Ellie account. There was no Ellie. Punisher, as reported by Rod "Slasher" Breslau, had also allegedly coaxed various women to act as the role of "Ellie" during games when it came to voice communications, while he played and climbed the rankings.
"As of [Saturday], Blizzard had gotten back to us on the background of Ellie and notified us that they were not who they claimed to be, and discovered that the Ellie account was used for purposes we do not support," Second Wind said in a press release. "We apologize to the community as a whole for not handling this situation better when we should have, and we will aim to do better."
Cloud9 streamer Becca "Aspen" Rukavina announced on her stream that the purpose of this whole charade by Punisher was to act as some sort of "social experiment" and show how the esports and video game community as a whole reacts to a female professional gamer.
Surprise: Women, in fact, do have a much time tougher of getting into esports than men. You didn't need a hairbrained, thrown-together excuse like a "social experiment gotten out of hand" to tell you that. I've been writing professionally about esports for almost a decade now. During that time, I've received a fair amount of hate, but nothing compared to what some of my friends who are women who work in the industry have experienced.
Death threats. Doxxing. Rape jokes. The argument that everyone faces hate in this industry is tired. Women face much harsher and more frequent online attacks than most men in esports just for gaming while being a woman. The Ellie "experiment" didn't create these problems, but it gave those who will harass the next women on the rise in esports and gaming spaces something to use as justification or motivation.
When Geguri started playing in the Overwatch League last year, it was one of the better moments in my career covering esports. There were women of all ages who were chattering about her in the Blizzard Arena lobby, talking about how great it was to see her on stage and playing on the highest level of professional Overwatch. Although in interviews she brushed aside what it meant for her to be the first woman to play professionally in the Overwatch League, to the people in the stands, male or female, who at some point in their lives haven't felt included in what they love, she was a hero.
Before Geguri, there was (and still is) Sasha "Scarlett" Hostyn, one of the best non-South Korean Zergs in the history of StarCraft II. Before her, there was Seo "ToSsWoman" Ji-Soo, who played StarCraft: Brood War professionally in South Korea on the pro team STX Soul. Kelsy "SuperWomanKels" Medeiros in Smash Bros. 4. Lauren "Goddess" Williams in Rainbow 6 Siege. There are women around the world playing esports at the highest levels every weekend, but those accomplishments are drowned out by things like what happened with Ellie.
The only thing the idiocy of the past week did was hurt the next woman who gets a tryout with an Overwatch team or makes a name for herself on the ladder. The first thing you'll see on social media and Reddit are accusations of the validity of this woman's successes. If she's shy and doesn't talk much, she'll be accused of being the next Ellie. If she does talk, people will demand to see that it's actually her hands playing and not someone else. If she proves that, then the question will be if she's using some sort of hack or aimbot to help her play as well as she is -- an accusation Geguri is familiar with.
Punisher, meanwhile, can delete the Ellie social media page and blend back into the background. Eventually, the hate for him will stop because the rules are different for him. He'll get a pass.
The next woman who rises up the ranks, however, won't be able to slink back into the shadows. She can't just opt out. She can't just say she's joking. She'll be scrutinized and harassed, connected to something she wasn't even a part of, forced to face a never-ending cycle of being asked to prove her worth.