Sports

After Overwatch League’s ‘Fearless’ revealed racist incidents, esports reckons with harassment of Asians

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Lee, a professional esports player and a member of the Overwatch League’s Dallas Fuel team, was asked by a fan during a livestream what it’s been like for him since moving to Texas this year. “Being Asian here is terrifying, seriously,” he said in comments translated from Korean. “People keep trying to pick fights with us. Every time they see me, it’s like Americans will come up to us and there’s even people who cough on us. … It’s my first time ever experiencing racism. And it’s always — it’s pretty severe. And they try to scare us — lots of them just try to scare us.”

The video clip, taken from Amazon’s live-streaming service Twitch, was translated by Jade Kim, 26, manager of the Florida Mayhem, another Overwatch League team. Kim said when she first came across the clip from Lee, “it kind of just gave me whiplash.” (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)

Since coming to the United States for college, Kim said she’s seen her fair share of racism, and hearing Lee’s comments reminded her of the “shock when I’d first experienced racism in the U.S. myself.” Hailing from South Korea, where being Asian meant being part of the majority, Kim said she was doubly shocked arriving in America and learning about racially motivated harassment and seeing the reactions of Asian Americans being tired and resigned after facing racism over longer periods of time.

“My initial reaction after reaching out to people I knew on the Dallas staff, was just to not say anything else,” said Kim, who commonly goes by the name “swingchip” on social media. “But with everything going on in the States lately, I couldn’t let myself fold this one away as well, so I ended up translating the clip and posting it.”

Kim explained her motivations, saying, “Yes, I’m not a Dallas staff member, and yeah I don’t know Fearless personally, but I’m Korean too. I’m Asian too,” she said. “I felt like that gave me enough reason to speak up and spread the word about it.”

Kim recalled an incident in February of 2020 on a commercial flight from Florida to Philadelphia involving player Ha “Sayaplayer” Jung-woo, 23, when he competed played with the Overwatch League’s Florida Mayhem.

Recounting the incident for The Post, Ha, who is now a pro “Valorant” player with the organization T1, said a White passenger lifted her phone high up and took multiple photos of the Mayhem team throughout the flight, while Ha was trying to nap. Ha then noticed she was texting someone saying, there were so many “Chinese people” on the flight, and sending photos of the team. The person she texted replied with a swear word and then said, “Kill them all.”

Ha told The Post in comments translated from Korean by Kim, that at the time he had already experienced several racist incidents, and just thought, “she was extremely pathetic.”

“I only found out about it later,” Kim said. “But the grief and anger I felt that he’d experienced that was quite strong, to say the least.”

Lee, often referred to by his player name “Fearless,” signed with the Dallas Fuel on November 7 last year, during the Overwatch League’s offseason. He had previously played for the Shanghai Dragons, and arrived in Dallas, where the Fuel trains and plays, early this year. On the stream, Lee began recounting how people he saw tended not to wear face masks, while he and his team members would wear face masks. He then switched gears to talk about racially-motivated harassment he was facing.

Lee described being cursed out for his race, and said he noticed he was treated differently depending on whether he was wearing his team’s jersey or regular clothes.

“I wear my team jersey around on purpose,” he said on the stream. “If I have my jersey on, I think they realize we’re part of some kind of team, so they don’t bother us as much. But if I have my everyday clothes on, they run up to us, harass us, then run away.”

Activision Blizzard, which operates the Overwatch League, responded in a statement late Tuesday. “At Activision Blizzard, we condemn racism in the strongest possible terms,” the statement read. “We stand with the Asian community, our employees, and our players and are working across our organization, including esports, to do our part to combat hate and ignorance.”

Mike Rufail, founder and chief gaming officer of Envy Gaming, which owns and operates the Dallas Fuel, tweeted Tuesday night that he was “deeply saddened” by what his players were facing while walking on the streets of Texas.

While Dallas Fuel members received training on what to expect when arriving in their new city and how to prepare for people starting conversations with them, they weren’t trained on how to respond to racist harassment.

“It’s a bit shocking for it to be so close to our front door here,” Rufail told The Washington Post Wednesday. “When they landed here, we didn’t actually prepare them for specific occurrences like racism.”

The incidents Lee described occurred around the Victory Park area and the American Airlines Center, home to the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and NHL’s Dallas Stars, when crowds would typically gather for sporting events, said Rufail. He added that the team has informed Victory Park and their building’s security teams to monitor the area more closely.

In some esports communities, particularly in the Overwatch League, many players are of Asian descent, and some don’t speak English fluently. That can lead to a sense of disconnect between English-speaking fans and Asian players, Kim, the Florida Mayhem manager, noted.

“That’s part of our job, is to show people that the players on the team, even if some of them don’t speak the best English and they’re Korean national players, they’re living here in the U.S. now. They’re like you and me, they’re like everybody else,” Rufail said. “We’re going to continue to … do a lot more content around the team to show their personality and I think people who might have a bit of a, we’ll say discriminatory type personality, might understand a little bit better that our Korean players can connect with them in a way that maybe they didn’t know previously.”

Other prominent figures in the esports industry have also experienced racially-motivated harassment.

“I’m not surprised, but it still hurts to hear,” said Harrison “Psalm” Chang, 26, a professional “Valorant” player, who previously came in second place in the 2019 Fortnite World Championship, about his reaction to the viral clip of Lee.

Chang said in his online interactions on social media, random people have left him racist comments about having small eyes, eating dogs or commenting “ching chong,” a racist slur that mocks Asian languages.

“I’ve experienced those comments as long as I’ve been online,” he said, adding that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic originating in China has given “extra fuel” to people who already disliked Asians.

Ashley Kang, 31, owner and interviewer for Korizon Esports, a League of Legends-centric media outlet and YouTube channel, also recalled receiving racist comments. Kang is based in Seoul but hails from New Zealand.

“I remember a dozen occasions where I was called ching chong by strangers while walking in the streets of New Zealand and Berlin,” she said. “Still, it should no less normalize my own experience or that of Fearless.”

Some esports organizations have issued statements against the recent spate of anti-Asian attacks. Andbox, which owns the New York Excelsior team in the Overwatch League, stated on March 16, “Racial discrimination has no place in our world, but members of the Asian community in New York and around the country continue to be victims of hateful words and acts. We proudly stand with this community and repudiate this behavior.” It then listed organizations that supported Asian communities.

Kang said that while racism is an issue that extends beyond esports, “the esports industry can also do its own part to stand up to the current situation and promote change. I respected a lot of esports orgs for releasing #StopAsianHate statements. Visibility matters, and is often the first step for bringing change.”

Esports leaders emphasized being proactive.

“More esports companies can maybe stay ahead of having to go through one of these situations to do something about it,” Rufail, the founder of Envy Gaming, said. “Certainly at Envy, even when we’re not going through things like this in the future, we will be trying to create awareness in certain areas for this just because I see it starting to unwind the fabric of this entire country. And maybe it has been for a long time.”

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