Overwatch League Starts Strong In Its Stance On Player Conduct Expectations

The Overwatch League takes standards of player behavior seriously, whether during league play or otherwise, and is committed to responding swiftly when violations occur.
— Overwatch League statement, dated 1/19/2018

The Overwatch League (OWL) began a few weeks ago and saw, in my opinion, a pretty successful inaugural weekend! Viewership has dropped a bit since, but that is to be expected to an extent. As its second week of competition began, though, the OWL experienced what could be called its first bit of "sports law" controversy - Félix "xQc" Lengyel, the tank for the Dallas Fuel, made some anti-gay slurs about one of his Houston Outlaws opponents on Thursday night on his personal Twitch account livestream after the Outlaws shut out the Fuel, 4-0. Austin "Muma" Wilmot, the tank for the Outlaws, is openly gay, & despite xQc stating afterward that he had no malicious intent in his remarks, OWL chose to stay strong in its disciplinary stance.

This is not the first time OWL has had to discipline a player, either. In November, Su-min "SADO" Kim, the tank for the Philadelphia Fusion, was suspended for 30 games in addition to the entire preseason for account boosting, a cheat where one player pays another who is better to play as the former in order to advance through levels of competition (i.e., "boosting" the player's level). Here, SADO was that better player who got paid. Blizzard's End User License Agreement has a strict ban on this kind of activity. To put things into perspective, his 30 game ban lasts through April and, ultimately, gives him six months on the bench.

From a public relations perspective, a league never wants to let a problem sit for too long unanswered because it could easily lose control of the story regardless of whether the media outlets are correct and professional or incorrect and less professional in their approaches. From an administrative perspective, a league never wants to let a problem sit for too long unanswered because it could easily lose the power to act in similar situations in the future. Here, not only did the Dallas Fuel react quickly and effectively, OWL issued its own serious and powerful public statement. OWL released a statement last Friday that it "takes standards of player behavior seriously, whether during league play or otherwise" and reiterated its commitment to deliver quick responses when such violations do occur. As an infant in its first year of existence, it is refreshing to see such command from the executives and a severe - but not too severe - disciplinary decision. This appears to strike a fair balance of disciplinary responsibility, which translates into accountability in the long run, between the team and the League.

Blizzard Entertainment, the Overwatch developer, has a Code of Conduct for anyone who plays its games. OWL commissioner Nate Nanzel says there is a Code of Conduct that is OWL-specific, but the actual terms and respective punishments have not been made public to date. How do OWL players know they are violating the code, and how do we know the corresponding disciplinary actions are really being taken? It is unlikely that it veers too far away from the general code, and if anything, the standards set should be higher. Nanzel said, “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.”

There are four main points covered in the Code of Conduct: (1) Communication, (2) Naming, (3) Cheating, & (4) Behavior. Language that could be offensive or vulgar is not allowed, & it spells out specifically that discriminatory language, hate speech, obscene or disruptive language, and threats or harassment are not tolerated. The custom names players use are subject to the same standards as language, with the final say as to what is appropriate and offensive resting with Blizzard after player reports. With respect to cheating, the code is pretty clear as well. "Using third-party programs to automate any facet of the game, exploiting bugs, or engaging in any activity that grants an unfair advantage is considered cheating. Exploiting other players is an equally serious offense. Scamming, account sharing, win-trading, and anything else that may degrade the gaming experience for other players will receive harsh penalties." Behavior that takes away other players' enjoyment is actionable, and on the other side of the coin, falsely reporting another player can result in restrictions, too.

For xQc's case, anti-gay slurs undoubtedly classifies as offensive language, and thus, he was subject to discipline. Additionally, SADO blatantly violated the code's standards on fair game play because it was a type of account sharing that granted an unfair advantage to the player that paid him to play as that player.

Furthermore, OWL player salaries do have a minimum floor of $50,000 with a one-year minimum and a second-year option. That means if xQc had a minimum salary contract, which I would assume the bulk of the players do, the $2,000 fine is 4% of his salary that is gone right there. Disciplined players still can receive their salary during time off from competitive play (for now), but it is more the discipline's lasting effect on the reputations of those players that tends to feel the pain. Depending on how offensive a player's actions are, such effects could take longer to reveal themselves, but when they add up over a playing career like they have for xQc, I would not be surprised if the Fuel replaces him by the OWL's second season.

In contrast to a matter from this past weekend, Joon-yeong “Profit” Park on the London Spitfire flipped the bird while on camera in the team's dugout prior to the match. Blizzard has not disciplined Profit yet, and it is unclear whether the team or OWL itself will do so. Technically, we do not know whether mildly offensive actions like this will be penalized and to what extent. Under Blizzard's general Code of Conduct, a reasonable person could be offended by Profit giving the middle finger on camera, and it could kind of taint the enjoyment of watching the game, but is offending a viewer actionable? Would a reasonable player who may not have even seen Profit's actions until after the competition be offended? Whatever the code actually expresses, it is clear and refreshing to see a professional league taking seriously the manner in which its players conduct themselves both in and outside the competitions for which they are employed.