A couple weeks ago, I published the first of multiple blog posts which looked to examine how the fighting game community (FGC), as a whole, was uniquely served to set up situations of abuse and harassment, largely in response to a wave of incidents that have come to light in the recent month. The initial post discussed how the humble origins of the FGC and the ascension of many of its original members to positions of power has led to a culture that protects certain community members from accountability for their actions because of friendship or other significant ties.
Along the same lines of the first post, this second piece is going to examine how a large part of the community’s emphasis on what I’ll call “star players” means that hierarchies are created which unfairly benefit those who reach star player status. At a certain point, the star player cultivates a fanbase that is more focused on defending that cult of personality from perceived persecution. This can lead to, as the word says, a cult-like mentality that would see fans defend everything from a star player who talks a little too much trash to serious accusations of sexual assault/misconduct. In the overwhelming face of this staunch defense, victims of a star player’s abusive behavior will often choose to go silent, not wanting to risk the backlash from the community that would inevitably ensue and/or choosing to cope with the abuse internally. Again, I can’t pretend that I have the solution to these problems, but establishing a dialogue first is key.
Much like any profession, fighting games have always had its star players. Whether it was Alex Valle as a top champion in Street Fighter Alpha in the mid 90’s, a young Daigo Umehara wowing with his technical ability all throughout the 2000’s, or Justin Wong’s unquestioned dominance in Marvel vs. Capcom 2, there was almost always a player who transcended the game and became an icon through their gameplay. This isn’t unlike traditional sports, where the very best players became household names due to a high profile put on them by their winning ways. It also isn’t uncommon for someone to be a good player, sure, but be more known for their very vibrant personality ala Michael “IFCYipes” Mendoza or Aris Bakhtanians.
I covered last time how the FGC can be fairly nepotistic in regards to how its power structure has been built up over time, and while that is certainly still true in 2019, one thing that has changed drastically in the time since social media and streaming began to dominate is the culture around star players. Much like how the culture around stars in Hollywood has grown to see fans believe they have a more personal, deeper connection to celebrities by following them across various social media, star fighting game players are now more visible and available to interact with than ever before. I remember going to tournaments and seeing the typical clique of more known players hanging out and going mostly unbothered unless it was by other friends or local training partners. Nowadays you go to a tournament and players like Dominique “SonicFox” McLean is having small children come up to them and wanting a selfie with their fur outfit, or Daigo Umehara having time set aside to attend a panel about a book that he wrote, and Mike Ross and Justin Wong are appearing in the Obama White House to talk about streaming. Now, more than ever, the top star players have a reach to build themselves up beyond just being good at fighting games, and along with that has come a culture usually more reserved for, again, Hollywood celebrities or professional sports stars.
As competitive video games continue to reach higher heights, many rich hobbyists and venture-capitalists have long been trying to figure out how to monetize it like a more traditional sport. Typically, this means doing things they already know work with a different sport and hoping to find mass appeal in that way. Some believe that with a superstar-level player, your Lebron James or Tom Brady or Serena Williams, you can market them in a focus-group-tested style that guarantees to bring more eyes onto them, and with that, a trickle-down effect will occur where more people may watch the sport not necessarily because they are really into the sport, but they like a certain player like they would see a movie their favorite Hollywood actor was in.
Capcom, the makers of Street Fighter, arguably the biggest franchise in the scene, appears to believe in this style as well, since their then-Senior Director of E-Sports pretty much confirmed that in a tweet several years ago:
I’ve written before about how Diamonon’s heavy-handed approach to creating stars created a distinct unfair advantage for a certain player during the disastrous “Battle For the Stones” tournament series for Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite, but there are more general concerns as well. No matter the time period, a player’s elevated status above others, even if the reasons were purely merit-based, create a social power dynamic that is rife with the potential for abuse. It’s only gotten worse as more and more venture-capitalists and game publishers try to monetize the genre and bring in more elements of traditional sports, one of which being heavily-marketable players and other talent. In addition to these uncomfortable power dynamics, the FGC also has to deal with tribalized fan culture that already plagues traditional sports. If you have an issue with a certain star player, there’s not only powerful social constructs at play to prevent you from confronting the issue, but also a following of rabid fans who will harass you just for going against the tribe leader. Worse still, many are taught to believe that their social power is capital, and thus desired by people with less power, which causes even the most well-intentioned people to assume that someone is out to get them because they want fame of some sort.
The inherent negatives of forming a cult of personality around regular, flawed people is how we get situations like the ones we’ve been hearing about in the past month. I’d like to focus on two particular incidents that have come up, that of Ari “fLoE” Weintraub and Leah “Gllty” Hayes, because I believe they reflect how having a loyal and large group of followers can help to muddle the facts of abuse or allegations of abuse and help to reinforce a power dynamic that already works against the more vulnerable members of the community. If the FGC is to address how and why more people don’t speak up when they run into trouble, it will need to come to to terms with how the current structure is imbalanced toward players with more social power.
Ari “fLoE” Weintraub has long been a part of the FGC, first earning his stride as a top level Soul Calibur II player before finding a comfortable niche as a very solid Street Fighter and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 player. His acerbic personality and deadpan reactions made him a stream favorite, and since he was on the initial wave of Evil Genius sponsored players, he was everywhere during that initial boom period after Street Fighter IV. Before too long, he began to step away from fighting games and focused on his own personal stream, garnering a huge audience for his playthroughs of games like I Wanna Be The Guy and others. While an injury has kept him from attending many offline events recently, he was still a regular on streamed entertainment like Capcom Pro Talk while that lasted and any Cross Counter-related media. To say he is one of the more well-known FGC personalities wouldn’t be a stretch.
Unlike a lot of older FGC folk, too, he didn’t really have any scandal to his name, and while he could be short with his commentary in regards to player skills, he has always been considered a nice guy by many. Despite being a high-profile streamer he tends to keep a low profile, not really falling into the common traps of many other star-level FGC players who can’t help but tweet out a rough hot take or give some other problematic opinion.
That was why it was so shocking to hear that he was being accused of a serious sexual misconduct.
A little after Evolution 2019, a woman who goes by Musakui Tenshi posted on Facebook that she was the victim of unwanted and aggressive sexual advances from Weintraub at the Evo 2019 venue after a long night of drinking that was alleged to be facilitated by Weintraub and three pals, who were also said to have blocked the woman’s friends from accompanying her. Also included were her own attempts at drawing the three people aside from Weintraub and an admission that she had gone to the police with the information. Since that information came out, Weintraub has mostly stayed quiet on the subject, although he has mentioned that he has retained a lawyer and plans to fight this. As of this writing, he still hasn’t said anything related to his events of the night in question.
Anytime there is an accusation as serious as this, I think it’s important that it be treated with the utmost seriousness. While I think fLoE’s decision to stay quiet is definitely in his best interest, I am very critical of the few things he has put out on his platform regarding the manner, namely this tweet:
Weintraub used his fairly large platform to announce to the world that the accusations against him were false and made by someone of ill mental health. Further, he took the time to retweet a number of people who were staunchly in his corner and also attacking the accuser
Now the old saying is that a retweet is not an endorsement, but it’s hard not to take some of these statements as a clue into how Weintraub sees the situation: “…a witch hunt,” “…absolutely ridiculous,” and “I refuse to believe anything from a person with past false claims.” He certainly has the right to defend himself (and I’m sure this isn’t exactly going to come to a mutual, civil disagreement between parties), but using his large platform to boost accounts that seek to totally discredit the accuser is already poisoning the well and framing the allegations as the ravings of a mentally ill person out to get him, all without giving an “official” statement. Combing through the responses of his tweets confirms that many fans have come to see Weintraub as the victim in the scenario:
Amongst a lot of the chatter that has come a result of all these incidents occurring simultaneously, a big one I see is “Why didn’t anyone speak up before?” And truthfully, this is a big reason why. One could argue that people are going to be terrible online no matter what, and that’s certainly true, but when you’re in a niche community and you call out a a popular player, the blowback is very intense and direct. Most people just don’t want to or can’t afford to go through the trouble, especially because anything the accused, more powerful person says will be trotted out as fact, no matter what. Do we actually know that this person has falsely accused people of heinous crimes in the past? Does her mental illness have anything to do with falsifying facts? Doesn’t matter, it’s now the truth.
There is a very real issue in a lot of communities where victims of abuse don’t feel they can speak up without fear of retaliation, and many times the retaliation from star players is done by their loyal fans, who are more eager to defend the star player than the person claiming they have been hurt. As much as one could be protected for being part of the old guard, having a solid fan base built up can act as a shield against any accusations of bad behavior by defaming the character of the accuser simply because they are speaking out.
The biggest action taken of all the incidents that occured post-Evo was the expulsion of Leah “Gllty” Hayes from almost every major tournament as well as the Capcom Pro Tour for misconduct that seemingly first broke ground when Hayes herself tweeted out a confession of sorts of illicit behavior. The tweets have since been deleted, but an archived copy is still available. While on the surface this seems like an attempt at reconciliation, I think it is pretty apparent from testimonials of other women in the scene that this was calculated as a means to get ahead of an official ruling, a damage control move that conveniently ignored the severity of the abuse in order to preserve some sense of status that came from years of chasing after E-Sports fortune.
Like Weintraub, Hayes is a longtime figure in the scene, having played locally in the Midwest (St. Louis, specifically) for years. Around the time that Street Fighter V came out, Hayes began to make a dedicated effort to market herself and gain a higher profile, which seems to have initially been successful. Hayes was the subject of coverage from ESPN, Redbull E-Sports, and Yahoo’s short-lived E-Sports venture, in addition to being a featured contestant on two of Turner Broadcasting’s E-League televised events: a SFV invitational and The Challenger, a more reality-television based program. She traveled extensively to Asia to train in various places and would show up on many of the more prominent Japanese players’ live streams.
As a trans woman who came to prominence in the notoriously rough STL FGC, Hayes was usually not shy about her rough-around-the-edges personality; even her interviews with big outlets frequently have her using colorful language and admitting that she is a troll, of sorts. Playing to the camera for reaction shots and just generally making the most of her stream appearances, even in losing efforts, was par for the course, and it earned her a significant following.
It also goes without saying that, being a visible queer woman, she was seen as an example of someone who could stand up against the sometimes-rampant misogyny and phobia in the scene and rise above it. I do not mean to discount the extreme amount of vulgar harassment that Hayes often received as a popular female figure in the scene, because there was certainly a lot of it in stream chats and subreddits. It takes a lot of fortitude to stare that in the face and deal with it, which is why, despite her insistence on not being a role-model, many women in the scene found solidarity in her story. Solidarity that she took advantage of.
Stories of Hayes’ inappropriate behavior have circulated for years as rumor and innuendo, but the sheer amount of stories that have come out in the past month is staggering. While many would recall Hayes being uncomfortably forward about her sexual proclivities and intentions to them, others had stories that included public groping to even soliciting nudes and harassing women to meet her alone. Most of the women speaking up also echoed a similar sentiment: that Hayes would eventually apologize and insist it would never happen again, which lead to a lot of women not speaking up because they believed her. Or perhaps they were asked not to for her sake.
For someone who always insisted she “didn’t give a fuck,” Hayes certainly seemed to care about any rumor or story that would negatively affect her image. Anytime a topic about her would show up on the troglodyte-infested subreddit R/Kappa, she would pop in to not only trade barbs with the worst of the trolls but “set the record straight” on whatever non-controversy the board whipped up. While this could be seen as remarkably straightforward and admirable in some circumstances, I think it also is indicative of how quickly Hayes is willing to try and garner sympathy or sway people to her side, such as when she had a bit of a dust-up with another person in her scene on a stream of about ten viewers, yet still felt the need to go to the stream mic and apologize. This need to always throw herself into the midst of any controversy clearly applied to any harassment, too, and it’s hard not to speculate on how many women were silent because she would prey upon their empathy by being remorseful in the moment as a means of avoiding scandal.
Prior to Hayes’ confession, I had gotten wind from an acquaintance that an incident that took place at Evo had been the final straw, and a sanction of sorts was going to come down from Capcom regarding her behavior. When the confession was posted, I tweeted out how hollow and self-aggrandizing I felt it was, considering what I knew. Within minutes, I had gotten a direct message from Hayes whom I’ve never interacted with, spoken to, or otherwise met. I don’t make it a habit of making private interaction public and I’m not going to now, but the clear intent was to try and get me to sympathize with her position. Based on what I’ve heard and others have stated, she was DM’ing many women to apologize, even for years’ old incidents, no doubt going through a process of elimination. It is hard to take a mea culpa seriously when the optics of it are taken more seriously than the harmful actions themselves.
The most damning thing was Hayes’ framing of her indiscretions in the past-tense and softening the reality of her actions. “I think I’ve grown past a lot of my poor choices,” she wrote, “but even after forgiveness or exoneration, there’s always the memory of past actions.” Aside from what I had heard about Evo weekend, some others weighed in to say that incidents were happening as recent as Evo week and CEO 2018, in July. “I’ve made mistakes with boundaries” also seems like a hell of a way to sanitize behavior that included groping someone without their consent, as is calling it “spotty and confusing.” That she was seemingly aware of the odiousness of her actions yet also completely unwilling to do something about it until a real consequence came in does not exactly sound like someone trying to earnestly apologize.
By all accounts, Hayes got what she deserved in the end. There is a very good chance she will not compete in FGC events again, and no one with power in the FGC appears to be on her side. I certainly believe that there is a path to atonement that everyone has the potential to start on, and I don’t think she needs to cut out a pound of flesh daily to do that, but it’s hard to ignore how her framing appealed to her most loyal fans, who have forgiven her and validate her behavior, regardless of whether or not it was any good. The real danger of chasing notoriety and a fanbase (despite her claims to the contrary about her intentions) is that at a certain point, no one will hold you accountable for change. Punishments can be given, and life must go on, but it’s hard not to feel a little queasy looking at how quickly her fans (of which there is a sizeable amount) are willing to excuse serious sexual harassment, and how much overlap that has with a general FGC audience.
For the victims of Hayes’ actions, hearing it minimized to such a degree by her fanbase must seem really demoralizing. Again, no one’s asking for torches and pitchforks at this point, but the seeds have clearly been sewn for a “comeback” of sorts, which is the real problem here. How many women stayed silent, believing that Hayes would change her ways even as more and more followers clearly are able to ignore the reality of what she did? What reason do they have to believe that she would never do something like this if she has a history of hollow apologies?
Lastly, I did want to point out that there is a much larger (and difficult) discussion that needs to be had about how difficult it can be for women who are victims of sexual abuse by women to be taken seriously, and how predatory sexual harassment can be a problem in LGBT circles. I’m not equipped to do that here, but I hope that we can do our best to amplify the voices that are doing it so we can all benefit from making our FGC spaces safer and more inclusive.
In many ways, I think players being really popular with big fanbases is good. There are plenty of positive figures who always give back to the community and do their best to keep the fan base in check. But I think it’s hard to ignore how easily that social power can be used to shield abusers or discredit someone trying to tell their truth. It’s a very difficult problem to address, as the nature of fame and star systems is in some ways inevitable in competition, but in the case of Hayes, it’s clear that the capacity to internally investigate bad behavior or accusations exists. Relying on a corporation like Capcom is probably not a good long term idea, but perhaps the community could do good by establishing a confidential pipeline through which people wouldn’t fear retaliation from a star player and their fanbase. Until that power imbalance is addressed, however, it will always be easier for star players to bury accusations and maintain their status, often with the help of the community at large.