Coming Out in eSports: The Price Paid by Soldier 76

Screenshot of the Blackpool FC website bearing Jake Daniels picture and message
On May 16 Jake Daniels’ football club, Blackpool, released a statement from the player. “It’s a step into the unknown being one of the first footballers in this country to reveal my sexuality,” he said, “but I’ve been inspired by Josh Cavallo, Matt Morton and athletes from other sports, like Tom Daley, to have the courage and determination to drive change.    

A few days ago, Jake Daniels from the United Kingdom became the second active professional football player to come out as gay. While newspapers all around the world covered his story, Daniels said that he expects that his decision will not be welcomed by everyone. “Of course, I am aware that there will be a reaction to this,” he said, “and some of it will be homophobic, maybe in a stadium and on social media.”

But perhaps Jake Daniels just chose the wrong sport? Maybe traditional sports such as football, basketball, or hockey are inherently more homophobic. If this is the case, then modern activities such as eSports would be a lot more tolerant towards players coming out as gay.

Our research group wanted to look at a related case but for eSports: Overwatch, which is one of the most popular first-person shooter games worldwide. Before a match, players can choose between 32 different characters. But as an additional marketing highlight, the background stories of these 32 characters are regularly updated. These stories have, however, no effect on the game. They do not change the characters’ skills or appearance.

In May 2019, one writer updated the background story for one male character – Soldier 76 – and wrote that he had been in a romantic relationship with another man and identified as gay. This announcement resulted in hundreds of responses on Twitter and other social media channels. While many supported or liked the tweet, several users responded with homophobic slurs and stated to stop playing Overwatch.

Looking closely at the data from the game, we found that the pick rate (the number of times players use a character) significantly decreased for the newly gay branded character in the days following the announcement. Many players switched to using the only other LGBTQ character in the game – a lesbian character. Players who wanted to play with an LGBTQ character but did not want to hear insults might have chosen this character as a way out. Additionally, when we talked to players almost three years after the announcement, most players still remembered it and several players complained about the resulting homophobic insults aimed at the game.

These results show that in terms of discrimination, eSports is, unfortunately, not too different from traditional sports. But finally, one must applaud the likes of Jake Daniels. When we see how difficult it is to come out as a virtual character, one cannot imagine how difficult it must be for real-life players who face fans and media daily.

You can find the complete article, “Do LGBTQ-Supportive Corporate Policies Affect Consumer Behavior? Evidence from the Video Game Industry,” in the Journal of Business Ethics.

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Cornel Maria Nesseler

Cornel Maria Nesseler is a postdoctoral fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology Business School. His research focuses on sports economics and field experiments.

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