He/She/They: The Stakes of Being Outed on Stream

Research Track

10/09/20, 12:00PM - 12:30PM PT

About the Presentation

Adapting Lauren Berlant’s work, Lisa Nakamura has critiqued the “cruel optimism” that characterizes how people of diverse identifications are expected to gain access to gaming communities through competitive proficiency. Nowhere are the stakes for such inclusion higher than in esports, where play is specifically intended to be competitive, and where cis men are typically well represented at the top while women and nonbinary players typically are not. Much good, important work has been undertaken by organizations such as AnyKey (as well as others in academe and journalism) to promote the inclusion of women and nonbinary players and to make their efforts in esports more visible. At the same time, such work needs to take great care not to out players who do not wish to attract such visibility, and it should not inadvertently promote gaming’s “cruel optimism” by suggesting that competitive mastery is a preferred path for gaining the right to be included in gaming spaces.

When queer esports players break through to the top of their game, they gain acclaim and potentially a living wage, but they also draw scrutiny to their personal lives that may out them before they are ready. Even “good” visibility promoting their accomplishments can be perilous to those who are in the midst of transition. This talk presents the experiences of Sasha ""Magi"" Sullivan, the first female top 100 player in Super Smash Bros. Melee, who cracked this barrier while she was transitioning but not yet out publicly. Based on a series of interviews with Magi, this talk addresses the oversights that can potentially endanger queer players when communication breaks down between tournament organizers, commentators, and competitors. In Magi's case, although close friends were aware of her transition, her parents were not. While she was living at home, she did not want commentators or tournament organizers to refer to her publicly as ""she"" at live-streamed events (which her parents spectated), for fear of potential familial retribution. Public pronoun use was an especially delicate matter in her case, and a mishandling (however well-intended) could have led to her getting kicked out or being financially cut off.

This work is intended to facilitate continued discourse between queer game studies and esports studies by looking closely at the lived experiences of esports players. Esports has historically been a place that privileges the participation of cisgender, heterosexual males (like the author), and I share with AnyKey the conviction that esports can do better. As someone who has previously presented work at other venues promoting inclusivity in competitive gaming spaces, I mean for this talk to contribute to existing literature on inclusion in esports and to advocate for the safe participation of players in situations similar to Magi’s.

[Please note that the source interview and the permission to share it as a public talk were provided after Magi’s public transition.]

Matt Knutson, PhD

Assistant Professor in Department of Mass Communication, University of Central Oklahoma

Matt Knutson (PhD in Visual Studies, UC Irvine) (he/him/his) joined the Department of Mass Communication at the University of Central Oklahoma this fall as an assistant professor. His research focuses on competitive gaming, including temporality in esports, inclusivity in collegiate esports spaces, and more recently histories of competitive play. His work has been published in the journal of Game Studies, and he has presented at the Game Developers Conference as well as the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. His most played games include Rocket League, Super Smash Bros. Melee, and Magic the Gathering: Arena.