Business Insider calls the eSports audience, when compared to a traditional sports audience, "younger, large, and growing." Even traditional sports franchises are jumping into the eSports realm, as teams like the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and MLB’s New York Yankees are sponsoring both individual players and teams. As professional gaming becomes more and more mainstream, the players involved become more and more scrutinized. Players are no longer looking out for just themselves: they become brand ambassadors for their sponsors and goodwill ambassadors for the legitimacy of eSports.
Not every e-athlete is cut out for that level of scrutiny.
These are the stories of pro gamers who got a taste of the big time and could not handle it. Some of them wanted more money, some of them wanted to abuse their fame and influence, and some of them just made a poor judgment call in the heat of the moment. Regardless of what caused their fall from grace, all of these gamers flew just a bit too close to the sun.
Sonic and Ax.Mo were caught by multiple organizations
Match fixing is not a phenomenon exclusive to eSports: throwing games for personal profit has always been an ugly part of the competitive world. Valve’s MOBA game Dota 2 seems to be one of the prime picks for this example of illicit behavior, and few instances are as notable as that of Leonid "Sonic" Kuzmenkov and Dmitri "Ax.Mo" Morozov.
The two played Dota 2 for Team Dx, and strange betting activity drew the eyes of several oversight committees regarding a World Cyber Arena qualifier in 2017. According to The eSports Observer, the eSports Integrity Coalition (ESIC), Uprise Champions Cup, and sports data company Sportsradar all investigated the pair, and they came to the conclusion that the men were planning on influencing the match for betting purposes. The groups did not release their full conclusions, but they did slap Kuzmenkov and Morozov with two year bans from competitive play in Dota 2.
ESIC commissioner Ian Smith said of the two (via The Lines): "It is always depressing to see young eSports athletes succumb to the temptations that match fixing presents, but I remain hopeful that this decision will send a powerful deterrent message to eSports athletes."
sAviOr dealt a huge blow to Korean eSports
One of the best StarCraft: Brood War players to ever play the game, Ma "sAviOr" Jae Yoon is also one of the most villainous. Kotaku writes that Ma was a ringleader of one of eSports’ most infamous scandals: Korea’s Brood War match-fixing ring of 2009. Ma was caught as a go-between for professional gamers and the mob, using his connections in Korea’s Brood War scene to bribe pro gamers to intentionally lose. Ma’s actions rocked the Korean eSports scene, and he has since moved to China to try to resuscitate his career. The Korea Times writes that the Korea eSports Association (KESPA) pushed in 2013 for Blizzard to ban him worldwide.
Team Liquid was able to piece together exactly what happened, and it almost reads like a bad joke: a gaming academy owner, a professional soccer player, and a mobster all approached Ma with a deal. He was to use his connections to professional Brood War players and offer them anywhere from 2-6 million won (about $2000-$6000) to lose matches they were favored to win. Ma was not only paid to approach these players, but he also was skimming money off the top. He was eventually caught, arrested, and banned for life from competitive gaming by KESPA. All his titles and awards were revoked, and KESPA has told Blizzard that his actions "left a big damage on the gaming industry [in Korea]."
MsSpyte moved on to bigger and better things
Not everyone leaves professional gaming because they are caught doing something terrible. Take Coryn "MsSpyte" Briere, for example. She achieved the rank of Grandmaster in StarCraft, which places her in the very top percentile of all players. She maintained a steady streaming schedule, had thousands of fans, and Kotaku writes that she was even invited to join the ROOT eSports organization. She moved to the team house to take the next step in her eSports career, but walked away after just three months.
Briere now works in art and marketing, and Roland Li’s book Good Luck Have Fun: The Rise of Pro Gaming says she walked away from ROOT due to burnout. Briere told Kotaku about her decision and the stress that her level of competition brings with it: "Playing [on that level] is not an enjoyable thing. If you’re losing you’re unhappy and if you’re winning you’re content. You’re never just like, happy." She still streams on occasion, but her decision to walk away from the professional scene seems to have been the right move for her.
Hai Lam suffered a career ending injury
Professional eSports team Cloud9 was on top of the world in April 2015. Gamespot writes that they had just finished second place in the North America League of Legends Championship Series, and their mid-laner, team captain Hai Lam, was leading the charge. Just like in the world of traditional sports, it would probably take a catastrophic injury to end the career of a young, elite talent like Hai. Luckily, those types of injuries don’t happen in eSports, right?
Not so fast. In a post on the Cloud9 blog, Hai told his fans that he needed to step away from playing League of Legends at the ripe age of 22 due to a debilitating wrist injury. He wrote, "My wrist injury is something that I simply cannot ignore. It limits my ability to play as much as I need to and my ability to improve."
Hai did not completely step away from LoL, however. He was a founding member of Cloud9, so he made the smart decision: he stepped out of the competitive spotlight and into a management role. Perhaps his career as an e-athlete was forever ruined, but he’s got a great new one to make up for it.
Burns transitioned to a more certain future
Matthew "Burns" Potthoff started competing in Call of Duty tournaments in 2005 as a 13-year-old, and was already good enough to start knocking off substantially older opponents. He made the transition to professional CoD player quickly enough, and Endgadget writes that he played for some of the most well known eSports teams in the world: Team Curse, Cloud9, and Team Liquid. They also write that, after ten years of professional gaming, Potthoff had had enough. He walked away from the competitive scene, citing career uncertainty. He now works in a managerial role in the sport he helped develop.
Competitive Call of Duty requires teams to earn points by finishing well enough at sanctioned tournaments. Fail to score enough pro points, and a team will fall out of the top division, where opportunities to earn income completely dry up. Potthoff was a strong enough CoD player, but the cutthroat and uncertain nature of the game he was a part of caused him to reassess his role and walk away to find something with a bit more sustainability.
Like Hai before him, Potthoff found that opportunity in eSports management. Endgadget writes that, at 26, Potthoff serves in a managerial role for eUnited. He works with young talent to help them find balance while living as a professional gamer.
Life found the wrong way
One of the highest profile players on this list, Lee "Life" Seung-hyun’s story is shockingly similar to Ma "sAviOr" Jae Yoon. A Korean wunderkind in the world of StarCraft II, Kotaku called him "the best StarCraft II talent of his generation," and ESPN writes that Lee is widely seen as one of the best, if not the absolute best, Zerg players to ever play the game. He won the Global StarCraft League Championship in 2012 at the age of fifteen, and went on a tear that saw him destroy legends and records.
At the ripe old age of nineteen, Lee was arrested by Korean sports authorities for participating in gambling and match fixing. He was banned by the Korean eSports Association for life.
ESPN writes that Lee has a serious gambling addiction, and he was convicted for fixing two matches. Lee was paid 70 million won (about $62,000 USD) for throwing those matches. It’s a sad end for what could have been one of the greatest to ever play Starcraft II, but it should serve as yet another warning to young players who are tempted by illicit activities.
Locodoco made an inappropriate remark at the wrong place and time
This one is a bit murky about what actually happened, but it also shows just how far the world of eSports has come since the early "wild west" days. ESPN reports that Choi "Locodoco" Yoon-seop, the coach for the Golden Guardians League of Legends team, was fired just two weeks after the LoL season began. The Golden Guardians were not performing very well, but it was later revealed that Choi made an inappropriate comment to a female employee of Riot Games, the developer of League of Legends. The NBA’s Golden State Warriors sponsor the team, and they exercised their zero tolerance policy in releasing Choi.
Kotaku writes that Choi was scheduled to do a pre-match interview when he made the comment, and he later apologized for the remark, saying it was a personal story that wasn’t sexual in nature but was "totally inappropriate" for the setting he was in. He also strangely added that his story could "remotely be construed or interpreted as sexual harassment." Let this be a lesson: personal stories that could be construed as sexual harassment are NOT good ice breakers.
Vasilii streamed himself likely committing assault
Just a warning: this one is pretty ugly.
Li Wei Jun, better known as "Vasilii" in League of Legends circles, streamed regularly on Twitch and had signed a contract with Chinese team Newbee. That came crashing down when Li was streaming one evening, became irate, and attacked his girlfriend. All the while, his webcam and microphone continued to broadcast the incident.
In a Reddit translation of the incident, it seems that Li’s girlfriend tells him to not let toxic chatters get to him and offers him some advice in managing the stress. Li responds by flipping his desk over, and the sounds of violence and breaking objects can be heard over the two people screaming at one another. In the video, she reportedly yells, "You’re beating me for this?" After the violence, Li returns to his computer and continues to stream. The police later entered his apartment and brought him to the police station.
Kotaku writes that Newbee quickly let Li go, even though his girlfriend later claimed he was breaking objects in the room, not actually hitting her.
Dellor launched into a thirty second racist rant — live on stream
Warning: the sound on the video is VERY loud, and it is definitely not something to play at work.
Vaughn was a professional Overwatch player for Toronto eSports, and regularly streamed on Twitch to show off his skills and connect with his audience. In one of those streams, Vaughn ran into an opposing Widowmaker that he was convinced was cheating.
Live, on stream, Vaughn snapped.
A fan captured the above video, in which Vaughn screams incredulously about his opponent’s skill and starst repeating the n-word for about thirty seconds. Kotaku reports that Vaughn issued an apology, claiming he was tired and angry so he just tried to say the most offensive and shocking thing possible. Toronto eSports exercised their zero-tolerance policy, and Vaughn was dropped immediately.
Kotaku also had a screen capture of Vaughn claiming he was done with eSports and "won’t be returning," but he still seems to be a fairly common presence on Twitter and Twitch. With that video floating around, however, it seems doubtful any pro team would come calling for him.