If you’re a fan of European esports then you’re likely familiar with James “Stress” O’Leary.
The former League of Legends European Championship (LEC) caster was the voice of Europe’s top League of Legends organization before leaving the booth for a position with LEC participant Splyce.
But his enthusiastic calls and infectious personality masked his struggle to be out publicly to his audience. O’Leary is gay, and esports has a history of being less than accepting of LGBTQ communities.
In recent years, though, O’Leary became comfortable enough to live his truth openly while working to increase representation and acceptance within his industry.
Ahead of Splyce’s LEC match during this weekend’s Christopher Street Day Pride celebration in Berlin, O’Leary discussed his history in esports, his personal struggles and the work being done to make esports more accepting of and accessible to the LGBTQ community.
How did you get into esports?
I got into esports as a fan originally. I remember watching a Starcraft tournament. And it was something like 3 a.m., and it was from Korea. I remember watching and being fascinated, and thinking that this is like the greatest thing that I’ve seen. So from that point forward I kind of was, you know, hovering around the scene as a viewer.
I applied for a team, Team Dignitas, who were UK-based, and I did some work for their website for a while doing interviews for Starcraft and a few other games. I was doing that for maybe a year or so before working a little bit more with team management, sponsorship and content.
While I was at an event, they didn’t have a League of Legends commentator. I played the game and had done radio and broadcast in university, and in high school I did a lot of drama and music. So performing is something I’d done throughout my life.
The boss Michael “ODEE” O’Dell said to me, “Why don’t you go up there and commentate? You’ve done small bits like it before. Why don’t you do it here?” And I never looked back.
I understand you started out commentating smaller events in Europe before your time with the then EU LCS.
Yeah. At the time anything that wasn’t EU LCS was called Challenger, before Riot actually took that on board as well. So I did that from, I guess, 2012 through the end of 2014. And then I joined Riot as an observer.
And then, again, right place, right time, when they took the Challenger scene on board as their own show and their own product they needed additional commentary stuff because there weren’t enough people to cover so many broadcast days in a week. I was there doing the observing anyway. So it was a pretty easy decision for them.
Did you already self-identify as gay during your time working these smaller events?
To some extent, yes. And the reason I say to some extent is because I think everybody’s different. I remember telling myself, no, I’m not. I’m not at all. And then I just gradually realized as I got older from being a teenager to a young adult. I’d already come out as such to my friends in university. I think I only really, completely realized once the public part of me has also been confidently proud of who I am.
I think I’m still solidifying that externally. But it did take a while. When I joined Riot, I certainly wouldn’t say I have the attitude I have now. I definitely was not confident about it and it wasn’t something that I was out and proud about.
I think that’s where a lot of my comments recently about regretting not being out come from. I kind of wish that I had been able to realize that sooner. But I think there are some things that happen in people’s lives that take you to the point of realization at a different pace. Some people are very fortunate, and they realize it early. For me, it has taken until I’m in my mid-20s to really be comfortable with who I am.
Everybody has just sat here waiting, in some respects, for athletes to come out as gay. But it’s also OK to be afraid of that extra publicity. If you’re not comfortable, that’s going to break a person, and that was my hesitation. There’s no shame in not talking about it.
Esports’ reputation toward marginalized groups as a whole has been criticized in the past for its lack of inclusivity. League of Legends specifically is notorious for the toxicity within its fan and player community. Did those attitudes influence your decision to not be out publicly?
I’m not going to excuse any toxicity that has happened. First of all, I’m not here to defend members of the community that do share abhorrent thoughts. I think that is a vocal majority, and one of the best parts of my job working with Riot was interacting with fans on a personal level in the studio, the ones that are right there in front of you that you can actually connect with, you can make eye contact with.
There are so, so many good-natured, incredible fans across League of Legends that I would hate them to be tarred with the same brush. I think every community does have people that share beliefs that are at odds with who I am as a person.
That’s their right, in a sense, to have those views. But we don’t want to let them impact the community. And I think that is part of the reason I was scared at first, because there are those people out there. But again, I wasn’t at the place for myself where, even to get support for it, I felt confident to talk about it because so many people, this is a hypothetical number, but maybe you’d get 10 good messages and one negative message. Anytime that I’ve talked about LGBTQ+ issues, that has been the case. There’s an overwhelming amount of support.
I think the League community does still have quite a bit of work to do, but my personal experience has been overwhelmingly positive.
It seems like the majority of the hate speech directed towards marginalized people within esports and gaming communities comes from chat rooms, forums, Reddit, etc.... Do you think that is more a product of not being exposed to communities with whom they might not have any real-life interaction?
I feel like there are a few factors at work when you look at the difference between online and offline communities.
Online communities inherently are dehumanized. You can’t see somebody’s face. You can’t look into their eyes. You can’t connect with them on an emotional level. That’s why some people find it so easy to throw out negative comments.
Of course, there are going to be people that do that in person as well. Those people exist in the world, but the percentage is so much lower. Especially when you know that in order to be negative in person, that person has to put themselves out way more than they do online.
If you’re sitting there typing a tweet, you can just type it away, let the angry thought go, hit tweet and it’s out in the wild.
But if somebody wanted to come up in the studio and say something to me, well, that’s a whole different story. We have security. We have other members of the audience there. People are afraid to say that in person.
And I’m not trying to say that fear is a good tool on this. But people know when they’re going to say something that’s wrong. A lot of the hate isn’t coming from people who are completely ignorant to it. They know it’s going to hurt, and they know that they can get away with it online.
With regards to being more exposed to minority groups, whether it’s race, sexuality or gender identity, whichever it is, this is one of the things that I’m really trying to understand on a deeper level. I think it’s one of the most complex issues across so many different groups of people.
A lot of minority communities, rightfully, don’t feel safe in a lot of general spaces. Understanding how to make more populated spaces more accepting to those groups is such a big thing that we need to overcome. I don’t have the answer to that, because my experiences differ from your experiences, they would differ from somebody of color’s experience or a trans individual’s experience.
Do you think the success of LGBTQ esports athletes like SonicFox, Dragon, Scarlett and Overwatch League’s Muma has contributed positively to LGBTQ representation within the industry?
I think it factors in quite a large amount. If I were an LGBTQ+ viewer, and saying, “OK, is there somebody that I can look up to that is in this space that feels accepted or is accepted? Is that something I can look to?” I think that could be hugely important.
Again, I think so much of it is down to shared experiences. My experience is very, very different from somebody like Scarlett. So I wouldn’t want to speak to people who identify with Scarlett and say that, yes, it’s absolutely helpful, because I can’t answer that.
I don’t want this to sound like I’m a man on a mission to fix everything myself, because that’s absolutely not the case. But I don’t think it can hurt having more representation from every walk of life in the media. Especially those that feel comfortable to stand up and say that this is who I am. I’m proud to be this person and, if you’re like me, come stand with me. That right there is what I think empowers people to feel welcome.
The LEC has representation on broadcast now. [LEC caster] Indiana “Froskurinn” Black openly talks about her life and her partner. That’s what I want people to be able to see. There is representation and it is a welcoming community, because I think it can be very, very scary to decide to be yourself.
Were there any out LGBTQ figures within esports that you identified with as you came to realize your sexual identity during your early years in the industry?
Not that were out. And I may be doing a disservice if they were. I do apologize if I am, but those that I was following typically weren’t. Maybe it contributed to me not feeling welcome at the time, but it certainly wasn’t me sitting there thinking, “OK, I don’t know anybody that is out. So I’m not going to be out there.”
I think what could have helped was If I had known somebody was out. Perhaps I would have felt more comfortable. It didn’t prevent me, but I think it could have helped me if it had been different.
Overwatch League held their second Pride Day in June. To my knowledge, it is the only esports organization to hold such an event. Do you think more esports leagues, League of Legends or otherwise, will hold similar pro-LGBTQ events in the coming years?
Last year the LEC, in conjunction with Berlin’s Christopher Street Day, which is our Pride celebration here in Berlin, did change some of the on-show graphics to be the rainbow flag or at least rainbow-oriented, and had some of their casters and talent wearing rainbow pins. So I think they do things in a visible way on broadcast and I believe that’s going to continue.
Us here at Splyce, we actually are changing our entire color scheme for CSD weekend. Where our jerseys are typically yellow, they will now have the rainbow flag in order to promote acceptance. That’s something that our team and our players have taken on board, which is amazing.
That’s a lot of extra pressure. And I know I’ve talked a lot about pressure. But I’m very thankful that you know, our players are willing to be out there representing that everybody is welcome. That’s a really important step for me. Especially considering these are people I work with every day.
On top of that, we’ll be selling the jerseys online with all proceeds going to ILGA-Europe. And we’re not the only team to do things like this. Fnatic, one of the largest EU organizations, did a merchandise campaign, again for charity, where they released a line of clothing that had the rainbow flag on it that was Fnatic-branded.
I know Misfits Gaming are ramping up their Love is Love campaign for CSD where they’re promoting equality for everything to do with the LGBTQ+ community.
If I’m a fan of any one of the teams that I just mentioned, I feel like that’s important to me is to see the people that I look up to saying everybody’s welcome. Hopefully we’ll get to a point where we do a full Pride day.
There are so many good people in esports that maybe don’t have the same platform as the top players that are out there championing LGBTQ+ rights from behind the scenes and trying to get these awareness campaigns running. One of my favorite things about this community is that a lot of people truly care and, I would say, way more people are for it than I ever hear against it.
It’s honestly part of the reason why I’ve felt a lot more comfortable. I would quite happily upset thousands of people if it made one person feel more welcome on this issue. And we’ve actually had that. When we changed our logo for Pride month, I had people tell me personally, I actually feel comfortable being myself now.
The people that are angry out there, they’ll send it to me, they’ll forget about it in a few minutes. It doesn’t affect them to their core in the same way as it can have a positive effect on somebody that is wanting to feel welcome.
Splyce, who currently rank third in the LEC standings, will debut their Pride jerseys when they take on Team Vitality Friday afternoon in Berlin. The wardrobe change marks the first time an LEC team has worn Pride jerseys.
James O’Leary works with Splyce as its LEC community manager, hosting “The Snake Pit” podcast and the team’s video series, “Splyce of Life,” on Splyce’s official YouTube channel. O’Leary also works as a commentator and announcer with the Berlin-based German Wrestling Federation. He can be reached on Twitter or Instagram.
Portions of this interview were edited.