Did the Video Game World Have its Own Manti Te'o Scandal?

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(via gamesinasia.com)

(via gamesinasia.com)

The Daily Dot has an article up entitled, "Esports has its own Manti Te'o scandal," about -- you guessed it -- a case of high-profile catfishing in the world of professional video gaming. The broad strokes are the same as the Te'o story: someone tried to entrap a pro gamer in a fraudulent relationship with a fake girl. But the details of the two scandals part in ways that are both instructive of the differences between sports and eSports and, frankly, insane.

Cui "if" Yi

Cui Yi

First some background: League of Legends is an online battle game, based on a World of WarcraftWarcraft 3 mod. Esports is basically video games as a professional spectator sport, League of Legends being one of the more popular ones. People pay to watch tournaments with hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake, including one notable recent gathering at the Staples Center, at which the top team won $1 million.

Now here's the catfishing story in the simplest terms I can put it: A then-amateur gamer, Ji "Aaron" Xing, wanted to join one of China's best League of Legends squads, Team World Elite. Along with his pitch to join, he told one of the players, Cui “if” Yi, that his sister is a big fan of Yi's. As a strategy to butter up a potential employer, saying your sister is an admirer is so totally bizarre and ineffective, one can only assume that he intended the Machiavellian ploy that unfolded next.

The "sister" got in touch with Cui online and asked to be his girlfriend. But, in the most significant difference from the Te'o story, he declined (naturally, video gamers aren't as desperate for girlfriends as star American football players). Then things got weird. From the Daily Dot post:

The next thing Cui knew, the girl had supposedly committed suicide. With a feeling of guilt looming over the team, Ji was given a position as an analyst. The story was apparently corroborated by posts on Chinese social network Sina Weibo that Ji had made about his sister.

But then, some research pulled up an astonishing fact about this sister. Someone had logged into her account after May 2012, when she supposedly committed suicide. Cui also said that around this time he received a text from the supposedly dead girl, admonishing him for not giving more support to Ji when he left the team.

Ji "Aaron" Xing

Ji Xing (Aaron) 姬星

World Elite's fans then poked around online and found all the tell-tale clues of a fake profile. To recap: this dude created a fake sister, engaged in a relationship with a professional video gamer as his fake sister, faked the fake sister's death, leveraged the video game pro's ensuing guilt to get a spot on the same team, and finally texted the video game pro as his undead sister.

What's even weirder is he took full advantage of this career opportunity, ultimately leaving World Elite to start his own team, and poaching a bunch of World Elite's best players. And the details of the whole thing are apparently murky due to China's laws against online rumors.

On Xing's Weibo page (a popular Chinese social network), his announcement about leaving WE was met with over 1,500 replies, almost all negative -- e.g. "You're full of s—, does your sister know? (你這麼牛,你姐知道嗎?)" Xing had basically become the Lebron James to China's Cleveland, with a little bit of con-artist scorn mixed in. 

So, no it's not exactly eSports' own Manti Te'o scandal -- it's much weirder. The equivalent would have been if Ronaiah Tuiasosopo has swept in after the Lennay Kekua persona's "death," and convinced a grief-stricken Te'o to lobby to make him an assistant coach at Notre Dame. Tuiasosopo then would have had to leave Notre Dame for a head coaching position at a smaller the school the next season, taking many of the Fighting Irish's top recruits with him. And the Deadspin post gets scrubbed by the Chinese government.

Obviously that didn't happen. Or did it ... ?

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What makes this Te'o metaphor so inapt is the lack of a sanitized professional culture in eSports. These video game athletes give us a peek at the sports world without the media training and professional handlers so ubiquitous in major American athletics. It's just young men living their lives in a very public way, while the line between fan, athlete, and coach are blurred to the point of everything digressing into an inane MTV reality show. Or as one Chinese onlooker put it: "They're in what profession again? A primetime TV series on CCTV 8 would be more appropriate [for those involved]."

(h/t Daily Dot. Additional reporting for this article by Ben Sin and Alec Martin.)