"Oh here's a new message I just got: 'get the fuck away from League and git gud fagboy.'"
Will Debassige said this to me last night over Skype. He's been getting a lot of messages like that lately. And just a week ago, before everyone on League of Legends subreddit seemed to hate him, nobody even knew who he was.
What turned Debassige into a subject of derision in the eyes of so many of the hundreds of thousands of people who frequent League of Legends' massive Reddit community, and did so seemingly overnight? A joke about using the forum to kickstart an eSports team that went too far.
One day last week while Debassige was on his lunch break, he wrote a short post and submitted it to the League subreddit. "Hey Reddit," the subject line read, "let's buy a team!" He told me that he intended it to be a one-off joke playing on the way that vocal League-friendly Redditors often speak about the game's eSports matches and tournaments like backseat coaches -- griping about what a player or coach should have done in a situation.
"We're always making roster changes," he wrote in the post. "Since we're challenger I think we'd be better off making a team than these know nothing people like Hotshot and Regi," referring to the owners of Counter-Logic Gaming (CLG) and Team SoloMid (TSM) respectively, two of the top League pro teams in North America. Then he spelled out the five steps it'd take to create a win the annual League of Legends world championship:
- Buy challenger team
- Have some democratic voting to choose roster
- Name our team something memeworthy
- Win worlds!
"Team name ideas?" He concluded.
After that, Debassige told me, he went back to work and didn't check Reddit again until that evening while he was having dinner. Normally accustomed to receiving 5, maybe 10 comments on a Reddit post before it disappeared into oblivion, Will was taken aback by the more than 300 messages he'd amassed in his inbox over the past six hours.
"People seemed really interested," he said.
Debassige is a 20-year-old aspiring musician who works a day job at a Canadian telecommunications company in his hometown of Vancouver. He's been passionate about competitive gaming and eSports specifically since he started playing the original StarCraft ten years ago. It's easy to see how someone with a strong interest -- if only an amateur level of expertise -- would easily get swept up by the momentum of a Reddit post he authored suddenly going viral.
And that's just what happened: Will began corresponding with Bryce Blum, an eSports lawyer who's well known on the League subreddit by his handle "esportslaw." With Blum's advice, he came up with a rough estimate of $US500,000 for the cost of actually creating and managing a team.
(Blum confirmed Debassige's narrative to me, though he said he couldn't remember the exact figure they arrived at. "That being said, I can say that $US500,000 is reasonable in my opinion, depending on exactly what is going into that budget -- how much staffing, where the house is, etc.," Blum told me over Skype. "Hard to say for sure without seeing an actual budget put together.")
What started off as a joke or a pie-in-the-sky dream started to seem like something that could actually happen. Will continued to post on the League subreddit enthusiastically: speaking of future plans to crowdsource the requisite funds, even starting a poll for forum-goers to vote on the name the team would ultimately have. He ended up going with "Win Or Bench," or "W.O.B." for short. He said he liked that because of the allusion to throbbing dubstep.
Just as quickly as enthusiasm for the Reddit League team got going, however, so too did suspicion and criticism of the idea. That, and confusion plain and simple. Thread after thread bubbled up to the front page asking if there was indeed a Reddit League team in the works. The moderators for the subreddit contacted Debassige and requested he stop describing the nascent organisation as the "official Reddit team." They also weighed in publicly with a statement assuring forum-goers that the team was not supported by the mods or affiliated with them in any way.
Others were much harsher in their feedback. Gnarsies, a well-known League YouTuber, called Debassige out for running a scam operation -- this in spite of the fact that Will hadn't actually created a crowdfunding campaign on a site like Kickstarter or Indiegogo.
"I'm not sure what's up with this," Gnarsies wrote in a comment under Debassige's thread announcing the W.O.B. team team. "But this 'Reddit Team' seems like it's a way to make a quick buck off the subreddit."
"This smells like a huge scam," he reiterated. "Of course, if you fail to do anything with the crowdfunder, the joke's one every of your backers. And that happened time and time again with people with no standing/experience. Nothing more than Dank Memes and Broken Dreams."
Gnarsies, I should note, has been involved with almost all of the drama that's unfolded on the League of Legends subreddit over the past few months. He famously called out a third-party product heavily advertised by League YouTubers as being a snake oil product, then called out the subreddit's moderating team for pulling a post on the subject. After that, he helped identify a cadre of YouTubers who were colluding to promote each other's work and downvote competing work. All these factors have helped solidify his recent reputation as a de facto watchdog in and around the League of Legends subreddit. This gave his accusations against Debassige extra weight, even as some of they become increasingly personal -- calling him a failed musician and mocking him for working at a fast food restaurant.
By the beginning of this week, Will had had enough. The idea for the League reddit team had soured, too. eSportslaw published a YouTube video that effectively distanced himself from the team -- at least to confirm that he wasn't working with Debassige in any official capacity:
The next day, Will wrote one final post on the subreddit saying that he was stepping away from W.O.B., and the idea of a Reddit-fuelled eSports team entirely.
"I do think WOB is a beautiful idea and could be a lot of fun for the community," he wrote. "I hope someone takes the initiative and goes forward with the team, like I was trying to do. However, at this point it doesn't look like I can be a part of it anymore."
Speaking to Will, it's hard to stomach Gnarsies' characterization of him as a scammer. He's infectiously charismatic and enthusiastic about League of Legends and eSports more generally, even after receiving innumerable hostile messages and death threats over the past week. If he made any mistake, he told me, it was in throwing around words like "official" too freely.
Gnarsies is less sympathetic.
"This entire thing to me reeks of a potential con job," Gnarsies told me in an email. "And after being called out, he backpedaled, claiming that he doesn't want to be part of the project, but still wanted to keep a 'small salary on the side,' and that he only suggested a crowdfunder, which is false, because he said himself on Reddit that he was going to deposit an actual final proposal for a crowdfunder during the week. It clearly wasn't just a suggestion and it was something that he planned."
Debassige still maintains that W.O.B. is a good idea -- even one that could come to fruition some day. But for the moment, he told me, he's done.
"When someone sends me a paragraph about how I should kill myself and I'm the reason they support the death penalty...while it's funny and I laughed at it, I also thought: what am I doing to get this kind of message?" Will told me.
"It wasn't so much that he told me to kill myself, it was more like: why am I receiving this response?"