Sherry Nhan, better known in the fighting game community as Sherryjenix, recently shared an unsettling story in a video posted to her YouTube channel. She claims she has been relentlessly contacted for almost two years by a man obsessed with her, behaviour that has since materialised in the real world. And now she wants to know how tournament organisers are prepared to step up security.
Street Fighter's C. Viper, who Sherry Nhan usually plays
Nhan's story isn't unique. According to a 2011 study conducted by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 18.3 million women in the United States have experienced stalking behaviours "that made them feel very fearful or made them believe that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed". Men also fall victim to such tactics, but at about one-third the rate.
Nhan said her stalker first reached out to her through Facebook, but she cut communications with him as his messages began to pour in. With social media out of the question, he soon moved to email. In her video, Nhan scrolls through message after message, pointing out one that mentions he keeps a picture of her in his backpack. While she makes it clear that none of his contact has been overtly threatening, Nhan collected these emails as possible evidence after marking them as spam.
The behaviour escalated in Nhan's home state of California near the end of January. "He followed me and my friends around Universal Studios and ended up sitting behind us on our last ride of the day," Nhan told me. "I'm not sure how or when he found us. I was only made aware of his presence because he tried to rush in with us on the ride and a worker had stopped him to ask if he was with us. I spoke to my friends and they agreed we should leave."
The next day, Nhan went to her local police department, emails in hand, and asked about getting a restraining order put in place. As is often the case, she said, they were less than helpful. Due to the lack of outright threatening behaviour from the man in question, they allegedly told Nhan there was nothing they could do. It's worth mentioning that, for issues concerning restraining orders, California law defines harassment as "repeated actions that seriously alarm, annoy, or harass, and serve no legitimate purpose," which seems well within the realms of Nhan's experience.
As a player and well-known personality within the fighting game community, Nhan attends a number of events every year, most of which she talks about online. The person stalking her has used this information to attend the same functions, including SoCal Regionals in 2015 and last month's Genesis 4. Nhan was uncomfortable bringing it up with the tournament heads because her stalker is a member of the community, but she and her friends kept an eye out and avoided him.
"At this point, I realised that this person would be willing to cross boundaries physically," she said, "and things could only escalate from this level."
When reached for comment, Genesis organiser Sheridan "Dr Z" Zalewski confirmed that neither he nor his staff were made aware of the stalker's presence, and agreed that more proactive policies should be in place to combat the harassment Nhan experienced despite the inherent issues of policing such behaviour.
"Most tournament organisers are far from professionals at understanding harassment," Zalewski explained. "Patterns of harassment are so mired down in details about intent vs. effect and how either person responds to the other's words that I think we'll have to find actual professionals who understand where lines need to be drawn about verbally warning, restraining, and banning people and consult them."
In the past, Zalewski said, his staff adjudicated a similar situation by placing an informal restraining order on a player who had constantly harassed a woman online, requiring them to keep a distance of at least 3m between themselves and the victim or be escorted from the venue. While not perfect, the tactic worked. Zalewski touched base with the woman in question afterwards and agreed to ban her harasser from Genesis events should the intimidation continue.
"Just as a general matter of policy, I think it makes sense to enact the 'informal restraining order' upon anyone reporting even slightly credible harassment to us as a basic first response before determining if more or less serious action needs to be taken," he added.
After her experiences at Genesis 4, Nhan was ready to formally bring the issue up with other tournament organisers. Their responses, she said, were disappointing. Where important leaders in the Smash community immediately reached out to Nhan and agreed to ban her stalker from their events, hosts of traditional fighting game events took a more business-oriented stance. In Nhan's words, she was told legal issues kept them from barring the man from entry due to the lack of a restraining order, and some were even wary of a possible public relations backlash.
"The solution that was given to me was that I could report this person if I was to run into him at an event," she continued. "That is a great start, but with the realisation that I would have to be actively searching for this person at every event, I didn't feel that the solution was sufficient. I don't know what he is capable of because he has already crossed boundaries physically."
Nhan is also concerned for others. It's her understanding her stalker has acted similarly with other women in the past, and she worries that allowing him to continue attending events will only give him a wider range of victims.
"I see where the tournament organisers are coming from, but I feel there should be a system in place to decide whether or not a person will get banned," Nhan said. "Obviously, we wouldn't want to recreate the Salem Witch Trials, but with sufficient evidence, a case should be made. A system should be implemented so things won't have to escalate to threats before any official action is taken."
Alex Jebailey, organiser of the hugely popular Community Effort Orlando series, is well aware of the importance security plays at his tournaments. When the horrific Pulse nightclub shooting occurred just two weeks before his 2016 event, Jebailey was concerned with ensuring attendees felt safe. He hired extra security to put their minds at ease.
"While our job as tournament organisers is to provide a safe environment for all attendees, it would be impossible for us to monitor every single individual," Jebailey explained to me. "However, at Community Effort Orlando, if anyone is uncomfortable during or leading up to an event, they should get in contact with myself or the staff immediately so we are made aware of the situation. We will handle it the best we can and, if it's beyond our control, make sure that the proper authorities are also made aware."
Combo Breaker's Rick Thiher also ran into this issue first-hand after a player sexually harassed a woman on-camera at the end of last year's event. Thiher was quick to ban the offender from attending for two years, and Capcom followed suit by barring them from their Capcom Pro Tour tournaments. Their efforts were a clear sign that this behaviour has no place at a fighting game competition. But it's not always that easy.
"As open-registration public events, our productions cannot refuse or prohibit service without being diligent about discrimination laws," Thiher told me. "We are legally able to remove any attendee [that] we can justify is threatening, harming, or otherwise disrupting an event; but without a restraining order or other official documentation, we generally cannot take preemptive action."
As for security that's already in place, Thiher explained that Combo Breaker employs a mix of paid security staff, paid general staff and "trusted attendees" to keep an eye on things. That said, this setup heavily relies on people looking out for each other and generally keeping out of trouble, which isn't always the case at major events of any kind. Combo Breaker also maintains a safe room for distressed attendees.
"I've offered Sherry the support I can and plan to ask staff to watch out for her if she attends, but beyond that we're kind of stuck," Thiher concluded.
This kind of behaviour isn't confined to the fighting game community. Gather any large group of people in one place and there's sure to be at least one arsehole ruining the experience for someone else. After being told that her case doesn't qualify as stalking, Nhan is currently talking to lawyers to figure out her next step, and it's likely this will remove the barriers keeping tournament heads from enacting more drastic measures.
"If my voice is heard, I hope it sets a standard across the board that these stalking actions are absolutely not tolerated or welcomed," Nhan said. "The safety of attendees should always take precedence."