Jay "Sinatraa" Won of the Overwatch League's San Francisco Shock posted a tweet a couple of days ago marking his 18th birthday. But shortly thereafter, it disappeared without explanation. Confusing matters even further, Won implied in a followup tweet that he'd been compelled to take it down.
l0l had to delete last tweet but thanks for the birthday wishes guys ❤️❤️❤️March 18, 2018
According to esports consultant Rod Breslau, the tweet was taken down at the request of Blizzard, who asked the Shock to remove the tweet because of the presence of a Pepe image. Pepe is a cartoon frog who first appeared in Matt Furie's Boy's Club in 2005; over the years it's evolved into a popular internet meme, but has more recently been adopted by the alt-right and Nazi sympathizers.
Breslau said he understood that Blizzard is attempting to crack down on the use of the image in the Overwatch League because it is "potentially offensive." And not just among players: As Kotaku noted in January, two Dallas Fuel fans were compelled to surrender a Pepe sign they'd brought to the OWL Season One debut.
An Overwatch League spokesperson confirmed with Dot Esports that this is in fact what's happening. "The Overwatch League discourages the use of symbols and imagery which are associated with or used by hate groups, including Pepe the Frog," the rep said. "At Blizzard Arena, it's our policy that fans comply with this policy. We likewise ask the same of Overwatch League teams and players on their social-media accounts."
The challenge facing the Overwatch League and its players is that it's difficult to codify what exactly is and is not "inappropriate" in an age and environment of online anger and memes. Pepe is inextricably linked with the alt-right, but is a guy who literally just turned 18 going to be fully aware of that fact and its ramifications? We saw something very similar in the case of Dallas Fuel player Félix "xQc" Lengyel, who was suspended and released for using a "racially disparaging" emote, even though he insisted, believably, that he had no idea it was racist in the first place.
Blizzard shared a summary of the Overwatch League Code of Conduct last month, but it's vague: Players are required to "observe the highest standards of personal integrity and good sportsmanship," which could be a pretty big ask of teenagers trying to build their brands in the midst of a raucous online milieu is left open-ended. It also grants Blizzard "broad discretion" to deal with problems.