Interview with James ‘Stress’ O’Leary on leaving Mad Lions, his time casting and inclusion in esports: ‘It’d be a massive thing for an LEC player to be openly LGBTQA+, but with that comes a lot of pressure they’d put on themselves’

Stress

Image credit: StressCasts.com

Stress is a familiar name to those who followed the EU LCS before it became the LEC we know now. He cast on some of the biggest stages, such as Worlds 2016, before announcing his departure from casting the EU LCS in late 2017.
Since then he’s pursued different roles, his most recent being community manager of LEC team Mad Lions. Stress now works at communications and marketing agency ICO Partners focusing on Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons. Megalodontus interviews Stress about his new role, Mad Lions’ recent success and his thoughts on LGBTQA+ issues in esports.

With OAM and Mad Lions growing at such a steady pace, what made you decide to step back from your role there and head back to the UK?

I learned a lot working with the team, but it was the right time to step away. I’ve been growing homesick and the pandemic really emphasised that I’ve been away from family for too long. I’ve grown apart from many of the people who were friends in Berlin, and sitting at home all day working hasn’t mattered whether I’m one mile or 100 away from those who I’m close to.

When I left the UK I honestly thought I was never going back, and many of the things that have happened since coming to Berlin (in the way of Brexit etc) only reinforced my feelings. But I can’t change where my family are, and that’s become a major priority for me now. I’m lucky that so far the pandemic has left my family relatively untouched. There are many who aren’t as fortunate, and it’s a privilege in life I don’t want to take for granted.

You recently took on the role of communications project manager at ICO Partners – congratulations! Please tell us about what it entails and why you chose this field of work.

Thank you! I’m a part of a really cool team of people putting together fun ideas to keep people engaged with the brands we work with. It’s similar to a lot of my work behind the scenes in esports, where there are loads of projects going at the same time, and it’s about getting them into the public’s view successfully.

I’ve been in the role about two months now and am heading to the UK in the next few weeks to live in Brighton. I’ve always been good at coordinating things, especially when the pressure is on, so it’s a pretty natural fit with my experience.

Home sweet home. You mentioned in your tweet that you’d be responsible for the communications side of Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons. Will you also be involved in the competitive side of Magic in some way, due to your esports background?

I’m really excited to work on Magic and Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve played both on and off since high school, and I’ve always tried to keep the pulse of both games alongside League of Legends (LoL).

I won’t be involved in the competitive side of Magic and don’t have any plans to return to casting right now. I’m enjoying being an esports fan a lot more than I’ve enjoyed the work in the last few years.

It’s still strange not seeing you on the casting desk. Will you still be casting for wrestling or esports on the side perhaps?

Wrestling events being shut during the pandemic has been one of the hardest things for me. That being said, we did an event in autumn 2020 when rules in Berlin were relaxed, and even though everything was in line with regulations, I look back and feel like it just wasn’t worth putting people’s safety at risk, regardless of what the law said. I’m absolutely going to be working on more wrestling shows when they’re back up and running.

Being back in the UK will hopefully give me more opportunities to travel to wrestling shows and get my name out there. I still tweet about [UK WWE brand] NXT UK from time to time, just to make sure I’m in the back of someone’s head, but having been the person behind a corporate social media account, I know that person isn’t the one making hiring decisions.

Will you also be considering a return to casting esports in the future, or is that chapter now closed?

For esports, I’m just not feeling it right now. I wanted to love Wild Rift and look at commentating it, and the game itself is brilliant. The problem is the ranked experience is one of the worst I’ve played in gaming. LoL fixed many of the issues about pick and ban order back when I was a part of Riot, or possibly even before, but it feels like Wild Rift just forgot all the lessons that were learned.

On release, it was impossible to communicate effectively. No one knew what lane to go to, and objective play was non-existent. I think I played about 50 games, made it into gold and haven’t touched the game in over a month.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually think Wild Rift is going to be bigger in terms of playerbase in a few years than LoL, purely because there are so many more players that can be accessed. League made it possible to be played on almost any PC or laptop, so it unlocked a wider base than most games. I believe Wild Rift will do the same after a few cycles of smartphones, especially in regions where owning a PC at home is less common.

“The anti-diversity arguments have grown so venomous that it’s raised the temperature for everyone involved, and at the heart of it, those pushing for equality will be on the right side of history. LGBTQA+ people have existed forever, and will continue to exist, regardless of those who try to keep us hidden.”

It’s a sad goodbye for you with the Mad Lions of course, but they’ve managed to win the LEC 2021 Spring Season! Have you kept up with their historical run? How far do you think this squad can go, especially at MSI 2021?

I still watch the Mad matches when I can. The team are so fun to be around and it’d be hard to not root for them ever, so of course I was enthralled by all five games. Mad winning the LEC finals in my mind falls on a few things: I think Mad managed to catch the LEC sleeping in some key roles – top, jungle and support. No one outside of G2 has been consistent across the three roles, and with Armut, Elyoya and Kaiser being easily top three in each, it gives a lot of freedom to the carries to play well.

Kaiser is in my mind the best support in the league right now, Elyoya has taken to the LEC in his first split in a way that I don’t recall many other players apart from Caps and Perkz, and Armut is a strong contender in what’s in my opinion the most shallow role in the LEC.

When Mad are playing at the best of their abilities, they’re a really tough team to play vs because they’re always punishing you in some way, regardless of what their opponents are doing. A lot of that comes from Humanoid. He’s genuinely one of the smartest players I’ve spoken to, and if he has a team that’s on the same page as him, he’s able to play right up until the limit, which you could see in finals. He played pretty much every game as well as possible, save for a missed shockwave or two in the second game.

Unfortunately a lot of the “and Humanoid dies” memes come from the fact that he’s trying to create that last, extra bit of pressure, but in some circumstances the team have all reset and it’s overextending. The majority of the time though, the idea behind the decisions he makes is the kind that wins games, albeit sometimes there’s a cockiness in-game that gets in the way.

I’m also glad to see Carzzy having a great set of games in playoffs too. It’s hard to know unless you’ve watched the team scrim or heard voice comms, but in his threee LEC splits so far, he’s an integral voice.

The last part is the coaching staff. Mac, Kaas and Pad are a great combination and considering they’re working with still relatively new players to the league who barely have double digit stage games in three roles, the composure the team are showing is night and day from last year. The coaches and staff are some of my favourite people in esports and are good friends, so to see them lifting the trophy is really heartwarming.

MSI is a tricky one to call. I don’t think anyone expects them to win the event, but there are a lot of games they’ll be assumed to win before they even start, which is the dangerous spot I mentioned before about ego. There are some fun storylines, what with TCL being in the same group as Armut, but I think it’s the best possible result for the LEC to send Mad to get more international experience (and it’d have been the same if Rogue won.)

Mad Lions parent company OverActive Media announced it is opening a $500m esports arena in Toronto in 2025. What was your time like with OverActive Media and what did you learn there?

OAM were really good to me, and I was basically the last person standing alongside Till Werdermann (their LEC GM) from the small Splyce team I joined in February 2019. Most of those changes were due to location changes from Rochester to Toronto rather than anything to do with performance, but it was still a learning experience merging a Canadian and German office together, even before adding in one in Madrid!

The rebrand to Mad Lions was something I ‘got’ right away. I loved working at Splyce, and I loved what we stood for on LGBTQA+ inclusion, but there were very few people outside the team that felt strongly about the brand.

It’ll sting for any Splyce fans to read this, but the really sorrowful fact is that we were lots of people’s second or third favourite team, and I’d hear that every time we did a fan-meet at the LEC studio: “Oh I’m here to see Fnatic play, but I try to watch Splyce games when I can.”

It really didn’t help that in 2019 our playstyle was turtling up for 35 minutes and have the then-best team fighting bot-laner Kobbe playing Xayah or Kai’Sa, so we’d basically just win.

Until Rogue figured that out in summer playoffs and sent us crashing out in the first round by banning both champions, when we’d been fighting over first place for weeks. From there though it felt like we were on a farewell tour: Worlds Play-Ins and Groups we knew we could make it out of, and there’s no better fairytale end for a brand than playing the most legendary team in League history, SKT T1, in what would be our new home Madrid after finally getting Vizicsacsi to Worlds.

People already knew about the rebrand ahead of time, it was the worst kept secret at that moment in esports, but the change of identity was sorely needed. The team finally had an immediate reason for people to care, and it’s helped grow the brand significantly.

“If 20-year-old me was told that I’d be turning 30 and be completely happily out, had commentated multiple World Championships in arenas, and worked with major brands across gaming and wrestling… I’d feel like I won the lottery.”

What are your thoughts on UK LoL, in terms of the players, teams and leagues here? 

Oh boy, I’m not going to make any friends with this answer. Honestly, it feels like the scene is nearly identical with regards to issues as it was when I left back in 2014. The ‘Team Dignitas’ of the UK is now Excel Esports, and there just isn’t the infrastructure beneath Excel and Fnatic to support more teams and talent financially.

To give you insight about UK League, I need to talk about the old EU Challenger Series. We were supposed to be the second most important English language content for any European LoL viewer in the natural hierarchy. In reality, we were perhaps fourth at best. English LoL fans had not only EU LCS, but NA LCS, LCK and LPL to watch if they just wanted to watch good LoL, before they’d sit down for Challenger. The CS viewers were some of the most hardcore fans, or those who just so happened to stop by at the time.

These days Riot positions EU Masters well because typically it’s during the off-season when people don’t have any other League to watch. They’re not competing with LCS, LCK, LPL etc. But the NLC still is. The UKLC still is, and that’s to an even tougher degree. You’re not as able to pull in the viewers who just want to watch any LoL, and many people in the scene just don’t know those tournaments are there, and sadly don’t have a reason to buy in.

The LFL, Prime League and LVP SuperLiga have the benefit of being some of the only content outside of the LEC in their respective languages, so the only competition they’re fighting against is their own broadcast VODs. Frustratingly, that means there really aren’t too many answers to this problem, which is why the scene is relatively slow to grow. There are lots of people working really hard to change this, and I don’t want to seem like I’m stacking the deck against them, or saying it’s all for nothing.

I’ve been out of the UK scene for a long time, so there’s definitely things I’m missing. But looking in through a window, these seem like exactly the same challenges that I was working against before I left for Berlin.

You’ve been a strong advocate and voice for representation of LGBTQA+ and other social causes during your time in esports. Will your new role with ICO allow you to find ways to further champion these causes?

ICO is the most inclusive company I’ve worked with, not only on LGBTQA+ issues, but across the board of diversity and inclusion. I’m hoping to be able to champion more social causes but I’m not ready to talk about any specific ones yet. You bet I’ll tweet about it when there’s something to say though!

We’ll be watching! You’ve often spoken about your time as an LGBTQA+ person in esports. In traditional sports, athletes still fear coming out. As a prominent member of the community, have any players or people in esports reached out to you privately for advice on how to navigate the esports space?

I’ve had a lot of people in esports talk with me for various reasons. For many players I’ve interacted with, I’m the first openly gay person they’ve met because of either cultural differences, or just that none of their home circle had taken that step. That’s meant answering a lot of questions, all of which I’ve always taken as coming from a genuine place with good intentions.

I try not to give advice to anyone about topics like coming out unless they ask me directly for it. Coming out is an intensely personal experience, and no two stories are the same. So for me to give straightforward advice would be a little irresponsible.

The biggest kindness you can do for someone who is trying to figure themselves out is to give them empathy and to listen. It took me almost a decade from feeling I was different in some way to actually being comfortable enough to say it to another human being, and that was around five years of knowing deep down that I was gay.

It’d be a massive thing for a player to be openly LGBTQA+, but with that comes a lot of pressure that they’d put on themselves, so it’s understandable why no European or LEC player to my knowledge has come out publicly.

We still see a lot of pushback on the topic of representation, such as Rainbow Six Siege’s recently announced openly gay operator: Flores. Why do you think there seems to be a big disagreement on the need for diversity, and that some people feel that representation is ‘forced’ or ‘unnecessary’?

There’s a big disagreement because some people lack the self awareness to realise that being angry about seeing someone who doesn’t represent them, is the kind of feeling that underrepresented people feel day to day. If you believe two guys kissing on a TV show is an attack on you, imagine what it feels like to have just about every TV show lack any meaningful gay characters.

The anti-diversity arguments have grown so venomous that it’s raised the temperature for everyone involved, and at the heart of it, those pushing for equality will be on the right side of history. LGBTQA+ people have existed forever, and will continue to exist, regardless of those who try to keep us hidden.

“It feels like the [UK] scene is nearly identical with regards to issues as it was when I left back in 2014. The ‘Team Dignitas’ of the UK is now Excel Esports, and there just isn’t the infrastructure beneath Excel and Fnatic to support more teams and talent financially.”

We know people tend to rail on corporations and brands for being ‘two-faced’, such as promoting LGBTQA+ on specific accounts when it ‘suits them’. Do you think this is just the nature of how brands operate, or is there more to it than that? How can they tackle this topic better?

I’ve been one of those brand accounts, and it’s possible to be LGBTQA+ positive for more than just pride. To that end, I think I know more LGBTQA+ social media people than I do straight social media managers. That being said, I think it can be difficult to come across as genuine regardless of if your intentions are sincere as a brand. It’s about consistency in actions both behind the scenes and when the world is looking, and many social media teams are overworked and underpaid to also take on those responsibilities when they’re already swamped.

Many decision makers in esports will tick the box of ‘doing pride’ because ‘they are supposed to,’ but most of them aren’t actually a part of the community it supports. Until those decision makers are represented, that’s not going to change.

Before we end then, for now you take a step back from the esports space. Looking back on your long career of casting, doing community management, writing… what are some of your favourite or most memorable moments?

I think adding any more top moments could make this piece sound more like an obituary, so I’ll just say that if 20-year-old me was told that I’d be turning 30 and be completely happily out, had commentated multiple World Championships in arenas, and worked with major brands across gaming and wrestling… I’d feel like I won the lottery.

I try to keep that in perspective on my down days, especially during the pandemic, because I’ve done a lot of things that I could only have dreamed of. With that being said, I’m not about to take steps backwards, so I can only imagine what that list will look like in another 10 years.

Stress casting Worlds 2016

You can follow Stress on Twitter and visit the ICO Partners website here

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