Former League of Legends caster James “Stress” O’Leary spoke to us about his time at MAD Lions and Splyce, how he has navigated the industry as a queer person, and how the LGBTQIA+ landscape is changing for the better.
This week’s interview is with ex-caster and community manager James “Stress” O’Leary. He began his career in the esports world as a colour caster, working his way through the ranks of the EU League of Legends scene to join the EU LCS in 2015.
After casting in EU for multiple years, he decided to step back into a more behind-the-scenes role as the Community Manager for Splyce, now MAD Lions. From numerous vantage points in the esports industry, he’s gained a unique perspective on the LGBTQIA+ experience in esports. Esports.gg caught up with him to discuss his experience as a queer person in esports, and whether esports has a problem with performative activism.
For those who might be new to the EU League of Legends scene: introduce yourself!
James "Stress" O'Leary: "I think people will mostly know me for being a broadcast commentator in League of Legends- that’s what my general connection to the world of esports has been.
People in esports know me as Stress, and I’ve been in the scene for about ten years now- both as a caster and under the umbrella of marketing. So team management, sponsor management, general behind-the-scenes work.
I’ve recently taken a step back from esports as a specialization, and I’m working more in general gaming PR. "
Alongside casting, a lot of the community will know you from your time as the Community Manager at MAD Lions- how was your time working with the organization?
Stress: "So I’ve been a part of a few esports orgs in my time- before MAD Lions I was part of Splyce, and way back before I was even a commentator I was part of the UK Team Dignitas organization- a lot of people forget that org used to be completely UK-based.
Working at MAD was a really cool, really fun environment, but also a very unique challenge for me to update the Splyce branding to create this fresh and exciting team after the Splyce rebrand. Splyce were a team who were well-liked in the industry, but they were nothing like a Fnatic or a G2 with their level of fandom.
The MAD players definitely made that rebrand a lot easier, because they had such an interesting and unique playstyle and were also really charismatic, which is one of the best things you can give a marketing team to work with. They also had a strong pre-existing brand identity in the Spanish community, and although that didn’t necessarily resonate with me we found that we paired really well with the team they had in Madrid to create the brand.
The rebrand was successful from a marketing standpoint, but it’s been more successful on the performance side than I think anyone could have expected. Even though I left the team in February I still like to think I worked in the Split that they won the LEC- even after everyone has left the cinema, my name will still be right at the bottom of the credits in the MAD Lions story. I loved working with the players, and I loved working with the team- I pretty much only have good things to say about my time with MAD. "
Obviously, at the beginning of your career, you were a very front-facing, public figure- what spurred on the decision to move to a more behind-the-scenes role like the work you described with MAD?
James "Stress" O'Leary: "I think this is something that a lot of casters will have thought about, but being a public figure has a lifespan. That doesn’t mean that when you’re done, you’re out completely, but there’s definitely an ebb and flow to your time in the sun. And I honestly just felt like I had reached the end of that chapter in 2016. I cast the Worlds group stage, and although I would have loved to have done a final, that felt like the completion of a really really important goal for me.
Anybody who’s self aware looks at the people in front of them in the spot they’re in and has to make the decision- can I close that gap? When I was casting Worlds I would have said I was a top ten colour caster for League in the world at that time- I don’t think that’s particularly egotistical to say. However, when I took a good, hard look at myself and my career, I just didn’t think I could close the gap on people like Deficio or Jatt. Or more accurately, in order to close that gap I would have had to exert myself way, way more than I realistically should or could. At that time, I was also coming to terms with being openly gay, which was it’s own complicated process. When you’re a top-level caster devoting that much time to maintain your game knowledge, something has to give. "
"Whether it’s sleep, hobbies, family, partnerships, relationships- something is always being eaten into, and I wasn’t prepared to give everything away in the pursuit of that constantly moving goal of being the best in the world."
How have you found navigating your identity as a queer person in esports?
James "Stress" O'Leary: "I don’t think I found it any more difficult coming out in the world of esports than I would have in any other industry in the more accepting parts of the world. The part that I struggled with was the pressure I put on myself before I came out- if I were to go back and do things differently, I would have come out a whole lot sooner. I came out during my last three or four months on the broadcast, and even at that point I hadn’t really figured out who I was. I was playing the character of a straight person. I just wanted to blend in, and that just meant that I came off as, quite frankly, pretty bland.
In the old days of the EU LCS, there was a little bit of an expectation that you had to fit in this certain box to be part of Riot Games. This was pre-LEC days, where everything was suits and waistcoats and shirts and had to be super formal. There was no swearing on broadcast, and there was a clear vibe that had to undercut the show. So I just sort of thought ‘Okay, I’ll latch onto that, and that’ll be my personality’.
I wasn’t going to show anyone my real personality because I’m gay as hell and I thought nobody would want that on broadcast. I didn’t want to take the hate, and the heat- but by avoiding that hate and that heat I feel like nobody really knew me that well at all. I’m frustrated, looking back, because I think I could have utilized that time to be a positive role model for other LGBTQIA+ people, and I didn’t.
One of the toughest things about my journey as a gay person was that I pushed away a lot of the notion of community, especially throughout my time at university. I wasn’t part of any LGBTQIA+ societies, and I kind of rejected the notion of Pride and wearing your sexuality on your sleeve. I didn’t understand why people needed it- but now, years later, I look around myself and see that I don’t have a strong LGBTQIA+ community around me. "
"I wish, when I was working on the EU LCS, someone like me could have looked at that broadcast and gone ‘Oh- that person is being accepted and valued for exactly who they are’. I wish I could have been some kind of beacon in that regard."
You said you didn’t see yourself as any kind of role model during your time on the EU LCS- do you think that nowadays esports is putting pressure on LGBTQIA+ people to be role models for their communities?
James "Stress" O'Leary: "It’s tricky, because I sincerely hope that nobody is exerting direct pressure like that onto people. I’m never going to sit here and say ‘this person has to be a role model for their community’. But, the thing is, that unfortunately there comes a moment when you become a role model, regardless of whether you want to be or not. At that point you have to understand that how you present yourself does have consequences to other people. When you’re building a community, you curate a vibe that you’re comfortable with, and you look up to and are looked up to by like-minded people.
That doesn’t mean there is only one way to be a community figure in esports, but it does mean that you have a responsibility to create a community that is accepting of all different kinds of people- and that responsibility is, in my opinion, kind of inescapable. We’ve gotten to the point where even somebody who pursues a hobby at home and posts it on the internet can become an inspiration and a role model to others. You’re still inspiring people to follow in your footsteps.
I think the visibility of LGBTQIA+ people in esports is still so low compared to the representation of straight, cisgender people, that anybody who is an openly queer public figure will take on the onus of being a role model. And that’s an incredibly daunting task."
That’s an interesting shift that we’ve recently seen in esports- we’ve gone from no representation at all to having enough representation that we can begin to critique it and make it better. There’s a lot of discussion around Pride Month about ‘doing more than the bare minimum- do you think there’s a problem with performative activism in esports?
James "Stress" O'Leary: "Esports has a very clear follow-the-leader approach. If one team does something well, other teams will pick it up and it will grow and grow regardless of intention. There have definitely been issues where teams have just gone ‘we’ll change our logo to a rainbow because it’s what we’re supposed to do’, but in fairness I don’t think that’s an esports-specific problem. The gaming industry is slowly becoming more and more diverse in its managerial roles, which means that there are now LGBTQIA+ people in esports who can affect real change from positions of power.
"When there’s a lack of diversity in the hiring process, you don’t get people in positions of power who can make meaningful decisions on topics that are important to them. Now we’re seeing more and more queer people climbing to powerful roles in esports, we’re seeing care and empathy and investment in Pride initiatives."
While I was with Splyce, we did a campaign with ILGA Europe in 2019 where we changed our jerseys to pride-flag logos, and all the profits from selling those jerseys would go to charities supporting LGBTQIA+ people. I had the full support of Splyce and of their parent company OverActive media in that campaign. I didn’t have any hoops to jump through, I just said ‘I think we should do this for pride’ and everyone was ready and willing to support it. If Splyce hadn’t had an LGBTQIA+ person in a managerial role in their organization, that might not have been something they even considered.
When there’s a lack of diversity in the hiring process, you don’t get people in positions of power who can make meaningful decisions on topics that are important to them. Now we’re seeing more and more queer people climbing to powerful roles in esports, we’re seeing care and empathy and investment in Pride initiatives. Evil Geniuses and Team Liquid, in particular, have had really good Pride campaigns this year where you can see real work being put in.
Over here in Europe, I know there are some organizations that aren’t so focused on Pride month. That doesn’t necessarily mean the company doesn’t believe in LGBTQIA+ equality, but it does mean that they might not have a queer person on staff who has the power to push an initiative like that forwards. I know there are some incredible queer people in European esports, and I would love to see them be given the power and the resources to actually implement strong initiatives for their communities."
Last year in the LEC the community reacted incredibly negatively to news of sponsorship of the LEC by the Saudi-backed NEOM venture, with Saudi Arabia having a notoriously poor track record of treatment of LGBTQIA+ folks. How can allies in the community continue to show their allyship in a way that will make big brands realise that partnerships like this aren’t acceptable?
James "Stress" O'Leary: "Vocal dissent on social media can be so important. There’s a difference between dissent and a hate mob- having been the face behind a brand on Twitter, please don’t ever send a hate mob because of something you disagree with. However, everyone should have their right to protest.
Another thing I think is crucial is proving to companies that decisions like this will affect their bottom line. The most important power you have as a viewer is the power to not watch and not engage with content. In the same way that you can engage with and support brands you like in order to boost them, you can let an organization know you’re unhappy by not engaging with their product. If you’re not consuming advertising, and if viewer numbers drop, then a brand can clearly see they’re doing something wrong and go about finding ways to fix that.
The LEC community is pretty inclusive, and I think the NEOM deal bit them in the butt a lot more than they were expecting. That’s why cultivating diversity in your communities online is so important- it means you have community members who can step up and tell you when something you’re doing is hurting them, so you can grow and learn and try not to make those same decisions in the future. "