Just days before the start of the first Evo Online open championship; the tournament series has been cancelled amid allegations of past sexual misconduct by Evo President Joey "Mr Wizard" Cuellar. Over 1,350 players had registered to participate in the Mortal Kombat 11: Aftermath tournaments, scheduled to take place late in July.
We stand in solidarity with those who have spoken out against abuse. We will be pulling MK11 from EVO Online.— NetherRealm (@NetherRealm) July 2, 2020
NetherRealm Studios was among the first publishers to announce their withdrawal of support for the organization via Twitter, declaring intentions to have Mortal Kombat 11 pulled from the Evo Online schedule. Evo mainstay Capcom posted a similar statement in solidarity for persons affected, with Namco Bandai, and Them's Fightin' Herds developer Mane6, echoing the decision.
Evo announced it had placed Cuellar on administrative leave on July 2nd after accusations began to circulate of past sexual misconduct. An unspecified third party investigation was also promised.
With the withdrawal of support from major backers and participants, including 2020 Evo Mortal Kombat Champion Sonic Fox, the organization announced Cuellars complete extrication from Evo the next day, and the cancellation of the event. Tony Cannon has been appointed acting CEO, with a commitment to refund players, and pledge to uphold their donations to Project HOPE: a humanitarian charity already set to receive proceeds from the event. The statement is included below:
Among the allegations are stories of ritual hazing at the Southern Hills Golfland arcade in the late 1990s. These alleged incidents include paying young male patrons gaming tokens to dive into miniature golf hazard pools, in their underwear, for prolonged periods. One particular claim alleges Cuellar, in his twenties, paid a 17 year old boy $20 to arouse and expose himself in the privacy of a toilet stall. The legal age of consent in California is 18.
Joey Cuellar has not publicly responded to specific claims, but did issue an apology for his past behavior, via Twitter. He accepted responsibility while attributing past actions to youth: "I'm sorry. I never meant to hurt anyone. I was young and reckless and did things I'm not proud of. I have been growing and maturing over the past 20 years, but that doesn't excuse anything. All I have been trying to do is become a better person. Once again, I'm truly sorry."
I'm sorry. I never meant to hurt anyone. I was young and reckless and did things I'm not proud of. I have been growing and maturing over the past 20 years, but that doesn't excuse anything. All I have been trying to do is become a better person. Once again, I'm truly sorry.— Joey Cuellar (@MrWiz) July 3, 2020
It was a tumultuous path for Mortal Kombat 11 to this year's Evo. In February it was a surprise omission from the tournament lineup, before the global spread of COVID-19 forced the annual Las Vegas event to cancel. MK11 was reinstated in May as one of four Evo Online open events - a testament to the use of GGPO rollback in online play since 2016.
Warner Brothers and NetherRealm Studios, like other corporations, have invested significant resources into rapidly developing new and existing infrastructure for organized competitive gaming based around their titles. Despite a push towards a model loosely based on professional sport, with increasing stakes of prize money and mainstream broadcasting; relatively little attention appears to be given to industry regulation or external review.
Events like Evo have grown out of grassroots arcade scenes and continue to attract participation from a vulnerable teen and young adult demographic not dissimilar to the aging organizers who came before them. The potential for corruption within the culture has been self-evident. In July 2015, Turtle Entertainment took a revolutionary step toward professionalism by introducing drug testing to reform the Electronic Sports League.
The Evo World Championship has been an industry leader, creating one of the largest single gatherings for players, and a mainstream lightning rod for fighting game's so-called eSports. As gaming and other industries confront the skeletons in their closet, including other reports of sexual abuse, it remains to be seen if Evo will be able to bounce back in 2021.