HOAXED!
The week of May 29, 2016

The esports reporter who never existed

By Richard Lewis

Ann Pragg was on the cusp of becoming something of a League of Legends celebrity when she abruptly quit her esports career.

Known for acerbic tweets that were often promptly retweeted by the game’s luminaries, she was rubbing shoulders with some of the leading players, reporters, and pundits in the largest esport in the world. She was inundated with job offers. She turned down guest appearances to host shows, to provide commentary on events, and even to coach at the highest level of the professional game in Europe and the United States, the League Championship Series (LCS). As a columnist, her astute observations about the Korean scene were finding an audience. Intelligent, articulate, and attractive, she had formed a prodigious network around her. Her career seemed mapped out, with plenty of people willing to help. She had a bright esports future.

There was only one problem: Ann Pragg didn’t exist.

She was an invention, a testament to the ease with which an online persona can become real in the minds of her followers. This is the “catfish” era—a time when just about everyone has heard stories of people getting tricked by fake online lovers. In perhaps the most famous example, Deadspin revealed that the girlfriend of college football star Manti Te’o—a woman who’d played a central role in the media narrative surrounding the player for an entire season—never existed. It’s stunning how, considering all this, people are still willing to believe. And I was one of them.

I’m an industry veteran, having spent the better part of a decade in esports, and I have plenty of contacts who can help a young writer get started. I lent Pragg a helping hand on more than one occasion. In a space dominated by adolescent males, it was refreshing to see an opinionated woman gain a foothold, even as she maneuvered the unforgiving gantlet of the esports boys’ club. I’d watched her grow from a nobody to a name with weight in the scene in a matter of months, and it was impressive. She even started submitting articles on a site I ran called ThinkPiece.gg, a place for new esports writers to post their opinions without fear of a heavy editorial hand.

From early on, however, accusations that the account was fake dogged Pragg, something that was easy to chalk up to sexism in the industry. Many assumed an established personality in the scene had created Ann Pragg as way to vent their unpopular thoughts and frustrations without fear of consequence; online witch hunts would target a scarecrow, not the real author. The prime suspect was the leading League of Legends commentator and esports historian Duncan “Thorin” Shields, who had helped elevate Pragg by constant retweets and discussion surrounding her opinions.

There was a virtual history that didn’t jibe with that theory, however. A corresponding Reddit account called “annpragg” had existed for a while before all the attention. The person on that account seemed to share many of the same opinions and interests as the person who ran the Twitter account.

Then, on Dec. 16, 2014, Pragg suddenly announced her withdrawal from esports. In a rambling statement that read like bad fanfiction, it talked about a strange relationship with a mature woman whose house she stayed at while working in a bar. Packed with salacious details designed to titillate, it read like nothing I’d seen her write before and seemed so ridiculous as to be completely implausible.

Here’s a typical excerpt:

“A lot of the interactions between myself and Miss Smith was based around clothes and makeup. Clothes shopping was a big [occurrence] and she wanted pictures of me in all the outfits she bought me. My hairstyle, make up and outfits were all decided by Miss Smith wherever possible. Sometimes she’d come home and she’d demand that I get changed into whatever outfit she had pre-determined. I was like a doll; something she’d take out of the drawer, play with for a bit and then put away again. There were trips to the theatre, nice restaurants and various charity events, all to show me off to her friends. She’d often say things like ‘Ann you’re so pretty’ or ‘Ann I love you, do you love me?’ I don’t think there was anything malicious behind it, just boredom and [loneliness].”

What any of this had to do with esports wasn’t clear. I assumed she was just stressed out, that this was a byproduct of her newfound fame. At the time, I cared more about the fact that esports had, once again, lost a valuable talent.

“Ann Pragg hurt no one, truth hurts everyone.”

Not long after Pragg’s very public retirement, however, a colleague messaged me saying he’d found evidence that there was more to Ann Pragg than had first been revealed.

On Google+, a cached profile corresponded to the one Pragg was known to use. The photo on the profile showed a male. No one had ever been able to locate Pragg on Facebook or any other social media site outside of Reddit and Twitter. And bizarrely, the only other use of the name “Ann Pragg” was as an alter ego for the male musician Matt Radick, who lives in Gainesville, Florida.

“I feel like Ann Pragg is kind of like a sorceress or a sorcerer,” Radick told Vice in a 2013 interview. “Ann Pragg is androgynous. I think there might be a little bit of Ann Pragg in all of us.”

Suddenly there were a lot of people feeling they’d been duped.

• • •

Everyone wanted to know who was responsible. The photograph on the Google+ page was no one anyone in esports recognized: just a young white male with a fashionable haircut and hipster glasses—10 a penny in the world of esports. All that was certain? This person actually knew esports very well. His articles displayed a high level of knowledge of the scene. In October 2014, for instance, Pragg came under a lot of criticism for an article that predicted the exodus of established Korean talent to China and other regions, where the players could pick up heavy paychecks without keeping to the same discipline. She ended up being right.

But whoever this person was, he hadn’t done a great job hiding his tracks, as the Google+ profile proved. Slowly but surely, word spread. It became widely known, if not reported, that Pragg was a young male pretending to be an attractive female in exchange for access and status. But the expected apoplexy never arrived. There was no explosion of outrage. There were a few derisory tweets, some backhanded sneers. But that was it. The guy who ran the whole deception was now operating a Twitter called “gosickboy_” where he even took ownership of Pragg, describing himself in the profile as “the artist formerly known as Annpragg.” In tweets, he went on to profess his intention to continue working in the esports industry.

This seemed the most bizarre thing of all: That the female alter ego regularly received abuse and threats for talking about League of Legends, yet the admitted fraud behind that alias was being mostly let off the hook.

I had to ask myself some difficult questions. Had I treated Pragg differently because I thought she was a woman? I don’t believe so. I’ve helped plenty of young esports writers, including some of my current colleagues, move up in the industry. But her gender was something that I did consider; after all, as I noted before, I felt it refreshing to see a woman become so successful in the industry. I knew that Pragg had solicited donations to support her work on my site. Was this unethical? After all, many writers have used a pseudonym, so what was it that felt so cynical about this? There was no easy way for me to answer these questions.

So I decided to get in touch and ask for an interview.

• • •

“Is there any way this comes out and I’m not the biggest scumbag in esports?” the man behind Ann Pragg asked me. “Ann Pragg hurt no one, truth hurts everyone.”

This was my first interaction with him. We were speaking via direct messages on Twitter in mid-February, about two months after Pragg disappeared from the Internet. Within just a few minutes of these messages, it was clear the idea of a tell-all confessional had grown on him. He was just a little apprehensive about what impact it might have on his real life. After a wait of a few weeks, it was set. In a Skype call, I finally met the real Ann Pragg, a salesman called Sam.

Sam made it clear this wasn’t a sociological experiment gone awry.

According to Sam, who’s also from the U.K., his time as Ann Pragg started on that Reddit account. “It was a just a moniker,” Sam said. It wasn’t chosen “with anything female in mind.” When that started getting some positive feedback, Sam made a Twitter account with the same name. That was only to follow esports personalities, he said. “Nobody paid any attention to that.”

Of course, it all changed when he found a new profile picture.

“It sounds lame to say ‘I don’t know how it happened,’” Sam said. “But I genuinely don’t. I changed my profile picture one day and I had a picture on my computer of a girl that I knew, and I just accidentally chose that and left it for an hour or so. I noticed I had 10 more followers while I was away from my computer.”

Soon, he was getting a lot of attention. A few weeks later, he was writing articles for my site. He was getting those retweets from famous personalities. Ann Pragg was a mini-celebrity.

But according to Sam, there was nothing calculated about it. “It just spiraled out of control because I got interested in the idea of creating a fictional character and her journey through esports. I was just watching the follower count grow, and then people I actually respected reached out to me and it felt good.

“Six months, in I realized I probably could have done this under my own moniker. But I felt I was in too deep to stop.”

But was that really the case? It seems inarguable at this point that the female persona had somehow opened doors that had been closed to his real identity. When I asked about this, he seemed to shrug this question off, then trailed off in another direction.

“It happened faster. More people seemed intrigued… Can I just say that Ann Pragg and me are not the same person? Ann Pragg is very much a fictional character that I created. I don’t really think like she does in a lot of ways. She was a mixture of girls I’ve encountered in my real life, so I made her the kind of girl I thought people might be interested in or attracted to. But it’s not me.”

He then added, without any trace of irony, “I’m not that ridiculous of a person.”

But it was clear that there was a lot more to this than just some playful identity swapping. I reminded Sam of some of Pragg’s conversations with me. She boasted that she’d gained access to privileged information from players because they wanted to, in her own words, “fuck her.” Some of the information could have gotten those players in serious trouble: fines or termination from the league. And it was all done to impress a woman who never existed. Didn’t he feel an ethical line was being crossed at this point? He shrugs this off too.

“I guess I have a weird sense of humor,” Sam laughed. “What guy can honestly say he hasn’t shown an interest in a girl purely because she was fit?”

• • •

Sam’s ethical nonchalance falls apart a little when it comes to one of the more troubling aspects of his assumed identity. The picture he’d used on the avatar wasn’t just of a real person; it was someone he knew. What’s more, she had no idea that her image was plastered all over a popular Twitter profile. “I feel like a shitbag for all the people I’ve misled and using someone’s image without their consent,” Sam said. “That’s a criminal offense right there. If the wrong person found out about that, maybe I could go to jail…”

That’s when I interrupt him. Prior to the interview, a colleague sent me a history of Ann Pragg’s avatars on Twitter. Over the course of the account history, he’d used the photos of three different women. Sure, they all had similarities, but they were clearly different people. He’d violated the trust of more than one person.

Getting consent would have been “difficult” as he didn’t want to “look like a weirdo” in his “real life.”

“Errr, yeah,” he said. “[Ann Pragg] did change identity a couple of times. I used different girls’ pictures.”

If he’d felt guilty about appropriating someone’s image, it seemed a little odd that he’d then do it again—twice. When I confronted him with this, he reacted with hostility. “Is this a police interview now?”

He continued: “One of the girls just out of the blue closed down her Facebook account, another didn’t post enough pictures of herself, and the third one had to stay stuck because that point I had become too famous to just change it again. They were all people I knew in a roundabout way, some better than others. They are acquaintances at least.”

With so many means to track down the origins of images these days, I ask Sam if he could imagine a scenario where they stumble upon their own photographs—and encounter some of the vitriol that had once been directed at Pragg. What if the truth had never come out and those individuals were “outed” as being Ann Pragg, when in fact they had nothing to do with character he created?

“That was one of the things that made me want to close it down… And let’s get this straight,” he said, suddenly indignant, “I was the one who closed the account down. I didn’t wait to get caught. I ended it on my terms. No one told me to do it. I wanted to end it three months before I did, but couldn’t think of a way to do it. I suppose I could have just closed the account down suddenly, but I am a lover of theatrics.”

Nothing about it was selective, he said, extending an apology to all three women: He was just choosing images that matched Ann Pragg. Getting consent would have been “difficult” as he didn’t want to “look like a weirdo” in his “real life.”

• • •

Whenever Sam was confronted with the reality of his actions, he always reverted to explanations that he and Ann Pragg were different people. It was like listening to a ventriloquist convinced his dummy is real and that can speak to him—but only when they’re alone.

I explain to Sam that if I were to share this story with my friends over a few drinks, the words “weird” and “creepy” would surely pop up.

“I think those terms would be simplifications,” he said. “The main reason [I did this] was that I enjoyed conversing with people I deeply respected. If it wasn’t for a couple of individuals who had followed me, I would have shut the account down. There is one particular individual who really made the difference.”

He wouldn’t name who that person was, but I assumed it was veteran esports journalist and historian Shields. An iconoclastic character himself, it was clear why Shields championed Pragg’s boldness. One of the reasons the account gained momentum was that Shields regularly retweeted Pragg to his sizable following. Eventually they added each other on Skype, they spoke frequently, and Shields provided input and support on her work.

“I’m not that ridiculous of a person.”

Shields is one of the most cynical people I know. But he too was fooled. I asked him how that happened.

“To gauge if someone is lying, you usually need a baseline of background knowledge on who they are, in other words hearing some truth from them,” he said. “In this case, we had none. And so I don’t think it should be too surprising so many people, including myself, didn’t realize this was a false identity, being as the character was created whole-cloth. It seems a shame to find out that character was essentially entirely fictional, but that’s the reality we’re now faced with.”

Unlike me, he wasn’t curious about the motives behind it. He had, for the most part, already made up his mind. “I suspect the individual responsible will now claim this was some kind of ‘social experiment’ or that they had some clever reason for deceiving so many people, but I don’t think that’s really plausible.”

But Sam made it clear this wasn’t a sociological experiment gone awry, even as he championed the supposed greater good the alias achieved.

“It annoys me that I was caught, because it undermines a lot of the good that Ann Pragg did for the community. It undermines a lot of the bullshit that she brought to light, her message and her philosophy on esports.”

What was this philosophy? He answered with a mantra you’d expect from a motivational speaker.

“Don’t be afraid of having an opinion about something. Your opinion is important. Don’t believe what other people say to you. Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

He tacked one more platitude on at the end: “Treat individuals with respect.”

• • •

There as an obvious hypocrisy in that statement, something that again Sam seems unable or unwilling to recognize. But there was more I’d learned that cast further doubt on Sam’s behavior toward women.

Shields had raised some additional, serious concerns when I spoke with him about Pragg. He told me that, in private, Pragg had engaged in numerous conversations of a sexual nature with people in the scene and had even acquired nude photographs of female players.

“I think you’d have a hard time construing that as ethical behavior in any sense of the term,” Shields said.

Sam admitted he received such photographs. But he claimed he “didn’t prey on anyone.”

“I didn’t discuss anything with them I wouldn’t discuss with anyone,” he said. “I didn’t ask for any photographs. They were just sent to me.”

How did he get to a point, without asking or encouraging, where a person decided to send nude photographs of themselves?

The picture he’d used on the avatar wasn’t just of a real person; it was someone he knew.

He laughed nervously. “The underlying theme was ‘I have body issues,’ or something along those lines,” he said. “It was always to do with a lack of self-confidence. I would say ‘why, I think you’re stunning’ and then… I don’t fucking know. I didn’t fucking manipulate anybody. It could be ‘I’m buying something for my boyfriend, can I show you?’ Fucked if I know how it happened.”

This happened on at least six occasions. Plenty of people hearing this story would conclude that one of the “perks” Sam found in his assumed identity was gaining access to nude material from female personalities in the scene. He was very keen to dismiss this inference.

“No, no, no, fuck that,” he said. “I know what porn is. I don’t need to do that.”

But according to Sam, he hasn’t been able to get in touch with the women to see how they feel, or to even apologize to them. “Most of them have me blocked on Twitter now,” he said.

• • •

Ann Pragg had few real qualifications or experience when it came to analysis or coaching. But she was given plenty of job offers. She turned them all down, Sam said matter-of-factly. “I had multiple offers to manage LCS teams; I had multiple offers to be an analyst or a coach of LCS teams. When Riot started paying for coaches, I received four offers. More amateur teams approached me than I can count. I had to turn them all down out of necessity.”

Her writing, meanwhile, had attracted the eyes of esports news sites, who reached out to her with offers that included “decent money.”

“I earn a good living doing the job I do now, but what I was offered was probably better money than 95 percent of the professionals in esports earn.”

Then there were the numerous requests to appear on streaming shows, all of which Sam had turned down for obvious reasons. And this perhaps is the most ironic part of the whole story. Sam had wanted to get to the places his alter ego was now being invited to so readily, having slogged away as a volunteer news writer, but he was unable to reap the harvest. In the end, all he got from his proxy fame were a few potentially titillating moments and conversations with industry figureheads he never thought he’d meet.

“All in all, it’s a sorry state of affairs,” Shields said. “I pity the person in question, since I suspect their behavior was motivated by something very flawed or damaged within them, perhaps as a result of something that has happened previously in their life.”

And for Shields, there was more to it than what he calls a “harmless jape.” It was, rather, “the systematic deception of numerous people, under the pretense of friendship and with the intention of attempting to repeatedly gain people’s trust and find out intimate details of their lives. What a horrible thing to do to someone. But I hope that person gets help.”

In the end, his assessment wasn’t far from the truth. Toward the end of our conversation, Sam finally opened up a little bit more about his personal life. Our whole conversation had been steeped in the surreal, in a disjointed rationale that divorced his actions from consequences. He talked about the importance of respect as he trampled over people’s trust and privacy en route to what amounted to little more than a chance to meet online celebrities. To me, it all looked like the strange consequences of an emotional breakdown. I didn’t want to twist the knife, but now I passed along what Shields had said about him. It was a clear eye-opener.

“I feel terrible about Duncan,” he said. “I have more respect for him than I can explain. I respect him more than anyone else I’ve spoken with in my life. I genuinely love the guy. He’s right.

Suddenly there were a lot of people feeling they’d been duped.

“I’ve struggled with depression my entire life. I don’t think I’d describe myself as a mentally stable person. What mentally stable person would do all this? This was a coping tool. I had a lot of stuff going on, and it was a way to escape from that. The loss of a family member, combined with a breakdown of a relationship and the breakdown of a friendship, all were linked together. It left me with nothing.

“Ann Pragg was a character that was based on a girl I was in a relationship with but we broke up. So it was a mix of her and myself. It came from a real place. She was based on someone I love and still miss now. All of this was a way to keep her alive. If you liked Ann Pragg, then you liked the person I cared for. In a way it was a tribute.”

• • •

Since we spoke, things have trundled along at a steady pace for Sam. The outpouring of hate never came. He continued to write about esports, publishing articles at the news outlet Esports Heaven. He appears on a minor YouTube show called “Korea Talk” that averages around 300 views. And that’s fine with Sam, at least based on what he told me at the end of the interview: He said he didn’t care if he ever went on to be successful in esports. And if this article forced him to retire from the scene entirely, he said that was a sacrifice he was willing to make.

The story doesn’t end there. In the aftermath of Ann Pragg’s sudden disappearance, others tried to resurrect her. One contacted me directly on a new Twitter account, with the same avatar, and tried to convince me that he was Pragg, and that she’d been locked out of her old account. When he couldn’t answer some questions about our previous interactions, he admitted he wasn’t “her,” and that he wanted to adopt the identity and keep the persona alive. “The scene needs Ann Pragg,” the person said.

The account got a few followers before the person running it changed the avatar to an image of Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire. Then he shut it down.

By this point I was tired of the whole farce and spent a few days finding out who was behind the identity—a relatively successful athlete and aspiring writer who followed esports. I confronted him. He explained he wanted to establish himself in esports. When he saw the Ann Pragg persona was “available,” he figured he could appropriate it to serve that purpose. He asked me desperately not to share his identity. He too had gone through a rough time, having sustained an injury that ended any serious hopes of athletic success and having lost his best friend in an accident. He knew he wasn’t thinking rationally. He just wanted to have his work taken seriously and to interact with an audience he saw as his peers. And for some reason, he saw Ann Pragg as a shortcut to all those things.

Funnily enough, Sam didn’t see this behavior as a compliment. Upon realizing there was a copycat out there, he briefly returned under the guise of Ann Pragg, imploring people to out the imposter. He didn’t seem to realize that this was perhaps the one thing that justified what he’d done, at least by his own reasoning. He’d gotten what he wanted: At least one other person loved Ann Pragg enough to want to be her.

As tributes go, though, it was a fairly shoddy monument. The only people who wanted to be Ann Pragg were troubled young men.

 

A version of this story was originally published on the Daily Dot on June 30, 2015.

Illustration by Jason Reed