Why SonicFox is the esports celebrity pro gaming needs
No matter how big esports gets, its mainstream acceptance in Western culture remains debatable. We know people (lots and lots) watch various competitive games. Investors are certainly gunning for the near-billion dollar global industry to continue its exponential growth. Even ESPN is airing them on TV, just like any other sport.
But unlike other sports, professional gaming lacks a household name — that player akin to Michael Jordan or Pelé, whose popularity transcends the subculture of the sport and into something more universal.
That is until Dominique McLean, a player on the Echo Fox team better known by his alias SonicFox.
“Guess all I’ve really gotta say is I’m gay, black, a furry (pretty much everything a Republican hates), and the Best Esports Player of the Year!” McLean said in December, ending his acceptance speech for the prestigious accolade to thunderous applause at The Game Awards.
By the end of the night on Twitter, SonicFox was trending above The Game Awards itself. His follower count nearly doubled overnight. He’s since gotten spotlights in The Washington Post and Out Magazine, and even earned the same Player of the Year title from ESPN.
I met up with the Delaware native when he was in Los Angeles a month after his viral internet celebrity moment. He strode in with a confidence few can pull off, let alone while wearing a fox costume.
The design of McLean’s fursona looks like if a peacock was battle ready: a blend of in-your-face colors, from vibrant blue to bright red, at once defiantly inviting yet devilishly intimidating. Like the man behind the mask, it’s larger than life for all the right reasons.
That was made even clearer when an office dog started barking at him in sheer panic, and SonicFox’s confident peacocking immediately dissolved into trying to make himself smaller, even going down on all fours in an attempt to comfort the poor pup.
Like his esports presence, SonicFox knows when being big and bad sends the right message, and when it’s more appropriate to show some vulnerability.
I won’t lie: At first, asking serious questions to a pair of big, unmoving, green eyes sewn onto a costume felt weird. But that’s one of SonicFox’s unique talents. His personality instantly normalizes whatever you might’ve thought was odd.
It’s what makes him the perfect spokesperson (spokesfox?) for esports’ universal appeal.
“There are so many people who don’t watch esports but know who I am,” McLean said.
“I didn’t expect my Game Awards speech to go global, but it did. I didn’t think it was going to be that big a deal. I went into it like, ‘Whatever, it’s some big Game Awards shit. It’ll die down next month.’ But here I am! Now people recognize me on the street because of it. Like, ‘Oh, it’s that one blue fox guy who talked in front of thousands of people.’ They’ve never seen me play a single tournament in my life, but they know me, they know my name.”
“They’ve never seen me play a single tournament in my life, but they know me, they know my name.”
McLean doesn’t attribute esports’ growing mainstream presence exclusively to himself, but, “I think it does come from a sense of the player. Especially if you’re gaming on a big platform, or on TV, or at an event. You want to do something memorable — that won’t be forgotten by many people, in or outside the gaming community.”
And SonicFox is definitely memorable.
I don’t watch esports. I’ve never seen McLean play a single tournament in my life. I couldn’t care less about competitive gaming. But somehow, I still find myself starstruck while talking to this 21-year-old kid wearing a giant fox head.
And that’s no small thing.
SonicFox embodies that millennial characteristic everybody wants but no one’s quite figured out how to manufacture: authenticity. The word, co-opted by the #ad #brand influencers of the internet, has unfortunately lost almost all of its meaning by now.
But it comes sharply back into relief when you’re met with McLean’s unbridled, infectious sincerity.
“I’m just super unapologetically myself. Not a lot of people are as willing to be open about themselves. And I’m some kind of big flair of a personality that people can’t seem to take their eyes off.” He glanced down at his furry costume, laughing. “I wonder why!”
In a world otherwise ruled by irony, where being cool means caring about nothing, there is SonicFox. He doesn’t just wear his heart on his sleeve. He literally wears his love — for the furry fandom, for the LGBTQ community that supported him, for the games that gave him self-confidence — all over his body, in the form of that iconic blue fox costume.
“I like showing people my identity: how I made it all the way here in spite of being gay, black, a minority,” he said.
“I want to use my position to show people how happy I am, how proud I am of myself. You can achieve greatness, no matter what background you have. Don’t let being who you are oppress you. Don’t let society discourage you, or take away your ability to achieve greatness.”
The SonicFox fursona McLean created became an embodiment of all that.
“I like showing people my identity: how I made it all the way here in spite of being gay, black, a minority.”
“[The costume] allows me to be even more myself … because it’s my own character, of my own design. I get to be different, specifically for the gaming community, because this is the first time they’ve ever seen a top player who’s as furry as this.”
In costume he feels a change in his entire personality, becoming sillier and more devious. Rather than hiding behind a mask, McLean’s fursona only makes him that much more visible. Rather than subjecting him to more ridicule, it becomes a dare to shit talk one of the most skilled players in the world.
Above all, it sends a message to those who — like McLean — weren’t always so sure the world would accept them if they showed who they really were.
That goes hand-in-hand with how SonicFox turned the phrase “im gay” into his battle cry, both during matches and Twitter showdowns with right wingers.
“I don’t know how two words that don’t harm anyone can upset so many people. But apparently it’s a problem. And it’s funny to me that it’s a problem,” McLean said of his mantra. “I don’t even say ‘im gay’ all the time, but when I do it’s the only thing people pay attention to for some weird ass reason.”
Regardless, his Twitter mentions are full of trolls saying he’s annoying for talking about it all the time, that he just does it for attention, or that he should keep his politics to himself.
“People who say ‘keep politics out of games’ don’t realize politics have been in games since day one,” he said. “Also, talking about my life doesn’t mean I’m being political. It is my life. It is literally what is occurring. There’s nothing political about me talking about my identity, especially in the gaming community. It’s part of the reason why I’m here.”
That’s because the fighting game community (FGC) McLean hails from is unlike most other esports subcultures.
“Anyone can be themselves and people will welcome you with open arms. There are so many top players who are gay, transgender, you name it. And it’s sick as hell,” he said.
The friendships he formed in the FGC made McLean feel more comfortable in his own skin — or rather, fursona. “It’s how we started, ground up. FGC was built on diversity and inclusivity.”
That doesn’t protect them from the larger gaming community’s homophobia, misogyny, racism, or overall toxicity, of course. You never want to make the mistake of looking at any of those players’ Twitch chats, for example.
So it’s especially ironic that the player who seems to be single-handedly making professional gaming relevant to everyone comes from the FGC. The scene is an underdog even in the esports community itself, garnering far less attention, money, and crowds than other genres.
In part, the FGC has traditionally attracted more diversity and inclusivity because fighting games allow players to pick and identify with a powerful persona — a named fighter with a personality, background, and creed. By identifying with those avatars, even cosplaying as their personal heroes, marginalized players could feel emboldened in a culture that otherwise rejected who they were.
It’s a lot like how McLean feels when he adorns his fursona.
Now, other competitive games like Overwatch (a first-person shooter) and Apex Legends (a battle royale) are making concerted efforts to ensure their characters represent a wider swath of player identities. But both of those examples are recent arrivals to the scene, and battling a long-established culture of toxicity.
One day, McLean hopes to even contribute to his community’s legacy by making his own fighting games. Though he recently dropped out of the New York Institute of Technology for computer science, his goal is to continue getting better at programming so he can turn all his ideas and designs for diverse fighting characters into a reality.
“I want to tell a story that captures a lot of people’s hearts,” he said.
McLean’s reason for dropping out of college is as straightforward and uncensored as all his other opinions: “It sucked,” he said simply. The format just wasn’t for him, and it didn’t seem like the best way to achieve his longterm goal of making games.
Also he’s quite pleased to ride out this chapter of his life as a top, beloved pro player for as long as he can. So he’ll continue fighting and wining the battle for diversity in the esports arena for the foreseeable future.
“A lot more people get to feel comfortable being themselves when they look at me.”
“The Game Awards made me realize that I have a lot more power than I thought I had. Which is a little annoying, honestly, cause I have some responsibilities to uphold now,” he said, half joking. “I know it’s a great responsibility. But I’m willing to bear the torch, if it means a lot more people get to feel comfortable being themselves when they look at me.”
Like most athletes who live and breathe their sport, it’s been tough for esports players to speak to anything outside the world of pro gaming. And for a long time, that created a huge barrier of entry for esports’ mainstream relevance.
SonicFox is the living, breathing, gay, black, furry proof that esports can matter to everyone, regardless of whether or not you watch them. All we need is a champion we can see ourselves in, and aspire towards. A champion who fights for more than just his ego, and whose undeniable greatness stands for something larger than himself.
“I know a lot of people don’t like what I’m doing, and wish I’d just stop. But for one, I don’t care. And two, you’ll have to do it better than me, you’ll have to take me out. And I’m pretty nice! I’m kinda nasty!” McLean said between his booming laughs.
“Good luck with that.”