Next Level: Toxicity In Esports
Trash talking your opponent is as old as competition itself. The only difference was, before the internet you had to own your trash talking. You couldn't hide behind an anonymous handle and send hate around the world with the press of a button. When you had to own your trash talking, you really had to know what the limit was in what you could say, today there are no limits, as world renowned Counter-Strike team, North, found out.
January 21, 2019 the team posted this Tweet addressing the vitriolic comments the team had been receiving at a seemingly steady pace. The team went on to explain that this reaction was not to a single threat or single user or group of users, it was a reaction to a relentless torrent of hate the team receives on a regular basis.
North has since created the #StopToxicity movement within esports, even going so far as to mimic mainstream professional sports teams by adding a flair to their player's jerseys. The movement was even addressed by famous porn website, xHamster.
We spoke with Phillip Hedemark Rasmussen, Digital Marketing Manager at North, to gain deeper insight into #StopToxicity and what North's players and the organization itself are dealing with.
x: What triggered the statement from North?
Phillip: Nothing specific, really. We, and the players, receive toxic comments on a regular basis. It is not tied to a single result or event. And it can be totally random sometimes. Of course, when we play tournaments, the frequency is generally higher, because there is more focus on us.
x: How has the hate mail been affecting the players?
Phillip: I think everybody gets affected by a message with a pin on a map telling “I know where you live” or “I want your family to die from cancer”. Of course it affects you. And it needs to stop. Our pro players have been hardened over time, and they just block the people from their social channels, but it shouldn’t be that way. We’re also concerned about the casual player, the 12 year old who plays CS:GO or Fortnite or LoL for the first time and is facing this, might not be able to handle it as well as our players. We want to make a stand against that.
x: Is North taking any legal action in some cases?
Phillip: All credible threats are always reported to the respective authorities and platforms.
x: The initial post was met with overwhelming support from the community as a whole. One week later, what kind of effect is North seeing?
Phillip: The community came out in force to support us. Brands like Red Bull, ESL, RIOT, G2, SK Gaming, Liquid, Cloud 9 and several professional players backed us up, saying that this is not okay. To this date we’ve reached approximately 5 million people with our initial tweet, and had more than 500,000 people engaged in some way or form. Right now we’re seeing tournament operators, teams, streamers and others, pledge their support to the movement, and promising to stand up for what’s right. At the same time we’re talking to multiple people about what can be done, and how they can support what we’re doing – both individuals, brands and teams.
x: North has made numerous pledges to the community - what would North like to see from the community?
Phillip: We as organizations – including ourselves at North – need to put more resources into moderating our feeds, channels and communities. Some might say that “this is just the internet, you should live with it”, but it is important for us to state that the status quo is not good enough. If we ban and block toxic users, if we delete toxic comments and if we do our best to be good examples of behavior, then we believe that others will follow. We would love to see more teams and players talk openly about the harassment they’re facing, because it is evidently something that everyone experiences.
Friendly Trash Talk - Where is the line?
North draw the line at:
"Hateful, derogatory, racist or homophobic comments are not okay. Neither are threats. Trash talk, memes, banter and heckling is part of the competitive drive that is at our core. It’s also important to state that we don’t ban people for criticizing us. You can definitely tell us that we’re not doing good enough, if you believe so, but there’s a big difference between saying “You guys need a roster change in order to compete at the top again. There is no other way around that” and “North is a shit team full of fucking shitters” (actual comments posted on our content)." - Phillip Hedemark Rasmussen, Digital Marketing Manager at North
But to others, telling their friends to go kill themselves is considered #normal. It is a mixed bag that often depends on individual tolerances and the dynamic of the relationship in question. For professional teams and personalities however, the relationship is already at arms length. Whether a fan is "just joking" or actually hostile is often lost via the medium of text and a lack of familiarity. Just because you watch your favourite player/team every day on Twitch.tv doesn't mean they even know you exist.
Fans in mainstream sports - such as baseball and basketball - often berate players from the stands, screaming obscenities at the top of their lungs in order to set a player off and get a reaction.
And then there are football fans...
Lucky for professionals in esports, this is not the norm (yet), and hopefully never will. But it does raise legitimate concerns as high-profile gaming celebrities continue to make themselves accessible and grow to the level of pop stars and mainstream professional athletes - personal safety is paramount.
Understanding when a threat is credible and warrants being reported to the proper authorities, and when to brush it off as an overzealous fan can be quite difficult given the nature of the esports industry. Who hasn't said something awful online from the safety of their own home?
Anonymity Fuelling The Fire
Privacy is a hot topic, no matter where you live. Being anonymous on the internet is one of the things that makes it so wonderful. You can be whoever you want. Make up an alter-ego, become an invisible lurker, or simply be yourself. Unfortunately, it can also make harassment that much easier for evil-doers.
For everyday people, you can do things to avoid this - set accounts to private, curate contact/friend lists, limit what information you post/give out, use a fake name, and much more. But when your job is being a public figure, all of that goes right out the window. You are accessible. Painfully so in most cases. People know how to contact you, they know where you work, they know where you are going to be and when you are going to be there. It can be quite scary when you are facing a torrent of threats and unwelcome messages in your inbox everyday.
And unfortunately esports is not that big. Teams and personalities don't have security personnel to qualify and mitigate risk 24/7 like professional athletes or celebrities.
That's what makes #StopToxicity so important. Toxicity is a scale, at one end you have light banter and being an annoyance, and at the other you have serious consequences.
The Far End Of The Scale
Everyone remembers SWATing? DDoS attacks? What about drive by shootings?
Sadly, all of these things are all too familiar to Guy 'Dr DisRespect' Beahm, one of most popular streamers on Twitch.tv.
In September, Dr DisRespect was subject to two separate drive by shootings, one of which broke an upstairs window of his home while his wife and daughter were home (he was streaming at the time). The incident was widely reported in the media: The Verge, Kotaku, VentureBeat, Polygon, and more.
Sadly, stories just as disturbing are becoming the norm for popular gamers. Just ask Ellohime, who was "visited" by a fan from Singapore who flew all the way to Florida, USA and then walked a reported 25 miles to Ellohime's house in the middle of the night before then camping out behind his property. You can read the entire ordeal on Kotaku.
And What About Girls, Girls, Girls?
We constantly hear horror stories from female gamers - whether they are famous streamers, pro gamers or not - about the horrendous behaviour they endure on a daily basis.
Just look at AnneMunition, a popular Twitch streamer. Anne posted in mid 2018 about the abhorrent treatment she receives while playing in her free time. She shed light on what a female gamer goes through on a regular basis, and gained widespread attention at her "shaming" video where she called out her anonymous attackers.
Cases like this are simply the reality for most non-male gamers. Ask any of your non-male gaming friends, you are sure to hear similar stories of harassment up and down the scale.
There isn't really anything else to say here. We all know it happens, and have likely witnessed it first hand. But just because the game ended or the victim left the server doesn't mean it is over.
The BAN HAMMER Bandaid
It's MAC address or bust, unfortunately. At best this will simply slow a person down by costing them some money.
The unfortunate reality is that the vast majority of platforms do not allow you to do this. From game publishers, to social media platforms, to league/team/org websites - you have very little control as a user.
Banning people is just whack-a-mole with dickheads. Crush one with your mighty BAN HAMMER and a bunch more just pop back up in an endless game that just leaves you tired and frustrated.
In the end, the BAN HAMMER is just a bandaid.
Just look at Overwatch.
Blizzard and Overwatch
tl;dr Blizzard still hasn't fixed Overwatch, but they have made progress...kind of.
2017 was the year of toxicity for Blizzard's latest flagship game, Overwatch. It got so bad. The general complaints and eventual outcry from fans was simply too much for Blizzard to ignore.
Enter Jeff Kaplan...
Ooof...now now children, behave yourselves or Blizzard might ground you. You should think long and hard about what you've done, and feel very very bad about it! Now go be good players.
Come January 2018, this very stern talking-to and addition of the "Report a user" feature to Overwatch console players, supposedly resulted in a 17% reduction on toxicity, and a 20% increase in player reports. Interesting numbers, especially since we do not have the total amount of player reports.
Jeff also let players in on the fact that they are tracking behaviour outside of Blizzard games as well - by monitoring mainstream social platforms.
Fast forward to June and it is clear more work needed to be done. Blizzard announced and then launched two new community features to help curb toxicity even further: Look For Group, and Endorsements.
Look For Group (LFG)
LFG is a system designed to enable players to find specific types of teammates with aligned interests. If you are looking for a specific team composition, you can restrict your team to those roles only, enabling you to find the "right" players for that role.
The idea behind LFG is to limit issues in the game that people tend to bicker over and cause conflict, thus reducing toxic behaviour.
Overwatch endorsements are a sort of player rating system, post-game, where you can give people a pat on the back for:
The idea is, after you receive so many endorsements from other players, you are rewarded. This encourages people to be nice in-game in order to receive an endorsement at the end of the game - incentivized positive behaviour. Be nice, get a loot crate.
Come July, Jeff Kaplan was ready with another brief update on toxicity. It read:
He conveniently left out Europe...
Blizzard bans 18,000 Korean Overwatch players - and posts all of their screen names online.
That is a lot of bandaids.
All this means is that Blizzard will now have a windfall of Overwatch purchases in Korea as these players re-purchase the game, or other game developers will see increases in players for their games.
To sum, Blizzard has implemented the following to curb toxicity in Overwatch:
- Report a Player
- Monitor External Social Platforms
- Incentivize Good Behaviour via Loot Crates
- BAN HAMMER
And it seems to work...a little. According to Blizzard toxicity has been reduced. The issue is, how many of the offenders have reformed? Or are they just busy buying new accounts or moving to new games causing a vicious cycle?
Fixing The Problem
Well, as mentioned earlier, banning is only really a temporary bandaid. A necessary bandaid, but a bandaid none the less. Blizzard has notably made steps to try and reform player's behaviour through incentivizing good behaviour. Still, a lot more needs to be done.
Realistically this begins with people's education, especially with regard to life online. Sadly, there isn't a lot being done in most schools to properly educate children/teens about safety and appropriate behaviours online. The best we can do is be active stewards of our relative communities. Which brings us to our community...
You wouldn't let anyone bully your little brother or sister. And it is unlikely you would let someone do it to your teammates either. So why let it happen to community members you play with anonymously? I mean for Christ sake, you play heroes with special abilities to protect things in-game because you can't do those things in real life. But you can help your fellow community members, so do it.
Blizzard has actually done a fairly decent job at implementing both soft and hard measures to curb toxicity in-game. And I personally do not want game developers to go the route of Nintendo and ban chat altogether. You can't really enjoy the full competition experience without chat...
The likely next step for developers is to develop more intelligent chat/voice monitoring algorithms to sensor and punish hateful behaviour.
More creative punishments would also be a welcome addition - for example sensitivity training in order to lift your ban/punishment. Or handicaps in-game. Or instead of just showing who has the most "endorsements", also show who has been penalized/punished as well: Player X has been banned 3 times, and muted 6 times.
North has taken the lead and set a very strong example in esports.
It is up to other teams, players, and esports orgs at large to follow this example and cultivate non-toxic communities. So hopefully, this isn't just a flash in the pan for esports.
What can you do to protect yourself?
In the meantime, if you face or are worried about being harassed, there are a few things you can do to enhance your safety online:
Fake name - Use a fake name whenever possible
Fake address & P.O. Box - Use a fake address, or if you are receiving mail from fans, etc, use a P.O. Box a safe distance away from your own community.
Never disclose personal info - Never. Ever.
Keep friends and family out of it - Unless your friends/family want to be in your content, etc, leave them out of it. That way there are fewer connections to you, and they hopefully wont become targets as well.
Unidentifiable base location - If you are streaming or posting a lot of real-life visual content, make sure your home base location is unidentifiable. (don't show your house, or house floor plan, or accidentally show your address on a box shipping label, don't show the view from your house or your own neighbourhood, etc.)
No real time information - Going on vacation and want to show a vlog or photos to your fans? Do it after you get home. Don't tell your audience where you are going beforehand, only tell them when you are safely away from that location.
Curate personal profiles - Keep your circles closed. Keep your private accounts un-discoverable, use a fake name, keep your personal life private.
Mute people - Someone starts talking shit? Mute. It isn't complicated.
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