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Toxicity in Esports is Out of Control

Nikhil Kalro

In December 2021, Gabriel Toledo de Alcântara Sguario, also known by his screen alias falleN – one of the most successful FPS players in Brazil – decided he needed to speak out. Done with seeing toxic behaviour around him from fans towards players and teams, and done with seeing online abuse through social media platforms, he first made an impassioned plea to fans and the community at large. He asked for people to wake up to the problems it could cause.

toxicity faker

BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA - MAY 29: Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok of T1 competes at the League of Legends - Mid-Season Invitational Finals on May 29, 2022 in Busan, South Korea. (Photo by Lee Aiksoon/Riot Games)

He tweeted: ”We need to change, especially the Brazilian gamer community, from threatening and trying to make the person on the other side feel ‘afraid’ to punish something that was done and we don’t like it. This in no way reflects our essence as a people.”

He wasn’t done. While underlining the general warmth and joy Brazilians are known to bring to sport, and life in general, he added: ”To defend ourselves we don’t need to incite fear, violence or punish others for being wrong. We are better than that.”

At the heart of the matter that triggered these thoughts were a series of controversial results that occurred in the first half of the VALORANT season this year, where simmering tension between Brazil and North America escalated further in the wake of certain decisions.

Like the one where Riot was accused of lack of consistency in punishing exploits as VK’s (the Brazilian outfit) win was overturned to give Ascend a victory. At the time, the organisers said one of the Brazilian players had abused a Cypher cam glitch. Immediately in the aftermath of that result, there was mayhem from the fans on social media.

Prior to VK’s reversal, there was another storm when a close affair between Sentinels and FURIA was stopped just when it seemed as if FURIA had seized the advantage. A tech pause over a jump exploit was deemed to be the official reason, but the Brazilian fans were having none of it. They alleged the 15-minute stoppage was the reason for FURIA’s loss from there on.

Even if it just ended in a simple warning, the mayhem they caused online was as if the team had been served a ban. Social media profiles of opposition players received plenty of hate, bile, abuse and threats – enough to cause grief to the most disconnected of personalities who detach sporting results to the maximum extent possible.

Toxicity Only Hurts Relationships

If it’s grief from the Brazilian fans in VALORANT, the Korean fans have taken it up a notch at League of Legends. They have waged online wars to the extent that superstar mid-laner Lee ‘Faker’ Sang-hyeok even took fans to court, after being subjected to a barrage of online insults and harassment directed at him and his family. The player’s lawyers even confirmed there would  be no plea nor favourable arrangement deals.

The issue stemmed from slanders towards Faker’s mother and obscene drawings that would be considered “unspeakably foul”. Faker has long accepted assessment of performances and the scrutiny that comes with them are part and parcel of superstardom, but he wasn’t going to take such hate lying down.

By extension, the hate that Faker’s received has transferred onto T1 too, seemingly because of their unprecedented success in LoL. Their prominence has led to flashpoints and online mobs with fans. Players have in the past spoken about personal attacks while taking it in stride, but that trend is slowly changing.

The overwhelming sentiment now has moved from tolerance and pleas for better behaviour to fighting fire with fire. Players now want to respond to serve a lesson to not indulge in online bullying or cause mental anguish to players and their families.

“We would like to ask fans to keep their distance for their safety and their privacy,” T1 said in a statement. “Please show your respect for the players when they are near HQ, especially before and after the games, as they need to prepare in peace. We ask the fans for your cooperation to protect and respect the players’ privacy as well as create a safe fan/player culture.”

But it isn’t just fans who have been at the centre of such abuse. In 2017, a professional League of Legends player in China had been fired from his team, after it had emerged that he had beaten his girlfriend and had inadvertently live-streamed the incident. It emerged later that the trigger for his behaviour was intense competition from a rival he wanted to beat at any cost.

There have been a few cases of physical abuse, as mentioned above, but it’s mostly online abuse and trolling that has been central to leagues and esports the world over. There’s no denying that social media is a double-edged sword.

Fans are there to cheer and root for their team irrespective of the end result, but a layer of anonymity can at times provide fodder to those with nefarious intentions to abuse players. It’s something several organisations have now woken up to, trying to take the matter seriously. Some have appointed mental health experts to chat with their players from time to time, others have tried to deal with it in their own way, like Faker has.

Two superstars in the Overwatch League in America – Atlanta Reign’s Kai ‘Kai’ Collins and Toronto Defiant’s Andreas ‘Logix’ Berghmans – have completely steered clear of social media because “it’s probably the worst place for abuse.” Jiri ‘LiNkzr’ Masalin from the Vancouver Titans believes subjecting oneself to social media after games can be the most depressing feeling, and “not a good hobby to have” for a pro player because “nothing can prepare you for that.” Then there are forums like Reddit where abuse has been taken to another level, as Los Angeles Gladiators off-tank Indy ‘SPACE’ Halpern has experienced.

The Road to Reducing Toxicity

So how can such issues be tackled? Can rules be tweaked to antagonise fans less? At least VALORANT is looking at options, such as trying to do away with the existing mass reporting system that automatically suspends players. This system has caused numerous false bans and can be infuriating to players and fans alike. Riot, the organisers, can also do well to place more resources in their tribunal department.

The number of reports a player receives should only be a trigger of priority for reviewing manually. This will ensure all reports are reviewed, which would then reduce the likelihood of false bans, which in-turn could lead to fewer flashpoints between fans. Also in VALORANT, the current toxicity detection system is only limited to text chat. But with VALORANT encouraging voice chat, the organisers should look to implement a system that can sift through voice communication upon receiving reports.

Valorant has taken measures to increase communication restrictions, queue bans and account suspension of players indulging in such behaviour. Extending this to fans is easier said than done, and given how access is a lot easier in the online world, a foolproof method to keep serial abusers and trolls away hasn’t yet been devised. 

If any, the awareness around such behaviour and toxicity has led to more players and teams talking about it openly, which has led to them trying to also address such issues, which may have earlier been brushed under the carpet.

In any case, the bottom line is this. Sport has no place for abuse. Trolls will just be trolls. As long methods are devised to weed out such disruptive forces from games, players and teams can breathe easy knowing they’re on the right track. A full-blown process may take time, but just that it’s coming up for discussion is a massive leap towards weeding out this problem of plenty. 

With esports having been mentioned as a possible Olympic sport – it was included as a demonstration event at the 2018 Asian Games – this crackdown couldn’t have come at a better time.