The world of pro Dota 2 is no stranger to drama and controversy. Gabe Newell once called a esports host an "ass" and fired him mid broadcast after he opened the show with jokes about Chinese porn. Players have written 7500-word blog posts about not being paid. And a tournament's Major status was revoked mere weeks before the event because players were worried about failing Filipino drug tests.
But now there is another controversy in the world of Dota involving racism, massively offensive comments, and players having to make a stand in order to get some kind of acknowledgement from Valve.
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS LANGUAGE SOME MAY FIND OFFENSIVE
ur own mmr
u sad fucker
its all you have
in your life
i make money from dota
u third world dog
and u runin the the only thing u have
in your life
and you think i give a shit
about ur miserable situation"
"dont buy wards
let these russian whores
they would sell their mother
and they ruin their own game
These are messages posted in the team chat in a game of Dota 2 by Sébastien "Ceb" Debs, the off-lane player for professional team OG and reigning TI champion. The match was a standard Dota 2 game where Ceb was put on a team with some players from Russia, the game did not go favourably for his team, and Ceb's version of events state the Russian players were "toxic" and "game-ruining."
Regardless of the situation that lead to these words being said, clearly no-one, especially not one of the most public figures in Dota, should be saying things such as this, but it is unfortunately a relatively common occurrence in Dota 2 matches.
After seeing the comments when they were posted to Reddit, Alexei "Solo" Berezin, a Russian pro player for Virtus.Pro, decided enough was enough. In a post on Russian social media site VK, he said: "I won't be participating at the upcoming Epicenter Major that will be played in my home country unless Valve openly speaks about this case and ensures consistency and transparency when it comes to treating racism in our game."
Virtus.Pro are already guaranteed a spot at The International 9, so Solo not playing at Epicenter would not have jeopardised their appearance at the biggest Dota tournament in the world, but missing out on a $1m tournament is not something to be done lightly, especially when it is the only Major to be played in Russia this season.
Solo's threat to pull out shined a light on the issue and turned what was a small bit of drama in the Dota scene into a much larger conversation. His actions forced Valve to act in some way, and opened the door for Ceb, Solo and Valve to have a discussion around the issue. Over the last couple of weeks things have gone quiet on the topic, but Solo has revealed Valve is discussing the issue with the parties involved.
"I want to give our fans and all Dota community a brief update on the situation between me and Ceb," said Solo in a statement to Eurogamer. "We've been in close contact with Valve right from the moment it happened. It's been an open and honest dialogue, I think in the end we were able to find common vision on the case. We have agreed that our teams will work together to develop a solution to tackle same problems in the future and we'll sit down at TI with Valve and other players to discuss the implementation. We share similar approach on this, so I'm optimistic about the result. When I made my statement in the middle of the crisis I wanted Valve to openly speak about the matter. They did so during our communication and I'm very grateful for that. I would have loved of course to find an immediate solution but we all want it to be sustainable, so I appreciate that it takes time.
"To show our fans that we've left this matter behind we've reached a principle agreement with OG that we'll try our best to play a friendly show match at upcoming Epicenter. The final execution will be pending organizational matters, but I hope we'll be able to do it. I also urge our home crowd to pay respect to Ceb and his team mates. Let's show our guests some real Russian hospitality but don't forget who is your home team, though. In avoidance of doubt, I'll be there to play alongside with my guys.
"Thanks everyone for your support, looking forward to seeing you soon."
But the incident with Ceb, who did not respond to our interview request, is not the first, and most likely will not be the last. In late 2018 Andrei "Skem" Ong, who at the time played for compLexity Gaming, said "Gl chingchong" in a match against Royal Never Give Up, a Chinese team, at the DreamLeague Season 10 tournament. Shortly after that, a Filipino Carlo "Kuku" Palad, a player for TNC Pro Team, posted "ching chong" in the match chat when playing with some Chinese players in a pub game.
Skem was benched by compLexity shortly after the DreamLeague tournament, and is now playing on loan for Malaysian team Geek Fam.
Kuku on the other hand was banned by Valve from the $1m Chongqing Major tournament and the TNC organisation was docked 20 per cent of its Dota Pro Circuit points, which give the top 12 teams at the end of the season automatic qualification to The International. The punishment from Valve came after it emerged the TNC organisation tried to cover up the incident and did not appear to be planning to punish Kuku.
"When I'm just watching [the Chongqing Major] I feel so bad, because, you know, I qualified for that tournament, but I learned my lesson," Kuku tells Eurogamer at the ESL One Birmingham tournament. "In pubs now [I'm] like just commanding my team and trying to be positive for the game. After that incident, I reflect on myself and trying to change some of my attitude. And I just talk less and just try to remind my team when it's really hard, because some of the teammates will not listen to me."
These two incidents are by far the most well-known when it comes to pro players saying racist and offensive things in-game, but in the aftermath of the Ceb drama, GitHub user morcefaster looked at the public chat records of many of the top Dota 2 teams in the world to find examples of pro players using racist and offensive language. The results are disappointing to say the least.
"u guys are not winingn this 3v5... u dumbn***ers...Let us end," said Yawar "YawaR" Hassan, who currently plays for Forward Gaming, in 2016.
"calm down ni**еrs," said Anathan "ana" Pham, who plays for OG, in 2016.
"2 ni**ers... camping me", said Yazied "YapzOr" Jaradat who plays for Team Secret, in 2017.
Those are just three examples of players using the N-word in game. There are also many insults aimed at people based on their nationality, and there are more uses of the word "Mongoloid", a term that has in the past been used for people with Down Syndrome but is also an offensive term for Mongolians and people of Asian heritage, than you could reasonably count.
It is worth pointing out some of these messages were posted before the players writing them became pro players, and some are from many years ago. Others are much more recent and from players who have been professionals for years. The data is also only from messages sent in all chat that all 10 players in the match can see (the team chat data is not publicly available through the Dota API).
The data shows that many of the top Dota 2 players in the world regularly use incredibly offensive, and in some cases outright racist, language when playing in public matches, revealing this isn't an issue confined to one or two individuals or mistakes. It is a widespread issue throughout the entire scene.
"A lot of people, including myself, are flaming teammates," says Samuel "Boxi" Svahn, who plays for Alliance. "And it's easy to I guess flame them for being Russian, especially if they're speaking a language you don't even understand... I think it shouldn't be okay to target nationalities.
"Personally I don't think I've ever been racist in that regard I would say. Like I've never targeted people for their nationalities or for where they come from, [it's] more like flaming people because they're stupid in the game. And I think that's kind of where I would draw the line... I don't feel like my behaviour in the past has been over the line so to say."
While Boxi is far from the worst offender in the GitHub data, he too has been found to use offensive language directed at Russian players. In a game on 6th September 2018, he said "im tired of having retard russian in my team", following up with "maybe this game will be different", and "but i lost hope". Then going further back to 28th February 2018 he said "i mean playing with 2 russian retards nty," when asked why he abandoned his previous match. There were also a further two examples of similar language from before he joined Alliance and use of the word "mongоloid" as recently as 3rd February 2019.
As you would expect, many of the worst offending pro players were reluctant to talk about things they may have said in the past, however Quinn "CCnC" Callahan from Forward Gaming, who had quite the reputation as someone who would say potentially offensive things in chat before turning pro, admitted it was an issue for him, but is something he is working on.
"I'm still salty, from time to time, maybe more than I'd like, but, you know, it's just kind of a work in progress," says CCnC. "Like, as you play more you experience other people being salty to you more or whatever, and you see the repercussions it has, you see what happens whenever you do this stuff, like it becomes less and less appealing. And you're just trying to make yourself better as a person. And that's sort of part of it, you know, being all mad all the time it's not... it's not really conducive to being a nice person."
The data from GitHub shows that CCnC has mostly used the word "mongоloid", even as recently as 2nd October 2018. Outside of that he also said "Russians are intolerable" and "Just stack reports on DG... For bieng a european... Degenerate... europeans are acutally the most abysmal region... its insane," in a match on 4th March 2018.
It would be unfair to say all of these players are outright racists, but the language they are using in pub games is highly problematic. Seeing the best players in the world use offensive language normalises it for other players, and only helps to spread the usage.
In other top esports, such as in the Overwatch League or the Riot controlled League of Legends competitions, players must adhere to relatively strict codes of conduct that ban them from using language like this. Many argue these restrictions remove trash talk from the scene and make things more boring, but clearly there is a point where trash talk steps over the line.
"If you're attacking somebody based on their personal traits, that's a problem," says Morgan Romine, Director of Initiatives for AnyKey, an advocacy group for diversity and inclusion in gaming and esports ran by Intel and ESL. "And that's different from trash talk, where trash talk can be very neutral on somebody's personal traits. It could be like, 'you suck and I don't care if you're a girl or boy or what colour you are, you just suck at this game.' And that's fine. That is trash talk that is part of the cultural fabric [of esports]. But understanding where that line is and when you're actually personally attacking somebody and making them feel bad about being there, that's where we're sort of limiting ourselves as a broader esports community."
Ultimately it is Valve which has the power to implement a code of conduct for Dota 2 pros, and when this round of drama kicked off the chances of that happening seemed very unlikely, as Valve rarely steps in when it comes to the competitive side of Dota. However, Solo's actions seem to have changed that, and it certainly wouldn't be a surprise to see some kind of code of conduct, or at the very least standardised punishments for pro players that do this kind of thing, implemented when the 2019/2020 season kicks off later this year. (Valve failed to respond to Eurogamer's request for comment by press time.)
After years of this being an issue in Dota 2, even if the full extent of it wasn't entirely known, it feels like the scene is finally making some progress. Both Boxi and CCnC predicted that now people are going through chat logs and making them public, pro players, including themselves, will speak less in chat and think more about what they say. And if a ruleset is added next season this kind of behaviour would surely reduce significantly as it has in other esports.
However, as CCnC puts it: "it's gonna happen again, for sure."
UPDATE 18th June 2019: OG have announced they are docking Sébastien "Ceb" Debs a month's wages and all his winnings from the upcoming Epicentre Major will be donated to charity.
In a post on Facebook, OG said Ceb "guarantees that such situation shall never occur again on pain of a stronger punishment".