It's been nearly a year since the bot situation in Team Fortress 2 escalated to a point where Valve had to get involved, but despite those efforts to curb the infestation, the problem has not gone away. Along with bots using game-ruining hacks, bots in casual servers are continuing to use racist usernames and spam voice chat with loud noises. There are now reports that bots are increasingly being used to advertise bots and bot immunity - and disturbingly, that some claim to offer links to child sexual abuse images.
Eurogamer has seen screenshots of bots using Team Fortress 2's chat function to advertise links to ecommerce platforms such as Shoppy, where bot hosters have found ways to monetise their disruptive efforts. Along with offering the option to rent bots, stores are offering the option to purchase "bot immunity" to allow the player to be ignored by that particular brand of bots. It's basically a virtual protection racket.
One Shoppy store seen by Eurogamer went a step further than immunity, offering the ability to "buy out" the bot hoster for a cool $500 (£363.24). For this the hoster promises to shut down their 100 bots - and throw in a Discord phone call for free. Of course, there's no way of knowing if the bot owner would actually stick to this promise, so I would advise against this investment.
These issues are bad enough, but a far worse problem is that some bots and scripters are advertising links to child sexual abuse images. The screenshots of TF2 chat seen by Eurogamer show that links are being shared to websites offering the ability to "ask for CP", an online acronym for "child porn". Eurogamer separately found another two instances of these images being advertised in graphic terms in TF2's text chat, with the scripter asking players to comment on their Steam profile to be offered the option to pay for them. Other players on Twitter have also reported seeing adverts and links, with one allegedly advertising access to child sexual abuse images through messaging service Telegram. Whether the links and profiles did host these images could not be verified, but the fact it's being advertised at all in the game is a serious problem - and one that Valve clearly needs to fix.
Valve first took measures to tackle the bot problem in June 2020 by placing restrictions on new free-to-play accounts, and later prevented bots from changing team names. The community has also taken matters into their own hands, creating anti-hacking subreddits and "anti-bot bots" to counter the malicious actors. Earlier this month, someone created a mod to identify the hidden characters used by bots in their names, thus preventing bots from hiding behind a legitimate player's name to avoid being kicked. Meanwhile, esports company Faceit has created a new platform promising a "bot-free" experience of TF2, which so far seems to be going down well with the TF2 community.
Despite all these measures and workarounds, the bots in the vanilla game are still a major issue. Many continue to use racial slurs in their names, deploy hacks like aimbot, or spam adverts for social media channels on YouTube, Twitch and Discord. "During March of 2021 there has been a massive increase in bots," said TF2 player Chris, who contacted Eurogamer about the problems and provided screenshots. "Before, seeing bots would happen every other match, you could even play for days without seeing a bot. Now? There isn't a single match that is left without any bots. Some game modes are completely unplayable, like Payload Race, and Capture Point.
"I'm [saddened] by Valve's lack of attention towards TF2's bot crisis, and the clear lack of responsibility of the damage the bots are doing. And I think the TF2 community can agree with me on that. We just want to be able to play the game, have fun and make memories."
After nearly a year of bot problems - with some now advertising criminal content - it seems Valve urgently needs to step in once more, and hopefully get rid of the bots for good.