Despite being released over 10 years ago, Team Fortress 2 still boasts one of the biggest player bases on Steam. Today, the number of players peaked at 54,350 - placing the game at seventh on Steam's leaderboard of most-played games. And behind the player count, there is still a significant esports community organised by a series of leagues unaffiliated with Valve. TF2 players have run a small but passionate competitive community for several years.
Over the past few weeks, however, a darker side of the community has emerged. Several competitive players and community members have reported experiencing a culture of harassment and toxicity. The community members took to social media to reveal harrowing personal stories of racism, sexism, transphobia and sexual abuse. To make matters worse, some professional TF2 players have responded to the social media posts with insults and derogatory terms aimed at the victims. Since the reports of toxicity in the competitive scene emerged, other players have come forward with their own stories, and it seems the problem is pervasive. The affected branches of the TF2 community include the TF2 workshop, Steam comments and public matches in the game itself.
Although many of the competitive leagues have responded with statements, bans and policy changes, some have remained silent on the issue. Players have also reported the toxicity goes beyond the competitive sphere to almost all parts of the Team Fortress 2 community - so the question is, should Valve do more to discourage it?
Warning: contains some sexual and offensive content.
The online discussion was initially provoked when one competitive TF2 player, Alex "Arekk" Uth from team Froyotech, used the transphobic term "tranny" to describe invitational TF2 player Jenny "Nursey" Tempalski live on a Twitch stream. The clip has been taken offline, but Eurogamer has seen the recording and can verify its existence. Since this occurred, Tempalski stated Arekk has apologised, but the incident sparked an online discussion about toxic behaviour within the competitive community.
Shortly afterwards, content creator Ness "uberchain" Delacroix came forward with her own experiences as a photojournalist for teamfortress.tv - an organisation which covers the TF2 esports leagues. Delacroix gave a detailed account of some of the emotional and sexual manipulation she'd experienced behind the scenes at LAN events. Professional players made suggestions she'd slept her way to getting a production position. Some made advances to Delacroix and claimed she could "play around with them" because she wasn't married, despite her being in a relationship at the time. Behind her back, players planned to try to sleep with her at LANs, and then refused to participate in events when she rejected their advances. The very worst of the behaviour included sexual abuse.
And now I'm ready to talk about it, so here's a non-specific list of what people did or said to me.— uberchain (@uberchain) August 5, 2018
Do I think anything will change? I don't know. I thought they were more important over me to the scene I love and defend to this day, so I stayed quiet then.
I'm talking now. pic.twitter.com/rmIVIV7nZY
As if to prove Delacroix's point about toxicity in the community, two European Team Fortress 2 League (ETF2L) players, "degu" and "Pred," responded to her tweet with a dismissive joke and a racist slur. degu shared a picture of a Windows screen showing "log off," while Pred used the term "ugly gook cunt" to describe Delacroix (the term 'gook' is a slur for Korean people).
While we're on this topic of holding the community responsible.— uberchain (@uberchain) August 6, 2018
To ETF2L Prem players Degu and Pred, what did I do to you guys that warranted Degu responding to my statement on my sexual abuse with a dismissive joke, while Pred responds to it by calling me a racist slur? pic.twitter.com/q24T6ZWcSs
Unsurprisingly, this provoked outrage among those involved in the Team Fortress 2 community. A forum post appeared calling for degu and Pred to be banned, while other players joined Delacroix in describing their own experiences. Austen "Tagg" Wade, a well-known ex-TF2 pro player and Twitch Partner, played in ESEA-Invite Championships until he grew tired of the racism from professional players on TF2 streams and in LAN competitions and chose to retire. He reiterated that these are still huge issues in the community, and called on the TF2 community to punish competitive players exhibiting toxic behaviour. Another player by the name of "KaimTime" stated he'd been the butt of anti-semitic jokes and slurs when he played in the UGC League. Meanwhile, in response to the transphobic remarks made by TF2 league players, map maker Rebecca "Phi" Ailes announced she would be ending her work on maps for the competitive scene.
In the past couple of days several prominent members of the Comp TF2 community have shared their experiences of harassment, transphobia & sexism in the scene.— Summer (@summer_Dogg) August 6, 2018
The responses have been, extremely disappointing to put it lightly & here is my response to the situation at hand pic.twitter.com/V5RheSZ8BC
And the problems seem to extend far beyond the competitive TF2 community. Workshop creator Juniper "Fuzzymellow", who identifies as non-binary, revealed they'd had to deal with transphobia within their TF2 projects and had witnessed doxxing, stalking and harassment within the workshop community. According to Fuzzymellow, one particular group of players even followed them into a TF2 match in order to bully them and mock their appearance. This same group apparently stalked vulnerable people in the workshop community, even finding their Facebook profiles, and there have been attempts to steal identities. This toxic behaviour also takes place on Valve's very own platform, Steam, and in-game. When I spoke to Wade, he told me he receives racist comments on his Steam group like this one "about once every two months". Another lifelong TF2 player also posted a list of verbal and in-chat abuse she'd received while playing the game just for being a woman.
Several TF2 players have told me that normally when these things happen, no significant action is taken by the community. Map maker Ailes explained many of the current toxicity problems are caused by "the entire community not taking a stand when they see it". From her experience, many people - including top-level influencers, "do not bat an eye when they see hate."
"The few people that do speak out get rebuked for 'creating drama'," she said. "It's embarrassing."
This time, however, there appears to have been something of a breakthrough. Several leagues and platforms, such as TF2League and ChampGG, have stated they will not tolerate toxic behaviour from players competing in their leagues, even on third-party platforms, and are now enforcing temporary bans. The two players who victim-shamed Delacroix, degu and Pred, have been given bans by the ETF2L. degu will be unable to compete for two months, and Pred until the end of the year. The ETF2L also announced it would cut Pred's team's prize money in half, and donate the remaining amount to a charity of Delacroix's choice. It stated: "Our sponsors as well as uberchain (Delacroix) have welcomed the idea of sending a message this way. We are aware that this is only a small gesture, but a signal like this can go a long way."
These actions seem positive, and Jenny "Nursey" Tempalski told me she believes the toxicity problems are "already being handled pretty well" by the competitive community. She informed me, however, that the ESEA (the main North American league) is unlikely to implement new policies, as it "doesn't really pay attention to the happenings of the competitive TF2 scene". In Tempalski's opinion, this means there are few deterrents to stop North American professional TF2 players from exhibiting toxic behaviour on third-party platforms.
I contacted the ESEA to ask about the league's behavioural policies. Although it has a "support ticket" system to allow players to report behaviour in league matches, the ESEA stated it does not "police player's conduct on other websites or when they are competing in other tournaments". This means the sort of behaviour recently exhibited by players such as Uth ("Arekk") will likely go unpunished by the ESEA.
There's also more work to be done by TF2 community moderators on forums. The players I spoke to, such as Ailes, said they believed the community "needs to be much more self-moderating". The problem here is players interpret this as limiting to their free speech - for instance, a Reddit post has already appeared asking "have SJW's [sic] killed gaming and are they killing TF2?". But as Wade told me, moderators "need to start realising that enforcing rules and protecting people in your community... is more important than upsetting a few people that just want to be able to call people slurs".
The Team Fortress 2 community, it seems, is at least starting to debate its toxicity problems. The question is: where is Valve in all this? Some players have demanded action from the company, but whether this will actually happen is another matter.
Team Fortress 2 isn't the newest game, but it still has a significant player base, receives regular updates, and continues to make money for Valve. This happens not only through the in-game shop, but via the Steam community market, where Valve takes a tidy 15 per cent fee of sold TF2 items. The TF2 workshop members who contribute content receive 25 per cent of the money made from direct sales of their items in TF2 - the rest goes directly to Valve. And according to Fuzzymellow's post, some of the toxic groups in the workshop community "continue to receive indirect validation in the form of accepted TF2 items in-game, receiving big Valve paychecks". Fuzzymellow thereby suggests Valve has a responsibility to ensure it doesn't endorse these sorts of groups financially, and helps protect its players.
Despite the amount of money Valve makes from TF2, the company has remained distant from the game's community. Because Valve has such little involvement in the third-party competitive leagues, there is little Valve can do in terms of interference. In theory, it could encourage leagues to take action by issuing a statement condemning the poor behaviour. But where Valve could make a significant impact is in-game and on Steam.
So far, Valve has done the bare minimum even in this regard. According to Delacroix, toxicity problems have existed ever since TF2's release in 2007, but Valve hasn't really "cracked down" on harassment and slurs. In Delacroix's opinion, Valve needs to do more, as harassment "occurs not only within the competitive scene, but in the workshop scene or the trading scene, the Source Filmmaker and art scene, wherever within TF2".
The most Valve has done recently is update the Team Fortress 2 in-game reporting system. Toxic players with "excessive reports from other players" can receive a temporary ban - but this seems like an automated system with no human moderation. The number of reports required for a ban also remains a mystery, and according to players, it clearly hasn't been a sufficient solution.
Meanwhile, TF2 players have had to deal with hateful Steam comments largely on their own. This is a problem across the entirety of Steam - last year, the State of Steam survey (via PC Gamer) revealed developers are unhappy with the platform's limited tools to help them deal with toxic users on community forums. The survey comments mention toxic users can be banned from one forum, only for them to harass people on another. The developers particularly want to see Steam-wide bans to prevent hateful players from hopping between forums. As it currently stands, Steam users have to moderate their own communities with very little help from Valve. But as highlighted by PC Gamer, Valve has a team of only 42 people to moderate a user base of 125 million. In Wade's opinion, Valve is "perfectly fine with making their own users experience the hate and then do all the work for them".
Although toxicity is unfortunately part of the online gaming landscape across many games, other developers such as Blizzard, Ubisoft and Epic have been far more proactive than Valve in seeking to combat poor behaviour. Earlier this year, these companies, along with 67 others (including EA, Twitch and Xbox) joined the "Fair Play Alliance". This is a coalition of companies committed to creating "a world where games are free of harassment, discrimination, and abuse". Members collaborate to discuss and research ways to prevent "disruptive behaviour" through methods such as improved game design.
Valve, of course, is absent from this list.
Importantly, it seems the companies are delivering on these promises. Only last month, Ubisoft implemented a system in Rainbow Six Siege which automatically gives players a temporary ban for using racist and homophobic slurs. Blizzard, meanwhile, recently introduced an "endorsements" system for Overwatch where players can reward other players for sportsmanlike conduct. Apparently this has been successful - developer Jeff Kaplan posted stats showing abusive chat has reduced by 26.4 per cent in the Americas, and by 16.4 per cent in Korea.
And there's no reason why Valve can't implement these sorts of systems in TF2. Earlier this year, Valve did introduce a system to deal with toxic behaviour in CS:GO. The "trust factor" system evaluates player behaviour over a number of games on Steam, and matches well-behaved players together. Perhaps this latest online discussion about toxicity will prompt Valve to consider announcing the system for TF2. (Valve has yet to respond to Eurogamer's request for comment for this article.)
Meanwhile, TF2 community member Delacroix says that while she's glad her experiences have prompted debate, she's not ready to "name-drop [her] assailants just yet".
"This is an esports scene that, because of no direct developer support from Valve, constantly sacrificed money out of their own pockets and time from their schedules, to make sure they can help build that esports scene. But it got to a point where we didn't want to talk about the bad parts or people and just work with it, because we thought the people that were abusive were necessary to keep the TF2 scene alive, and the drama plus them being ousted would just make our small community smaller."
Frankly, it's unlikely Valve will do anything to improve problems with toxicity on Steam and in the TF2 community. It has recently displayed a laissez-faire attitude by washing its hands of responsibility for the games it sells. But with the amount of money it's making from the platform, and Team Fortress 2 alone - the game's army of loyal fans believe it should.