Racist and sexist behavior in esports is exposing what regular gamers experience every day

Blizzard Entertainment

In recent months, several professional gamers in the esports world have been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons: incidents of sexual harassment, abuse of power and horrifyingly explicit racist rants.

It's easy to read these high-profile stories and think they're strange, one-time occurrences — but for those who play games online, these displays of toxic masculinity are an everyday reality. And if you don't fit the stereotype of a gamer — meaning you're not a straight, white male — these racist, sexist and homophobic online encounters with total strangers are much more likely to occur. 

So, what effect do these more high-profile incidents have on the gaming world at large? Do they spark change within communities or simply model bad behavior that normal gamers will be all too eager to emulate? We spoke with Kat Lo — a Ph.D. student and researcher in online communities and harassment at University of California, Irvine — to suss it all out.

A brief history of high-profile abusive behavior in esports

If you haven't been following the esports world, here's a brief overview of some recent high-profile incidents of abusive behavior at the hands of — or targeted toward — esports professionals:

South Korean esports network OGN issued a fine to professional Overwatch player Timo "Taimou" Kettunen for making sexual remarks about a female reporter. In Twitch chat, Taimou made a comment about a female reporter who was set to interview him, saying, "gonna check those pantsus when I'm getting interviewed LUL," and, "I wanna explore that interviewer girl's thighs," according to Kotaku.

• Toronto Esports Overwatch player Matt "Dellor" Vaughn went on a racist-epithet-fueled rant for 26 uninterrupted seconds in the midst of a live Twitch broadcast. Dellor was fired from Toronto Esports shortly thereafter. In a statement, Dellor said, "The only thing I can say is that despite me using that word, I am not a racist," according to PVP Live.

Warning: Video contains extremely disturbing, racist language.

Source: Odd Washington/YouTube

Twitch viewers berated professional Hearthstone player Terrence Miller with racist comments during a live tournament. Miller said he didn't let the comments ruin his game but later reflected on the issue. "When I was reflecting on the whole event in general, I realized that my family could've been watching that," he said in an interview with PC Gamer. "That annoyed me. Or just someone, in general, going to support me and seeing a lot of hurtful stuff being said." The same thing happened a few months later.

Two Overwatch pros from the South Korean team Lunatic-Hai were briefly suspended for attempting to meet up with and "ask for photos" from female fans, one of whom was underage. After female fans began posting messages online that they'd received from Geum "dean" Dong-geun, he said, "I always thought that I shouldn't do this, and is not appropriate for my position. But I couldn't hold myself back," according to Kotaku.

These incidents prove a pattern gamers have been reporting for years

It's easy to get caught up in these news stories and think that the problem is somehow centered around the ultra competitive esports scene, which is so permeated with bro culture that one pro, Eliver "KillerKai" Ling, takes his shirt off during professional matches. But really, it's just a manifestation of the toxic culture of harassment and bigotry that's soaked into the DNA of the gaming world at every level. For example, back in February, a Reddit thread about sexual harassment in Overwatch gained huge amounts of traction once other players started chiming in with their own stories.

"It sounds a little messed-up," Kat Lo said in a Skype interview, "but in a weird way, when these [incidents] become public, it becomes an opportunity to point out what's been going on all along kind of insidiously. Because it's often hard to comment on issues of bigotry when to [many] people it doesn't seem to exist."

Could these racist, sexist outbursts normalize that behavior?

At the same time, high-profile esports professionals can model what's considered normal behavior for the gaming world at large. This behavior likely has a negative effect on the community, too, potentially enabling young, impressionable viewers to behave similarly.

"There's a strong parallel to what's been happening on YouTube," Lo said, referring to the so-called ironic racism and hard-right politics making waves in the gaming community. High-profile users PewDiePie and JonTron have both recently come under fire to varying degrees for their controversial statements.

As evidence, Lo pointed to a widely circulated comment on a Kotaku article about the PewDiePie fiasco in which someone noted that young members of their family had been flippantly using Hitler and Nazi jokes in their everyday lives. The source of these jokes was eventually discovered to be YouTubers who use similar language.

Commenter on 'Kotaku' notes that YouTubers' anti-Semitic jokes had a negative influence on young members of their family.  Twitter

Similarly, these high-profile incidences of racist, sexist and toxic masculine behavior in esports can trickle down to young, impressionable fans who are watching at home. Unfortunately, there's no clear solution, and policing the behavior of esports professionals may not make much of a difference. What we're seeing here is the symptom of a larger toxic culture in gaming that needs to be addressed at the root.

What we're seeing here is the symptom of a larger toxic culture in gaming that needs to be addressed at the root.

Debating the effects of these events in esports might all be a moot point anyway — after all, this kind of behavior is already an everyday reality for online gamers right now.

"You hear this phrase, 'Trust what women say about their experiences,'" Lo said. "And the reason that phrase is so common is because if people haven't seen it themselves, it's very common to deny that it happens [at all.]"

At the very least, maybe these public displays of toxic behavior in esports will help finally convince the naysayers it's a problem. Harassment has been an issue in gaming and other online spaces for years, but these public esports-related incidents make evident what was once mostly anecdotal. As these stories continue trickling out — and they surely will — it'll become harder to ignore and harder to pretend it isn't a problem.

Then again, it'd be nice if we could believe regular players when they come forward with their stories in the first place.

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