Competitive Gaming, Viewer Interaction and Twitch Chat
Some time ago on the Hearthstone section of Gosugamers a thought provoking article was written by Nydra and Toastthebadger about the behavior of Twitch chat and the responsibilities of Twitch chat moderators. Nydra begins the article with a bit of background and context:
Despite all the wonderful storylines that we saw in the buildup and during DreamHack Austin - the first ever DreamHack on American soil - the event was far from perfect. Those fixated exclusively on the stream and not minding their surroundings probably experienced a pleasant weekend, enjoying a unique tournament. The others, however, namely those inhabiting Twitch chat, witnessed one of the most tasteless displays of rampant bigotry, directed at numerous players who just wanted to play a card game and give the audience a good time.
Toastthebadger then finishes the article with some striking words:
I’m not faulting Dreamhack for what happened in Twitch chat during this event. Ultimately the blame is on the people that were spewing hatred with messages that I can’t even bring myself to say out loud. But the Dreamhack team was not prepared. They didn’t have enough moderators, they didn’t have the right ones, and they didn’t fully use the tools available to them. They were content to allow Twitch chat to be Twitch chat, and never anticipated that people would sink as low as they did. I hope future events take this into consideration, because we cannot keep allowing the lowest common denominator to speak for a community that is normally kind and welcoming. That toxicity makes us all look bad, and I hope you’ll join me in saying enough is enough.
What is being referenced was the treatment of the Heathstone player Terrence Miller by Twitch chat during his tournament run and 2nd place finish at DreamHack Austin in 2016. During the event he had no idea it was going on but afterwards he found out about it from friends and family who were watching the event.
This is a powerful discussion that I want to delve into, the idea of a public chat tied, officially, to an event. Let's first start off with some background on myself, I come from traditional sports media covering the National Football League where I do research and writing on a regular basis. This foundation is the basis for how I view all competitive games and sports. Traditional sports are consumed either in person at a stadium, at an arena or they are viewed at home on television or computer. Competitive gaming and traditional sports often share the live event atmosphere though obviously sports such as American football draw much bigger crowds but many competitive gaming events have similar attendance to other stadium/arena sports like hockey, basketball and baseball. Competitive gaming's live atmosphere are often compared to basketball since similar to a basketball court fans are often very close to competitive players. At both competitive gaming events and traditional sports, you still have rowdy or misbehaving people who may say or do inappropriate things, but these are a rare occasion regardless of the event.
The two also are similar in how bars and eateries deal with them. Gaming bars that broadcast tournaments are almost exactly the same as traditional sports bars in terms of set up and execution, you have various televisions that show a variety of games and events. We have also seen this with competitive gaming moving to traditional television with tournaments like ELEAGUE being broadcast on TBS.
But the area competitive gaming and traditional sports differ is how they are viewed at home and it goes back to their roots. The history of traditional sports being broadcast has been a narrow and focused one one, during the early years of baseball, basketball and American football they had their rise during the early days of television and the peak of radio. Radio was vital to rise of most major sports today's rise and when television ownership grew from 9% of American homes to 86% in a single decade, sports were one of the pillars television was built on. Sports became a reason for families and friends to gather at each other’s homes or at bars that had televisions. The social aspect of traditional sports has always centered around this, either with families or random fans who enjoy the same team you do.
Competitive gaming has a different history with a different median. Now it should be noted that the first Starcraft at peak popularity were viewed on traditional media and this should be noted but that wasn't the path for any modern other competitive game. The modern gaming tournament scene is tied to Twitch and other digital platforms that followed it. Twitch was founded on the sense of community that allowed broadcasters to communicate with who was watching them, it wasn't a competitive gaming platform at foundation, though it quickly became one, it was about communication between streamer and viewer. Twitch themselves say "Twitch, however, is much more than a viewing experience; It is live social video that relies on audio and chat to enable broadcasters and their audiences to interact about everything from pop culture to life in general as they game." This is one reason I love Twitch, and other online broadcasters, especially for smaller streamers, I have made many friends talking with people in chat and have gotten to know a number of streamers better with this form of communication and online broadcasters should continue to encourage it for streamers. Do I want to remove chat entirely? Not at all, it is vital for streamers.
The issue arises when you take this chat system and apply it to tens, of thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions of people. While the unrelenting hatred spewed in Twitch chat came to light recently this is nothing new and has existed for years. The cause has nothing to do with Twitch or the game being played, it's what happens when you put very large groups of people together behind the wall of anonymity. While I am a sports writer and researcher I studied sociology at college and this is the expected behavior, this is the norm. What was a founding principle of Twitch and other streaming sites is actually a big weakness it has. That communication can be wonderful in the right setting and with the proper population but once it grows things get out of hand, even streamers with large population generally limit who can chat by making their chat only accessible by those who have subscribed, or paid a fee, to that streamer. Sean "Day9" Plott is a good example of this and it works wonders.
This is where gaming broadcasting platforms need to evolve. Anyone who is a fan of traditional sports can easily imagine what it would be like to have the average 15 to 20 million NFL viewers of any given game all chatting at the same time, it would be hell on Earth. But traditional sports don't have this, and they lose nothing, people don't say "I would watch basketball but there is not chat." It's just not a thing. Twitch's chat is exceptional valuable for streamers, but what does it add to eSports events? What is gained? Chat is too fast to have a conversation with other viewers, the broadcaster of the event can't learn anything from the feedback in the chat and the player (for the best) can't see the chat either. There is minimal benefit. With so many social media platforms there are places for fans to post real time thoughts and reactions to the games.
As competitive gaming grows I have no problem with them forging their own identity from traditional sports but the fact they were born on a platform with chat doesn't mean they should stay there. As more events are shown on ESPN and TBS, that will not have chat, I don't think the issue is moderation, I think the issue is with the nature of chat. No amount of moderation can deal with growing viewership, at some point chat needs to looked at as the cause of the issue.Now I'm in no way saying Twitch should remove chat but I do power should be given, and actually encouraged, to broadcasters to shut down chat. Talking with others in the sports industry and looking at it from a sociological perspective, losing chat on major competitive gaming events would have a minimal impact on viewership but has a larger negative impact. At some point the negative impact will out weight the minuscule lost of viewers. I know this is not popular since chat is such a historical point for eSports but at this point I no longer watch Twitch with chat open, when I watch on my PC at all since I almost exclusively watch on my television now. Unpopular but likely necessary.
I do want to specifically note that Twitch allows you to close chat, which I do by default, and a growing percentage of Twitch is consumed on televisions through consoles like Wii U, PS4 along with PC's that are connected to televisions and thus don't see the chat. These people are actually experience Twitch, and other platforms, as they would traditional sports and even treat them socially the same. Blizzard encourages BarCrafts to watch Starcraft 2 while League of Legends has seen a growing number of finals parties that are similar to Super Bowl parties for American football.
Lastly I want to discuss eSports players and how their rise will bring similar vitriol that traditional sports athletes receive. While it's certainly disgusting to read the chat logs of the Hearthstone tournament but this is similar to what athletes already experience through Twitter, Facebook and other social media, the difference it Twitch chat fades while social media lasts longer. Gaming athletes generally have no idea what is said in chat unless someone tells them. Many are open about not rewatching broadcasts so they don't know or care. I'm in no way saying this behavior is right but I am saying it won't go away and in some sense competitive gamers are more insulated since this hate was only on Twitch and not through hundreds or thousands of Tweets being sent their way. I find any form of hate speech to be disgusting to me but no amount of moderation will make it go away, we see that in traditional sports, the difference is that traditional sports athletes and media don't focus on it since they realize these people don't deserve attention. An American football player named Cam Newton is black and he won the NFL's Most Valuable Player award in 2015 and on Twitter it was found that thousands of people spewed racial slurs at him but it wasn't brought up, not because the media agreed, but because the sport and its media had matured beyond giving attention to hate speech, and I think the gaming media should as well, especially since competitors don't read Twitch chat.
So what can be done? Tournament organizers want to engage their viewership and community but chat is a poor attempt at this. Both traditional sports and competitive gaming have struggled with this for year. Both are active on Twitter during events posting highlights, posting polls and showing social media interaction on Twitter. Traditional sports have also added in smart TV technology to let you take polls right from your TV and some sports leagues like the NFL and NBA work very hard to provide interaction with fans.
But by the nature of most events being on Twitch competitive gaming is handicapped. To run a poll event organizers are forced to use an external source like Twitter, a polling site or an add-on. This is one area other streaming platforms are more successful at by having built in polling, gambling and leader boards without 3rd party websites or bots. While those platforms are much smaller so they don't get tournaments but they are a template to a better experience for those who watch tournaments and want interaction.
Starcraft 2 at one time was blessed with a tournament organizer who went out of their way to engage with their viewers. Red Bull Battle Grounds was a great tournament series just in terms of the great games, locations and unique formats but what set it apart was how it made the viewers feel involved. This is a bit of a personal story for me because as someone who mostly lurkered and rarely commented or interacted with competitive gaming the Red Bull Battle Grounds Archon Tournament during the Legacy of the Void beta broke me out of my shell. I'd been watching Starcraft 2 for years but that tournament series finally got me talking about it.
During the event they had a variety of polls, competitions and stream elements that got people involved. By predicting who would win each match and with what score on their site you could earn points and at the end of each day they'd show the leader board. They regularly show tweets and images people posted on social media and spent time during the breaks to look at the brackets people made or funny tweets sent their way. They did all of this on their own site with Twitch embedded in (sans chat). That way you could watch, tweet, vote and have fun all from the same site and you'd get feedback from the casters. This was such a unique experience for me that it pulled me into the scene and is something I hope other tournament organizers eventually learn from. What I learned from that event is we can do, and expect, better.
In the end I wrote this to provide two questions:
- Do you need Twitch chat to enjoy a tournament?
- How can tournament organizers and Twitch engage the community without relying on chat?