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Twitch's new PogChamp rotation results in racist harassment and threats

Critical Bard
(Image credit: Omega Jones)

Last week, Twitch removed the PogChamp emote after its face, Ryan "Gootecks" Gutierrez, tweeted support for the insurgents who stormed the US Capitol on January 6. Shortly after that, suggestions to replace it began rolling in, including a good one from Sean "Day[9]" Plott, who suggested that the PogChamp emote should cycle through a variety of streamers making the iconic face.

The next day, Twitch adopted a modified take on Plott's idea, announcing that every 24 hours, a new streaming personality would take on the role of PogChamp. It seemed like a good plan: It presented Twitch the opportunity to showcase a breadth of diversity among its streamers, and if any of them said or did anything to change the meaning of the emote in a negative way, they'd be out in short order. The plan did not account for the reaction of some elements of the Twitch audience, and as a result it has not gone entirely well. 

For some streamers, such as Reversal, who was PogChamp on January 10, it was essentially a good thing: He told Polygon that he'd experienced some "minor trolling," but overall it was clearly a positive experience. For Omega Jones, also known as Critical Bard, however, it was a very different story. Jones was initially very enthusiastic about the PogChamp opportunity, although prepared for the likely response: "I did prep my Twitch and Discord moderators about what was probably going to happen, considering I’m a black man who is about to be the face of a global emote Twitch has loved for so long," he told the site.

Despite that, the intensity of the backlash caught him by surprise.

"I expected the typical hatred and racism because any time a black person is the forefront of Twitch for any amount of time, backlash occurs. What I was not personally expecting was the twisting of words to fit their agenda & the sudden all out attack against me, my socials, and most of all—my character," Jones told me via email. "From doxxing and hacking attempts to death threats, it was WAY more than was even remotely necessary."

The "twisting of words" is a reference to a clip of Jones playing Overwatch being shared around some portions of the internet, in which he says, "White lives don't matter because 'white lives' aren't a thing." The clip cuts off immediately after that point, however, because it was edited to remove context, which is changed in the full clip.

"You can be proud of being Italian, you can be proud of being Scottish. You cannot be proud of being white. It's not a thing," Jones continues. "On the flipside, Black folk have to say 'Black lives matter' because we were stolen from a country that we loved, and were forced to be here, stripped of our heritage and our identities. All we know is our blackness."

Nonsensical accusations of "reverse racism," which aggressively fail to understand the social origins of race that Jones was getting at, spurred the reaction against him. Jones reached out to his Twitch contact about the abuse when it first began, but said that he was unable to provide further information immediately because "by that time, it had gotten so much worse." He submitted feedback on the experience a day later, but at the time of writing he still hadn't received any further response from Twitch: "I do not know what they plan on doing and if there is discussion, I have not heard a thing." 

He has ideas for what Twitch can do to improve its platform for marginalized streamers; what he doesn't have is confidence that Twitch has the will to actually follow through on them.

"This isn't the first time folks have risen up against a marginalized creator on Twitch and, unfortunately, it won't be the last time. They should have had safety measures lined up from the get-go," Jones said.

"The fact that folks who don't even interact with me could go to my channel, clip a small part of a broader conversation, and turn that clip into fuel to attack me is a huge issue. The fact that folk can make account after account with ease so they can hide their racist antics behind the disposable troll account is a problem. The fact that these attacks didn't just come from viewers... but from Twitch affiliates AND fellow Twitch partners is a problem."

Jones believes Twitch needs to take two immediate steps in order to demonstrate a real commitment to change: Begin speaking out loudly, consistently, and often against trolls, racists, and other abusers, and imposing meaningful consequences for hateful behavior—not just from viewers, but from other streamers as well, such as those who incited their audiences against him in the first place. 

"To not just allow them to stay but to keep their checkmarks and ability to gain from this service only means Twitch cares more about their own financial stability than the lives and safety of those who also utilize their service," he said.

Sadly, the response to Twitch's announcement of @dearDeere as the latest PogChamp also drew a significant negative response on Twitter and Reddit, although growing awareness of the backlash seems to have inspired a more visible outpouring of support, too. Her stint begins later today, and she is making a point of not backing down from the threat of harassment.

"I knew what I was in for when I signed up. I have been featured before and I'm afraid it's just the reaction someone like me gets," she said. "But it's worth it just to be able to represent my community."

Twitch said in a statement sent to Polygon that its new PogChamp program was "created in the spirit of celebrating the diversity of creators" on its platform, but tacitly acknowledged that there have been problems for some participants.

"While we’ve seen an overwhelmingly positive response from both the community and those highlighted, we are also in close contact with the new faces of PogChamp to offer support as needed," a rep said. "We do not tolerate harassment on Twitch, and will take action on any behaviors on our service that violate our rules.”

Twitch has taken action in recent weeks to implement stricter and clearer policies against racist symbols and sexual insults, but meaningful enforcement against individual behavior, particularly bad-faith manipulation of media like Jones' Overwatch clip, remains elusive. I've reached out to Twitch to inquire about its lack of response to Omega Jones, and what—if anything—it plans to do to protect future PogChamp candidates from abuse, and will update if I receive a reply.

Andy covers the day-to-day happenings in the big, wide world of PC gaming—the stuff we call "news." In his off hours, he wishes he had time to play the 80-hour RPGs and immersive sims he used to love so much.