2007: The first steps to a successful night of Ventrilo trolling is to change your display name to something syntactically obtuse. Perhaps a series of tildes (~~~~~~~~~~) or an alternating barrage of greater-than less-than signs (<><><><><><>). The robotic text-to-speech voice that announced the comings and goings of people on a server could not tell when someone was intentionally being annoying, so it would read out your full moniker loudly, without judgment or censorship. This came in handy if you decided to connect, disconnect, and reconnect to a room in rapid fire succession.
"GREATER-THAN-LESS-THAN-GREATER-THAN-LESS-THAN HAS JOINED THE CHANNEL. GREATER-THAN-LESS-THAN-GREATER-THAN-LESS-THAN HAS LEFT THE CHANNEL."
You get the idea.
I carried out these missions during my peak World of Warcraft raiding days, usually when an insider leaked the IP address of a rival guild's Vent. I assume that my old family PC is still permabanned from some servers to this day. It was deserved, of course. I was being an idiot. But it was also thrilling and felt artificially dangerous in the way that juvenile pranks ought to be. You were one step ahead of the internet police, praying that your name wasn't about to be slandered in trade chat.
That was the thing about Vent, or Teamspeak, or whatever other VoIP software you prefer—those channels felt isolated and sovereign, and naturally that also made them ripe for invasion. It's a memory that triggers whenever I click an automated Discord invite, or get sorted into a voice lobby as soon as my Overwatch queue pops. Imagine! I used to copy down programming jargon on a legal pad and connect to a third-party server, just to talk to my friends. It feels like a century ago, but there are still plenty of PC gamers out there who haven't migrated to Discord. Is it stubbornness, or nostalgia, or the confidence that the old ways are, somehow, still better?
I wanted to find out, because those VoIP platforms are still putting up a fight. At this summer's QuakeCon, Ventrilo gave away $10,000 as part of a long-running Ultimate Power-Up sweepstakes, and later this year TeamSpeak will release "TeamSpeak 5," which promises Twitch integration and other new media wrinkles. This seems to significantly diverge from the old-school desktop client the software was founded upon. There is also Mumble, the barebones hunk of freeware with a Windows 2000 UI and a surprisingly strong cult following.
Together this triptych represents the old guard of videogame voice chat, the bulwark standing against the Discord generation, with its sleek design and seamless servers. When I interviewed Discord's CEO Jason Citron last year, he told me how he grew up playing games with his friends on Vent, and specifically wanted to create a service that ensured you never had to remember an IP address ever again. Mission accomplished.
Today Discord hosts nearly 100 million users, and seems to be rapidly building a monopoly in the games industry. Those who remain committed to their rickety VoIP modules are fighting a losing battle, but I still wanted to hear them out. So I composed a post on the PC Gaming subreddit looking for any grognards who haven't made the switch. Before long, a user sent a message to my inbox containing a TeamSpeak server and password.
Just like old times.
Just like home
The Syndicate of Gamers TeamSpeak server is instantly nostalgic for anyone who grew up on VoIP. A litany of miscellaneous, homespun chatrooms dot the server, each with funny, pithy names—Cougar's Cavern, Duck's Sniper Nest—representing the calcified fossils of long-dead inside jokes canonized by ancestors who don't log on anymore. There are, of course, active Rainbow Six Siege and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds lobbies, proof that the channel is not in complete disrepair, as well as the trademark password-protected VIP rooms that are regulared by self-proclaimed officers and anyone lucky enough to be friends with them.
I'm welcomed here by Austin Cundiff, who is 24 and lives outside of Chicago. This server is where he grew up.
Cundiff tells me that the server has existed, in various incarnations, for about five years. Over the course of that time he's established ironclad friendships through the kinship of headshots and Ragnaros kills, and he's watched those same friendships slowly disappear into the internet ether. It goes without saying that this server is not nearly as populated as it once was, but despite that, Cundiff has maintained a solid group of friends that, like him, have stuck around the rooms as the years have piled on.
His dedication to TeamSpeak is emotional, personal, and practical—a semblance of allegiances all meshed into one. However, there is one truth he stands by: TeamSpeak, by its nature, is a more intimate platform than Discord.
"I think the reason I don't like Discord is that it feels so 'connected.' You have all these tabs on the side, all these notifications—you can jump between any of those servers in a second," he explains. "On TeamSpeak it feels a little more private experience, you have to actually input the address of where you want to go. When you go into a server, you're in a cozy room. Whereas with Discord, you're in a train station."
Broadly, that's an adage I believe; a Vent server as a fiefdom, and we its loyal citizens. It's the same logic I rely on when I want to believe that my hairbrained high-school mischief was unique, or charming, or part of my own social development. These connections are about tradition, not better sound quality or stability.
Another Syndicate of Gaming regular, 30-year-old Chris Brown, feels the same.
"I've been around this TeamSpeak for four or five years. I've seen people grow from high school students, all the way to college students. Some of them have really good careers now," he says. "This TeamSpeak has been a family."
The thing I find most envious about Cundiff and Brown's relationship with their TeamSpeak server are the once-in-a-blue-moon occasions when someone they used to play with logs back on. Suddenly, a routine night online turns into an impromptu family reunion. They they talk about where they've been, what they've been up to, and what took them so long to come back.
In the Discord era it seems like our organic and digital lives are merged in constant symbiosis, but I remember never having a good policy of keeping track of the friends and comrades I met online during the mid-2000s, after they inevitably hung up their keyboard after a firstborn child, or a new job, or an unshakeable case of burnout. I knew all my best guildmates solely by their Gnomish and Dwarven names, and I've long given up any hope of reclaiming those connections from the deep.
Cundiff, on the other hand, leaves the light on, so that no matter what's going on in your life, an IP address full of people you used to play Modern Warfare with will be in your back pocket. I think we all have days where that sounds like the best possible therapy.
"You have a lot of people leave. Not leave to go to different servers, but just leave in general when life gets in the way. But sometimes, on a weekend night, someone from the past will pop in. Sometimes I don't even remember their name, but I hear their voice and I'll be like, 'Oh shit, it's been a long time, how are you doing man?'" he says.
"I think these servers foster a sense of connection. I've had some of the most intimate conversations of my life on TeamSpeak. It's because you get all these people from all around the country, all around the world, and you know they don't know anything about your personal life, and you feel more open to talk to them about whatever. I think that's my biggest fear about going to a different server, because people remember their server, and there's a chance they'll come back. If we totally transition to Discord, we'll lose the address that people always return to to see old friends."
The Discord days
Obviously, not everyone is wired like Cundiff and Brown. 28-year old Ohioan Liam Baggett runs his own Mumble server for his family and friends, and tells me that nostalgia doesn't play a factor in his decision to eschew Discord. "[Mumble's] simplicity is a huge thing for us. There's not a whole lot of backend set-up," he says. "There's not a lot of management to it. It's just a lightweight client we like to use, and since it's mostly just voice and links, it minimizes the amount of junk. I've used Vent, TeamSpeak, and Discord—which populate a lot of data. If you want a simple interface, Mumble still works better than anything else."
Still, Baggert is able to get plenty sentimental when he talks about his channel. As his friends have dispersed across the country, his Mumble has become a way of life. When they're not organizing Destiny 2 strikes, they're kicking back on a Friday night and playing tunes over the microphone.
"Every person in my Mumble group I've met in real life. It's become a separate home for people. It's the closest we can get to us all sitting in a room together," he explains. I don't think there's a more succinct argument for the sanctity of voice chat than that.
To be clear, you don't have to foster a decade-long kinship over the internet to jump on VoIP right now. There are plenty of public Ventrilo and Teamspeak servers, and you can browse them much in the way you can with Discord hubs today. GameTracker, the primary bazaar for aimless LFGing gamers, is open and active and full of randomly sorted voice servers, and the catalog looks to be untouched since the late-aughties.
I popped into one called VANtrilo, which was populated exclusively by about four friends. Naturally, they told me they "very rarely" have anyone enter the channel that they don't know. Other channels are more utilitarian in nature; I found meeting places for Russian and Dutch clans, as well as an Oceanic public square. Mostly, though, you'll find a ton of abandoned servers, which nonetheless remain untethered in cyberspace. Connecting to them is particularly surreal. There is no loneliness quite like an empty World of Tanks room.
It doesn't give you a lot of hope for the future of the old ways. Like IRC, they'll continue to exist, but fortune favors the new. Discord is continuing to grow, branching out into selling games, and while it might not be the de facto voice client forever, it's hard to believe TeamSpeak 5 will offer any kind of grand resurgence. Ventrilo also pushed out a 4.0 release last August, and both will likely keep trudging along, sustained by a slowly shrinking group of loyalists.
After spending time in those old Vents and TeamSpeak servers, though, it's hard to be sad that those days are gone. Change doesn't signal the erasure of the games culture we knew and loved. I promise you, it's all still happening. There are millions of teens on Discord right now, and they're all falling in love with their PC, and the people who live within it, just as we did. Yes, the means are slightly different—they don't have to memorize any IP addresses—but the memories will be the same, even if it's easier now to torment a crosstown clan's server.