Terrence Miller isn’t a big name in the world of professional Hearthstone yet, but after an incredible run at last weekend’s Dreamhack Austin, he may soon be. After winning eight of nine matches in the stage, and fighting through three knockout series, TerrenceM finished second after a close match against Keaton “Chakki” Gill. It was a breakout performance that earned him plaudits for the brilliant piloting of his Renolock deck. But while he was winning matches—and giving understandably nervous post-match interviews on a stream with tens of thousands of viewers—a substantial section of Twitch chat was spamming racial slurs simply because TerrenceM happens to be black. Watching it happen live provided a bleak reminder that Twitch has a problem with racism, and much more needs to be done to first acknowledge and hopefully ultimately change it.
“I didn’t actually get to see it while I was playing in the event [the first day],” said Terrence, when we chatted over Skype after Dreamhack. “I got to see it when the night was done. But I heard about it right after my first interview. Some people from the team, and management, had the Twitch chat open while I was doing the interview. They were telling me it was bad, but I didn’t get to see it until the night after the first day.”
This obviously isn’t the first time—maybe not even the millionth time—that Twitch chat has been overrun by racist messages. We’ve all seen it, and it’s all too easy to write off as just one of those things one has to accept as a native part of the Internet. Of course chat is bad. Just don’t look at it and no harm’s done, right?
That’s not good enough when you see exactly the kind of messages aimed at Terrence.
That’s a selection of messages pulled from chat and cropped together, taken from just a few minutes of Terrence’s appearances on stream. Other chatters commented on the games, made their own jokes, or condemned the racist messages, but to little effect. As with any esport streamed on Twitch, there’s a tendency to make jokes at the players’ expense. Sometimes those are based on appearance, and sometimes they’re based on race. (One of the common memes involves chat deliberately mistaking all asian players for Jeffrey “Trump” Shih.) But the relentlessness of the abuse directed at TerrenceM was on a different level.
The patterns were easy to spot: “edgy” memes and jokes repeated with a racist bent intermingled with overt slurs. I asked TerrenceM whether the lack of high profile black pros in Hearthstone is the reason we haven’t seen incidents like this before. “I think that has something to do with it,” he replied. “I wasn’t really known at all before this event. So there were no other black Hearthstone players who’d had a big breakthrough. But I don’t think lack of diversity can actually be used as an excuse for racism.”
The culture of Twitch may be inseparable from the emotes, memes and in-jokes that cross-pollinate channels and fandoms, but is it really inseparable from racism? I asked TerrenceM what he makes of Twitch culture generally. “Memes and stuff are cool, I think a lot of the stuff that Twitch says sometimes can be funny, but there needs to be a cutoff point where you cross the line and that’s not okay, and just won’t be accepted by the community as a whole,” he said.
“Because what needs to happen to fix it, there’s way too many people to actually control everyone. If you come up with a list of banned words, people are pretty creative, that’s not going to stop it by itself. There just has to be a community that’s not willing to accept it, and punishments for going against that.”
Terrence Miller is a 21-year-old accounting student in New York. He's been playing Hearthstone since the beta November 2013, and attributes his success at Dreamhack Austin this weekend to his practicing habits, which he developed playing Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh!. And he was nervous, despite how calm he looked while he was playing. "I’m just kind of a quiet, shy person, so being onstage and knowing that thousands of people are watching on Twitch is kind of crazy," he said. "When I went into Dreamhack I gave myself a 20 second minimum before even making a play. It helps you to not make any mistakes from playing too quickly." TerrenceM played four decks at Dreamhack: Aggro Shaman, Patron Warrior, Renolock, and Miracle Rogue. He said his lineup carried him to second place, but his team, Galeforce, played a big role, too. "The Heroes of the Storm team had been doing extremely well. I wanted to not be the nobody on the team. I wanted to put my name out there because the other guys were doing really good. They were a huge motivation."
One of the Twitch moderators trying to fight the torrent of racism during the broadcast was Carling “Toastthebadger” Filewich, who titled “Enough is enough”. In it, she argues that part of the problem lies with how major events like Dreamhack approach the streaming component.
“Tournament organizers spend countless hours trying to get every little detail just right for their event… Very little, if any, consideration goes into what happens once the broadcast reaches the public… 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.”
This was Dreamhack’s first event in North America, which may have played a part. “This event was a new low for Twitch chat, and I don't think anyone expected that,” Filewich wrote to me over email. “I know the Dreamhack staff were just as upset about what was being said as I was—they don't condone racism and don't want to appear as if they do. Hopefully major organizers learn from this weekend.”
Half the problem, then, was the process: how the people in charge of the stream prepared for, and responded to, racism and other innapropriate messages as they arrived. Filewich explained how not all the moderators knew what was considered ban-worthy, and Moobot, a useful tool for dealing with spammers, wasn’t configured effectively before the event. It was then used to ban the emote, the face of streamer , which you can see used in a racist context in some of the messages above.
Filewich argues that this was the wrong move, writing “the emote itself is not racist, and removing it suggests that there is something inherently bad about it. All this did was trigger more spam about racist mods and racist Dreamhack taking away a global emote.“ These are mistakes that can be learned from, and according to Filewich, Dreamhack staff .
The other half of the problem, which is far more serious than the process used to manage chat, is Twitch culture as a whole—that so many turn a blind eye to Twitch chat’s dark side, or even condone it. Incredibly, Filewich wrote that one moderator joined in with the racist spam and offered to unban chatters who’d already been banned for racist messages.
You can see this tension play out across gaming communities and discussion boards— arguing more should be done about Twitch chat always draw responses of “who cares?” Others cry censorship and cite freedom of speech, conveniently ignoring the legal distinction between government regulation/filtering of Internet speech and messages typed on a privately owned website.
TerrenceM told me that the racist comments in chat didn’t affect his weekend at Dreamhack. He played superbly through the finals, and was able to stop himself from thinking about them. “But afterwards when I was reflecting on the whole event in general, I realized that my family could’ve been watching that,” he said. “That annoyed me. Or just someone in general going to support me and seeing a lot of hurtful stuff being said.”
“If you’re ignoring something that’s not right, then nothing will ever get done about it,” he continued. “Ignoring it’s not a valid excuse. If it’s something that’s actually wrong, something should be done about it. It can’t just be ignored… Racism, even though it’s just Twitch chat, is not something that should be accepted in any circumstances. The problem itself isn’t just Twitch chat. That’s not what the problem is. It’s racism being accepted by the public. When I saw that people were trying to defend it by saying freedom of speech, I thought that was the most hilarious thing—that people can even think that way.”
Sadly, the targets of racist Twitch messages—the streamers themselves—are the only ones who really can’t ignore Twitch chat, because building up your profile and audience are key to making a living in esports. TerrenceM explained that stream numbers are a big part of pro Hearthstone players’ business model, and being a popular streamer increases your chances of being invited to some tournaments. His breakthrough performance this weekend may have set him on a path to more viewers, but with that publicity comes the likelihood of more harassment.
No single person or entity is responsible for making Twitch as free from racism and harassment as possible. It’s a shared communal responsibility: for companies like Blizzard that run their own streams and tournaments, event organizers like Dreamhack, the media who report on games, Twitch itself, and the chatters who make it home. I reached out to each of those companies to ask about the racist remarks in the chat this weekend and their policies for dealing with those incidents.
“Since moderation support was not requested, it was handled by the broadcaster,” wrote Twitch PR director Chase. “Many of our broadcasters prefer to handle moderating their own channels while using the tools we provide."
“We currently approach chat behavior by providing broadcasters tools, education and autonomy to police their own channel. While in this instance the broadcaster was unable to fully prevent the described behavior, Twitch has a responsibility to broadcasters and players to provide a welcoming environment. As such, we are exploring new tools and processes to increase awareness and mitigation of these issues, and will continue to take action against chatters who committed reported violations.”
Dreamhack did not respond to a request for comment. Blizzard responded, but did not provide a comment before publication.
I also asked TerrenceM if he was worried talking about racism as an issue on Twitch would open him up to more harassment. “I do think that there will be a group that tries to target me more because I brought it up, but I’m ready to deal with it,” he said. “I think that is a small price to pay for actually bringing up the topic and trying to have an actual solution for it.”
Thanks to his performance this weekend, TerrenceM expects to compete in the Hearthstone tournament at Dreamhack Summer next month, Dreamhack Winter down the line, and as many open tournaments as he can find time for when he’s not in school studying accounting. If his play in Austin is anything to go by, his star will only continue to rise.