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The difficulty in banning the ‘most toxic League of Legends player in North America’

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Making someone more powerful by striking them down

Twitch via Polygon

Update (Jan. 8, 2018): Tyler1 turned to Twitch at 3 p.m. CST today to stream his first League of Legends match following Riot Games’ decision to lift his ban on Jan. 4. Tyler1’s return garnered more than 380,000 concurrent viewers at point of publish. A clip can be seen below of his reemergence.

Original story: It’s a new year and a new competitive season for League of Legends, and it may be time for Riot Games to reconsider its permanent disciplinary ban on notorious troll Tyler1.

It’s going to take a lot of explaining about what happened and why. This situation digs into some of the most challenging aspects of online gaming in 2016, and how tenuous the control of these games can be for the people trying to police the community.

Okay, so what’s a Tyler1?

Tyler1 is a Twitch streamer, YouTube content creator and League of Legends player who was banned from the game for his persistent and outrageously toxic behavior in April 2016.

If you visit Tyler1’s YouTube channel, which has 450,000 subscribers, or his webpage where you can buy a #FreeTyler1-branded tank top, you will see a banner graphic that lays out Tyler’s claims to fame:

Tyler1

In the image on the YouTube channel — but not on the webpage — there is a strike through the word “Toxic” and the word “Reformed” has been added underneath it.

Those three claims pretty much sum up the Tyler1 story. The Challenger tier is limited to the top 200 solo-queue ranked accounts in each geographical League of Legends region, such as North America, Europe, China or Korea.

League of Legends is one of the most popular games in the world, and this competitive tier is so exclusive that if you finish the annual competitive season at this rank, Riot sends you a jacket to commemorate your accomplishment. It’s kind of like the ones golf pros get when they win the Masters. According to Tyler1’s Twitch page, he was the 13th-ranked solo queue player in North America during the 2014 season.

Tyler is a “one-trick pony” player; he only plays a character named Draven, a flashy, axe-throwing executioner. This is noteworthy for a couple of reasons.

Draven, Tyler’s only competitive character
Riot

League of Legends gets a balance patch every two weeks, in which the game designers tweak damage and health numbers and sometimes alter the mechanics of champions who are performing too well or not well enough, as well as changing the items that the characters purchase over the course of the game.

The fortunes of champions rise and fall with the patch cycle, and many competitive solo players try to exploit the strengths of the top “meta” champions to gain an edge over their opponents as they attempt to climb the ranked ladder. Being competitive with a wide range of characters helps you ride these waves and changes.

But not Tyler1. He always picks Draven. That means he has to constantly outplay opponents who are selecting flavor-of-the-month champions who may have a statistical edge. Draven has not been considered a top champion for his role during any time in the last several years, and as of January 2017, Draven is ranked fifteenth out of 18 marksman characters.

That means Tyler had to be really, really good to climb into the Challenger tier playing this champion. To keep the golf analogy going, this is like winning the Masters, or at least placing, using only one club.

So what happens when Tyler can’t pick Draven?

The League of Legends ranked draft system allows players on each team to “ban” several champions from being used in the game before the players select their characters. Since Draven is considered to be pretty weak, he isn’t usually a candidate for a ban. However, if Tyler’s opponents recognize him — because they can see that he is streaming — they may ban Draven to “tilt” Tyler; to make him angry and throw him off his game, or they may pick Draven for themselves. And sometimes his teammates might ban Draven to mess with Tyler.

When Tyler is denied his Draven he becomes…

The most toxic player in North America

When Tyler became tilted, either due to being denied Draven, his perception that his teammates weren’t doing well or because of any other thing that might go wrong in a game, Tyler would throw a tantrum.

Riot has pretty strong policies against abusive chat, particularly when the abuse relates to race, gender or sexual orientation, contains threats, or encourages other players to commit suicide. Tyler was a prodigious trash-talker — he was particularly fond of telling people to kill themselves — but his flaming wasn’t what made Tyler reviled among top players and persona-non-grata at Riot.

Tyler’s signature crime was his habit of intentionally feeding or “inting” in ranked matches. He would fill his inventory with Tear of the Goddess (because QQ), and then he’d repeatedly run down the middle lane, giving the enemy team experience and gold for killing him until they overwhelmed his teammates and ended the game.

While a lot of coverage of Tyler’s behavior and subsequent punishment focused on harassment and abusive chat, which is easier for non-League players to understand and is more closely analogous to widely covered problems of social media trolling and harassment, Tyler’s disruptive game behavior is what made him famous and got him banned.

League of Legends is a game that’s easy to disrupt if you want to be a jerk

The goal of League is to destroy the nexus structure at the center of the opposing base, and your characters have to level up a certain amount just to push through the base defenses. If there were no enemy team on the map, it would probably still take about ten minutes to win a game, and even half-hearted resistance from a few opposing players can stretch that past twenty minutes.

There is effectively no game to play when a player like Tyler loses his temper during the draft phase and then starts inting as soon as the game starts, but the other nine players are stuck in there for 20 minutes waiting out the inevitable result of one player’s bad behavior. It’s beyond infuriating.

Here’s one typically egregious example of Tyler1’s behavior I found documented among the numerous Reddit and forum threads about him: In this video, originally posted April 21, 2016, Tyler’s team is winning. Tyler kills two players, and the midlaner on the team, ROBERTxLEE, who is capturing this video, finishes off two other fleeing enemies. As the team moves to seize objectives to capitalize on this success, Tyler demands the blue buff, which is a stat-enhancing aura a player can claim from an objective in the jungle.

He says: “Pls don’t test me. Please. Trying reform.”

Robert takes the buff.

Tyler then tells the opposing jungler to buy an item that gives her an increasing stat buff every time she gets a kill or an assist, and he starts running down the middle, intentionally feeding, which causes his team to lose a game they had been winning.

After Robert posted video of this, Tyler flamed him on Twitter, insisting: “im fuckin reformed loser kid.”

League of Legends is considered to have one of the more toxic communities in gaming, but these kinds of antics are uncommon at the very top of the ranked ladder. Since he was so highly rated, Tyler was doing these things in games that frequently included professional players, popular streamers and Riot staff. He was pissing off players who had a voice.

Tyler was also a one-trick player of an unpopular champion and, although he was streaming, he was relatively obscure prior to April of last year. That’s when Meteos called Tyler out on Twitter for toxicity. Meteos plays for Cloud9, which is a top professional team in the North American League Championship Series, so his complaints got a lot of attention. Tyler responded indignantly, claiming that Meteos was also toxic.

The dispute raised Tyler’s profile. Suddenly, instead of just being a challenger-tier Draven player who sometimes acted like kind of a childish dick, Tyler had become THE MOST TOXIC PLAYER IN NORTH AMERICA. His viewership and fame increased by several orders of magnitude.

Tyler quickly figured out that the community was rewarding him for his bad behavior, and he decided to make being an asshole his personal brand. Instead of inting occasionally because he was angry, he’d do it all the time to entertain his viewers. He created an “int list” of players he disliked on his stream, some of whom were pros, vowing to “feed 50 kills” as soon as the game started when these players were matched onto his team.

He also created a “hype” video in which he sarcastically promised to reform his toxic ways over a montage of clips of his most outrageous behavior, and claimed he’d have a 100 percent win rate and would be the top-ranked player in every League of Legends region if it wasn’t for his losses caused by intentional feeding.

This video currently has over 2 million views on YouTube.

Riot decided it had had enough of Tyler. Riot’s standard nuclear option disciplinary action is to ban someone’s account from playing the game. This means the player loses their match history stats, their ladder progress, their rewards from earlier seasons, their collections of runes and champions and any cosmetic items they have acquired. The player can, however, start from scratch with a new account, though they can lose their new account as well if they continue to break the rules.

Tyler made a mockery of this punishment. He accumulated at least 15 account-level bans prior to April of 2016, when Riot gave him an “indefinite ban” from playing the game. This meant that any account he was discovered using would be banned, even if he hadn’t broken any other rules on that account. Tyler, as a person and not an account, had been removed from the game. This punishment is so rare and so extraordinary that if you Google it, nearly all the search results are about Tyler.

So, he’s a troll. Didn’t he get what he deserved?

Riot was absolutely justified in hitting Tyler with an extraordinary punishment in April. He had repeatedly shrugged off lesser sanctions, and with his stream fans egging him on to greater acts of public trollishness, Riot had to hand him a significant public punishment to reaffirm its commitment to civility in its game

Despite the fact that Tyler’s trolling was absolutely as bad as you imagined, and probably worse than you realized, he is now claiming to have reformed. And there’s a good reason it should at least be considered.

Banning Tyler didn’t help fight toxicity

What, you might ask, has Tyler1 been doing since he was banned from playing League of Legends?

It turns out, he’s been playing lots of League of Legends. He gets identified and banned every time he climbs up near the top of the ranked ladder. He’s not hard to spot; there aren’t that many one-trick Draven players at the top of the League ladder. He always just gets another account and starts over. It has become lucrative for him to do this.

Bad behavior brought Tyler more attention than his skilled playing, but his fame exploded after he was permanently banned. Tyler’s stream and his videos are more popular than ever now that he’s been indefinitely banned. He withdrew from college to become a full-time YouTuber. He’s become a sort of Robin Hood figure to trolls by playing and streaming right under Riot’s nose.

You have to know the history to understand some of these stories. Phreak is a Riot staffer and e-sports shoutcaster who streams League in the high diamond tiers. He’s in about the top quarter of the top one percent of players.

In April, prior to Tyler’s ban, the two players had been matched onto a team together when both of them were streaming, and had a heated encounter during champion draft. Tyler didn’t like the champion Phreak picked, and threatened to int. Phreak then threatened to ban Tyler’s account. Another player on the team dodged the game by closing the client before the game started to avoid being stuck in a ranked match with an intentional feeder. This sent all the players back to the matchmaking lobby and they didn’t actually play.

In late May, a few weeks after Tyler’s ban, Phreak answered a question from a viewer about Tyler on his stream. “I’m sad that, like, someone that vile is making so much money off the game now," he said, referring to Tyler’s streaming revenues and donations from fans.

Tyler’s response: “hehe xd.” His fans loved it.

In November, Tyler and Phreak ended up on opposing teams, both playing marksmen and therefore laning against each other. Tyler1, who seemed to be simultaneously in a towering rage and on the verge of tears throughout the video, played very aggressively from the start of the game, and ran over Phreak like a train.

Tyler’s claim to be the best Draven player in the world isn’t an idle boast. He isn’t considered a promising candidate for professional play because he is incredibly immature, he only plays one champion, a lot of the decisions he makes in the game are questionable, and many pro players hate him and would not want to be on a team with him.

But the mechanical aspects of his play are superb. Watching him dodge skillshots looks like something out of The Matrix. Imagine a college basketball player who has the athletic ability to be an NBA star, but who hogs the ball, makes bad plays when he gets upset, loudly talks a lot of trash, and who sometimes commits flagrant, intentional fouls. That’s basically Tyler.

Phreak, who has reached Diamond I rank, is one of the best League players working for Riot. But having a job — even a job directly related to making League of Legends — imposes a time burden that makes it difficult to play at Challenger level. And Phreak is 29 years old. Age-related degradation of fine-motor skills and slowing of reaction time begins in the mid-20s. It’s imperceptible in most contexts, but it matters at the highest competitive levels of video games.

It is therefore expected and unremarkable for a Rioter to lose a game to a 21 year-old Challenger-tier player. But to the trolls, their champion, a renegade shitlord playing in defiance of a permanent ban, had struck a blow against the hated authorities. That the account he was playing on was permanently banned immediately after the game was the perfect capstone to the legend.

Tyler’s YouTube video of the game has 1.4 million views. A Reddit thread about “the long-awaited battle” has 8,000 upvotes. Tyler’s punishment hasn’t struck a blow against trolls. It has emboldened them by turning Tyler into a martyr and giving the community’s worst elements a banner to rally around.

It’s better for Riot and the community if the story of Tyler1 becomes a story about reform. The perception among trolls is that Tyler was rewarded for bad behavior with popularity and money, and his continued League of Legends play suggest that being the worst you possibly can be in games where trolling is rare will bring you success.

There’s no real way to stop Tyler from playing, and Tyler knows it. Removing him from the game completely, in some ways, only gave him more power over Riot.

This kind of punishment is rare

Here’s one way of looking at this story: A player misbehaved in a video game over a period of years. He was handed punishments of increasing severity and, when he refused to change his behavior, he was banned from playing. He should learn a lesson, grow up and move on with his life.

That might be the right course of action for a normal player, but for someone playing Challenger League, the game is a hard thing to give up.

Mainstream audiences and even most gamers don’t take games as seriously as they take other sports, but Tyler1’s skill is the product of thousands of hours of practice spent honing an extraordinary natural talent. This isn’t “just a game” for players on his level; Tyler’s ban from League is every bit as big a deal as a top college player getting barred for life from playing basketball or football.

And gifted players are allowed to continue playing college and professional sports even after doing things that are much worse than trolling and griefing.

What Tyler has been doing for the last eight months is a uniquely Sisyphean loop: He’s climbing up through the ranks of League’s ladder until he emerges in the upper tiers of the Diamond league. Then he’s unmasked, banned and kicked back to the bottom to start over. He has continued to play and continued to stream, but the punishment has effectively stopped him from competing among League’s best.

It’s unfortunate that Tyler1 got famous for being a troll rather than for being great at League of Legends, but Tyler1 is great at League of Legends.

If Riot’s ban remains in place, Tyler will probably keep streaming and making videos, and continue to milk his identity as a troll-streamer. Over time, his views will drop as his fans get bored of his antics. In the meantime, his League skills will grow rusty because he can’t hone them against top competition, and within about five years the ravages of age will render him unable to compete in gaming at his current level. The clock is ticking on any hope he has of capitalizing on his League skills in any lasting way.

Maybe he will go back and finish college, and maybe he’ll lead a normal or even a successful life. But will he ever be among the best in the world at anything ever again? Almost certainly not. League of Legends is the most special thing about this kid. It is perhaps the best thing that will ever happen to him in his life.

Careers of top-tier gamers are short, and Tyler has already lost almost a year to this punishment. The time he’s already lost is a proportionate price to pay for to the damage he’s done to others. If he is reinstated, and is willing to play by the rules, he will not have gotten off easy.

It seems like Tyler might have figured out that he liked being a Challenger-tier player better than he likes being a reviled troll, and he might be moving in that direction. He curses out loud and criticizes other players while streaming, but he no longer flames in-game chat. His outbursts are only audible to those watching his streams. I couldn’t find any reports of him inting recently. In fact, he earned a rare ribbon for teamwork on an account he was playing in September.

Phreak, for his part, said he was not opposed to reinstating Tyler’s privileges if Tyler can show he has reformed, though he expressed doubt that Tyler could change. The idea of Tyler reforming has become something of a running joke since the ban took place.

But there’s precedent for lifting such a ban. In 2013, the top ranked European player, Incarnati0n, was banned from the game for toxicity, chat abuse and cheating. He was using DDOS attacks to force his opponents to disconnect during ranked games. In 2015, citing the player’s efforts to reform, Riot lifted the ban, and Incarnati0n, who now goes by Jensen, was quickly signed to Cloud 9, where he became teammates, ironically enough, with Meteos.

For punishment to be effective, it has to be consistent. And for reform to be possible, there has to be a path offered back towards the light.

Reacting to the possibility of hope

Tyler streamed himself watching Phreak’s statement about the possibility of lifting the ban. I’ve watched the video of this several times, trying to figure out what Tyler’s reaction means.

There’s a moment in that video where someone tells Phreak that they haven’t seen Tyler typing abuse in chat recently, and Phreak says: “Tell that to his other 15 accounts that got banned.”

“Twenty-two,” Tyler says on his stream, correcting the count.

Is he bragging about how much he has been banned? Is it an expression of his frustration at how many times his progress has been reset? Is he just a weird kid fixating on a weird thing? Is he sincere when he says he’s reformed? He’s been sarcastic or half-hearted about it before. Is he even capable of keeping his rage in check?

Tyler’s behavior was very serious within League of Legends, and the glee with which he flouted the rules, the contempt he showed for lesser punishments and his prominence as he was doing these things was bad for the game and its community, and justified the severe punishment.

Tyler has been excluded from the the thing he’s best at for nearly a year of his short tenure as a top gamer. A popular, competitive player investing in the community is certainly worth more to Riot than a well-known troll who is rewarded for his own worst instincts. A troll they know they can’t actually control.

Giving Tyler something to lose may be the best way to make sure he plays the game as it’s meant to be played, and not in a manner that does maximum harm to others.

And if he goes back to inting and flaming? Riot can always ban him again. And again. And again.


Daniel Friedman is the Edgar award-nominated author of Don’t Ever Get Old, Don’t Ever Look Back and Riot Most Uncouth. He lives in New York City.