Twitch is replacing the PogChamp with a new community face every day for the rest of the year, and while the platform’s intentions were good, the actual rollout has been messy. Some streamers who have been highlighted under the new initiative have been experiencing heightened harassment during their PogChamp tenure, and many fans want the live streaming service to be more proactive in its efforts to support these streamers.
PogChamp is one of the most popular emotes on the platform, but Twitch removed the original, which was the face of Ryan “Gootecks” Gutierrez, from its service after Gutierrez used social media to incite “further violence” following the attack on Capitol Hill last week. Twitch also banned Donald Trump’s Twitch page to “prevent Twitch from being used to incite further violence.”
“We want the sentiment and use of Pog to live on — its meaning is much bigger than the person depicted or image itself — and it has a big place in Twitch culture,” Twitch tweeted on Jan. 6. “However, we can’t in good conscience continue to enable the use of the image.”
Twitch cited streamer and former StarCraft 2 expert Sean Plott for the new idea, after he suggested creating a database of different PogChamp faces from different streamers. Kenny “unroolie” McWild was the first new face of PogChamp, followed by streamer and dancer UmiNoKaiju, Pokémon streamer Reversal, and actor and vocalist Omega Jones (also known as Critical Bard). Each held the role of PogChamp for 24 hours, and on Tuesday, drag queen Deere took over the title.
Though some have expressed hesitation regarding the idea — particularly in tying the popularity and language of emotes to real people — it’s also been positively received as a way to uplift marginalized creators on Twitch. The hope was that by featuring a wider cast of streamers, Twitch could help create a more inclusive community. And indeed, the PogChamp emote experiment has showcased a diverse range of streamers over the past few days. However, Twitch community members are criticizing the company for not doing enough to shield these streamers from the harassment that comes with added visibility.
Each of the streamers featured so far has seen an increased reach, after having their faces broadcast to Twitch’s 7.8 million Twitter follows. There are upsides to this: Twitch is bringing new voices to the forefront of its service. But there’s also a downside, and that’s the toxicity that the Twitch community can sometimes bring along with it.
Reversal, the face of PogChamp on Jan. 10, said he received minor trolling from being the face of PogChamp — but not enough that it marred the experience for him. The harassment was notably different on Jan. 11, when Jones took over the role.
Though Jones said he received a lot of support from viewers and fans, he also got “a lot of hurtful messages and death threats” across his social media accounts, including during Monday’s stream. “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,” Jones told Polygon via Twitter DM.
The harassment is over a comment Jones made on stream in explaining “the difference between saying white lives matter and Black Lives Matter,” he said. Specifically, people latched onto Jones saying that “white lives don’t matter,” removed from the context of what he was actually saying: that white people can be proud of their heritage — like if they’re Scottish or Irish — but being proud of being white is not the same as being proud of being Black.
“Black folk have to say Black Lives Matter because we were stolen from a country, [...] stripped of our heritage and our identities,” he said on stream. “All we know is our Blackness. There’s a difference.”
Critics on social media invoked “reverse racism” over Jones’ comments, even though that’s something that doesn’t exist in the United States, given the wider power dynamics at play.
Twitch told Polygon over email that it’s in “close contact” with streamers being highlighted in the PogChamp experiment.
“Highlighting a new PogChamp every day was an idea that came directly from our community and was created in the spirit of celebrating the diversity of creators on Twitch,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “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. We do not tolerate harassment on Twitch, and will take action on any behaviors on our service that violate our rules.”
But Jones said Twitch isn’t doing enough. “I just want them to realize that they have the ability to quell a lot of this,” he told Polygon. “Outright ban folks who fuel these flames, make it harder for folks to make random accounts just to harass. Saying nothing is the silence that racists and bigots thrive on. Speaking up clearly and taking a stand against racism and hatred does a lot more than they seem to realize. Don’t wait for a black person or marginalized people to message you — we shouldn’t have to educate you on how to have better security.”
Community members agree, including content creator and activist Natasha “Zombaekillz” Zinda, who led the earlier charge for Twitch to feature Black Twitch streamers. “The battle cry for mods everytime one of us gets an opportunity,” she tweeted Tuesday. “The feeling of dread whenever we succeed. The erasure of our contributions. This is why I speak up.”
People are speaking out in solidarity with Jones, especially after the visible rise in harassment on social media. The general gist from fans is that Twitch’s idea is good, but the execution needs work to protect streamers, especially given the platform’s track record with viewers using emotes to express racism.
“Once again Twitch seems to not understand how their community is divided, and various viewers have now resorted to harassing one of the new streamers who they chose to be an emote,” Twitch streamer JG, also known as UTxJGTheDon, told Polygon via email.
Similarly following Twitch’s implementation of Deere as the new PogChamp, the streamer received a mix of support and harassment, the latter of which includes transphobia.
“This ALWAYS happens when Twitch tries to promote inclusion in any sort of fashion,” UTxJGTheDon said. “A bigger conversation needs to be had between the people who frequent the platform, and the higher-ups who run the platform. Things like this won’t stop until Twitch just outright condemns any sort of hostile/toxic behavior.”