Terrence Miller is going to remember last weekend for a long time. It was the first time he enjoyed any real success on the Hearthstone competitive circuit.
Miller, who plays as TerrenceM for Gale Force eSports, fought his way through to the finals of DreamHack in Austin on Sunday. DreamHack is a long-standing series of gaming contests and digital festivals that take place around the world. In previous tournaments, Miller was generally eliminated early. In these finals, he played against the highly respected Keaton "Chakki" Gill, and lost 3-2. Miller was happy with his performance, and with his second place.
But his memory of the tournament is always going to be tainted. During the Twitch livestream of his performance, and the interviews that followed, Miller, who is African-American, was the subject of a torrent of racist abuse on the stream's chat panel. The abuse included hateful language targeting African-Americans, as well as graphic descriptions and imagery. There was so much abuse that moderators were unable to keep up.
"I knew it would be bad, but I didn’t think it would be that bad."
Miller was playing at the time, so he didn't see the racist comments until he watched the recording after the event.
He says he saw it straight after the post-match interview. "I knew it would be bad, but I didn’t think it would be that bad," he says. "I was getting texts from my parents saying, ‘Oh, we saw you on your interview, really good job.' And I was just hoping they saw it in full screen and didn’t see the chat."
"I really hope they didn’t watch it at all."
But they did see the chat. He says he didn't want to talk about it too much with his family. "We focused on the positive. We just acknowledged that it happened."
Miller has other family members that he thinks might have watched the stream, but he isn't ready to check in on them just yet. "I have two little cousins, nine and seven. I play video games with them all the time when I go visit my aunt. I play Hearthstone with them. And they knew about the tournament this weekend.
"I really hope they didn’t watch it at all, because I know they’re into the whole video game community. For me, whatever. It happened. It shouldn’t have happened. It won’t bother me. But for the people who want to support me, who care about me, for them to see that, I can definitely see how that would hurt a lot."
Polygon spoke to one of the stream's moderators, Carling "toastthebadger" Filewich, who is also a Hearthstone player and a friend of Miller's. She says the 10 or so moderation volunteers working DreamHack from remote locations were completely unprepared for the flood of racism that accompanied Miller's appearance on the stream. She adds that some moderators contributed to the problem.
"If you've been on Twitch, you know an event like this is going to draw out racist, sexist and hateful comments," she says. "I don't think anyone anticipated it would be this bad though. As Terrence got further into his run, it was obvious that the situation was going to deteriorate. At that point, more mods were recruited."
Those mods who knew one another were frantically communicating via Skype channels, while others seemed to melt away.
"There weren't enough mods," she says. "I don't think anyone would disagree with that. For the most part, it was an experienced group of people that I have lots of respect for."
But some moderators were reversing bans and deletions.
"There were names I've never seen before though, and those were the ones causing issues. There were no rules, and that led to some friction. R9K would be turned on, then someone would turn it off. Slow mode would be enabled, then disabled, or the length would be changed. Most of the mods were doing what they thought was best; there were just a few who wanted to encourage the chaos."
R9K is a Twitch mod that helps block repetitive spam, while slow mode restricts users from sending a message every few seconds. One of the emojis being used repeatedly by the racists — an image of a black streamer — was also banned, in an attempt to stem the flow of hate.
"The icon itself isn’t actually offensive," says Miller. "It’s what people were saying with it. But I do think that banning it was a good decision, just because it reduced the racist comments that were going along with it. But I don’t think the icon itself is a problem. It’s the people that are saying other things with it."
Miller lives in New York. He's 21-years old and is studying to be an accountant. He's been playing fantasy card games for the past 10 years, and got into Hearthstone during its open beta, in January, 2014.
There aren't many black players competing at a senior level in Hearthstone. "I’ve run into a few at small events, firesides and stuff like that, he says. "But outside of that, I haven’t seen many other than me and another person, a while ago, but he stopped playing."
"Those people saying that stuff in Twitch chat wouldn’t actually say that to my face."
He says he's never experienced hostility or racism while attending live competitive events, in person. "Everyone [at DreamHack] was super nice. Everyone was congratulating me — 'you did really well', 'your play was super impressive.' I had nothing negative happen to me in person while I was there.
"I guess most of those people saying that stuff in Twitch chat wouldn’t actually say that to my face. But there’s definitely a big difference between the internet and in-person."
On Twitch chat, hate-speech and abuse are common. Twitch's policy is to generally leave moderation of streams to the streamers themselves, although the company says it is looking at new ways to cut down abuse. Twitch does offer a moderation team to help handle major events, but the DreamHack Austin organizers did not take up this service.
Twitch also offers an online guide to streamers and users looking to tackle abuse.
"A bigger punishment for doing things that are just meant to be malicious."
The first of these guidelines is to "ignore" the abuse. Other tools include a setting which essentially makes the abuser invisible to the person being abused. Streamers can plug in banned words, though abusers usually find ways around these. Abusers can also be "timed out" for 10 minutes or banned from individual channels, though this does not stop them creating a new account and returning, and it does not ban them from other channels.
Twitch also has a "sub-only" mode in which only a channel's subscribers and moderators can use the chat function. The guidelines say sub-only "should only be used in special circumstances." It is not practical for large tournaments being streamed.
"Any content that promotes or encourages discrimination, harassment, or violence based on race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, religion, or nationality is prohibited."
The spokesperson also provided a statement:
"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."
Polygon contacted a DreamHack Austin publicity representative, seeking comment, but did not receive a reply.
We also contacted a Blizzard spokesperson who said a statement will be forthcoming. At press time, we had not received that statement. We'll update with that if and when it arrives.
Despite Twitch's guidelines, abuse and harassment is rife on Twitch chat. According to Miller, some popular streamers make the situation worse by goading followers and playing up bad boy reputations in order to increase notoriety and fame. They foster "cancerous" chat, he says.
"There’s people doing that stuff all the time, even if there’s not someone of color on the channel. They’re just saying whatever."
Women are often targeted with misogynistic abuse. Filewich says she comes across this often, when she streams. "It's pretty much the same as every other woman on Twitch. I'm lucky that I don't get many viewers, but there's still people that pop in with gross sexual comments," she says.
"The worst comment I've received was while moderating chat for a friend's channel. A viewer was unhappy that they were timed out for violating posted chat rules, and whispered me to tell me that I deserved to be raped."
She says that event organizers need to be better prepared in advance, and to allocate more resources to moderation.
"For streamed events, the organizers need to have a plan in place before the event begins. These streams represent competitive Hearthstone, and by extension Blizzard, so they need to start taking more responsibility for the chat, as it is part of the viewing experience."
In an article on GosuGamers, titled 'Confessions of a Twitch Chat Moderator,' she wrote:
"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. I hope future events take this into consideration, because we cannot keep allowing the lowest common denominator to speak for a community that is normally kind and welcoming. That toxicity makes us all look bad, and I hope you’ll join me in saying enough is enough."
"I have thick skin. It doesn’t personally upset me," says Miller. "But I don’t think it should be happening. As far as what they should do about it, there should be a stronger punishment for it. If you’re just banned from one chat, you can go somewhere else and continue to do it. Maybe a bigger punishment for constantly doing things that are just meant to be malicious."
Miller is planning to compete in more Hearthstone competitions later this year, and continues to stream via Twitch.
Update: Blizzard Entertainment issued a statement to Polygon, condemning the actions of commenters on the DreamHack livestream. "We're extremely disappointed by the hateful, offensive language used by some of the online viewers during the DreamHack Austin event the weekend before last," president Mike Morhaime said. "One of our company values is 'Play Nice; Play Fair;' we feel there's no place for racism, sexism, harassment, or other discriminatory behavior, in or outside of the gaming community."
The company also detailed steps it plans to take to combat chat harassment. Read our full story for more details.