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How fighting game tournaments are dealing with toxic and unruly players

A universal code of conduct could lead to better behavior

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CEO 2019 Gaming Championships
CEO 2019 Gaming Championships.
Photo by Joao Ferreira/ESPAT Media/Getty Images

From its inception in 2010 as a little-known tournament attended mostly by Orlando locals, Community Effort Orlando — better known by its initials CEO — has become one of the premier events in the fighting game community (or FGC), with thousands of fans flooding in and dozens of games represented in competition. Hosted and organized by longtime FGC stalwart Alex Jebailey, CEO can get downright theatrical at times. Champions receive roaring Michael Buffer-esque introductions as they strut their way down the ramp to a wrestling ring where they battle it out in the final matches of the event.

But while the event itself continues to win plaudits from critics and fans, the controlled fury of virtual fisticuffs can sometimes spill over. In a Mortal Kombat 11 match at CEO’s tournament, a player known as “Buffalo” got in another player’s face at the conclusion of their match, screaming and making obscene gestures for almost 30 seconds before fellow tournament-goers separated the two. In another incident, two Super Smash Bros. players got into an outright physical altercation that was broken up, but not before the alleged instigator, who goes by the handle “Osiris187,” cracked the other player’s controller against the ground. The fight was witnessed by several competitors who reported that the event security didn’t adequately respond to the situation, leaving attendees to deal with it. 

Forthright displays of emotion are nothing new in competitive spaces. Football players press their chests against one another after a big hit, and coaches fling expletives (and sometimes projectiles). If we applaud — or at least tolerate — such diverse reactions from our sports heroes, then why are we surprised when we see them from those who excel at video games?

In the FGC, when a player explodes out of their seat following a big moment, it’s known as a “pop-off.” It’s a phenomenon that is often celebrated by fans, whether it’s out of frustration or sudden triumph. Players who are particularly prone to pop-offs are sometimes called “salty,” a derogatory term for those who get upset with games more easily than most. While some fans were quick to refer to the MK11 incident as a pop-off for the ages, others expressed some discomfort with the players’ behavior. “Good pop-offs are quick and to the point,” reads one YouTube comment on the clip. “Buffalo just looked like a lunatic.”

While opinions may vary on the exact line between an honest reaction and clear toxicity, in the world of Super Smash Bros., there’s a growing understanding among tournament organizers and players that the community needs to fundamentally rethink the standards for this sort of behavior. In the few short weeks since the CEO fight, the scene has been rocked by scandal after scandal, particularly the maelstrom of drama that erupted when top player Elliot “Ally” Carroza-Oyarce confessed to having a romantic relationship with 16-year-old fellow pro Zack “CaptainZack” Lauth, which led to Ally retiring from Smash. A month later, Lauth was barred from competing at SmashCon and other events due to fixing matches as a part of that relationship. His competitive future, if any, remains dubious.

The community needs to fundamentally rethink the standards for this sort of behavior

Given that these are merely a fraction of the flood of controversies that have plagued Smash since the release of Ultimate — a period that also saw explosive growth, as is common with the release of a new entry in such a beloved series — some in the community have started to take drastic steps. Near the beginning of 2019, a Twitter account dubbed “SSBConductPanel” emerged from the electronic ether to publish a “Code of Conduct” that many prominent tournament organizers had agreed to follow.

The goal of the code was simple: where many organizers had doled out punishments to disruptive or toxic players in the past, the standards would often differ dramatically from tournament to tournament, and there was little in the way of coordination between different regions to report problem players to one another. It’s a problem that former organizer Louie “PhDLouie” Limas says he dealt with more than once as the coordinator for Full Bloom, a major Smash tournament held in Bloomington, Indiana. Limas isn’t directly involved with the Conduct Panel, but as a tournament organizer, he views its mission as long-overdue and absolutely paramount for the long-term health of the community.

“We never really had that many major issues at Full Bloom, because me and the rest of the major TO’s in Indiana were always in a groupchat,” he says. “If there was an issue with a player in the south of the state, for example, I would know about it, and we would be able to suspend or ban that player if needed. But when it comes to something going on in another region, it’s much harder to keep up with all those players, and the punishments would be different. Having a centralized body to take care of that sort of thing is definitely going to help the game, but it’s going to be challenging to implement in some cases. But overall, I think they’re doing a good job.”

While the members of the Conduct Panel are anonymous, it does have a public face: Kyle “Dr. Piggy” Nolla, a PhD candidate at Northwestern University who researches the Smash community. As a longtime participant in Smash community events, her own highly negative experiences as a woman in the space led her to study the effects that the stigma of being a gender or sexual minority competitor can have on an individual player’s acquisition of skill, especially for trans and / or nonbinary people.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

Nolla describes her experience in no uncertain terms. “Smash is a classic example of ingroup / outgroup behavior,” she says. “If you’re a white guy who loves to play games and maybe you’re a little socially-awkward, maybe you’re a little introverted, the community will accept you, and everything works out. If you’re a woman, or a sexual or gender or any other kind of minority, you’ll be marginalized, people will find reasons to call you a ‘fake gamer,’ and every aspect of your personality will be picked apart by strangers on the internet.”

The origins of the panel are humble enough. In mid-2018, after a woman spoke up at a meeting of organizers to call for more rules regarding sexual harassment, Nolla and a few other members of the community — including the original head of the project, Josh “RoboticPhish” Kassel — decided to form a “Harassment Task Force” to stamp out this sort of behavior in a more systematic way. Once the actual code was written, many of the members of the project dropped out, which left Nolla and Kassel scrambling to form some kind of committee to enforce the rules they’d agreed on. Eventually, after they formed the actual panel, Nolla became its official manager, and it started taking its first cases in late 2018. 

“There were a lot of things we could’ve done better.”

Nolla admits that the panel has learned several tough lessons since its inception, especially in its first decision. That case concerned a player who goes by the handle “Mafia,” who was accused of sexual misconduct by a former girlfriend two years prior to the founding of the organization. It was what first demonstrated the true difficulty of adjudicating these cases to Nolla and the rest of the panel. Initially, the committee decided to overturn Mafia’s “indefinite” ban from events, given that he had served two years already and had demonstrated to them that he was making a sincere effort to make changes in his life, through therapy and the like. Once the Conduct Panel announced its findings on Twitter, however, a wave of internet fervor crashed against its moorings, mostly from activist Smashers who felt its decision was too lenient.

“I would say the vast majority of people don’t care about misconduct, don’t care about bannings, they just want the majority of the community to be safe,” says Nolla. “But, there are a lot of activist people who feel that once you’ve done something like that, they feel that you shouldn’t be a part of the community anymore. So it became a huge litmus test for us in terms of legitimacy, and there were a lot of things we could’ve done better.”

As a result of the Mafia case — which now remains tied up in the panel’s lengthy appeals process — Nolla says the committee made a number of changes, such as requiring each panelist to complete a lengthy training to better deal with issues of sexual violence. After the emergence of Ally’s confession and following some emergency reports from those who witnessed his misbehavior, the panel felt obligated to issue a decision more quickly than normal, despite his self-imposed retirement, which circumvented several of their internal processes. (Carroza-Oyarce announced he was leaving the community on July 4th; the panel put out its ban on the 5th.)

While Nolla says this was suboptimal, the panel felt that the evidence of Carroza-Oyarce’s misbehavior was so incontrovertible that issuing a lifetime ban in a timely fashion took precedence over the finer points of procedure. Overall, while Nolla admits that the panelists still have a lot to learn and there are still improvements to make, she feels that putting in the effort to change things is really what matters to the community.

Genesis 5.
Genesis 5.
Photo: Robert Paul / Genesis

“The thing about the fighting game community is that it’s always been a grassroots movement,” she says. “We’ve never had the companies backing us up financially or telling us what to do, so we’ve always had to figure it out for ourselves. Since everyone’s idea of proper behavior can vary, some people have exploited that to get away with abusive or toxic behavior in the past. I’m telling you that we can change that.”

Still, while it’s undeniable that having some form of ostensibly objective moderation is necessary for all forms of competition, from video games to your local bar trivia, not every case is as grave or emotionally fraught as those mentioned above. For tournament organizer Sheridan “Dr. Z” Zalewski who owns and operates Genesis, one of the largest tournaments in the space, drawing a line in the sand to define what exactly qualifies as unacceptable behavior is one of the most difficult parts of his position. While Zalewski says that he would like to see similar panels for other games in the FGC, he feels that it was particularly necessary for Smash, given that the game’s player base skews very young, even in the teenaged world of e-sports.

“We’ve always had to figure it out for ourselves.”

That said, Zalewski agrees that the Conduct Panel — which he had a hand in creating — is best suited to particularly egregious incidents, with local or regional organizers handling the smaller cases in-house. For him, even though trash talk has been a veritable pillar of Smash since its very inception, there’s a definite tension between a scene that saw rapid growth as a result of heated rivalries (complete with diss tracks) and the more progressive, inclusive attitude that organizers are trying to bring to the fore.

He cites the prominent Smash player Leffen as an example, whose reputation for trollish antics and low-grade toxicity got him a ban from all tournaments in his own home country of Sweden back in 2013. Like the “heels” in professional wrestling, the bad guys who insult your favorite sports team to get you to buy tickets to the big show on Sunday, a little bit of conflict can go a long way in ginning up interest. But as Zalewski sees it, as soon as they start insulting aspects of someone’s identity — race, gender identity, sexual preference, disabilities — it goes beyond the pale. It might be a tough line, but for organizers like Zalewski, it’s one that can’t be drawn fast enough.

“For the people saying, ‘we don’t want our community run like this!’ Well, I hate to say it, but everyone who actually runs the community wants this thing to happen,” says Zalewski. “The list of TOs that have signed onto this is huge. Any tournament you’ve seen online that has more than 500 viewers is going to be a part of this, we all want this for the same reasons, we want to make sure there’s a standard way these things are handled...It’ll help grow the scene, and it’s the way it’s going to be.”