Dark sides of the Super Smash Bros. and Dota 2 e-sports communities have come to light over the past few weeks as dozens of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment victims have been sharing their stories.
These revelations — which revealed misconduct by top players and commentators — have kick-started a discussion about how to prevent these unacceptable behaviors from happening again.
Digital Trends spoke to numerous prominent figures in the two communities — including one accused of misconduct — as the groups grapple with how to confront the toxic culture that allowed abuse to happen and wrestle with their own problematic pasts.
A slew of allegations
A deluge of misconduct allegations began in the Smash community in early July when top player Troy “Puppeh” Wells accused Smash caster Cinnamon “Cinnpie” Dunson of a series of sexual assaults beginning when he was 14 and she was 24.
That shocking claim sparked a series of sexual misconduct revelations about top players and commentators, from star Smash players Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios and Nairoby “Nairo” Quezada to top casters D’Ron “D1” Maingrette and Richard “Keitaro” King Jr.
Dota 2‘s e-sports scene was similarly rocked by allegations in June.
Dota streamer Grant “GranDGranT” Harris was accused of sexually harassing a woman while drunk at an after-party. Harris apologized for his actions and announced he would step away from e-sports. He was later cut from e-sports organization Evil Geniuses, which said it had a “zero-tolerance” policy for harassment from its members.
Not long after, veteran Dota commentator Toby “TobiWan” Dawson faced allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman in 2011 while she slept and pinned another woman in a hotel room. Dawson denied the accusations, saying he wasn’t “guilty of any criminal offenses.” He announced he would quit commentating, adding “my focus will turn fully to my family and finding a way to move on with my life.”
Valve removed Dawson’s voice lines from the game and gaming companies like Code Red Esports and Beyond the Summit cut ties with him.
Overcoming abuse in Super Smash Bros.
Emily “emilywaves” Sun — co-creator of Smash Sisters, an event series supporting female Smash players, and former New York City tournament organizer — told Digital Trends there are two ways to combat the issues plaguing her e-sports community: Recognizing sexism and abuse’s effect on society and making an inclusive culture the norm.
Sun said the Smash community should work to face how deeply sexism and abuse are ingrained in U.S. culture.
“I think each person needs to ask themselves if they’re part of the problem,” Sun said. “And I myself have been doing this over the past week as well.”
After that, Sun said that leadership in all online communities, from Smash events to platforms like Twitch, need to create codes of conduct that are highly visible and actively enforced.
“A simple code of conduct really just means like, hey, watch your language, be civil to each other,” Sun said. “No sexism, no racism, no harassment, transphobia, homophobia, that kind of stuff.”
“No sexism, no racism, no harassment, transphobia, homophobia, that kind of stuff.”
If those rules are regularly enforced, then members of the community will feel empowered to shut down inappropriate behavior as it happens, even among groups of friends, she said. At the moment, Sun said it’s too awkward for most people to call out their peers.
“No one wants to do that,” Sun told Digital Trends. “But once that becomes normal, then we can shift the kind of language we’re using that I think is going to be much more positive and supportive.”
But that’s is easier said than done, according to Christina “Chia” Korsak.
Korsak told Digital Trends that the game’s grassroots nature makes it difficult to enforce a standardized code of conduct. The competitive Smash community sprung from humble roots when gamers unpacked hidden complexity in the game in living rooms, garages, and basements over a decade ago.
Since then, Nintendo has taken a hands-off approach to the competitive community, and nearly all competitions operate without Nintendo’s official backing.
In response to the allegations, Nintendo said in a statement to Digital Trends it was “deeply disturbed by the allegations raised against certain members of the competitive gaming community.”
“They are absolutely impermissible,” Nintendo said. “We want to make it clear that we condemn all acts of violence, harassment, and exploitation against anyone and that we stand with the victims.”
Korsak said the lack of an “official base or backing” means there’s little accountability.
“I think that’s what made [misconduct] so rampant and so different than other communities,” Korsak said.
Despite this, Korsak highlighted the Code of Conduct Committee — which Sun previously served on — and New York City-based crew House of 3000 as examples of groups working to build a process that could systematically help the whole community. Both organizations have opened anonymous tip lines where victims can share stories of abuse and have them investigated by vetted community members.
Korsak said that another possible method of stopping future abuse is to implement age divisions at Smash tournaments, separating minors from adults. Other e-sports communities, like those run by The Pokémon Company, operate in a similar manner.
While Korsak readily admitted that some of the best Smash competitors in the world have been minors, she believes the need for safety outweighs any arguments about competitive integrity.
Sun, meanwhile, said that it’s important to back up these decisions with actual data instead of making knee-jerk reactions. She’s working with others in the community to collect data about hundreds of allegations of sexual harassment, which will hopefully point toward more targeted solutions.
Similar solutions for the Dota 2 community
In a similar way to how Nintendo keeps its distance from the Super Smash Bros. e-sports community, Valve maintains a loose relationship with the Dota 2 e-sports community. According to Sabina Hemmi, this has contributed to a similar problem with sexual abuse.
Hemmi is the CEO and co-founder of Elo Entertainment, which created Dota 2’s most popular analytics tool, Dotabuff. She has also been a member of the community since 2004. Hemmi said her deep connection to Dota has made her keenly aware of the scene’s many problems — and given her some ideas about how to start fixing them.
“We need a code of conduct that sets expectations, that lists potential consequences, that are very clear how you report issues once they happen,” Hemmi told Digital Trends. “You should also be able to report issues in person at the event, online, or anonymously to get people to investigate the problem going on.”
Hemmi added that such a code of conduct needs a diverse set of authors that come from different parts of the community. But to see real change, Hemmi said she thinks Valve needs to take charge of organizing and implementing that effort. Unfortunately, according to Hemmi, Valve has a less-than-stellar track record of tackling social issues.
“Being involved in their community and being involved in social issues are not Valve’s fortes,” Hemmi said. “It’s not how they’ve traditionally chosen to spend their time, but I think they have an opportunity to clean things up. And perhaps by empowering community leaders or hiring contractors to be those community leaders to keep things in order, they can get a better outcome.”
Abuse and accountability
Even those who support victims have been forced to address incidents in their own past and face accountability for their actions.
While reporting this story, Digital Trends spoke with famed Smash commentator Terrence “TKbreezy” Kershaw, a member of the community for more than 12 years who had called for more inclusivity and safety. The 30-year-old streamer also raised over $4,000 through his Twitch stream for anti-sexual abuse organization RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) as part of a community-wide challenge.
But days after Kershaw’s interview with Digital Trends, Sun publicly shared an accusation of sexual misconduct against Kershaw that took place years earlier. Sun shared the allegation on Twitter on behalf of a victim who wanted to remain anonymous.
After these allegations came to light, Digital Trends spoke again with Kershaw, who shared his desire to be held accountable.
“I didn’t set out to hurt this person, but I did, and I need to acknowledge that regardless.”
Kershaw said he couldn’t recall the specific event he was accused of without more details about the exact timing.
But more importantly, Kershaw said his ability to recall what happened didn’t really matter in the end. He stressed that his own feelings about the allegation going public matter little in comparison to the feelings of the victim.
He also publicly said he recognized he made others uncomfortable by pursuing women within the community when he was in his teens and early 20s.
“It feels bad to have something against me, but it also feels good to be able to set the example of taking accountability for past actions, even if it’s not your intent,” Kershaw told Digital Trends in an interview. “I didn’t set out to hurt this person, but I did, and I need to acknowledge that regardless.”
The difference between intent and impact is something Kershaw said he learned during a private conversation with Devon Price, a postdoctoral research fellow at Hunter College who has been an advocate of victims in the Smash community. He added that much of their conversation focused on the fact that, even if Kershaw didn’t realize it, some action of his in the past crossed a line and hurt someone.
His inability to recognize the pain he caused, Kershaw said, didn’t invalidate the person’s feelings. Kershaw later hosted a lengthy discussion with Price on his Twitch channel.
According to Sun, the victim confided that she was relieved by the way Kershaw handled the situation so far; the victim hasn’t commented publicly.
Sun said Kershaw’s response to the allegation shows how figures of authority in the Smash community can take responsibility for their actions. She said there are likely many men who don’t realize that they hurt others at times. She told Digital Trends that she believes Kershaw accepting responsibility and apologizing showed that he had changed and learned from his past behavior.
“I think the community really needs to understand that people grow,” Sun said. “If we don’t allow space for people to become better people, we’re never going to get anywhere.”
Kershaw said he has matured as a person since his younger years. Above all else, though, Kershaw said he does not want this situation to become about his response.
Kershaw said he doesn’t want praise for “doing the right thing.” Instead, his goal was to remind everyone that even famed members of these e-sports communities are imperfect people, just like anyone else. Everyone must learn from their mistakes and call out problematic behavior, Kershaw said.
He added that his own past won’t stop him from speaking out to stop abuse in the Smash community.
“If I have to speak out against myself, I will,” Kershaw said. “Just because it now affects me doesn’t mean that it does not apply.”
Living with rumors
While these stories of abuse have surprised many members of their respective communities, Sun, Korsak, and Hemmi all said they heard rumors of harassment in the past.
Hemmi wrote about her experience in a Medium post, describing that community members were reluctant to point fingers at public figures and risk their own status. That created open secrets, she said, leaving some in danger of being victims of abusers.
“There is nobody who is accountable for all of the rumors and there’s nobody who’s accountable for understanding or investigating anything,” Hemmi said. “There’s a bystander effect where everybody just assumes somebody with more information is going to do something about it.”
She explained it’s challenging to be a part of a community while fearing that predators may lurk in the shadows.
“It feels very heavy to exist within a space where there are all these people you need to warn people about or be warned about,” Hemmi said. “And when you meet somebody for the first time in the community, you almost size them up like, ‘Is this somebody who is a good person? Is this somebody that I can trust?’ ”
In the Smash community, Sun said it was easier for her to deal with this feeling since she was in a position of power. As a tournament organizer, she could and did ban players who were involved in instances of sexual assault.
“Even though a lot of people didn’t like this decision, they thought it was maybe too hasty or an overreaction, we knew it was the right thing to do,” Sun said.
Since Sun has now taken a step back from the community, she waits for others to take the lead and make change happen. But while she added that the initial stories coming out of the Smash community surprised her, past experiences in dealing with the subject reminded her that cases of sexual misconduct have been littered throughout the game’s history.
Combating a complex, toxic culture
Simply removing abusers from an e-sports community doesn’t prevent the same behavior from happening again, as it’s often the community’s culture that creates conditions where abuse thrives.
Hemmi said this problem extends beyond communities like Dota or Super Smash Bros. She recalls being at a dinner with executives from Overwatch and League of Legends e-sports teams when someone posed a hypothetical to the group: What if one of their players was accused of sexual assault?
“One of the team executives said, ‘I would make everybody not believe her. I would bury her. I would ruin her life over and over again in different ways,’” Hemmi said. “I think it’s important to consider how every single step of the process can become corrupted by an action. If any step in the chain fails, then the most likely outcome is that a predator keeps getting to hang around at events.”
Sun also stressed the importance of checking initial, emotional responses and approaching these issues with a level head. She described people who harass both perpetrators of abuse and their victims, spreading vitriol or demanding evidence about any claims.
Tournament organizers investigate these claims themselves to determine if they’re legitimate, she said.
“Ask yourself if your voice even needs to be heard,” Sun said. “In my opinion, I don’t think all this evidence needs to come out about everything for your random Twitter user or Redditor to understand this case so they can support a ban.”
According to Sun, it is far more important to support those that speak out, because she said the overwhelming majority of victims are terrified to do so. While she acknowledges that false accusations do happen, they are a scant minority that distracts from the more prominent issues within the Smash community.
Korsak, meanwhile, mentioned the dangers of one-sided relationships, where fans can consider themselves friends with public figures despite truly not having a connection from celebrity in return. While fans often form these relationships with celebrities and athletes, they can also do so with pro gamers and streamers. And when these bonds form, Korsak said it can cause numerous problems.
Fans can feel emotionally crushed when their idols are implicated in stories of abuse. What’s worse, some people will refuse to believe victims and harass them for coming forward. Many accusers in the Smash community faced harassment and insults when they first came forward this month.
“If you keep yourself a little more grounded and have realistic expectations [as a fan], you’re going to remove some of the power struggle,” Korsak said. “And then if it does come out that they are a bad person, you’re not going to be as affected by it and less likely to continue that cycle of abuse onto others.”
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