Play of the Fortnight: Toxicity in Overwatch

Harassment and abuse can be extremely prevalent in online gaming these days, particularly when a game is competitive. No matter which way you choose to play Overwatch, the game is at its core a competitive game, and therefore it will attract more competitive players. This can make toxicity in Overwatch a concerning matter.

What is it that makes players abusive in competitive games and what can Blizzard Entertainment do about it? In this Play of the Fortnight, we’re talking about toxicity in Overwatch and how Blizzard’s new report system can help, or at least is intended to help.


What Does “Toxicity” Mean?

The word “toxicity” is thrown around online gaming spheres a lot, and to some it has kind of lost its meaning. At its core, it refers to the types of harassment and abuse that happen in online games. This could range from typing slurs in chat to yelling at teammates over voice, aggressively blaming your supports for not doing what you wanted them to, or “flaming” teammates for not playing well or making mistakes. Less frequently, it can be used against enemies.

Toxicity in Overwatch - Reaper

Toxicity, while it has become a buzzword, is an all-encompassing descriptor of the kind of poor sportsmanship and bad behavior that features in many competitive games, Overwatch included. It’s something that Blizzard has always taken seriously.

There’s already a report system in place in Overwatch, but on the PTR there are some new reporting options available. Hopefully these will start to have a positive effect on the community, but ultimately there are some issues with it that we will come to in a little while.


Why is Toxicity a Problem in Online Gaming?

It’s usually rare that an abusive encounter will last beyond the short duration of one match. Most harassment occurs within the confines of one match, based on the results of that match. I personally find it hard to believe that everyone who is loud and rude to people online is actually that kind of person all the time, and it’s more likely that they just had a bad day or a bad run of games. They take their frustrations out on their team and then move on at the end of the match. The truth is, some of them probably don’t even remember the names of the players they’re harassing.

With that in mind, why is toxicity a problem? Since it usually doesn’t result in long-term harassment (there are of course some exceptions to this, but as a general rule it’s often short-lived), should we just ignore it and move on?

I don’t think so, and clearly neither does Blizzard. Repeatedly having “toxic” experiences in games can ruin a normal player’s enjoyment. It can prevent a team from winning if everyone wasn’t so busy arguing over whose fault it was that the enemy team captured Objective A. And perhaps more worryingly, it can have a domino effect, making more players frustrated and making them in turn more aggressive with their future teams on that day.


What is Blizzard Doing About it?

The new reporting system has options for Spam, Abusive Chat, Griefing, Inactivity, Bad Battletag, and Poor Teamwork. Immediately, many veteran online gamers will see there’s a potential for fake reporting here. Abuse of the reporting system is not new to games, and it’s possible that players will try to report someone for “poor teamwork” when really what they mean is “off-meta gameplay.” This creates an interesting problem for Blizzard.

Toxicity in Overwatch - New Report Options

Gif above by Reddit user Arsenal2454. You can view the full size gif here.

Each report option has a description in the interface, defining what the option is for and more importantly what it’s not for. For example, playing a hero that is “not considered optimal by the community” is not a significant reason to report someone for “Poor Teamwork.” This, unfortunately, doesn’t mean that people won’t use the reporting function for those reasons. However, we can hope these guidelines are helpful to Blizzard in choosing what to take action against as much as to the community for what to report.

These guidelines are a step in the right direction, but it would definitely be useful to see more information on what is considered bad by Blizzard. What exactly constitutes a player not working well with his team? And how can a player prove it in their report? Also, how can an innocent player defend themselves?


What Does Reporting a Player do in Overwatch?

Toxicity in Overwatch is still a problem, and will continue to be a problem even with the new anti-abuse features in place. What is Blizzard doing about abuse? There’s no doubt that they ban people for harassment or cheating, and they’re not afraid to admit that. But for privacy reasons, they won’t release specifics about an individual you may have reported. This makes it difficult to tell what happened with your report.

Toxicity in Overwatch - Orisa

Often when a player calls for someone to be reported, there’s a response along the lines of, “But why? It’s not like it does anything.” This is a common misconception for many games. Reporting can feel futile if you encounter the same player multiple times in the future after they’ve been reported for the same transgressions plenty of times in the past. Is Blizzard really looking?

The truth is, players often won’t get banned right away, and if they do it’ll likely be a short suspension. Players who repeatedly commit the same offenses may get banned for progressively longer periods of time, but initially they’ll get a slap on the wrists in the hope that their behavior improves. This can make their punishment seem invisible, but not reporting them because of that is not helping.

If a player is reported for the same thing consistently, Blizzard will take action against them. It’s in their best interests to keep the game environment positive and fun, and frankly no one likes being yelled at. They want to keep that kind of behavior in check, even if their actions aren’t visible to the whole community.


What Could they do to Improve this Feeling?

One thing Blizzard could do to improve the feeling that there’s nothing happening to prevent toxicity in Overwatch is release statistics. Reports of how many players they’ve suspended, how long suspensions usually last, and whether a player’s behavior usually reforms after they’ve been punished (through less reports than before) could be interesting to see. It would also be great if their match rating system was more useful and could show what people’s opinions of their matches were. Seeing matches having a more positive reaction over time would be great for showing the community how the game environment is improving.

It would also be great to have more detailed guidelines on what constitutes bad behavior. What kinds of names does Blizzard consider offensive? When is abusive chat just seen as passionate play and not aggression? And on top of that, details on how they investigate their cases would be great too. Does anyone listen to voice chats? Does Blizzard watch games at all during an investigation, or is that something that might happen in the future? The community has some unanswered questions they’d love to know the answers to.


What Can Players do to Improve their Experience?

Players can also play a huge part in cleaning up the community, and not just through reporting. Toxicity in Overwatch often occurs because a player is frustrated with their experience. If their teammates step in and support them, providing encouragement, sometimes this can turn the situation around. It won’t always work, but positively reinforcing good plays and ignoring the bad ones can help push a player to succeed. People love being told what they’re doing right. Genuine compliments can urge them to try to keep impressing their teammates. Negative reinforcement usually just results in everyone getting mad at one another. More often than not, that can result in a loss.

Of course players should still report when necessary. While it may feel like reporting doesn’t work, it’s important to flag a player as a potential problem. This is especially important if they don’t respond to their team’s attempts to bring them around. The more people do this, the more likely it is that Blizzard will pick up on their behavior and look into it. If no one reports them, nothing will ever happen.


What do I do if I’m a Toxic Player?

This is one question that many people will come to ask. For a start, if you have the self-awareness to recognize your behavior is bad, that’s great. Realize that by shouting at your teammates, you’re likely making them perform even worse, and your anger isn’t helping yourself either.

Toxicity in Overwatch - Winston

If you can’t stop yourself from being aggressive on voice, try dropping out of voice chat or unplugging your microphone if you have to. Let your team keep their focus so that maybe you can all salvage the match. If you feel the urge to type something, alt-tab out and type it into an open text file to make yourself feel better without negatively impacting your team. This also allows you to reread your thoughts after the game and consider them with a calm mind.

The best tool you can use, however, is taking a break. Finish your match and take a breather. There’s no rule that you have to keep bashing your head off the wall while watching your rank plummet. Get up from your PC, or console, and only return when you’ve calmed down enough to give it another go. I personally like to stop if I lose a match and just do something else for a few minutes before I jump back in.


Closing Thoughts

Toxicity in Overwatch is a problem, and it’s definitely on Blizzard’s radar. However, despite their new steps to improve the community and bring out additional anti-abuse measures, there are many ways players can try to improve the situation themselves. Being harassed feels horrible. It can ruin your experience in a game and even make you decide to leave altogether.

So if someone on your team is harassing you or others, step up. Try to encourage them to stay focused, reward their good plays, and urge them to continue making more. Don’t accept flaming, and don’t be afraid to mute someone if they’re not bringing anything constructive to the match. Don’t be afraid to report someone who needs a firmer approach. And if you’re the one getting toxic and harassing your teammates, recognize that behavior in yourself. Learn when to leave the voice channel. If you really have to type something mean, instead alt-tab out and type it into Notepad so you don’t bring your team down with your negativity.

Are there some changes you’d like to see Blizzard make to prevent harassment and abuse in Overwatch? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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About Psyche

Psyche is a loud, obnoxious gamer, streamer and writer from Northern Ireland. She formerly worked in the games industry as a community manager and eventually project manager. When she's not writing about games, or playing them, she's working on her first novel. RPGs, books, a cup of tea, and talking about outer space are the ways to her heart.