I write a lot about Riot's approach to negative player behaviour in League of Legends but it occurred to me that I don't really dig into how other MOBAs – Smite and Dota, particularly – approach the subject. I think that's because Riot are very keen to talk about the work that they do and pick out interesting bits and bobs from their research for use in talks and so on. Well, following a number of professional player bans in Smite stemming from an account sharing incident I emailed Hi-Rez with questions about how they approach the subject and to find out more about this particular situation. eSports manager Adam Mierzejewski (also known as HiRezAPC) got back to me to tell me a bit more.
The player behaviour management at Hi-Rez comprises a local support team based in the developer's Atlanta building as well as a number of outsourced partners who take care of the international players. That team handles player reports and enforces any resultant punishments – anything from intentional in-game feeding to account sharing.
There's a line in the company's suspension and ban policy explanation where co-founder Todd Harris likens the people in charge of issuing punishments as being like nightclub bouncers. I ask if that's how the team see themselves – the bouncers comparison feels like a traditional solution to an online behaviour problem. It's about blocking and removing players who behave badly while the work coming out of Riot's department seems far keener on curating behaviour and encouraging reform.
"In a way, our support team can be referenced as a 'nightclub bouncer' or even a police officer," says Adam. "Our support team will receive emails and reports on various misbehavioral situations at which they need to look through all the evidence in order to deem the necessary punishment - similar to law enforcement. We follow our policies and Terms of Service when a player disobeys our 'laws' and we will take action on that players account in hopes that the affected player will learn their lesson. If such player does not learn from their mistakes, we will take even further action on the account - depending [on] the severity of the case."
It's a series of escalating punishments based on evidence of bad behaviour, as you might expect (or know because you've definitely read the Terms of Service end to end before agreeing to it). The evidence for the misdemeanors is generally player-submitted reports on other players. There is a mute button if you just want to shut someone up but Adam thinks that if players use the report tools effectively the support team will be able to keel the toxic elements of the community in check.
But, as he points out, "with millions of active players within Smite, it becomes difficult or nearly impossible to track and follow each and every specific report." Instead there's an automated process which flags up players who have been frequently reported or "have been extremely detrimental to other players' experiences". These reports go to multiple people and are looked at on a daily basis.
"When an account is looked at and depending what they’ve been reported for, we look through the evidence provided and make sure we capture when a player is in the wrong and take action on his/her account. We also put out an email out to said player stating why they were suspended and for how long."
I ask Adam why he thinks players behave negatively in the first place. He tells me "Negative behavior can stem from a multitude of things. It can vary from poor performances by either the team or a single person to frustrations in 'real life' that are being released in-game. None of these examples are valid reasons for misbehavior, but it’s just how some people react. It’s up to us as the publisher to help weed out such people."
It's at this point that I bring up Riot's approach and ask whether any of what they've been working on – particularly in terms of reforming players – has had an impact on what Hi-Rez has done with Smite.
"We’re always looking to better our report system and [see] how we can help change players' behavior," says Adam. "In fact, we’ve had a player who used to be extremely toxic in the community and was permanently banned for such. This player was part of the eSports scene. Over time, this player came back to us asking for a second chance to play in return for cleaning up his act. After allowing this player to compete again, he has proven himself to learn from his [mistakes] and actually won the latest Smite World Championship back in January this year."
Adam is talking about Omega from Cloud9 – the team who won the SWC when they were known as Cognitive Prime.
"We also have a player in the pro scene who’s interning with us to help better our reporting and support system. This is for a college project he has with his university to help a publisher of a game company by researching their current strategies and how he can provide insight in making it better and more effective."
The recent high profile player bans revolved around account sharing. It was a first offence for one player so the ban was just three days but for three players it was a third offence (a 14 day ban was issued) and for Suharab ‘Mask’ Askarzada it was a fifth offence and netted him a whole year away from the game. (I should point out that these prior offences were for "minor acts of misconduct" rather than repeatedly violating the same condition.) The reasons for account sharing are varied and include concealing your identity while you play and helping to inflate someone else's ranking in the game, sometimes for money.
I ask how Hi-Rez became aware of the problem.
"One player in particular has recently been reported multiple times and banned for misbehavior. From there, this player is on 'thin ice' at which point any future reports regarding this particular player is an instant red flag. Since a couple of reports were brought to support's attention on possible account sharing regarding this one player, we went into an investigation. The [necessary] evidence was there to conclude, not only that player was guilty, but a handful of pro players were included in this crime."
But the thing about this particular incident is that, although the previous offences were for other forms of misconduct, four of the five pro players had committed minor offences on multiple occasions. I ask whether Hi-Rez are concerned that their current system to deter bad behaviour isn't working. I don't quite get a direct answer here although it does underline the severity with which Hi-Rez approaches account sharing:
"This isn’t their fifth or third offense of account sharing. In severe cases [such] as account sharing or hate speech like racism, you get one warning and then a permanent ban. These players in the past had offenses on their accounts for minor acts of misconduct; however, if any of these players are caught again for account sharing, their Smite account and ability to play competitively will be removed from them indefinitely."
The fact that pro players were involved is important because Hi-Rez expects them to be role models for the community. "We hold them to higher standards," says Adam. "This mean if we see poor attitudes or acts out of these players, we will not only take punitive measures on the their account, but we’ll also revoke their ability to compete in official Hi-Rez Studios tournaments.
"When a pro player's account is in jeopardy, the eSports administration team and support team talk through the account in question. Ultimately, the support team decides whether the player is guilty of what he/she is reported for and will issue the necessary punishment. From there, the eSports team will then follow the rules and policies around the competition the player is playing in and will dish out the additional punitive measures from there."
Any player suspended for six days or more will need to appeal in writing to Adam or to fellow Hi-Rez eSports manager Bart Koenigsberg before being allowed to rejoin the pro scene.
"Alongside an account ban, a competitive player will also be barred from competition. In order for a player to play in our eSports scene again, they must request permission and tell us he/she will not perform such negative acts again. We want our pro players to essentially be role models for the community which is why we hold them to higher standards."
Role models is an interesting point to raise (or at least, I find it interesting) because having a particular talent and being a good ambassador for the community don't always go hand in hand. It's a tension which has led to some PR disasters in various creative fields over the years. I ask how much Adam thinks pro players can be expected to act as role models for other players.
"These pro players are watched every single weekend during tournaments," says Adam. "They are the most well-known players in the entire game. So with that said, they set the tone of what kind of community we hold in Smite in general. This puts them at the level of a 'role model' and we need to make sure they understand that. And we as the company need to hold them to the understanding."
Pro players are a far smaller subset of a wider community and this, in some ways, makes it easier for people like Adam to keep an eye on what they're up to. "I am extremely close to the players," he tells me. "If I ever catch any hint of a player starting to misbehave, I will talk to the player one-on-one to make sure they don’t go off the deep end. Since there are only a select few players who hold the title of a 'Pro Player', myself and other eSports administrators are able to police these accounts on an individual basis.
"We also make sure to tell the public when a pro player has misbehaved and has been banned - which is why we put the Competitive Ruling blog post out there. This wasn’t the first time we’ve done that either. It’s so both the pro players and the community as a whole know that we are serious about our policies and we are taking action."