Blizzard Needs A New Approach to Punishing Account Boosting

A second player in the Overwatch League has been suspended for account boosting. OGE, signed to Dallas Fuel but yet to arrive in the US, will miss four games. The ban, which went into effect beginning with Fuel’s match on Thursday night, is significantly lighter than the one issued to Philadelphia Fusion’s Sado, for the same offense, before the beginning of the season.

This news comes only a few weeks after posts were made on the Korean esports forum Inven (as translated by Robin311for /r/CompetitiveOverwatch) alleging that four other unnamed players currently in the Overwatch League also have histories of boosting.

Right now, the accusations made on Inven haven’t been proven. What is clear, however, is that the issue of account boosting didn’t go away when Sado was banned for the League’s first three stages. If the accusations against the current Overwatch League players prove true, it would also raise the uncomfortable question “if those four did it, who else has, and just hasn’t been caught yet?”. It will be a massive scandal, and would shake confidence in the League.

And that’s because…

Account boosting is cheating

Whether an account owner is using software to help them aim, or is handing control of the account over to another person, the end result is the same: the account owner is exchanging money for an SR that is higher than they have personally earned.
There’s a reason why account boosting is so reviled. On the way up, the booster ruins the games of the players he’s up against. Once the original owner resumes using the account, they ruin the games of the players on their team as they plummet back down to the SR that they actually can play at.

That being said, there are some people willing to give boosters the benefit of the doubt. The Korean scene, despite producing a lot of the best talent in nearly every esport, is not known for paying high wages to its professional and semi-pro players. Many boosters do what they do so that they can afford to keep pursuing the dream of playing professionally. To be sure, this isn’t true of every booster, but at least in the West, many fans believe that boosters should have a path back to pro, and that’s a view that the League Office seems to share.

Inconsistent punishments undermine the League’s public standing

If it turns out that additional Overwatch League players have been boosting, though, Blizzard is going to have a problem on their hands. Any punishment, whether strict or lenient, is going to be seen as unfair. Sado was banned for 7.5 times as many matches as OGE, and the League hasn’t provided a clear explanation for the disparity in the punishments.

In fact, Blizzard’s handling of player discipline overall has been abysmal. There’s been no consistency in the time between when an infraction happens and when a punishment is announced, the descriptions of the infractions are vague, and they’ve yet to release the rulebook that players are held to itself.

Fans are already predisposed to side with players over the League when the two parties come into conflict. The League’s best chance of avoiding fan backlash is to be detailed in describing infractions and consistent in doling out punishments. By doing neither, they’ve opened the door for fans to question the legitimacy and fairness of the punishments. Team owners have also publicly questioned how Blizzard decides punishments; a bad look for the League.

The way forward is in a one-size-fits-all, transparent punishment structure

The best case for Blizzard – and probably also for the players – is if the all of the players with histories of boosting announce it themselves, at around the same time. If names come out in a slow trickle instead, with fans digging up evidence and making accusations against players one by one on Inven, it will make a bad situation vastly worse, stretching out the news and further shaking people’s faith in the League.

In order to convince boosters with professional aspirations that coming clean is their best option, Blizzard needs to lay out a set of terms that makes coming clean attractive, and keeping it secret especially unattractive. The policy also needs to be consistent – it needs to strip away any subjectivity, because Blizzard have shown themselves to be really, really either at making subjective decisions, or else describing those decisions once they’re made.

Here’s a list of terms that would do the job:

  • Any player or coach that confesses to account boosting will be ineligible to play or coach Overwatch in one full season of Contenders (there are three seasons a year), or two full stages of the Overwatch League (there are four stages a year). If they confess while a season/stage is in progress, their period of ineligibility begins immediately.
  • During the time that they are ineligible to play, they are still eligible to be signed to an organization, and can play or coach in scrims, but cannot be in the coaching dugout during their team’s games.
  • Once the ineligibility period ends, the player’s slate is considered wiped clean.
  • Any player or coach that does not come forward voluntarily and is caught boosting, or is identified as having boosted in the past, will instead be ineligible to play or coach for two calendar years.
  • Any player or coach that is caught boosting during or after being given an initial suspension for boosting will be ineligible to play or coach for life.

These terms heavily incentivize people with histories of boosting to come forward, as they’ll have to sit out much longer if they’re caught without having volunteered the information themselves. The terms also make it clear that pursuing professional play and account boosting are mutually exclusive paths. Adopting these terms would result in Sado being able to play beginning at the start of Stage 3, and OGE being out for essentially the rest of the season, but unless Blizzard can come up with a very convincing reason for why their punishments are so different, adjusting both of their terms is perfectly fair.

The TLDR

Account boosting is a form of cheating, and it ruins games. Blizzard can, and should, issue steep punishments to people who have engaged in the practice and seek to play professionally. However, those punishments need to be consistent – something Blizzard have failed to do in their previous punishments. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach, which incentivizes boosters coming forward themselves, is the best path forward.

 

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All this talk about violent video games is a distraction tactic

I don’t normally talk politics on Twitter. That’s not why people follow me, and arguing with strangers on the internet, 240 characters at a time, is an exercise in insanity. However…

Redirection is a powerful public relations tool. If you control the narrative, you control the outcome. Everyone does it (or at least tries to) – every political party, every industry/interest group, etcetera. It’s part of the basic toolkit because it’s effective. But that doesn’t mean that it has to work every time; it’s important to recognize when it’s happening, and not let yourself and the people you talk to get distracted.

There was a school shooting. In the aftermath, a lot of the conversation was about gun control. Now, a few weeks later, a lot of the conversation is about violent video games. This is absolutely not an accident. People that don’t want the conversation to be about gun control have successfully shifted the conversation to video games. They’ve done it before, and they will continue to do it in the future because it’s proven successful multiple times.

As an aside, many forms of media went through similar periods where people painted them as the cause for the social ills of the time – superhero comics, television, and many, many different genres of music – this has all happened before. In a few decades, video games will get their reprieve and a new form of media will be the target of redirection instead.

Until then though, it’s important to recognize the redirection when it happens. Regardless of your stance on gun control or your broader political views, when someone starts talking about video games as a possible cause of school shootings, don’t fall into the trap of arguing that point – either don’t engage with the conversation, or call the redirection out.

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Stage 2 Predictions

Stage 2 is upon us, which means it’s prediction time. Since you’re not here to read intro paragraphs, I’m going to cut straight to the predictions. If you want to tell me that I’m an unqualified hack, you can find me on Twitter at @PestoEnthusiast, or call me out on the reddit post for this article at /r/CompetitiveOverwatch.

Heroes

By the way, this is for their standings in Stage 2 only, not for how they’ll finish the stage in the overall rankings. Here goes:

1: London Spitfire

Even if London don’t sign replacements for the two players they traded away (and rumor has it that they’re interested in Architect), this is a championship level team. London showed in the Stage 1 finals the ability to adapt to losses quickly, and they have a high ceiling that they haven’t hit yet.

2: New York Excelsior

New York enters the stage with on top with a two match lead. However, if triple tank turns out to be the meta, it won’t be NYXL’s strongest. The only have one off-tank player, no one known for Zarya, and going up against tanks will reduce the potency of Jjonak’s murderous Zen right-clicks.

3: Houston Outlaws

I was one of the few people that believed in Houston at the start of the season (I had them in 5th in the preseason rankings), and I’m doubling down here. With the signing of FCTFCTN, this team is going to have a fearsome tank lineup, and Jakerat isn’t going away any time soon either.

4: Dallas Fuel

This is a team that won two championships the last time triple tank was viable. They’ve just added a Genji (a role that was sorely needed) and their Winston will be back. Now that they can run dive and triple tank at a high level, expect Dallas to look nothing like they did last stage.

5: Seoul Dynasty

This meta will let Seoul’s supports play heroes they’re more comfortable with, and getting Ryujehong and Tobi back on Ana and Lucio is better than any player signing. The meta will also place more emphasis on their tanks (a strong point), and less on their second DPS (a weak point).

6: Boston Uprising

Boston’s tanks have been one of the strongest parts of a surprisingly strong roster, and again, tanks are in vogue. This team has shown such rapid improvement that even though other teams are strengthening their rosters, it’s difficult to see Boston falling below their current spot in the standings.

7: Los Angeles Valiant

Space won’t be 18 until late March, and Numlocked (per his stream) wasn’t given much scrim time in the first stage. While this is a team that’s strong in every position, and will remain fearsome on dive, I have reservations about their ability to run other key comps this stage.

8: Philadelphia Fusion

Fragi was a Reinhardt stuck playing Winston because SADO was banned. Now he gets to play Rein again. Philly also has no excuse not to run Poko all the time now, because they can run three tanks. While these are both buffs, they’ve yet to demonstrate that they can be consistent.

9: Florida Mayhem

Understaffed, and with several signings that will have to wait on visas, Mayhem look to have another rough stage ahead. However in Zappis, Manneten, and Awesomeguy, the team looks well positioned for three-tank. Zappis built his name in this meta, and will be a key leader now.

10: San Francisco Shock

We’re entering a tank-heavy meta, and San Francisco isn’t well positioned to capitalize on it. Nomy hasn’t been the Winston that the team needs, and unless he can step it up on Reinhardt, this team will struggle. I’m also not sure who their second off-tank would be in triple tank.

11: Los Angeles Gladiators

If you had told me this time last year that Hydration would be the best DPS on a team that also included Surefour and a Korean Tracer specialist, I would have laughed. Fissure might be an upgrade at main tank, but I’m not convinced that this team can win without an upgrade at DPS.

12: Shanghai Dragons

The needed reinforcements won’t be arriving in time to save this stage for Shanghai. Even when they arrive, they have the difficult task of integrating several Korean speakers into a Mandarin speaking lineup. They’d be 11th if they played Gladiators in week 5 instead of week 2 though.

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Mayhem are digging themselves a hole that may take years to get out of

The Florida Mayhem are off to an abysmal start. Their only win is against Shanghai, the team at the bottom of the table. San Francisco Shock, who at the time had a 2-5 record, just thrashed Mayhem in a convincing 4-0. While individual players show flashes of brilliance, the team looks uncoordinated, and more often than not looks to lack mental toughness – the ability to close out rounds when they’re one battle away from a solid defensive hold – which has cost them many a map.

While several organizations are doing worse than expected, Florida Mayhem is in a uniquely bad position. Unlike other struggling teams, Mayhem has put next to nothing into infrastructure. Mayhem has only one coach (every other team has at least two), has done nothing to build a local fan base in Florida, is one of the quietest orgs on social media, and are allegedly phoning it in on building their academy team. Per over.gg, they’ve outsourced the job of building a roster to the Houston Outlaws’ parent organization. I’ve been told that Mayhem were courted directly by talented free agent rosters, and I’d be very surprised if the academy team they wind up with is stronger than some of the free agent teams that they’ve turned down.

Mayhem

Unattractive Destination

Mayhem’s unwillingness to invest in infrastructure isn’t just costing them this year. It’s going to cost them for years to come.

You don’t get to the top of any esport without believing that you’re one of the best players in the world. For a sought-after free agent, joining a team that’s playing badly isn’t a deal breaker, because the free-agent thinks that they have it in them to turn the team around.
Joining a team that’s run badly, though, that could be a deal breaker. If a free agent has a choice between an organization that makes resources available to help him be as successful as possible, and another organization that has demonstrated unwillingness to properly support its players, which one do you think that he is going to go for? Obviously there are other factors in play – desire to play with specific teammates, attractiveness of the home city/fanbase, etc. – but if Mayhem doesn’t catch up on staff very soon, it’s going to have a harder time attracting talent than they otherwise would.

If Florida Mayhem does become the “you’re on your own” org, they’re probably going to miss out on talent that’s good enough to be courted by multiple OWL teams. This means that to be successful, Mayhem will either need to scout out hidden gems (which requires staff, which Mayhem don’t have), or they’ll need to offer more money than other orgs to attract those top free agents (which sounds out of character for an org that’s shown no willingness to spend much yet).

That Other League

Mayhem shares ownership with Misfits, which fields, among other things, a League of Legends team in the EU LCS. Franchising is on the horizon for Europe, and it’s a fair bet that Misfits wants to be a part of that when it happens.

The Misfits ownership group just bought into a rival franchise and invested significantly less into the effort than any of its rivals. From what I’ve heard (I don’t know firsthand, since I don’t follow LoL), Misfits has put a lot more infrastructure into their League of Legends team than they have their Overwatch team. It’s quite possible, then, that the ownership group’s lack of support for Mayhem won’t hurt their chances when Riot considers potential partners for EU LCS franchising. However, it’s just as possible that the Mayhem situation will give Riot pause. It’s a sure bet that Riot will have more strong candidates than they will spots.

What to do now (i.e. where to spend now)

First and foremost, Mayhem need to increase their coaching staff. At the very least, they need someone with a strong mind for strategy and comps. It’s been an issue for the team since before the Overwatch League started, and it’s not Mineral’s strongest skillset. Many other teams have three coaches, and if Mayhem can find a strong candidate to help with things like opposition research and talent scouting (and driving the team bus), they should seize the opportunity.

Second, Mayhem has gaps in the roster that still need filling. Zappis played hitscan and projectile for NiP, Ana and D.va for team Finland, then off-tank for Gigantti. With Manneten being one of Mayhem’s best performing players, it’s likely that Zappis will be coming in as a second off-tank in tank-heavy comps, or as an option at DPS. However more pickups are needed. A second option at main tank that’s strong on Reinhardt, a second option at main support that’s strong on Mercy, and a second option on off-support that’s strong on Moira are all going to be vital to Mayhem’s success.

Third, Mayhem needs to up their social media game. They initially had something novel going, tweeting in English and Spanish, however they’ve been pretty quiet on social media in both languages since the League started. They need a full-time, Mayhem-only social media manager, and I’d go as far as to say that they should have two official Mayhem Twitter accounts – one in English and one in Spanish. I’d also recommend that Mayhem sign a few Overwatch streamers, the way that Cloud9 did with Mendokusaii or TSM does with Calvin. It’s an inexpensive way to get eyeballs on the brand. Emongg, for example, looks like he’s not going to be on a Contenders team, has a large following, and is a safe choice as a brand representative.

Finally, Mayhem need to start doing local activities in Florida to build their local fan base.  ChanManV organized a fan meetup in Orlando opening night; Mayhem should encourage him to organize more, and provide publicity and giveaways for his events. Additionally, they should organize events in Miami (where Ben Spoont lives).

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Pro PUGs: A Path Forward

Earlier this week, 113 Overwatch League players piled into a ballroom for the inaugural Player Summit, a series of presentations on the league format, conduct expectations, and life as a pro. Presenters included Jeff Kaplan and professional baseball player Trevor May. Holding the event was a deft touch on Blizzard’s part, and the reaction to it has been almost universally positive.

Player Summit

However, one thing that emerged from the Player Summit that wasn’t met with a warm response was the news that Blizzard would be prohibiting players from organizing pick-up games (PUGs), which they had been doing in the weeks leading up to the Summit. Additionally, when playing in regular games, they would only be able to queue up with a maximum of one other OWL player.

According to former-pro and O.W. moderator Eric “PapaSmurf” Murphy, players complained about the new rules, and Blizzard has promised to change them. It’s too soon to know what Blizzard will come up with, but it’s unrealistic to expect a complete reversal of the policy.

The argument for pro PUGs

High-level players have been unhappy with ranked play almost since it was unveiled. Common criticisms of ranked include the skill discrepancy between the pros and some of the players they are put on a team with (for example, diamond players in the same game as Top 500 players), and “one tricks” (players that only play one hero, regardless of whether the map or the enemy composition calls for that hero). Players voice those frustrations on stream, and their fans then amplify those complaints on the forums and on reddit.

However, as Houston Outlaws coach Tae-yeong “TaiRong” Kim pointed out on Twitter, the issue with ranked goes deeper than just an unpleasant playing experience; there’s little relationship between ranked play and professional play. As we saw in the pro PUGs, professional play involves significantly more communication, coordination, and strategy than would be possible in ranked play. PUGs also allow players to choose maps that are relevant to them and skip ones that aren’t in the upcoming stage’s map pool. Finally, pro PUGs ensure that each team has the proper number of players for each role; they’re not going to get four main tanks on one side and four flex supports on the other. For these reasons, pro PUGs make for significantly better practice than ranked play does.

Pro PUGs also appear to be a more enjoyable experience for fans. The pros themselves are happier, the level of play is higher and more consistent, and since the pros all know each other, fans are treated to their humorous interactions with one another. More fans tuning in means more subscriptions, which means more income for the players. Players were understandably excited about growing the PUG project, as well as growing their streams. A specialized Discord for coordinating PUGs had already been set up, and there were plans in the works to track wins and losses across games.

The argument against pro PUGs

Judging from the reactions on Twitter while the PUGs were being held, Blizzard employees enjoyed the pro PUGs just as much as other fans did. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t arguments against having them. While Blizzard hasn’t officially stated the reason for the ban, there are a couple of sound-looking options.

First and foremost, PUGs split the pros out of the player base. While it’s true that pros would not be playing pro PUGs exclusively, they would likely be giving pro PUGs preferential treatment over regular ranked games. Since the original Krusher99 video, Blizzard has been selling the community a vision that anyone could become the next pro; that you, yourself, could be Krusher99, with the big contract and the ogling fans. Pro PUGs, which are open only to players with histories in the professional scene, undercut Blizzard’s “it could be you” marketing.

Additionally, there’s been some suggestion that the two OWL player maximum, as well as the ban on pro PUGs, is an effort by Blizzard to prevent other high-level play from diluting the OWL brand. It’s not the strongest argument at the moment, as there is some stellar talent left out of OWL that will be tearing up Contenders in a few months, but Blizzard is putting in place policies meant to span years. Once there are more teams and scouting has improved, the brightest stars will almost all be in OWL, and Blizzard wants there to be no question in fans’ minds that the Overwatch League is the place to go for high-level Overwatch play.

Room for compromise

Blizzard and the pro community have butted heads before, on such things as hero limits, tournament formats and map pools, hero balance, and components of the ranked play experience. As the owner of the game, Blizzard has the upper hand in these discussions. At times, they’ve been very receptive, and at times they’ve been the opposite.

Had there not been several weeks of pro PUGs before the Summit, banning them might not have been as big an issue. However, once players and fans saw how good pro PUGs could be, simply axing them was bound to elicit pushback. Blizzard’s reported willingness to come to the negotiating table immediately is a positive sign, both for this issue, and for player-league relations in the future.

Here’s what I’d like to see as a compromise solution:

Blizzard will embrace pro PUGs as a regular source of high-quality Overwatch content, but create specific broadcast windows for them. Players will be able to play PUGs whenever they want, however during match weeks, they will only be able to be broadcast them on days that games are not being played. Once Contenders starts, players will not be able to broadcast PUGs while Contenders games are being broadcast. During playoff weeks (both end of stage and end of season), players won’t broadcast PUGs at all. During the OWL offseason, players will be able to broadcast any time or day they want, except while Contenders games or other major tournaments are on air.

Overwatch League players will make a conscious effort to include Contenders players in the PUGs, ideally with four to six of the twelve players from Contenders. This way, Blizzard will be able to use pro PUGs to showcase the talent pipeline. The increased exposure for Contenders players might also make Contenders spots more valuable to organizations looking to get into (or back into) Overwatch.

During the regular season, Overwatch League players will be permitted to queue up with up to two other people, and they can both be other Overwatch League players. During the offseason, there will be no restrictions on who players can queue with.

Blizzard and Overwatch League players will form a working group to have frequent, candid discussions about the issues in ranked play and how to improve them. Blizzard will make a good-faith effort to act on the most feasible solutions that the working group develops. Pro players, for their part, will tone down their public criticism of ranked play. This last part isn’t a suppression of freedom of speech; its office politics. If Blizzard is working on improvements suggested developed in partnership with Overwatch League players, those players need to do their part to create an environment where the community isn’t breathing fire down the developers’ necks.

The compromise above would allow Blizzard to protect the Overwatch League brand and promote Contenders, while also allowing players to play in a format that’s more appealing to them and more conducive to building a streaming audience.

 

 

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