Opinion

Richard Lewis: Twitch, it’s time to bring Ice Poseidon in from the cold

Published: 4/Aug/2020 16:02 Updated: 8/Sep/2020 15:17

by Richard Lewis

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On April 28, 2017, Paul “Ice Poseidon” Denino was live streaming his journey from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. This was par for the course for the personality who had essentially become Twitch’s most prominent “reality TV” star.

Every day, his life was broadcasted to tens of thousands of people who watched eagerly to see what he was doing no matter how mundane. On this day, his stream was mostly a garbled wall of sound, the background milling of a busy airport with him occasionally talking to camera about how he thought he had missed his flight. It was a day of dull viewing. It would also be one that would see him detained by airport security, make national news, and be permanently banned from Twitch.

Some background before we get to that: Denino was one of Twitch’s biggest stars at that point, much to the chagrin of those who ran the platform. This was someone who had already been banned multiple times as a gameplay streamer, and when they introduced the section for people to stream “in real life” (IRL), a significant shift from their gameplay focused rules, his popularity just continued to grow. More bans followed, including a 45-day ban after he accidentally revealed the phone number of a girl who had expressed interest in going on a date with him. All of this was new, uncharted territory for both the streamer and Twitch themselves, but it was clear that the website’s executives had a much clearer understanding of the potential problems that an Ice Poseidon stream could bring to those who were accidentally caught up in one.

Ice Poseidon holding phone
Instagram: ice_poseidon
Ice_Poseidon became a controversial figure through his IRL livestreams.

The reasons Denino had risen to such prominence at that time were many and varied. As a popular Runescape streamer, he already had an established audience that welcomed his desire to pivot towards becoming a different kind of streamer. As a central figure, there was something simultaneously likeable and hapless about him. Even before he was living the reality TV lifestyle, there were several viral clips of him being trolled by people donating to him with unsavoury messages where he would beg his audience to stop before yet another, more elaborately disguised message would utter something worse than the last one. The comedy was in how exasperated and miserable he would become, each terms of service violation potentially being the last before his account was terminated.

Over time, Paul would start to lean into this. He accepted that the central distinction between his stream and the other people plying a trade in the IRL section came from the audience. On other people’s streams, the viewers were generally fans with the occasional bad actor. By contrast, large parts of his audience wanted to make his life as awkward as possible. He was the ant and they held the magnifying glass. In exchange for the money and the attention, he was willing to be repeatedly burned. Imagine a dark, twisted version of The Truman Show where the viewers get to make the central figure’s life as unpleasant as possible. That was his existence.

These pranks became increasingly malevolent over time. The community that Denino had around him was one that, to put it generously, enjoyed the more extreme interpretation of what constituted comedy. The worse things were for him, the funnier it was. What started as continually trying to get the stream shut down morphed into more dangerous territory. He had been swatted at his home repeatedly by this point, sometimes while broadcasting, sometimes in the rare moments off-air. He took that potentially life-threatening violation in stride, reasoning it was part of being a public figure.

One of his viewers decided to go one further. Having the information about what airport he was at, what airline he was flying and what his destination was, someone called the authorities and claimed Denino was a suicide bomber that would detonate on the plane. The flight was held and police and security swarmed over the runway as he was detained for questioning. Fortunately no-one was hurt but that didn’t change how shaken he was after the incident. In a video he posted to YouTube after the incident, he said: “I’m considering not streaming DreamHack because I’m afraid. If someone’s willing to do that on a fucking plane, what’s to stop them from doing it at DreamHack? You swat my house, whatever, fuck you — you swat a plane? That’s a whole other level. You don’t expect that to happen.”

The situation made it to televised news across the United States — not the fifteen minutes of fame he’d been hoping for since his move to LA. The situation was too big to ignore for Twitch, but few expected them to lay the blame on the doorstep of the streamer who, to all who viewed the situation, seemed to be the victim in all of this. Regardless, perhaps due to the media attention, perhaps due to the frequency that things like this happened to the streamer in question, they took the decision to permanently suspend him from the platform. As is the norm for Twitch, they made no public statement about their rationale and knew that eventually the outrage over the decision would die down.

When you are banned from Twitch they also have an absurd rule that you cannot appear on anyone else’s streams. This extends way past the point of being reasonable. If someone livestreams for an event and catches even a glimpse of the banned person in the background, they will also be suspended. The rule seems to have been founded on something close to common sense… After all, if the ban was only attached to the channel and not the individual, what could stop them essentially appearing as a “permanent guest” on someone else’s channel indefinitely and earning revenue that way?

In reality the rule now creates a weird and bitter world where one-time popular figures who, lest we forget made Twitch money hand over fist, are now persona non grata. In Paul’s case he saw this as especially egregious. His entire existence on Twitch and the fanbase he had called the “Purple Army,” a reference that goes back to his Runescape days and the guild coloration system, were now being memoryholed because someone had swatted him. Despite someone publicly having claimed responsibility for the incident, Twitch never seemed interested in pursuing that legally. For them, the situation was resolved when they banned Paul and that was that.

Ice_Poseidon at Ferris Wheel
Instagram: ice_poseidon
Denino has had to make some major changes to his content throughout the years.

The next few years saw Ice Poseidon’s streaming career spiral out of control. Angered by the decision, he continued by moving to the much more permissible platform of YouTube and the streams suddenly took on a darker tone. The content was more geared to generating shock value, he started to lean into the racist and homophobic jokes that were becoming common in his community. He gathered a network of streamers who wanted to create similar content that all seemed to want to one-up each other as to who could be the most outrageous. A typical broadcast would be a car crash of social disorders, substance abuse, and inappropriate sexual conduct. Of course, it found an audience.

I’ve often seen it framed that this was all part of the plan being masterminded by Paul, that he was prepared to go as far as possible for views. In reality, it may have been car crash viewing but he was not the driver. All too often he was the one left tangled in the wreckage. A combination of being out of his depth and the stress of community backlash saw most of his big plans and promises fall by the wayside. Each time he couldn’t deliver on one, his fans became more vitriolic in their hatred towards him. Every day off was met with death and swatting threats. His girlfriend was also a target for the abuse, his dedicated subreddit become mostly a shrine towards blaming her for any lack of content delivered. His viewers didn’t want him to be happy. There was no entertainment value in that.

There is undoubtedly some valid criticism to be levied at him for some of his behaviour during this time. He even made the national newspapers in Switzerland after being evicted from multiple hotels for refusing to comply with their laws around filming in public.

Still, it was clear that even in 2018 he was trying to set things right. He distanced himself from those other streamers and disavowed the network he created. He purged his own subreddit, forcing those that wanted things to stay the same to create an alternative. His streams tried to focus more on having fun with friends rather than trying to generate confrontations while in public. The punk singer GG Allin once said “I think of my audience as the enemy.” For Denino, this had become unquestionably true. Nobody suffered more at the hands of his audience than himself.

Slowly but surely, the hardcore fans that had plagued him for most of his streaming career started to go elsewhere for their entertainment. This is usually something of a death knell for a streamer’s career. Many struggle to come to terms with realising they might have been a fad having spent so long defining their success through numbers. Denino doesn’t seem to mind. Recently, he’d been on Mixer streaming to a much smaller audience. The environment was much more relaxed, the streams less chaotic and, crucially, no harassment was aimed at either him or anyone else that found themselves in his orbit. For the first time since he had surged in popularity, his life was vaguely normal.

Typical of his luck, it was announced on June 22 that Mixer would be shutting down as a service and merging with Facebook. They had spent big money and failed to make a dent in the dominance of Twitch and YouTube. Despite there having been no issues with Twitch, the streamer would put out a message trying to sound out the possibility of being unbanned from the platform now things had drastically changed. He offered a complete apology for everything that had occurred during his time on Twitch, saying that he “was banned for enabling a very toxic community that has affected the industry, myself, my friends and other creators as a whole… And for that I’m sorry.”

In an accompanying written statement, he also expressed an understanding for Twitch’s position, adding: “After being on YouTube for a year, I decided to create my own network of streamers. This lead to all of their actions falling directly on my shoulders and it wasn’t until then I began to realize that this is what I did to Twitch. I don’t think I would fully understand why I was banned from Twitch without this experience. I too had to ban people, kick them from my network, and fully disassociate and cut all ties. These were people who did not promote the image that I wanted and portray my brand the way I had hoped.”

While we do live in a time where most apologies and acknowledgements are PR-driven bullshit, this one feels doesn’t feel to fit into that mold. After all, there’s nothing stopping him simply going back to YouTube and, even if he were unbanned on Twitch, his prolonged period of absence and shifting audience demographic doesn’t even mean he’d be guaranteed to ever get back to where he was in 2017. It’s a fair assumption that his rise and fall has taught him something few really get to learn. Being in his early twenties when all this went down he wasn’t really even supposed to be a fountain of wisdom.

So, while Twitch seem content to have the narrative around Ice Poseidon to be one of them expunging toxicity and protecting their users, there’s a much more glaringly obvious truth to it. That is they themselves didn’t know what to do and instead of taking a slightly more difficult road of working with the content creator to figure out how to minimize said risks, they simply decided to ban him entirely. Anything else was just too much effort. And since then we’ve seen time and time again that when it comes to suspensions from the platform, Twitch is riddled with inconsistency, hypocrisy, and a refusal to communicate with those affected by it.

Ice Poseidon smoking by waterfall at lake
Instagram: ice_poseidon
Denino is now pleading with Twitch to be able to return.

If they were honest with themselves, they would acknowledge that Denino’s story is a cautionary tale for the streaming generation and one that in his absences isn’t even accurately told. He’s an example of someone that actually worked on his image, his audience, his environment instead of just fucking off to any other streaming platform that would allow him to never have to self-reflect or change. Twitch, that often poses as a community when it suits them, should acknowledge these facts and show that for those who are willing to embrace such changes there’s a road back. It would also make a statement that they themselves had learned a lot these past three years, that they now believe they are better equipped to deal with the unique problems that popular IRL streamers face.

Considering some of the personality redemption arcs we’ve seen of late and the second chances afforded to people guilty of worse transgressions than Denino, isn’t it time to bring him in from the cold?

Opinion

Adam Fitch: Esports fans don’t exist

Published: 8/Jan/2021 17:30 Updated: 9/Jan/2021 1:32

by Adam Fitch

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The agreed-upon definition of esports is a form of competition using video games and in 2021 it’s almost unanimously adopted across the industry, but there may be something counter-productive with the premise of being an ‘esports fan.’

The early years of competitive video games saw plenty of tentative, widespread naming conventions for the industry that was being built from the ground-up. In the past five or so years, ‘esports’ became the de facto umbrella term for the dozens of games that are played competitively.

It’s handy to have a colloquial term for the industry for several obvious reasons, I’d not debate that. I do believe it doesn’t matter too much what the term we collectively agree upon is, as long as it’s not offensive or overly-complex, though.

What I believe may matter in the future is the use of ‘esports fans’ — effectively generalizing and collating a wide range of sub-communities. There are circumstances where this isn’t harmful at all but it’s not helpful when trying to understand the demographics that support those that comprise the industry.

London Royal Ravens hosting their home series event
Call of Duty League
Call of Duty fans are generally unrecognizable when compared to League of Legends fans.

Mischaracterization helps nobody

Esports is segmented by nature, much like the music industry or traditional sports. There are different genres that are unique in nature, thus appealing to people in different ways. There are strategic titles that fall under the banners of real-time strategy, shooters, fighting games, MOBAs, battle royale, and so on.

Each genre stands on its own for a reason; games under a particular banner all share characteristics. Let’s delve into a scenario. 22-year-old Tim is a fan of Call of Duty, he enjoys the shooter gameplay and simple objectives of the game modes within the franchise. He’s not been able to find any interest in strategy games and he thinks Dota 2 is impossible to understand.

He has more chance of understanding and enjoying a game like Halo which, while standing alone in its gameplay, shares characteristics with CoD. Considering his established interest in shooter titles, he may well find something of intrigue in Halo or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive but it’s almost-guaranteed that League of Legends won’t be something he’d enjoy — or perhaps even understand — when spectating.

It wouldn’t be a big stretch by any means to call him a fan of shooters but not a fan of MOBAs. Now, let’s say he’s just become interested in watching the world’s best players battle it out against each other in Call of Duty because he wants to improve. He’s now a fan of Call of Duty esports.

League of Legends Louis Vuitton
David Lee/Riot Games
Louis Vuitton identified League of Legends Esports as good means of advertisement.

Companies of all nature should want to understand audiences. Knowing the interests, tendencies, characteristics, and demands of an audience allows a company to better serve them and subsequently, in theory, have a better chance of becoming successful. This is especially important for sponsors, who comprise a crucial percentage of the overall esports revenue.

Considering his preferences and competencies as a spectator, banding Tim together with 13-year-old MOBA fan Jenny as the same demographic would not be a good idea for many companies. There’s no overlap between Tim and Jenny besides their general interest in gaming — the chances of a company having a product that appeals to them both, even if it’s a new video game, is unlikely.

Segmentation helps everybody

We often generalize when we discuss esports, which is an industry that’s heavily-segmented by nature. If we want to better understand the numerous demographics we serve, we’re better off keeping them segmented. A generalization of all competitive League of Legends fans is more likely to be accurate than a generalization of those across several genres and the dozens of games under those departments.

This is true for regions, too. The living experience in the United Kingdom is vastly different in many ways than it is for somebody who’s based in China. There are cultural and societal differences that must be accounted for.

Now, there are anomalies. There are certainly consumers who enjoy shooters, MOBAs, and battle royales, for example, but there’s an exception to the rule. It’s hard to identify these people without extensive surveying, though this is something I’d hope to see in the future for a couple of reasons.

I don’t believe there’s too much harm to be made on a general basis when discussing esports, but it’s within the business of the industry when this occurrence is stupid. Executives who think they can tap into the ‘esports audience’ don’t really understand the industry, because there is not an esports audience.

Hopefully, as esports continues to progress and develop over the coming months and years, we can further acknowledge the nature of the industry for what it is and then have more informed and precise discussions — whether that’s when making an important decision or simply trying to advance each other’s thinking when it comes to the industry.