When a player reports an abusive teammate in Overwatch, the most common response is rarely fear, regret, or even an apology. It's "go ahead!" Overwatch's reporting system is opaque, like any game's, but word on the street is that it's toothless.
As someone who spends roughly 10 hours a week playing Overwatch, I've seen toxicity increase since the game installed its new reporting system in March. As more and more players come around to the idea that Overwatch's reporting function is ineffective, fewer apparently fear the usual repercussions of trolling.
A story: The other night on PC Overwatch, my competitive team desperately needed a tank. We were a sad mix of squishy heroes. Unless we picked up a sturdy body to absorb enemy attacks up front, preferably with a shield, we'd get mowed. I'll do it, I said on voice chat, switching to Reinhardt. But two tanks are better than one.
That simple hero choice provoked a comment that I'll assume was meant to be friendly: "Oh, I didn't know girls play Reinhardt." Well, mister, here I am. I put my mouse on the big shield dude and clicked that right click! I laughed into my headset and silently walked over to the map's choke point. After the game started, another teammate said, "I hate women." I laughed into my headset. After another pause, he continued: "I hate feminazis."
I laughed again. "My dad taught me to hate women." A stream-of-consciousness of distracting trolling kept us company from the first choke point to the enemy team's eventual victory. "And that's how you got reported!" I concluded. He said, "Fine. Go ahead. Overwatch's reporting system is bullshit, anyway."
I use Overwatch's report function a lot. Nearly three times a week, somebody goes on some racist tangent, yells slurs at some Hanzo main, throws the game, or, on one particularly confusing occasion, scream-shouts the entirety of "All Star" by Smash Mouth in voice chat. I report them because I want to feel like I'm contributing to a better Overwatch community, and so I do my part to yank out the toxic weeds.
It's also a self-defence mechanism — somebody's tilted me, I'm mad, I'm playing worse and leaking SR [skill rating], and so I'd prefer it if they vanished into the abyss. I tell people when I'm reporting them, too. And consistently, I hear in response: "Whatever!"
It's a pretty lax attitude to take under the threat of account suspension or a ban; but that's because, for a lot of Overwatch players, that threat doesn't seem to exist. Players are pretty clueless about how Overwatch's reporting function works. Forum posts and conversations with players indicate that a lot of people think reporting in Overwatch is more of a placebo than an management system for harassment.
I've had rude teammates beg me to report them. And console players don't even have a report function, although publisher Blizzard says they're working on one.
Shortly after Overwatch's release, game director Jeff Kaplan told Kotaku reporter Nathan Grayson that toxicity is "a big concern for us." He added that Overwatch's "Report" function has to be a little inscrutable so nobody exploits it. A big drama earlier this year ballooned after players started reporting teammates who wouldn't switch off commonly-disliked heroes. A few months later, Blizzard instituted Overwatch's new system, which lets players report each other for "spam", "abusive chat", "cheating", "griefing", "inactivity", "bad Battletag" and "poor teamwork".
"Abusive chat" doesn't have the same weight as "bad teamwork." Having to deal with a crap Widowmaker on your team doesn't really compare to someone making you feel unwelcome in a community you are attached to.
Because so many players are baffled by Overwatch's "Report" system, a few rag-tag fans have been conducting experiments on it. On /r/Overwatch, player TheOverwatchInt explained how, over a period of two days, he asked teammates in 50 Quick Play games to report him for abusive chat.
A few days later, he received an email from Blizzard notifying him that his account would be muted for a week. TheOverwatchInt concluded that the "Report" system works and estimates that he was reported a few dozen times. In the comments under his findings, fans noted that it took too long for Blizzard to react.
When asked by Kotaku this week how their reporting system works, Blizzard declined to explain, but added that they do have a team "that actively monitors and acts on player reporting. We are constantly working on improving the system, as we take toxicity and player reporting very seriously."
Last month, Kaplan said on the Battle.net forums that the Overwatch team was "reviewing our punishment policies with an eye towards getting more aggressive on toxicity and throwing and other bad behaviours."
Overwatch's reporting system is still young, but as of today it's failed to create the one thing that it needs most: a culture of fear. When you threaten to report a teammate, his or her first reaction shouldn't be "go ahead." Teammates should know when a player has been kicked for "abusive chat." People who report others should hear what happened next. That way, Overwatch won't feel like the wild west of rude teenagers it is right now.