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Toxic players and the power of positive engagement

deltaDNA CEO Mark Robinson on why banning may not be the best way to deal with online toxicity

Preserving consumer trust is essential for any brand, but it can be a real internal tussle when you have a highly successful product but are faced with the choice between the loss of immediate revenue versus possibly longer-term brand value. A tough choice for a CEO being targeted and rewarded for year-on-year growth and a challenge a CMO responsible for brand perception.

This is one dilemma currently bearing down on some of the world's most successful massively multiplayer online games. MMOs attract tens of millions of players and generate eye-popping global revenues, however, not everything in the garden is rosy.

The problem is that the largely male-dominated, consequence-free environment of the MMO, has become a breeding ground for aggressive behaviour, harassment and game sabotage. The issue of toxic players isn't anything new, but what has changed is that publishers are now beginning to face up to their demons and figure out how best to deal with toxic players.

So what's changed?

Despite the games industry's recent stellar growth, it's important to remember that games face the same core challenges as any digital business. A game's success depends on it's ability to acquire new customers, retain existing ones and boost conversion rates. If any of these KPIs become compromised, it's going to limit the game's revenue potential. 

This is the reality facing the world's biggest game, League of Legends. The game attracts more than 67 million players and generates over a billion dollars in revenue each year. However, publisher Riot Games has made no secret of its attempts to get a handle on the problem of toxic players, something it sees as a major barrier to attracting and retaining players.

That's because League of Legends has gained a reputation for aggressive in-game behaviour, which is clearly causing would-be players to think twice before getting involved in the game.

This is evidence of just how toxic in-game behaviour can directly influence perceptions of the game, for people who have never player it.

Toxic game behaviour is a real challenge for online game developers

Head in the sand is bad for the brand

The reason that change has been slow is that currently, it's only a moral duty forcing publishers to respond to aggressive activity within their games.

Many opt for the head in the sand approach. If a game is generating vast sums of money and attracting millions of players, then the incentive to start busting heads isn't always paramount. 
Then there's the issue of resource. Intervening in individual cases of abuse and having to ban every player that steps out of line can take up a tremendous amount of time and money.

That's fine, but the tide of toxicity and bad behaviour in online games is rising, and game makers can only continue to turn a blind eye for so long before the impact on brand perception, and then profits, is felt. 

Therefore, its no surprise that the industry's biggest game brands, like League of Legends and Overwatch, are taking the biggest strides forward in trying to combat this insidious problem. However, when it comes to the question of how best to tackle the problem, the jury's still out.

Analytics and the power of positive engagement

There's an argument for removing toxic players from the game for good. If they're giving the game a bad reputation and causing existing players to churn then a ban for life is best, right?

It's an approach that make senses in the most extreme cases, but aggressive or toxic behaviour is actually instigated by a large percentage of the player base, rather than just a small and disruptive nucleus of players. For example, Blizzard has already removed 480,000 'toxic' players from Overwatch, so does banning players really solve the problem? And what if a player is only very occasionally aggressive?

"Riot found that only 1% of its players were actually consistently toxic, accounting for just 5% of all aggressive behaviour. Toxic behaviour was actually spread across a much broader range of players"

The great profit vs brand value dilemma can't be solved with bans alone. That's because toxic behaviour is a complex issue, requiring many different approaches to tackle a broad spectrum of different toxic behaviours.

This is where analytics could play a key role, to help segment players into different behavioural groups. In fact, we're already seeing some games start to use analytics as a way of rehabilitating aggressive players while keeping them within the game economy.

This is the approach being taken by Riot Games, which decided to hire a team of analysts and researchers to study both social and anti-social behaviour within League of Legends. Because of the scale of the game, the data scientists were able to collect vast amounts of data which helped them unearth some profound insights.

They discovered that only 1% of the game's players were actually consistently toxic, accounting for just 5% of all aggressive behaviour. Instead, they found that the toxic behaviour was actually spread across a much broader range of players, who only exhibited this on rare occasions, perhaps when having a bad day.

The company quickly realised that if it banned the most toxic players, it would have little impact, so to really shift the needle, it needed to change how players behaved.

The solution was to devise a series of messages to encourage positive behaviour aimed at players who were beginning to show toxic tendencies. This data-led approach delivered dramatic results, reducing offensive language, verbal abuse and negative attitudes by up to 83%.


Consumer trust is about how a brand responds to the contact it has with, and the feedback it has from, its customers. If that feedback doesn't enact positive change, then it can begin to erode trust, as customers begin to feel undervalued by the brand.

Outside of the games industry, great customer service or a demonstrable customer-first approach has always been something that marketers use to differentiate themselves from their competition.

With the issue of toxic players, the games industry now has a strong business-driven imperative to start tackling its demons, by making its games the type of environments that can be enjoyed by all players. 

To finally get a handle on the problem, publishers are going to need to get personal, and tackle different types of behaviours with an appropriately tailored engagement strategy. In analytics, it may have found its greatest ally.

DeltaDNA is a game analytics company. For more information, click here.