Deal with Toxicity Psychology

Esports is a ‘form of sports where the primary aspects are facilitated by electronic systems,’ according to Wikipedia.

If you’re a loyal fan of any game or genre, you’ll eventually find many of these games have organized leagues, loyal followings, and tournament brackets. In competitive or casual play, you’ll experience players who are wonderful with which to associate. And then, some who are so ‘toxic’ they’re practically radioactive.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a professional psychologist who can predict the exact effects of toxicity. Rather, I will draw upon personal experiences and correlative material to conclude common trends.


“How about a drink?’ The Toxic Mad Scientist Singed from League of Legends.

I think for most, when they hear the word toxic -in terms of people-, it normally consists of draining, non-supportive, difficult personalities. At one point in my academic career, I worked toward a Ph. D. in Cultural Anthropology. According to most anthropological and evolutionary theories, some believe the behaviour can be boiled down to a set of tribal beliefs. This tribal belief and behaviour is ‘written’ into our behavioural characteristics as humans. Cultural evolutionists point toward an idea of being protected by the tribe; if you merited disfavour, it meant certain death. So, in other words, every time someone calls you out for your actions or inactions, one becomes defensive, and feels an attack on an assume collective identity. In modern times, we no longer find ourselves in primitive tribes. But, the behaviour leads us – when accused – to become defensive and push blame onto someone/something else.

We can see this demonstrated many times in modern history. The Salem Witch Trials are an insightful example. When one person was accused of practicing witchcraft, that person would then charge another with the same crime. Eventually, hundreds of innocent people were burned because of this evolutionary behaviour. In this sense, when one is involved in a competitive team game, and is accused of X, Y is actually responsible for the mishap. If you die, one never blames themselves. They’re mad and upset. So, we look at everything else, and use the time until respawn to look at everything else. It’s causes us to look outward, and rarely look inward.

Toxicity and Esports:

HGC Finals Blizzcon.

Using the paradigm of Tribal Mentality, I’ve learned to approach gaming with a new perspective. Recently, I joined a new Heroes of the Storm HCG Academy team for the 2018-2019 season. I met many of them when ranking up in the Masters League. The players on this team have become some of my closest mates in the last few months of training. In eSports, separate teams generally compete to fight for some sort of common goal. Players need to coordinate with with other team members, make strategic decisions based on the analysis of their -and the other teams- composition. Also, they control Heroes/Characters which need to perform executions precisely with milliseconds to react.

The most important aspect of any eSports team, and any other team sport, is communication. Some organizations pour large amounts of money intro creating facilities called ‘gaming houses.’ These facilities serve to boost team chemistry with the understanding that communication and execution impacts the performance of their teams.

Toxicity and Casual Gameplay:

We all can relate.

For the plethora of other online gamers, communication still remains a vital and key element in the success of a team. In solo gameplay, you’ll come across two types of people: friendly players and toxic players. The friendly personality is an enjoyable teammate. They support the team and remain calm when the team is struggling to perform optimally. On the other hand, toxic players are people who constantly create bad atmospheres not conducive to the overall gaming experience. This person may use a volley of insults or profanity to express their extreme disgust with their annoyances.

On a superficial level, toxic players may seem to be ‘trolling’ because of their nature. Psychoanalyst M.S Tartakovsky has written extensively on this subject, and offers this perspective on toxic people:

“[Toxic people are] deeply wounded, and for whatever reason, they are not yet able to take responsibility for their wounding, their feelings, their needs and their subsequent problems in life.”

Addressing this from a psychoanalytical perspective, toxic players attempt to resolve conflicts by projecting onto their teammates. When a player dies or doesn’t perform well, it shines a direct light onto them. Those without strong emotional intelligence may begin blaming others to avoid the hurt and pain from ill performance. Those receiving the projected vitriol may misunderstand the mindset which can haunt the best of us. With this in mind, how do we help those with toxic attitudes, and bring them back to better ensure success as a ‘tribe?’

How do we help change toxic behaviour?

Assuming a match, battleground, etc., is about 20 minutes in length, how can you quickly change the direction of this behaviour? Many volumes cover the topic of persuasion, and how one begins to change the mind of someone. However, a simpler method from the word of customer service may offer some promise. If you’ve ever worked for a high end company, you’re taught methods for deescalation when dealing with angry customers.

During my time at Microsoft, we practiced never saying ‘calm down’ during heated situations. Instead, we learned to respond with ‘I understand your meaning, and I definitely hear your frustration, and I will work to solve this immediately.’ Customers became compliant and settled after this exchange. This method works with everyone. This method finds basis off a single word: empathy.

Empathy Vs Sympathy:

To better illustrate this point, let’s look at a quick comparison between empathy and sympathy:

  • Empathy:
    • Experiencing the feelings of another.
    • You have similar personal experiences.
    • Connected directly to emotion.
  • Sympathy:
    • Understanding the suffering of another.
    • Acknowledging another’s circumstances.
    • Recognizing the emotion without attachment.

Using this as a base rubric of comparison for gaming, this is the difference between saying “I’m sorry you’re so bad,” and, “I understand from where your frustration originates.” I’m not saying empathy is always the best option, but, people respond better to empathy than sympathy. Aside from other long term behavioural modifications, this is an immediate way to change the flow of any toxic gaming situation.

Instead of pointing out someone’s mistakes, empathy secures the impression that the tribe, or team, is behind them. Their collective identity is secure and not in harm. Continuing the game, instead of detracting from the gaming experience, will help you, your teammates, and your chances of success.

Concluding Thoughts: 

This psychology of Tribal Belief and Practicing Empathy will keep people in game longer, and arguing less. People continually argue over their place within the tribe, or the common collective identity. If you play any sort of game, you’ll find those who look down on others for not being ‘as good.’ One of my first experiences in League of Legends was a teammate commenting, ‘My team is so bad they can’t even win a surrender vote.’ While this at first glance is slightly humorous, it helps illustrate the sort of toxicity of which one might experience.

Small things impact us in a myriad of ways. It simply takes a bit of effort and reassuring of hearing, vitality, understanding, and listening to everyone for effective communication. As gamers, soft reassurance will help the toxic player understand their place is secure in the tribe, but their behaviour is not contributing by creating more toxicity in this environment.

Do you feel this could help in your gaming experiences? Have you encountered a toxic person? Do you have advice or tips of which I haven’t thought? Let us know in comments and create a conversation about this topic.

Editors Note: For further ways you can equip yourself to handle toxic people, I direct you to an article a former colleague writes on this subject.


  1. Very well put. I also believe on top of the tribal mentality there is a pack mentality that forms when multiple toxic players conform in a group. So instead of a feeling of collective attack a player might feel the brunt of an actual collective attack being betrayed with obscenities and insults from every direction. And this is damaging to many players for a variety of reasons. Gaming is supposed to be a formidable escapism from the quagmires of daily life. So walking into a lobby full of toxic members diminishes that escape and stress sets in all over again. Some players easily(seemingly so) shrug off toxicity without a second glance. But there remains those who are too familiar with this toxicity that they are extremely susceptible and vulnerable to it. So players who already struggle with mental health problems such as anxiety or depression now lose an outlet. Its unfortunate but through a reverse collective aimed at preventing toxic communities change for gaming can occur.