NHL 20 has a racism problem, and EA needs to address it

As you’ve probably noticed over the past few days, I’ve by and large put hockey content on the back-burner. This site has been more or less silent, and very little of my social media content has anything to do with the sport. Instead, I’ve largely used my Twitter account to amplify voices talking about and documenting the Black Lives Matter protests that are happening around the world, particularly in the United States and issues that surround them.

I’m in full support of the millions of protesters in the streets and in the media, traditional or digital. I’m in full support of those that they’re fighting for. I would like to be in support of respectful law enforcement officials, but what we’ve seen this week – peaceful protests being broken up by extreme shows of police violence while the destruction on the peripheral is largely allowed to give cause – shows that the “one bad apple” analogy cannot be spoken without the “spoils the whole bunch” part and that the apple count is very high as it is. The whole policing system needs significant reform for reasons beyond, but largely made evident within its racial bias, and it’s far from the first system of power that needs a serious re-look.

With that all said, I’m back on the blog today to show an example of complacency towards racial issues, and one that hits close to home.

When COVID-19 put the world on pause a few months ago, it meant that my real-life friend circle was suddenly low on things to do. Besides the odd gathering at one of our places, or at a bar, or whatever, what brought us together the most was playing hockey every Thursday. We’re not particularly good – in fact, we’re the worst team in the lowest level in our league, as a byproduct of the fact that every one of us either started playing, skating, or both in the past few years (personally, I’m a life-long ball hockey player, but a relatively untrained and therefore poor skater).

Our solution? We all picked up NHL 20 and decided we’d take our league play to the digital ice – the EA Sports Hockey League. For those who haven’t played a hockey video game in the modern era, “EASHL” was a feature introduced in 2008 that allows you to take control of your own individual character, on a custom team, and work together with your friends in 3v3 or 5v5 games. We thought this was a great way to keep the Beavurritos together, and we’ve played hundreds of games together since March. We don’t have an amazing team, but we have a pretty good one, so we end up playing most nights.

But it’s a very frustrating game to play, and not just because of the technical flaws of the hockey game (which are small, but abused). Instead, our biggest point of frustration has been the racism that we’ve seen within it.

I’m only including attaching a few of our matchups in this piece, but make no mistake – we see these all the time. Whether it’s racist team names, racist player names, players dressed up in highly caricatured ways (players set to the biggest size and darkest skin colours are probably the most common “build” in the online game), team mascots with racist names… it never really ends. It’s not just limited to anti-black racism either. For example, this local team that we matched up against last week:

This all hits pretty close to home for us as a group. Half of our real-life roster of 14 players are visible minorities, which also reflects our extended social circle. Our PS4 EASHL roster is similar, with 4 of the 7 of us who fit that description. While I have little to worry about in this regard, I hate seeing it for my friends. The mood audibly changes in our chat parties when we get quick-matched against teams like these, and for good reasons. Even if the offending teams and players aren’t attacking the specific race of all of us playing, for most of the team, it’s still a reminder of the pain and the aggression and poor treatment that they can often fall victim to, and it’s only a matter of time before we end up in a lobby that’s pointed in their direction.

By our estimates, we see something in a team’s identity that can be considered racism in at least a quarter of our games. That number drops as you climb up the promotion-relegation system – presumably because higher-ranked players are either more mature or just don’t want to risk discipline or scolding on accounts that they’ve gotten good in-game results on.

The risk isn’t particularly high, though, and that’s a problem. I want you to look at the above photo. This one isn’t from us, but is the screencap that led to EA actually being questioned about the issue in a professional setting and giving an answer – but only before people like myself and Vancouver Province writer Patrick Johnston pointed out what the problems were. Because, for the first day or so, people weren’t focused on the anti-Semitic team name, or the blatantly anti-Black name of their centre, but the fact that Vancouver Canucks goaltender Thatcher Demko happened to quick match against a player who’s name was making fun of his hockey-playing ability.

When I brought this to light, I got a lot of the same responses I get whenever I post screencaps of our opponents. Many who agreed this was a problem, but almost as many saying it wasn’t a big deal, that it was just a joke, that the development team should be focused on ‘more important’ issues. Hardcore communities of players are similarly polarized on the issue, with as many dismissing it as there are speaking up on it.

The issue, however, mirrors what we’re seeing on the streets with these officers. This isn’t a case of an odd “bad apple” – these racist identifications are rampant and a near-guarantee to see on a daily basis. Moreover, there is a serious lack of action on EA’s part.

Their statement to Johnston on April 18th was as follows:

“We do not tolerate racist or derogatory language in our games. NHL 20 uses profanity filters that remove inappropriate language. And we also take swift action to remove any derogatory or offensive slang that we find, or is reported. We’re always looking at ways we can improve these filters and our tools, so we can ensure our game is an inclusive place,” the spokesman said via email.

“Unfortunately, there are instances like this where players are able to get around the filters in the game. We immediately investigated this instance when it was reported and we have taken the action to ban the player.”

This is all well and good, but it’s worth keeping in mind that EASHL has had this problem since it’s inception, and we’re approaching the 12th anniversary of it’s addition to the game. It’s worth keeping in mind that there is little to no dynamic effort to improve the filters – one that blocks out obvious curse words and slurs at the face, but seemingly does nothing to prevent workarounds. In fact, there seem to be more false positives than slurs; several common first and last names, including ones of players in the game, are blocked by their filter, but all of what you’ve seen above is okay.

EA’s spokesperson mentions that you can report these names to them, but also fails to mention how barebones the reporting system is. By that I mean, an actual reporting system doesn’t exist – there is no way to flag these players in-game. The workaround is to report them to an EA SPORTS “Gamechanger”, who will then pass them up the ladder.

For those who don’t know what a Gamechanger is, these are volunteers who don’t work for the staff. Essentially, they are social media influencers within the community who give feedback to the development team. To my knowledge, they don’t get paid for their services, and many of them are teenagers or young adults.

In other words, Electronic Arts, estimated to be a $34 billion company, relies on a system where people need to photograph the offending teams, send those images to a volunteer, and those volunteers then pass them up to potentially turn into some form of punishment. A lot of this is because the NHL department isn’t afforded a ton of resources, but that itself is its own issue. The lack of support leaves a blind spot that makes this one of the most visibly racist video game communities around, one whose toxicity isn’t just limited to voice chat like most others.

My understanding is that NHL 21 will have an improvement in this regard, in large part because of the fact that others like myself have also become fed up and put the company on the spot. But it needs to be significant to work, and it needs to be a high priority. There needs to be an integrated report system in the game. There need to be dedicated staff who work with community managers to oversee these reports. The punishments must be zero-tolerance; be it through banning players outright, or taking away their ability to have non-preset players and teams in the league. Filters must be something that get updated constantly, not just with each annual title release. Ideally, I’d like to see something where a filter rejection comes with links to resources that explain *why* the filtered name is problematic, so the censorship can be as educational as it is restrictive.

Just as importantly, EA needs to do a better job of speaking up about this issue. Something that’s been very unfortunate to see is the silence from the NHL division over the past week or so; the official EA NHL Twitter, at this time, has only posted two tweets in the past week – one a retweet of a statement from the Madden division, and one a statement from the main EA account about employee policy.

Neither of these truly come form them, and neither acknowledges the rampant issues within their own title. As the company’s slogan has said repeatedly over the years, “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game”, which means they bear responsibility for their players’ actions just as much as the players do, particularly since next to nothing has been done about the problem for a dozen years. I believe there are well-intentioned people within the department because I know them and I know what they stand for individually. Hell, I almost ended up working there myself a few years ago, ultimately being passed up because the department needed someone who could pivot to other departments (again, a budget issue). I understand that as a lower-priority title in the company’s umbrella, they aren’t afforded the resources to solve every issue.

But frankly, as much as little bugs and glitches can annoy me in this game, I think solving the rampant racism problem is much more important than most community concerns. Allowing these expressions to stand in a community that is largely rooted in impressionable and privileged youth allows for them to carry these thoughts into their real-world dressing rooms and into society itself, and makes the problem even worse. It also turns players away from the game – particularly those who the language is targeted at.

Not fighting this rampant issue head-on might free up some short-term resources, but it poisons the player base and disincentivises people from playing the product. Electronic Arts should invest in their product and invest in their community, and until they don’t, they are complicit in the problem.

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