Screenshot: YouTube

Yesterday, professional Dota 2 player Carlo “Kuku” Palad was banned from a major tournament due to making what were seen as racist comments in a match last month. Prior to this move, Dota developer Valve had condemned Palad’s behavior but refused to inject itself directly into the matter, calling instead on teams to dole out the proper punishments themselves. Valve’s eventual intervention shows how untenable that approach was.

On November 3, Carlo “Kuku” Palad, a 22-year-old Dota 2 pro who plays for Philippine team TNC Predator, typed the words “ching chong” in chat during a pub game. Following on the heels of another player typing the same phrase during a competitive match, the incident blew up, with Chinese fans demanding Palad be sanctioned. At first, TNC’s manager claimed that “ching chong” was simply the handle of one of the other players in the match rather than a racial slur, something he later admitted was untrue.

Chinese fans began to review bomb the Steam page for Dota 2, calling on Valve to take action against Palad, but the company demurred. On November 10 Valve published a blog post explaining that it won’t tolerate racist behavior among pro players, but it called on teams to be the ones to enforce these values and hold their players accountable. While Valve was clear in its condemnation of racism, it was vague about everything else, including what would happen if teams failed to act as Valve saw appropriate.

Later in November, following Valve’s blog post and the Kuala Lumpur Major in which the team finished fifth, TNC decided to dock 50 percent of Palad’s earnings from the event as punishment, as well as donating half a month’s salary from the team manager to an anti-racism organization. The team planned to go forward with having Palad on the roster for the Chongqing Major being held in China in January. On December 2, TNC began claiming on Twitter that it had been told by tournament organizers that Chinese authorities were threatening to cancel the event, or potentially not let Palad into the country, should he try to attend. The team also claimed that while Palad wasn’t being officially banned from the event, tournament organizers had told him that his safety could not be guaranteed if he went. The rumors became a flashpoint for the community, leading to a larger debate about whether locations and not Valve should have the final say on who attends events. There was also speculation about whether Palad would be refused entry to 2019’s International, also set to be held in China.

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Meanwhile, some Dota 2 casters, such as Grant Harris, said they would pull out of the event if Palad wasn’t allowed to attend. “We all make mistakes and 1 mistake should not forbid you from playing at a tournament that potentially decides your whole career,” Harris wrote.

It wasn’t until December 3 that Valve finally decided to step in and make its intentions clear in a second blog post: Palad would be banned from the event and TNC would be docked 20 percent of its Pro Circuit points, which determine whether a team gets to attend Dota 2’s big International tournament every August.

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“TNC contacted Valve last Tuesday, asking if they would get a DPC point penalty for replacing Kuku; we told them that they wouldn’t,” Valve said in the post. “We assumed that they were then working on a plan to replace Kuku with another player. However it seems like TNC is currently not taking proper responsibility for their actions, coupled with the attempted cover up by the team, so we are now stepping in directly and banning Kuku from attending this event. To be clear, TNC is not the victim in this case. It is not okay to cover up the situation, avoid any real sense of responsibility and then deflect it onto the community. We expect them to disagree with this.”

TNC did not disagree, saying on Twitter that the team respected Valve’s decision and apologizing for “the troubles this issue has caused.” But in many ways Valve’s effort to lead from behind has only created further confusion about what its expectations are regarding how teams should self-regulate. It’s also not exactly clear whether Valve banned Palad from the event because of his original racist comment or because TNC was fueling the controversy around the issue on social media. Valve did not respond to a request by Kotaku for comment.

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Alan “Nahaz” Bester, a Dota 2 analyst, wrote an op-ed in last week criticizing the “leadership vacuum” in the Dota 2 Pro Circuit, Valve’s equivalent to Blizzard’s Overwatch League. “The problem here is that, in each case, the response from Valve was reactionary and determined seemingly on an ad hoc basis,” he wrote. “To my knowledge, there is not and never has been a complete set of written rules for the DPC, nor for The International itself.”

Bester added that unless Valve adopts clearer guidelines, which he and other figures in esport have offered to help do, he doesn’t see this being the last time that a seemingly straightforward issue like sanctioning a player for toxic behavior blows up into something larger.