Meyers Leonard’s Call of Duty Twitch Slur Proves Voice Chat Still Needs to Grow Up

NBA player Meyers Leonard's use of a racist slur during a Call of Duty Twitch stream is representative of a bigger problem that too many have accepted.

Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War
Photo: Activision

While streaming Call of Duty on Twitch earlier this week, NBA player Meyers Leonard used an anti-Semitic slur to deride an opponent. Despite his apparent attempt to delete the video, the internet discovered what happened and quickly spread footage of the moment. The response to Leonard’s use of the slur has been swift.

The following day, the Miami Heat announced that Leonard will be “away from the team indefinitely” and that the team will “cooperate with the NBA while it conducts its investigation.” Furthermore, two of Leonard’s sponsorers (Origin and SCUF) announced that they have “ceased” their “working relationship” with the player/streamer. eSports organization FaZe Clan (which Leonard previously invested in) also recently announced that they are “cutting ties” with him following this incident.

Since that stream and some of the resulting fallout, Leonard released the following statement regarding his use of the slur:

While there are many comments below that post (and the other places it has been shared) from people who say they also did not know the word that Leonard used was racist (we will not share that word here), it is nearly impossible to suggest that Leonard was entirely ignorant to what he was saying. Not only did he use the word in a moment of frustration, but he used it alongside the word “bitch.” That would tend to suggest that Leonard knew that whatever he was saying was designed to be hurtful at the very least.

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As is typically the case with incidents such as these, the sheer scope of what’s being dealt with can feel insurmountable. Those of us who take time to consider our words sometimes find it hard to find the right ones that allow us to even start a conversation about the extent of such racism and ignorance in modern society and how it impacts so much of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.

For the moment, though, let’s focus on just one element of this situation that has been ignored for too long: the consistent toxicity of Call of Duty‘s voice chat culture and how little anyone seems to be doing about it.

While racism and toxic behavior are hardly issues that are limited to Call of Duty (far from it), it’s truly tragic that the very idea of CoD voice chat is practically synonymous with those concepts. For years, fans have been uploading videos to YouTube compiling the worst racism that they’ve encountered in the game. With some of these videos getting hundreds of thousands of views, you’d almost think there are some fans out there who celebrate the series’ legacy of racism and toxicity.

In a way, that’s exactly what’s happening. While that idea is clearly reflected in those who actively engage in such behavior (such as Meyers Leonard), the most troubling sign of how bad things have gotten may just be the fans who continuously claim that Call of Duty voice chat isn’t nearly as bad as it used to be and that anyone who is offended by Leonard’s actions should have heard what lobbies were like in the days of Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2.

Along with the disturbing idea that people are somehow becoming nostalgic for even worse days, that sentiment touches on fundamental issues that we still deal with when combating racism in society. Namely, it seems to support the idea that there’s only so far we can progress when combating racism and that so long as things aren’t quite so bad (or at least different) as they used to be, then there’s really no need to keep trying to make things better.

There’s also a disturbing implication in that philosophy that’s hard to ignore. When someone brings up the idea of racism or toxicity, it’s generally counterproductive to name something even worse that could have happened. It’s almost like those gamers are responding to calls of racism with the threat of more racism.

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Part of the sometimes unspoken problem here is that there does seem to be a baseline level of toxicity that enough people are willing to go along with. Even if you could get the majority of Call of Duty players to agree that using certain phrases in voice chat is wrong, you’re going to start losing people when you suggest increasingly stricter measures designed to prevent such things from being said in the future. That’s when you start hearing complaints about freedom of speech, censorship, and the idea that this is all just coming from people who can’t handle “trash talk.”

Because of that, there seems to be a “floor” for this kind of toxicity that just isn’t going anywhere. Even in Leonard’s statement, there’s an implication that if he had just been toxic to another player rather than racist and toxic, then there wouldn’t have been a problem. He says there’s “no running from something like this that is so hurtful to someone else,” but there’s the sense that what he means is that he’s more interested in learning what words he can get away with and not the hate, ignorance, and anger that caused many of those words to become so harmful in the first place.

So far as that goes, a big part of the problem here is what’s not being done. Call of Duty‘s player reporting system has gotten more robust over the years, but, by some developers’ own admission, there were long stretches of time when not enough was being done to truly combat the problem. For instance, Warzone/Modern Warfare developer Infinity Ward acknowledged and attempted to address certain issues stemming from racism (around the time of the Black Lives Matter protests) by revealing additional steps they are taking to combat racist behavior/language in their games:

Have these actions helped? Doing something is typically better than doing nothing, and there are certainly some who would argue that they’ve seen improvements here and there. However, as evidenced by Warzone‘s consistent cheating problems, mass bans only go so far. With a free-to-play game like Warzone, it’s fairly easy for someone who was banned to create a new account and continue doing whatever you were doing that got them banned in the first place. Much like how CoD‘s cheating problem is partially based on the game’s lack of a unified, universal anti-cheat program, there’s a sense that part of CoD‘s toxicity issues is based on a lack of underlying systems and philosophies designed to truly combat it.

Besides, of all the sponsors, teams, individuals, and platforms (including Twitch) that have issued statements and bans regarding Leonard’s actions, the Call of Duty development/publishing teams are (at the time of this writing) not among them. This has led some to say things like “Well, you can’t expect them to address every instance of racism in their games.” When you’re falling back on that argument, you’ve got to wonder what, exactly, you’re arguing for.

This is part of the reason why so many of us have simply chosen to mute chat in video games or otherwise rely on private Discord servers to chat with friends. It can be effective, but like so many elements of modern society, it’s an example of how we’ve had to concede a piece of social technology that could be beneficial because it’s swarming with racism, ignorance, and hate. Every player that mutes Call of Duty chat because of racism and toxicity is a player who could have used that chat to offer something more productive. People say we can’t eliminate trash talk (so why bother?), but we seem to be doing a pretty good job of eliminating constructive chat from multiplayer video games.

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What’s the answer to this problem? I wish I knew what the simplest solution is, but as this issue continues across gaming and societal generations, it’s becoming clear that the core of this issue is going to rely on more individuals using those freedoms we sometimes hear used to justify this kind of behavior as an opportunity to exercise their individual right to grow up. Failing that, then it’s past time for Activision and its Call of Duty development partners to take a long look at the culture they’ve curated through their inactions and actions and reexamine whether or not they’ve quietly accepted a fundamentally toxic culture that will be impossible to move past until it is destroyed via consequences and serious systematic change.