On an average day, the IGN news tips line sees a slow but steady stream of messages from folks who want to let us know about something we might report on. Maybe a handful of tips a day. But this past weekend, the line was flooded in just a few hours with over a hundred messages from a group of very frustrated folk: the Team Fortress 2 community. Why were so many of them in our inbox? According to the contents of all those messages, their game has a massive, two-year-long botting problem – and they desperately want Valve’s attention in getting it fixed.
We weren’t the only site getting these messages, nor were they limited to just the media. The source of the flood is a community centered around Team Fortress 2 content creator SquimJim, who published a video on May 7 lamenting the rampant botting issues within Team Fortress 2. In it, he encourages his audience to reach out to both media and Valve employees in hopes that enough pressure will force the developer to take action. SquimJim offered an email template (which many of our tippers used, though others wrote their own messages) and a list of both media tiplines like our own, and publicly-available Valve employee emails. At the time this piece was written, the video had almost 150,000 views, 15,000 likes, and nearly 2,000 comments chiming in about their own frustrating experiences with bots.
It’d be easy enough to dismiss the problem as the natural fate of a 15-year-old game, or point out that the vast majority of online games have botting problems – how bad could this one be? But as IGN discovered, Team Fortress 2’s botting problems are egregious when compared to other online multiplayer games. Head into a casual match on Valve’s servers, and you’ll find that the game is practically impossible to play.
Attack of the Bots
While it’s true that all online multiplayer games struggle with botting to some degree, most of the Team Fortress 2 community members I subsequently talked to seemed to think that things got aggressively bad around two years ago, in early to mid 2020. Incidentally, this was around the same time that the Team Fortress 2 source code was leaked. There’s no specific proof that this was the cause of the botting issue, and it may just be a coincidence, but several community members pointed to that period as a tipping point all the same.
Other theories about why the botting crisis has kicked off include a bizarre revenge plotline. As Valve seemed less and less interested in pushing major updates to the game, some believe that botters rallied to try and make Team Fortress 2 so unplayable that Valve would be forced to pay attention to it again, or to drive new players to community servers. Some also suspect that bots are trying to acquire cosmetic items through play that they can then sell for real money on various marketplaces. Or perhaps they just enjoy trolling.
But regardless of motive, since 2020, matters have only gotten worse. Multiple articles have been written over the last two years about the botting wave, which has manifested in a wide range of obnoxious behaviors in any given match. Some bots spam chat with homophobic or racist remarks, outside links, or just plain rude or obnoxious messages. Most of the bots play as snipers, and because of their unnaturally precise aim, they’re able to headshot and kill players almost instantly, without giving them a chance to fight back.
Some bots take on the names of other players in the match and then initiate votes to kick the original player, resulting in legitimate players being removed and more bots flooding in. Some legitimate players have complained that they’ve been kicked from matches simply for playing a sniper class, because fellow human players assumed they were a bot. Other players have reported running across bots that cause the server to lag significantly, or simply cause the game to crash if anyone tries to kick them. And none of this is limited to an occasional bot here or there. As Jakob Von Bugmann, a regular Team Fortress 2 player explained to me, there are “people who pay for dozens of their own bots,” flooding servers, grouping up with one another, and overwhelming human players and in-game chat.
Having never played Team Fortress 2 before, I decided to investigate the bot problem itself to see if it was really as bad as everyone described to me.
After running through the tutorials, I joined another IGN staff member who had last played Team Fortress a few years ago. What we found was a game that was, unironically, literally unplayable. I don’t use that phrase in the sense of Internet memes – you cannot play Team Fortress 2 as it was intended.
I was immediately killed by an unerringly accurate sniper half the map away, moments after I spawned, only to respawn and have it happen again and again. Half of my teammates or more were clearly bot snipers, who gathered in a single location on the map, their guns awkwardly pointed at the ceiling, moving only to perfectly snipe the opposing team. I had to turn off voice comms immediately because of the obnoxious music blasting through my speakers, and I could barely read text chat due to the flurry of annoying messages and link spam.
As I’d been warned about, on multiple occasions bots took on both my name and my teammate’s name and initiated votes to kick us. Both teams were constantly bleeding and adding new members because the multiple bots on each side (and maybe a human player or two, it was hard to tell) kept kicking one another. Once, so many players left at once that the game had to reshuffle our teams and I ended up on the opposing side unexpectedly. And this wasn’t just one match. This occurred across two matches I played with my colleague and a dozen more I played by myself at different times of day. Without team continuity, open comms channels, or even the ability to walk a few steps away from where I spawned, it was impossible to do anything resembling playing a normal match of Team Fortress 2.
The Human Resistance
These infuriating behaviors are impacting more than just a small handful of folks clinging to an old game. Team Fortress 2 is still quite popular despite its age, having broken its concurrent player record just last year and consistently averaging between 70,000 and 90,000 concurrent players every month for the last year. Granted, it’s impossible to say how much of this is inflated due to, well, bots. However, from IGN’s own experience both checking in on existing game communities online, as well as seeing multiple human players struggling alongside us in our own matches, there are clearly plenty of real people still trying (unsuccessfully) to play Team Fortress 2 every day.
Certainly, there are ways around the botting problem for dedicated players. They can vote to kick bots from matches, but all too often their open spots are simply filled with more bots. In more recent months, players have reported bots crashing the games of individuals who try to kick them. Some have suggested the community make and implement bots designed specifically to kick other bots, but they have historically been inefficient, overwhelmed, or at best contributed to the problem somewhat by being yet another bot in a match with only a couple of human players trying to enjoy a game.
Private community servers exist, but as many players informed me, most of the available ones are heavily customized. They’ll be limited to certain maps or game modes, or have mods added that change the experience significantly. Plus, even if they could find a community server that appealed to them, it’s unlikely that server’s population would be high enough to support being able to jump into matches quickly at any given time without prior coordination. If someone wants to play a vanilla game of Team Fortress 2 in their downtime for fun, they’re pretty much stuck with Valve’s Casual play servers – and the bot army that invaded them. There’s no chance for the game’s community to meaningfully grow beyond those who already love it, given how chaotic and frustrating the experience can be for new players.
As Jakob Von Bugmann put it:
“Me and thousands of other players have had amazing moments in the game, whether it be in an awesome moment of high-skilled gameplay, or simply a silly moment between teams, completely ruined by these uncaring instant-killing nuisances. With good enough gameplay or learning the bot pathing, you can actually abuse them or deal with them at a decent pace – but they just should not even be allowed to exist in the game and should have been dealt with a long time ago. Valve needs to do something for us still holding on and enjoying their game 15 years later.”
And Valve does seem to at least be aware that bots in Team Fortress 2 are an issue. Back in June of 2020, the game got an update that seemed to curb some botting behaviors. It placed chat restrictions on new and free accounts and allowed players to toggle off text or voice chat so they wouldn’t have to see or hear the spam. A follow-up patch added rate limit checks to text chat, and there have been a few other small tweaks since, but the worst of the issues still remain, and most updates since have been limited to minor bug fixes or seasonal events. Even with the bot-deterrent updates, Valve has yet to make a clear statement about the situation. IGN reached out to Valve for comment ahead of this piece’s publication, but did not hear back.
Given the severity of the situation and Valve’s silence on the matter, it’s no wonder Team Fortress 2 players are fed up. Some have suggested that making Team Fortress 2 a paid game might dissuade bots, since a paywall would dissuade botters from making more and more accounts, though that solution doesn’t appeal to everyone. For the most part, all they want is some sort of acknowledgement from Valve that it’s aware of what’s going on. Ideally, this would come alongside news that fixes are in the works.
“First, I'd like to at least see Valve talk about the problem,” SquimJim told me. “Just a blog post letting us know if it's being worked on instead of total silence. At this point even just that would go a long way with the community. Of course, an eventual update to their anti-cheat to prevent the bots completely would be ideal. In the meantime I've seen some people suggest adding a CAPTCHA system to the game, which would obvious be a little inconvenient for real human players, but at this point I'd take just about anything.”
Almost heartbreakingly, other players have indicated they’d be fine if all Valve offered was some closure, like a confirmation that it will no longer be updating the game at all.
While people like SquimJim, Jakob Von Bugmann, and their communities are still pushing forward efforts to beg Valve for help, the overall Team Fortress 2 player base seems pessimistic that a solution will ever arrive. For instance, a thread on the official Team Fortress 2 Steam forums from May of 2021 entitled “How high can we count before valve gets rid of bots?” is still going at the time this piece was written and is nearing 1,000 pages and over 14,000 comments. But despite the pessimism and snark, the numerous players that have stuck with Team Fortress 2 through it all continually express a genuine love for the game as it once was and could still be, with a little help from its creator.
“TF2 is a game that has been around for a long time – I personally have played it for almost 12 years – and in that time it has developed a very loyal and passionate fanbase,” SquimJim said. “There's really no other game like TF2. Not in gameplay, not in humor, not in characters, and nothing is quite going to have the same type of community around it. It's a game that's been really important to a lot of people and no one wants to see it in the state that it's in.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.