How the Team Fortress 2 community brought it back from the brink

Sometimes something terrible happens to something beautiful. A speedrunner sneezes three hours into a no-hit perfect run and gets tagged. Your favorite MMO shuts down, ending an entire world. The corporate overlords of the least corporate RPG of all time get rid of its creators (opens in new tab). Something terrible happened to something beautiful when Valve let Team Fortress 2 fall into ruin. For years it was virtually impossible to play a casual game of TF2 without being overwhelmed by automated snipers who would headshot anyone in sight, spam hate speech, and even drop links to child pornography.

Not content with just killing everyone on the map, the bots started evolving.

The bots owned TF2. It was really, really, bad. Fed up after years of neglect, the community finally decided to do something about it.

And they might just have #SavedTF2.

One of the most influential shooters of all time, Team Fortress 2 has a long and storied history. Developed over nine years from the bones of an old Quake mod, it was one of the first class-based FPS games and remains one of the most popular. Released in 2007 with Half-Life 2 and surprise hit Portal in the legendary Orange Box, it’s a big part of the reason Steam has become the juggernaut it is. TF2 is still a regular on Steam’s most-played charts, even though it’s been five years since its last content update.

It wasn’t just a lack of updates that turned TF2 into a bot-infested wasteland. In April of 2020, Valve confirmed (opens in new tab) that the source code for TF2 and CS:GO had been leaked. Despite a post from the official Twitter account for Team Fortress reassuring players that they had nothing to worry about, almost immediately players started noticing a disturbing trend. While cheating had long been an issue in TF2, it tended to be the kind that plagues many online shooters—wall hacks, aimbots, and the like. But this was different. Automated bots choosing the sniper class would join games, guns pointed toward the sky, and start killing everyone.

It didn’t end there. The bots became more and more toxic. Not content with killing everyone on the map, they started evolving. They spammed horrible static over comms. They posted links to all kinds of questionable nonsense in the chat. They changed their names to match actual players’, banded together and votekicked real humans who joined the game. They made the game literally unplayable.

Frustrated, players took to social media and posted video after video about the situation. Unable to play on Valve’s official lobbies, players migrated to community servers like Uncle Dane’s Uncletopia and hunkered down for what would end up being a long, long winter. Gone were the good times of the Jungle Inferno update (a glorious month for Pyro mains), gone were easy breezy 2Fort sniper fests, gone were demomen sticky jumping off cliffs. What had once been Valve’s greatest multiplayer game was adrift, and no update arrived to right the ship.

Dedicated members of the community tried to make the best of it. Even during the worst of the crisis, TF2’s average players per month never dipped below 65,000—although there is some question of just how many of these were, well, the bots. Resilient fans did find ways to keep playing, patiently waiting for some kind of an update from Valve. A tweet, a blog post, a patch. Anything. But the players got no updates in 2020 or 2021, and were left instead with a burning question:

Why?

Call to arms

Why were these bots so prevalent? Why wasn’t Valve doing something about it? What was in it for these sociopathic bot wranglers that saw fit to ruin everyone’s fun?  In a video posted in February 2020 (opens in new tab) that now has over a million views, YouTuber Toofty interviewed a number of cheaters to answer those questions. “It’s not some conspiracy theory,” he told me. “It’s kind of quite mundane at the end of the day. They would come into the comments section on my YouTube channel and talk about cheating quite openly. It didn’t take long before I found some good leads I could follow.”

The cheaters gave a number of reasons, none of them very satisfactory, that ultimately boiled down to one thing: They thought it was fun. Some claimed to have a grudge against certain developers, or to only use hacks to fight certain strategies, but most just thought it was funny to get a rise out of people. “I was hoping for some crazed, genius hacker with an agenda, but instead I just found some bored and sometimes lonely kids messing about.”

Annoying, to be sure. But in most cases, people like this are a minor irritation—they mess up a game or two, ruin the occasional server, then end up getting banned or bored. Valve’s negligence, however, was letting them run rampant.

Over two years after the source code leak, an idea began to crystallize. On May 7th, 2022 a YouTuber named SquimJim posted a video (opens in new tab) calling on the community to reach out to Valve via email, even supplying a form letter. A group of content creators collectively known as Chucklenuts (after the legendary Scout voice line, or perhaps his adorable squirrel?) saw this and decided to take it one step further. They put their heads together and came up with an idea for a peaceful protest—an outcry from the community that loved the game so much. They would get together every video maker, every fan on Twitter, every Heavy with a minigun and an email account to raise their voice.

#SaveTF2 was born.

I asked ElMaxo (opens in new tab), one of the founding members, about the process. “SquimJim made a video, and we ended up adding him to a Discord to talk to him about it, and it kind of birthed out of that. Weezy (opens in new tab) had the idea of starting it, and we were all really on board. The worst we were doing was trying.” The YouTubers called on their audiences to reach out to Valve respectfully and ask them to address the situation, to post positive things to Reddit, to tweet with the hashtag.

On May 7th, 2022 they posted their call to action, released a bunch of heartwarming videos, and got #SaveTF2 trending at #1, breaking 400,000 tweets. They didn’t have to wait long for the universe to answer them. 

Two days later, in the first tweet from the official account since 2020, Valve said “TF2 community, we hear you! We love this game and know you do, too. We see how large this issue has become and are working to improve things.”

Action followed soon after. In June and July, Valve pushed a number of updates to Team Fortress 2. It fixed an exploit where players could use cheats on secure servers. It fixed the Ap-Sap and its godsforsaken noise spam. It changed it so both teams could have a kick vote running simultaneously, which helped clear out bots players were able to identify. Slowly bots became less frequent, to the point that in researching this story I didn’t once have a game ruined by them (just by my inability to hit the broad side of a barn).

Then the final domino, at least for now, fell. On August 19th, Valve took the TF2 servers offline. The server message read “The item and matchmaking servers will be unavailable for approximately five minutes due to reasons.” Players started reporting VAC bans targeting bots, and it looked like thousands of accounts had been banned in one great purge. The crisis had finally ended.

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I asked Maxo how it felt. “It’s insane,” he said. “Just the whole movement that emerged out of a 15-year-old game. It was beautiful seeing the community rally that well, people who haven’t played in years. It was really beautiful to be honest. If you ask anyone about #SaveTF2 they will credit ShorK for organizing it really well. He made all the posters and got everyone together, did so much of the work behind the scenes to make it all function. It was really special.” 

Since the updates started in June, Team Fortress 2’s concurrent users have skyrocketed. From 68,000 in May to 130,000 in September, fans of rocket jumps, sticky traps, and knives in the backs of snipers have flocked back. There is still a bit of uncertainty—players still see a few bots in games, but not nearly the number there were before. The fight against cheaters in games seems to be one of the constants of the world, along with taxes and me missing headshots.

Things are stable for now, but the community is still holding its breath. They’ve been burned before. Hopefully this marks a new beginning for TF2, though. Maxo, at least, believes it will. “I think TF2 is gonna have a renaissance. I think it’s gonna spike even higher. It’s gonna be big again!”

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