Sometimes something terrible happens to something beautiful. A speedrunner sneezes three hours into a perfect no-hitter run and gets tagged. Your favorite MMO comes to a halt, ending an entire world. The corporate overlords of the least corporate RPG ever get rid of its creators (opens in a new tab). Something terrible happened to something beautiful when Valve let Team Fortress 2 fall apart. For years it was nearly impossible to play a casual game of TF2 without being overwhelmed by automated snipers shooting anyone in sight, sending hate speech and even dropping links to child pornography.
The bots owned TF2. It was really, really bad. Fed up with 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 along with Half-Life 2 and the surprise hit Portal in the legendary Orange Box, it’s a big part of why 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’s not just a lack of updates that has turned TF2 into a bot-infested wasteland. In April 2020, Valve confirmed (opens in a new tab) that the source code of TF2 and CS:GO had been leaked. Despite a post from the official Team Fortress Twitter account reassuring players that they had nothing to worry about, almost immediately players began noticing a disturbing trend. Although cheating has long been a problem in TF2, it was generally the kind of problem that plagues many online shooters – wall hacks, aimbots, etc. But it was different. Automated robots picking the sniper class would join the games, guns pointing skyward and start killing everyone.
It didn’t stop there. Bots have become increasingly toxic. Not content with killing everyone on the map, they began to evolve. They spammed horrible statics on comms. They posted links to all sorts of questionable nonsense in the chat. They changed their names to match those of real players, banded together and voted against real humans who joined the game. They made the game literally unplayable.
Frustrated, players took to social media and posted video after video of the situation. Unable to play on official Valve 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 are the good times of the Jungle Inferno update (a glorious month for Pyro Networks), gone are the easy and windy sniper festivals of 2Fort, gone are the sticky demomen jumping off cliffs. What had once been Valve’s greatest multiplayer game was adrift, and no update arrived to right the ship.
Dedicated community members have tried to make the most of it. Even at the worst of the crisis, TF2’s average monthly player count never dipped below 65,000, although there’s some question as to how many of those were, well, the bots. Resilient fans found ways to keep playing, patiently waiting for some sort of update from Valve. A tweet, a blog post, a patch. Anything. But players didn’t receive any updates in 2020 or 2021, and instead were left with a burning question:
call to arms
Why were these robots so prevalent? Why didn’t Valve do anything about it? What was that in for those sociopathic bot wranglers who saw fit to ruin everyone’s fun? In a video published in February 2020 (opens in a new tab) which now has over a million views, YouTuber Toofty interviewed a number of cheaters to answer these questions. “It’s not a conspiracy theory,” he told me. “It’s kind of mundane after all. They were going into the comments section of my YouTube channel and openly talking about cheating. It wasn’t long before I found some good leads I could follow.”
Cheaters gave a number of reasons, none of which were very satisfying, which ultimately boiled down to one thing: they thought it was fun. Some claimed to have a grudge against certain developers, or only use hacks to combat certain strategies, but most just thought it was funny to get people up to speed. “I was hoping for a crazy, awesome hacker with a program, but instead I just found bored and sometimes lonely kids messing around.”
Boring, sure. But in most cases, people like this are a minor irritation – they mess up a game or two, ruin the casual server, and then end up getting banned or bored. Valve’s negligence, however, left them unleashed.
More than two years after the source code was leaked, an idea has begun to crystallize. On May 7, 2022, a YouTuber named SquimJim posted a video (opens in a new tab) calling on the community to contact Valve via email, even providing a form letter. A group of content creators known collectively as the Chucklenuts (after Scout’s legendary voice line, or maybe his adorable squirrel?) saw it and decided to take it a step further. They brainstormed and came up with the idea of a peaceful protest – an outcry from the community that loved the game so much. email to make their voices heard.
#SaveTF2 was born.
I asked ElMaxo (opens in a new tab), one of the founding members, on the process. “SquimJim made a video, and we ended up adding it to a Discord to tell him about it, and it kind of grew out of that. Weezy (opens in a new tab) had the idea to launch it, and we were all really in agreement. The worst we did was try.” The YouTubers called on their audience to respectfully contact Valve and ask them to deal with the situation, post positive things on Reddit, tweet with the hashtag.
On May 7, 2022, they released their call to action, posted 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 respond.
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 this issue has grown and we are working to make things better.”
Action followed soon after. In June and July, Valve pushed out a number of Team Fortress 2 updates. It fixed an exploit where players could use cheats on secure servers. He fixed the Ap-Sap and its cursed sound spam. This changed it so that both teams could have a simultaneous kick vote, which helped eliminate any bots that players may have identified. Slowly the bots became less frequent, to the point that while researching this story, I haven’t once had a game ruined by them (just by my inability to hit the wide side of a barn).
Then the final domino, at least for now, fell. On August 19, Valve took the TF2 servers offline. The server message read “Item and matchmaking servers will be down for approximately five minutes for reasons.” Players started reporting VAC bans targeting bots, and it looked like thousands of accounts had been banned in a big purge. The crisis was finally over.
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I asked Maxo how it felt. “It’s crazy,” he said. “Just the whole movement that emerged from a 15 year old game. It was beautiful to see the community come together so well, people who haven’t played in years. It was really beautiful to be honest If you ask anyone about #SaveTF2 they’ll credit ShorK for putting it together so well He did all the posters and got everyone together, did so much work behind the scenes to make it all work . It was really special.”
Since the updates began in June, concurrent users of Team Fortress 2 have skyrocketed. From 68,000 in May to 130,000 in September, fans of rocket jumps, sticky traps and back-stabbing snipers poured in. There is still some uncertainty – players are still seeing a few bots in games, but not as much as before. Fighting cheaters in games seems to be one of the constants in the world, along with taxes and me missing headshots.
Things are stable for now, but the community is still holding its breath. They have already been burned. Hopefully this marks a new start for TF2. Maxo, at least, believes him. “I think TF2 is going to experience a renaissance. I think it’s going to go even higher. It’s going to get big again!”