Content Warning: This post contains racial and homophobic slurs and ableist language.
I don’t closely follow the competitive scene for any one game, instead relying on the expertise of others to guide me through this rapidly changing world. This means I follow dozens of reporters embedded in esports, and took note when I saw them chattering about recent tweets by one person, longtime Counter-Strike: Global Offensive analyst Duncan “Thorin” Shields.
“Some recent tweets” undersells what Thorin was saying: a full-throated defense of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who’s spent years peddling, among other things, a lie that 2012’s Sandy Hook mass shooting, where 20 children between the ages of six and seven years old were gunned down, was an elaborate false flag operation by the government, and the grieving parents were crisis actors.
Just a few days ago, Thorin, a self-professed “historian of esports” and 2017 Esports Industry Awards journalist of the year winner, announced he would be a paid commentator at ESL New York, a massive esports event for Counter-Strike. Thorin isn’t just some random Twitch or YouTube personality playing around with fringe rhetoric. Instead, major elements of the mainstream infrastructure of esports are not just propping him up but paying him.
Thorin did not respond to two separate requests for comment via tweet and a message sent to his Facebook fan page.
We’re not just talking about a handful of edgelord-y comments about Jones, either. This hole always goes deeper. After tweeting about Thorin, I was flooded with people pointing out how these types of antics were nothing new, and if anything, represented a less extreme version of himself. So, I went looking.
It didn’t take much sleuthing to find what people were talking about, as it was sitting in the open. Like the time he affirmed the hurtful stereotype comparing black people to monkeys:
This is far from the only racist commentary by Thorin, either. In response to a joking tweet where someone asked “who let the monkeys in the studio,” Thorin dropped this comment:
Luminosity is a multi-game esports organization with a Brazilian Counter-Strike team, and “monkey” is a known racial slur for dark-skinned Brazilians. The reaction to Thorin’s tweet was swift, with people labeling the tweets as racist. Thorin later issued an apology, saying his “joke” was “too much,” and he didn’t want to “encourage community hate” for Luminosity.
Thorin follows a familiar pattern for edgelord commentary: step right up to the edge and walk away, leaving enough ambiguity in place so you can deploy a rhetorical smokescreen when you’ve “accidentally” gone over the line. With Luminosity, a situation where even his fans seemed to acknowledge the implicit racism, Thorin doesn’t actually admit to any racial connotations, leveraging the commonplace argument that people don’t understand humor.
But sometimes, the veil drops, if only by accident.
In a 2014 podcast, Thorin derogatorily referred to Andy “Reginald” Dinh, an American League of Legends player of Vietnamese descent, as the ape Caesar from the movie Planet of the Apes. (The two had long-simmering beef with one another.)
“If this was Planet of the Apes, he’s Caesar. [laughs],” he said. “I have to go there, whatever. You know how I do that shit.”
As he explained later, he definitely wasn’t referring to a common racist meme that was thrown at Dinh within the League of Legends community at the time, comparing him to a monkey. He’s only suggesting that in a hypothetical scenario where everyone on this podcast was from Planet of the Apes, Dinh would be Caesar.
“The reason I picked that particular character,” he said in his lengthy explanatory essay, one of many he's written over the years, “is that in the spur-of-the-moment it fit well with the characteristics I was listing and conjuring up an image of around Reginald.”
Sounds a lot like a “heated gaming moment,” no? In other words, Thorin’s track record of comparing darker-skinned people to monkeys is nothing more than a coincidence, and social justice warriors trying to politicize everything.
(You’ll find plenty of SJW grumbling on his Twitter feed.)
But it’s the second quote—"I have to go there, whatever. You know how I do that shit”—that reveals what’s truly going on, and makes clear Thorin knows precisely what he’s suggesting. Again, he admitted as much in the same essay: “That it [my Planet of the Apes comment] flirted with, without expressly stating, a connection to a community joke about Reginald’s appearance, was a bonus.”
Thorin’s incendiary comments go beyond race, too. Earlier this year, he defended the right for Counter-Strike player Mohamad “m0E” Assad, well-known for “rage” during streams, to say “faggot.”It was part of a larger defensive smokescreen for m0E in the Counter-Strike community, with many of m0E’s colleagues rushing to find inventive ways to rationalize the homophobic slur. Thorin’s defense rested on faggot’s “historical etymology;” the term once referred to a “bundle of sticks.”
The modern use of faggot is understood as an explicit slur against gay people, but in Thorin’s mind, “tyrants who try to tell you a word only has the meaning they decided, even if they're making it up on the spot or ignoring cultural context and history, can still fuck off.”
This is part of a playbook that’s much larger than Thorin, and pervasive in today’s culture wars: accuse SJWs of tearing people down, and use rhetorical escape hatches—here, the possibility m0E meant the original use of the word faggot—to provide cover. By going on the offensive, there’s a chance to shift the burden of proof onto the accuser, and because that proof would require knowing someone’s true intent, it almost always fall short.
And so the cycle continues until the next incident, which, inevitably, there is.
Thorin bemoaned the potentially disrupted career of Overwatch player Jonathan “Dreamkapzer” Sanchez, who was fired from his team in April after credible allegations the 21-year-old had carried out an online affair with a 14-year-old.
When someone pointed out he was a sexual predator, Thorin became aggressive.
The connective tissue between all these incidents is bemoaning consequences for speech, wielding the rights of the First Amendment as an unyielding defense from what’s really happening: criticism. Thorin has the right to make jokes invoking race, but he doesn’t have a protected right from people—employers, social networks, society—pushing back on it.
Fans also documented retweets related to a celebration of Joe Arpaio, a former Arizona sheriff who proudly boasted of cracking down on illegal immigration by forcing “inmates to wear pink underwear and housed them in canvas tents under the hot Arizona sun,” and an article about Swedish history from Return of Kings, an infamous anti-feminist website. ( Update: A previous version of this article noted the article in question was from The Daily Stormer. This was incorrect.)
Waypoint was not able to independently verify these retweets, as they did not show up in a search of Thorin’s account. (The account linking Return of Kings has been suspended, which means any retweets would be removed from someone’s timeline, as well.)
He also supported GamerGate, and the first guest on his interview series was Sargon of Akkad, an anti-feminist YouTube commentator who rose to prominence via GamerGate. Akkad deploys similar tactics to Thorin, distancing himself from the worst elements of the alt-right when it’s convenient, even though his regular topics—feminism, Black Lives Matter, Islam, the rights of straight white men—are typically the same ones dominating the alt-right.
Thorin has, at various times, seen his career impacted by his comments.
In 2014, Thorin was fired from OnGamers, an online esports publication, for saying the word “retarded.” That same year, he was fired from ESL right before a major event, after making a series of disparaging comments about Poland and Africa on a stream:
"Well it’s in Poland and I think the tickets are pretty cheap so I assume it will be sold out.. Because what the fuck else is going on in Poland? And they’ve got that existential hole of being Polish to try and fill with some esports.”
“Maybe, it’s like when you have the Olympics somewhere in Africa and they can all pretend they’re part of the developed world for two weeks, and then everyone just leaves and they’re still in the dirt.”
The response from ESL was pretty explicit, too.
“ESL does not stand by or tolerate acts of racism, xenophobia or other forms of discrimination,” said the esports organization at the time, “and does not wish to be associated or employ those who make any such comments. We are deeply upset that a long time member of the esports community would display such ignorance and make highly inappropriate comments about an entire nation.”
But despite these moments of condemnation and censure, the esports establishment has generally seemed to look the other way, knowing people will move on.
When Thorin made one of his monkey-related comments, ESL VP of pro gaming, Michal Blicharz, was asked for a response, but declined, saying it was “not my place to comment.”
Five years later, though, and ESL is the one hiring Thorin, who now seems to largely operate off Patreon backing and various freelance gigs he picks up, to a major event in New York. An event where one of the other Counter-Strike commentators will be Matthew “Sadokist” Trivett, who was suspended by Twitch for saying "nigger" during a livestream.
I contacted ESL about Thorin’s comments on Jones and his history of racial language, and they only reiterated their plan to work with Thorin next month.
“Thorin is not an ESL employee and works as a commentator on a freelance contract for specific esports events,” said a spokesperson. “Therefore he does not represent ESL in any way.”
He does represent ESL. He’s going to be on their desk analyzing Counter-Strike matches. The employee distinction doesn’t hold up. They can’t completely wash their hands.
“We keep observing feedback,” added the spokesperson.
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