When police in the US state of Georgia arrested Thomas Cheung, a well-known Twitch streamer and World of Warcraft community figure, as part of a child sex sting two weeks ago, a common reaction among his friends, fans, and business associates was shock.
If you were intimately involved in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game’s community, there’s a good chance you’d heard of, and maybe even crossed paths with, Cheung at some point. At 32, his name was well-known enough across online gaming bastions including Twitch, YouTube, BlizzCon, gaming-related charity events, and the gaming studio Hi-Rez, where he worked. Those who met him at events or chatted with him online said that Cheung sometimes seemed a little too flirty or sexually aggressive, but nobody had any reason to think that he would be sending explicitly sexual messages to a law enforcement official posing as a 14-year-old girl, asking her to meet up with him for condomless sex. But that’s what police said happened over Super Bowl weekend, after Cheung was among 21 men caught in a sting operation in suburban Atlanta, Georgia.
“I was disgusted and instantly overwhelmed,” said Elke Hinze, a web developer who worked with Cheung on a website unofficially related to BlizzCon, Blizzard’s yearly convention. “I think the people who know him feel the same way I do.” Fans who knew him online said that while Cheung did have a penchant for flirting in their direct messages, they saw it as “innocuous.”
Three of Cheung’s close friends, who asked to remain anonymous, said that news of Cheung’s arrest brought them to tears, in part out of astonishment. Others who knew Cheung, though, had a different reaction. One former Blizzard employee said that they first felt “shock” and “disgust” that soon gave way to a different feeling: “Admitting that I wasn’t surprised.”
That former employee said they’d had a “gut feeling” that this guy was bad news—a feeling that six people Kotaku interviewed shared, but didn’t make widely known.
Four of those people said that they believed that Cheung had been using his position of power in the Warcraft community to cross boundaries with women for years. Those sources, all of whom were of age, said they had been involved in uncomfortable interactions with Cheung in the past, ranging from unwelcome flirtatious solicitations in their DMs to an alleged assault in a BlizzCon hotel room.
Cheung is not the only gaming personality to be accused of attempting inappropriate—and potentially illegal—interactions with young women or minors that he met online. There are no statistics describing how prevalent this predatory behaviour is between Twitch streamers and fans, and Kotaku’s interviews with law enforcement focused on predation suggest that it is not a common occurrence. However, as the internet has changed with the addition of social media, influencer culture, YouTube, Twitch and a multibillion-dollar online gaming industry, so has the nature of online predation.
If you grew up in the ‘80s or later, you were probably subjected to a lecture about online safety. Perhaps you learned that the charming-sounding person in your Pokémon chat room might turn out to be a creep, or worse, a creep 30 years your senior. Perhaps your parents asserted that even just telling him your first name was essentially inviting him to track you down and climb into your bedroom window. Today’s advice for younger people online hasn’t changed much, describing an outdated concept of the internet. Guides on avoiding sexual predators tell kids to avoid “placing strangers on buddy lists,” as if AOL Instant Messenger was still around, and avoid “visiting X-rated sites.” The Justice Department even tells kids “no chatting with strangers,” which an FBI agent focused on child predation told Kotaku is still good advice.
But on today’s internet, all of our apps and social media are actively persuading us to chat with strangers. In 2019, it’s commonplace to meet similarly-minded people on Facebook meme pages, sexual partners over Tinder, or gamers who complain about Overwatch as much as you do on Twitter. It’s more natural to talk to strangers online than it is to say “hello” to the person in line with you at the coffee shop. For better or worse, the physical and the digital have collapsed, and riding this wave is Twitch, an interactive platform where charismatic young people livestream video games for large audiences of fans, who may engage the streamer live in chat.
The most popular Twitch streamers, like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, who has 13.3 million followers interested in watching him play Fortnite on Twitch, are mobbed by fans whenever they appear in-person at conventions. More commonplace are streamers with 20,000 or so followers, whose tightrope walk between “distant star” and “relatable gamer” draws in smaller but no less passionate audiences who feel they know, and can trust, the objects of their fandom. Microcultures around these microcelebrity streamers collect in tidepools on other interactive apps and social media, like the gaming chat app Discord and subreddits, where the streamer and their fans may engage both in public and in private. There are over 200 million people on Discord, and every day, 15 million unique visitors visit Twitch and its 2.2 million streamers.
— Thomas Cheung (@Elvinelol) January 23, 2019
In 2017, Kotaku reported on what happens when streamers’ fans decide that the person on the other end of the wifi connection is their friend, not their celebrity crush. It doesn’t end well. Katharine Hodgdon, who holds a doctorate from Texas A&M University and studies streamers, said that fans’ approach to celebrities prior to Twitch is a facet of “parasocial interaction,” or “when a person … develops a one-sided relationship with a media persona.” That’s existed for celebrities since there were celebrities. The difference today is that celebrity is more accessible, and along with that, fans have many more opportunities to connect with their idols, in Twitch chat or Discord messages, or on Snapchat or Instagram. The sheer numbers involved means that the relationships generally stay heavily lopsided, though—even if the streamer wanted to be friends with all 20,000 of their followers, it would be impossible. Fans tend to think they’re closer to the streamer than vice-versa.
And yet sometimes, fans do find that their celebrity crush—or somebody well-connected and powerful in the gaming world—seems to want to have a closer relationship with them. When that happens, it can be hard to see the red flags.
Thomas Cheung, a suburban Atlantan and avid gamer who wore his purple-dyed hair flipped up, drew his notoriety in the World of Warcraft community from his video guides on how to earn in-game gold. He then began working on a site that paired up buyers and sellers of BlizzCon tickets. From there, he wiggled into influencer circles, sources close to Cheung said.
By early 2018, Cheung had 20,000 followers on Twitch and had snagged himself a job at Hi-Rez Studios, the Atlanta-based game company that makes the online games Smite and Paladins. Cheung was a high-level WoW player and a consistent presence at the annual BlizzCon event, where, according former Blizzard employees, he aggressively networked with Blizzard developers, high-level community figures, and fans at parties and afterparties.
“My first thought was that he was very focused on his brand,” a former Blizzard employee said of Cheung. “He was energetic, always wanted to be networking. He had a thing for being around well-known personalities both in and out of Blizzard.”
Thomas “Elvine” Cheung (Image: Thomas Cheung/Twitter)
“He was definitely super flirty and went out of his way to introduce himself to women,” said another ex-employee. “I noticed that the kind of women he did flirt with were women nobody knew. They weren’t community figures. They were younger and potentially less included to call out his bullshit.”
“Jane” is a World of Warcraft player who asked that we not use her real name. She first heard of Cheung when he was raising money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in 2012. Cheung was a well-known advocate for children’s hospitals, and had toured several in the Georgia area to deliver gifts to children.
“I felt it was noble and had tweeted the absolute hell out of it to get more people to contribute,” Jane told me over Discord messages. Cheung then sent Jane a direct message on Twitter to thank her for her support. “The second thing he said to me was asking if he could ‘borrow my boobies’ to help him get more viewers to get more donations,” Jane said.
Jane said she was used to hearing things like this, and laughed it off even though it made her a little uncomfortable. As Jane and Cheung continued chatting, he would occasionally say sexual or flirty things to her. Jane found that brushing the comments aside, ignoring them, or attempting to redirect the conversation didn’t get him to stop. Jane told Cheung she had a boyfriend, but he still asked her for what he referred to as “sexy tease pics.”
“He would do everything he possibly could to try and sexualise and take advantage of as many of us as he could,” Jane said, after seeing several women coming forward with similar stories following Cheung’s arrest. “I think a lot of us felt it would be pointless to say anything because he had the followers and the partnership and the sponsors and the position.”
Jane was one of five women who, either in interviews with Kotaku or on Twitter, described Cheung asking for sexy pictures or aggressively flirting with them in direct messages. Two, who did not respond to Kotaku’s requests for comment, wrote in tweets that they were underage when Cheung hit on them.
“I’ve seen so many of my friends speak up on social media about the things he had done to them,” a cosplayer in the WoW community who knew Cheung said. “They all thought they were alone and were too scared to speak up because of his position in the community.” That cosplayer says that, for the past three or four BlizzCons, Cheung “would always ask if I had a hotel room and then mention that he had a second bed in his room. I always took it as awkward flirting until one year he was being extremely pushy about me going to his hotel. He even tried to bribe me with food, items, promises, and whatever else would get my attention.”
Last year’s BlizzCon was when “Drav,” who also asked that we not use her real name, said that Cheung made unwanted physical sexual advances on her. She had met him around the same time as Jane, also thanks to Warcraft, where she was hosting an in-game charity event. Cheung reached out, offering to stream her event, and the two started speaking frequently over the years that followed.
As they became closer, Drav said, she started to get the impression that Cheung was preoccupied by women, and the idea that women did not like him. She describes him as “obsessive.” He’d send her videos and images of other women, and make comments about their breasts or other parts of their body. He’d rant to her for hours on end analysing another woman’s messages, Twitter posts, or behaviour. Cheung was “hyper-fixated on the idea that he was never going to get a girlfriend and would always be alone,” Drav said. Three other sources close to Cheung agreed with this assessment.
Been contemplating going back to my natural hair color. As much as I love color and get tons of compliments, I feel like it's holding me back within the dating pool.
— Thomas Cheung (@Elvinelol) January 14, 2019
Leading up to BlizzCon, Drav said, Cheung started asking for information about her sexual preferences. She answered his questions at first, but started deflecting them when they started to sound “creepy.” She hoped he’d get the hint. The two met in-person for the first time in a group of friends at BlizzCon. Late at night on the last day of the show, they were chatting online, Cheung in his hotel room and Drav in her AirBnB, when Cheung asked her to “come over and gossip.” She was having a bad day and needed to vent, so it was a welcome invitation. She hopped in a Lyft to his hotel. In his room, they chatted for a while until he asked if she wanted to watch a movie. When Drav said she had to go back to her AirBnB to take her medication, she said, Cheung asked her to sleep in his hotel room.
“I thought, ‘Oh, fuck,’” Drav said. Cheung ordered her a Lyft that would take her back to her AirBnB for her meds, and then bring her back to his room. “I sent out SOS messages on my way back, but nobody was really awake,” she said of a couple innocuous feelers she put out to friends to see whether anyone was around. She said that as she tried to sleep in Cheung’s room, he made physical advances on her that she consistently deflected. “I tried to get up several times,” she said. “He’d grab my arm.” After what she said was an hour of fending off advances, someone she knew responded to her messages. She told Cheung she had to leave for an emergency, and hustled out the door.
Drav said she deleted her entire message history with Cheung after this interaction. In addition to taking a huge emotional toll on her, she said the incident prevented her from pursuing her goals in the gaming industry. “I was going to apply for an internship with Blizzard this year and I felt like I couldn’t,” she said. “He did a lot of charity work and my whole thing is charity work. There was a philanthropy thing open. I was so scared of running across him.”
“Instead of putting in the internship application, I checked myself into the mental health ward.”
Months later, on 30th January, Cheung would be charged with a felony—using a computer service to seduce, solicit, lure or entice a child to commit an illegal act—after communicating with a law enforcement officer posing as a 14-year-old over the messaging app Whisper. According to a warrant obtained by Kotaku, the officer told Cheung that she was 14. They planned to meet up in suburban Georgia, near where Cheung lives. According to the warrant, Cheung told the undercover officer “that he wanted to show her some things, and stated that he does not like to use condoms, and advised that he would pull out.” Hi-Rez and Cheung’s sponsor SteelSeries dropped him after the news broke earlier this month. Cheung is now out on bail, awaiting trial, and according to the local district attorney’s office, the case remains open and under investigation with no specific timeline for completion. (Cheung did not respond to Kotaku’s requests for comment on this story.)
There have been abuses of power so long as there has been power, and as apps like Twitch give more people opportunities to amass power, that means the way abuse looks is changing. Cheung didn’t have a cult of personality; he had a platform spread across several channels including Twitch, Discord, Twitter and World of Warcraft sites. His relevance, and the relationships built on it in part, were fragmented across the online world. That’s what made policing it, or even noticing commonalities, so difficult. Yet sometimes, even when behaviour—whether it’s plainly illegal or part of a pattern of creepiness—is reported to the relevant parties, there are few if any repercussions.
“Caroline” was 17 when she first interacted with the English World of Warcraft streamer MethodJosh, who does not make his last name public. At 23 years old, he has 122,000 Twitch followers and might best be described as an “edgelord,” or a person who talks about taboo or nihilistic topics, often for attention. Josh’s most popular Twitch clips include one in which he argues how strange it is that Nazis get girlfriends but he cannot. There’s another in which, referencing his Tinder profile, he opens a document titled “What do women like?” with the bullet point “Men that aren’t me.” Yet another, titled “sister meme,” sees Josh explain that, in response to male friends joking that they want to sleep with his sister, he says, “If you can’t beat them, join them, sort of. The next time somebody came up to me and was like, ‘Josh, I want to fuck your sister,’ I just said, ‘Me, too.’”
Josh would share disturbing personal photos with his fans. Once, he passed around a semi-nude picture of his ex-girlfriend. Another time, he showed them a photo of a fan of his tied up with rope in a forest. (The fan, reached via Discord, said it was a “joke.”)
Caroline, who follows a lot of World of Warcraft YouTubers, stumbled upon a couple of Josh’s videos late in 2018 and thought his persona was funny. After chatting for a little, they added each other on Discord, then on, Snapchat. When Josh found out Caroline’s age, he at first said he didn’t talk to underage girls, but they kept talking. (Caroline is one of three fans who say Josh has described girls around 15 and 16 as the perfect age.) Eventually, she said, he told her that he liked that she was young. Caroline said that, several times, Josh asked to sleep with her.
“I just thought it was cool that he was talking to me out of all the people he could talk to,” Caroline explained over a Discord voice call. “I think that’s the case with a lot of underage people. It’s the power dynamic they have. I guess my mindset was wanting to please this person and see where it goes.”
Svetlana, another fan of MethodJosh’s, said that she recently joined the fandom after seeing some of his videos and thinking, This is a guy who can make fun of himself. She blew off what she describes as the “questionable” aspects of his persona, thinking it was just “memes.” The first thing that happened when she entered his Discord, she says, was Josh asking her whether she was really a girl, what her age was, her height, her relationship status.
Svetlana says she “didn’t play along,” and, as time went on, noticed people in his Discord referring to girls as “whores” and “thots.” In one message, Josh wrote of a woman, “hold her head under the water, pick a hole, try to finish before she stops moving,” which a screenshot provided to Kotaku corroborated. Other women who enter the Discord, Svetlana said, were also immediately hit on, or referred to using similarly hateful speech by Josh or his fanbase. (After word got out about this story, the Discord was scrubbed of many of its messages.)
Over time, the girls in Josh’s Discord who had questions about whether his edgelord personality was a put-on or really, truly problematic began comparing notes. Evelyn was another fan of Josh’s who had a flirty relationship with him, yet became fed up with his behaviour. “Josh has a tendency to make the girls dislike each other for fighting for his attention,” Evelyn told me. That was exacerbated by his tendency to ask girls to do attention-grabbing stunts to entertain his fanbase, like broadcasting audio of them pretending they’re obsessed with him, or starring in dramatic scenes.
“He lures girls in for his sexual needs or to create content and he doesn’t care how their feelings get hurt in the process,” speculated Svetlana, who was a part of his Discord for several months. “He acts like he is an incel and he can’t get girls and messes up every opportunity with a girl. He gets views and everything from this. People are entertained maybe because guys can relate to struggling with girls.”
In one series of messages that was shown to Kotaku, Josh says of another man to whom a girl he knew was attracted, “I AM / LITERALLY BETTER THAN HIM / AHFIOASFHAPISHF / KILL YOURSELF/ DUMB WHORE . . . i am / internet famous / FUIKC.”
Disappointed members of Josh’s community, including an individual Kotaku interviewed, emailed his management company, Method, writing that Josh “has been using girls—an underage one at that—for his manipulative form of entertainment. He constantly harasses women in his Discord to date him, regardless whether they have a significant other or not. He also likes to tell everyone he prefers 16 year olds or younger. Some take this at a glance, thinking it is just satire...”
Method emailed back a statement in response, telling the women that they would need to submit a police report before it would take any action. “Like you, all of us at Method take the welfare of minors seriously, including their safety on the internet. If you feel you have evidence that anybody, inside or outside of Method, has been behaving in a predatory of illegal manner we strongly encourage you to contact the police and make a report, so that a thorough—and proper—investigation can occur,” the email read. Method’s email continued on to say that it would serve “no purpose” to bring this matter to social media “where images can be doctored and recollections of the truth twisted.”
A meme created by one of Josh’s fans and shared in his Discord.
MethodJosh did not respond to Kotaku’s request for comment. The same Method representative who sent the email did respond to Kotaku. “I stand by my reply that the most important step the accuser and/or victim could take would be to immediately contact the police if their welfare or the welfare of anyone, especially a minor, is in jeopardy,” they wrote in part, saying that the email from the fans was “a second hand account of Josh’s alleged behaviour from an anonymous source” and contained no supporting evidence. (The original email to Method had said that the fan in question was not comfortable sharing the evidence with Method “unless necessary.”) “I can confirm we’ve spoken to Josh about the email you have referenced from Jane Doe, as well as the contact from you today regarding this article, but we have no plans at this time to publicly comment on personnel decisions within the organisation,” the email continued.
Fear and the desire to be accepted by somebody who is widely respected might prevent fans from speaking out against their favourite gaming celebrity’s inappropriate behaviour. On the other hand, the small brand empires that these gamers build up run the risk of collapsing once call-outs become public. Yet because many of the platforms that bolster these personalities’ fame are hands-off about moderating, sometimes, the alleged bad actors return even after they’ve been disgraced publicly.
In 2016, VICE Motherboard reported that big-time Minecraft personalities were grooming and preying on underage fans. The report focused on Marcus “LionMaker” Wilton, whose 600,000 YouTube subscribers included countless underage fans, several of whom he reportedly befriended. In 2015, LionMaker allegedly asked a 12-year-old to send him nude photos through Twitter direct messages. He later denied doing this. That same night, LionMaker reportedly offered $500 to a 16-year-old male fan in exchange for nude images, which he also denied. At one point, LionMaker apparently tweeted out lewd images of a girl who was reportedly 16 years old with whom he said he had a sexual relationship. Last month, YouTube news channel DramaAlert broke the story that LionMaker had returned to streaming on the platform Mixer. In an emailed response to Kotaku, a representative of LionMaker said that “LionMaker never preyed on anyone,” and described some allegations against him as “false,” without detailing which.
Starlit “JinBop” Zhao. (Image: JinBop/YouTube)
LionMaker wasn’t the only one in the Minecraft community to be accused of this. In 2015, Aaron “Yamimash” Ash, who was 26 and had 1.3 million YouTube subscribers, was accused of sending lewd messages and images to a 14-year-old fan. (Later, in a video, he admitted to “flirting” with her, denied that he had sent “naked pictures,” and said that she was being “manipulative.”) He did not respond to Kotaku’s request for comment. In 2016, Kotaku reported that Minecraft YouTuber Starlit “JinBop” Zhao was arrested on his way to meet up with a 15-year-old fan. In 2017, he was sentenced to eight years in prison.
YouTube largely replicates the traditional model for celebrities and fans—one side offers their talents while the other passively consumes—yet in the last few years since Twitch has grown, interactivity has factored more into these relationships. “Anna,” a 16-year-old fan of Overwatch League star Jonathan “DreamKazper” Sanchez who wishes to remain anonymous, said she was shocked last year when she saw that Sanchez, 21, had followed her back on Twitter. Sanchez was just a distant star she watched on Twitch, where the Overwatch League was broadcast, and now he was talking to her directly and personally.
In direct messages, Sanchez continually flattered her with compliments that, because of the power differential, were difficult for her to turn down, she told Kotaku at that time. Several times, as they became closer and more flirtatious, they discussed meeting up. At one point, Sanchez purchased a ticket for Anna to come visit him in California. At the same time, Sanchez was speaking to “Penelope,” a 15-year-old fan who wrote in a public statement that she, too, was “flattered” when he followed her back on Twitter and also formed a flirtatious relationship with the esports pro. Both girls reportedly sent Sanchez nude pictures. Both said that Sanchez knew how old they were. (He did not reply to Kotaku’s requests for comment at that time.) Although he was immediately suspended from the Overwatch League, YouTuber KingMykl reported that Sanchez returned to play Overwatch just a few months later.
There is no evidence that predation is more widespread among the gaming community than it is anywhere else, say law enforcement officials that Kotaku spoke to.
“It’s not just gaming. It’s apps all across the board, anything that accesses the internet,” said Kevin Kaufman, a lieutenant in the FBI who has supervised the bureau’s Violent Crimes Against Children task force in central Florida. Kaufman said that any conversations between minors and strangers online runs the risk of danger. “Any time there’s a platform giving an adult the opportunity to engage or communicate with a teenager or a kid, the adult is the one with the upper hand.”
New Jersey State Police lieutenant John Pizzuro, commander of the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force, says that he hasn’t seen many reports referencing Twitch, although about 10 of the 300 reports he saw in 2018 referenced Discord. “We’ve seen a lot of cases where predators go into Discord to groom children,” he told me over the phone last week, although he said it’s less of a specific issue with the service and “more of a societal issue.”
Pizzuro noted that, as opposed to 10 years ago, chat apps are available at any time, anywhere—you don’t have to go home and wait for a dial-up connection to go through. On top of that, he said, younger generations are conditioned by social media to act in more extreme ways to stand out online on both sides of the streamer-fan relationship, which can lead them into boundary-pushing behavior.
“Our arrests in the last three years went from 143 to 300 just in child exploitation,” he said. “You have platforms that don’t monitor content ... If you knew you’d be monitored in a room, your behaviour would be completely different as opposed to going into a room knowing no one’s looking at it unless someone reports you.”
Ultimately, says Katharine Hodgdon, the Texas A&M researcher these companies might have an “ethical” obligation to do something, but not a “legal” one.
In a blog post published earlier this week, Discord said that its trust and safety team reviews over 6,000 reports every week. “Discord treats streamers and gaming personalities no differently from any other user, and any inappropriate or predatory conduct is absolutely forbidden,” Discord said in an emailed statement to Kotaku. The company will “investigate any and all reports of any user” and report users to the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children and to law enforcement “as appropriate,” it said.
It’s always been the case that power-hungry people seek power, and so changes in online technology aren’t necessarily changing what kind of person becomes a celebrity. And there has never been a thorough vetting process for celebrity. What modern platforms’ emphasis on accessibility and interactivity is changing is the sheer number of celebrities who exist and how available they are to their fans. If they have bad intentions, or are even a little unhinged, they know how you contact you. In online games, where communities are often built off a mutual desire to be understood by others outside the mainstream, victims may be more vulnerable to the glow of celebrity and, because of the platforms gamers gravitate toward, more online.
“When you’re in these communities that have thousands and thousands of members and there are people leading these communities—and internet communities appeal to younger people—they worship these people because they have power in the social dynamic,” said one former Blizzard employee who knew Thomas Cheung. “They’re taking advantage of people who want to feel included.”
Featured image: Illustration: Angelica Alzona