This article/essay/biographical piece/something is one half Team Fortress 2 retrospective and one half personal exploration of isolation, failed romance, and grief. Keep this in mind before proceeding. If you are sensitive to matters of death, abuse, and suicide, consider this your only warning.
Sources have been left in an "Additional Viewing" section at the bottom of the article so as to maintain focus during reading and writing of the piece itself. Feel free to consult these (if you want) after you're finished.
The day is April 27th, 2013.
At least, it is technically.
It's 2 am.
A lonely teenager sits in a storage room converted into a bedroom. There is no carpet on its concrete floor, no ventilation or windows on its unpainted walls. Despite the circumstances, the boy smiles and laughs, hunched over a desk and playing his favorite game with two of his favorite people in the world...even if they're far away.
This home is not a happy place. This room is akin to a prison, complete with an abusive warden.
But we all learn to find happiness somewhere, don't we?
The teenager doesn't know this, but he's going to meet someone very special to him soon. Then he'll...forget about them for about three or four months, give or take, before they explode back into prominence in his life.
It's among the more unusual places to meet. In a virtual world, on Payload Frontier, on a plank bridge. Two men in fancy suits hold beloved Portal 2 character Wheatley in their arms, before switching promptly to knives and repeatedly running at and killing each other, over and over again.
The teenager smiles.
He's made another friend.
Team Fortress 2 is a free-to-play team shooter that launched in October of 2007, as part of the Orange Box compilation. The Orange Box launched on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. The other games included with Team Fortress 2 were Half-Life 2, its episodic expansions, and Portal.
Each of the games launched in the Orange Box met a different fate.
Half-Life 2 and its follow-up Episodes were lauded as phenomenal examples of game design...but became chapters in a story that was never finished.
Portal became a cult hit, launching all sorts of unbearable memes and in-jokes that permeated late-00's Internet culture. It would later be followed up by a AAA sequel, Portal 2, which would earn ever more accolades but much less cultural relevance.
Team Fortress 2 would languish on consoles due to a poor PS3 port and restrictive update policies from Microsoft. "You can't add all of these things for free!" exclaimed an unnamed Microsoft employee, "How else will we make more money?"
On consoles, Team Fortress 2 dies a quick death.
On PC and Steam, where its developers at Valve Software have free reign, another story plays out. The game is continuously updated with free expansions, which were nigh unheard of at the time. In the era of paying for additional maps in Call of Duty or regions in World of Warcraft, Team Fortress 2 offered an early peek into the future of multiplayer gaming. Regular, free, and major content updates to improve the game at no extra cost.
Eventually a cosmetic system came. Not long afterward, the game went completely Free-To-Play, becoming one of the first of its kind and certainly the first of its scale. The community around Team Fortress 2 exploded, the content seemingly never stops flowing, and the game tops the Steam charts.
Fast forward to 2019 and there are new darlings taking up people's attention. Valve themselves have seemingly moved on to more lucrative projects like Dota 2, and much less lucrative projects like Artifact. Free-To-Play gamers have migrated en masse to Fortnite and Battle Royale games like it, and fans of team shooters- even jaded fans of TF2- have seemingly moved onto Overwatch.
Team Fortress 2 is dead, right?
Not just yet, no. There's a reason Team Fortress 2 continues after all of this time- many reasons, in fact.
We're going to focus on just one of those reasons for now.
The boy's anonymous friend turned out to be a woman. Slightly older, much smarter, and much more competent than he was.
Months later, they verbally sparred back and forth. The teenager now spent most of his days walking to a certain fast food restaurant in the midst of sweltering Southern heat, so he could get online and find some kind of respite from the fear and isolation that came with being at home. He stays until the dead of night, whereupon he packs his bag and walks right back home, re-entering his hot, stifling prison and collapsing back into bed. On many of these nights, he'll think of this girl that's so far away from him and smile his way to sleep.
Despite everything that's wrong in his life, he's happier. Happier than he ever remembers being.
He's fallen in love for the first time, but he doesn't know it yet. He thinks he's already done it before, but he hasn't, not really, not until now.
He can't get her bullet out of his head.
It's been over ten years.
Yet, no matter how many times the death is declared, no matter how many competitors arise, or how many months pass without a content update...Team Fortress 2 continues to survive.
Detractors may blame the Free To Play model, but that certainly can't be all of it. There are many Free To Play games on the market, some even competing in the same niche as Team Fortress 2, that have yet to knock it off of its throne. Even games that are much more popular, such as Fortnite or Overwatch, still fail to take enough of the players that keep Team Fortress 2 alive.
For every jaded ex-veteran you meet, there are two more people still sucked into the game and its community. Within Team Fortress 2, there are even more communities: a grassroots competitive community that's been doing eSports since before eSports was a thing, a passionate SFM community that continues to put out excellent 3D animation, and the mapping and cosmetic communities that still contribute content added to the game each year.
This isn't to say that Team Fortress 2 is in its golden years, or that it's without fault. Far from it.
The wider TF2 community is fraught with frustration and apathy. To love Team Fortress 2 as its community does is to love something that is aged, flawed, and neglected. Where the latest and greatest titles seemingly get major content updates every month, TF2 is lucky to get one a year thanks to a very small team at Valve and a decade's worth of jerry-rigged Source Engine code to work with. Despite the fact that Team Fortress 2 has pioneered the modern Game as a Service, its underlying technology is still primitive and from an era long past, which makes it unimaginably more difficult to optimize and update with all the shiny new things its community wants.
But despite everything mentioned here, Team Fortress 2 still remains one of Steam's most-played games, day after day after day. The multiple communities within communities are undoubtedly part of the reason why people can't stop coming back. Once you join a community, that community and its people become a part of your daily routine and daily life. Regulars on r/tf2, Facepunch Forums, TF2Maps.net and countless other communities continue to clock in day after day. Even if they don't play as much as they used to, TF2 and the people who play it have become a part of their lives that they can't easily let go of.
It's the kind of love story they make movies about.
At least, in a world where people are interested in watching two complete and utter nerds flirt back and forth over a long distance while playing some video game.
I'm sure there's a timeline where people are into that, right?
The two get serious, or as serious as you can be in a relationship like this.
In January of 2014, they get serious-er, and she crosses the country to stay with him for a little bit. It's a good time. The good times end as most do- with tears and grasping and kisses and promises that she'll come back, that he'll make his way to her, that they'll make it work, that they'll make it...
Worse. Two months later and it's his birthday and it's over.
His stepfather, his warden, lashes out more. It gets worse. It gets much worse.
The boy- legally a man but psychologically a boy- made a mistake. He made that amateur mistake that the abused do where they turn good-but-ultimately-normal people into deities that can save them from their abusers and themselves. He believed the girl was his only way out. He convinces himself there is no escape from this environment, and there never will be. He believes he will die here.
He decides to accelerate the process.
He fails, fortunately. And before he can try again, the friends he made- however distant they may have been- worked together to make sure he didn't get another chance. One of his favorite people in the world, mentioned earlier, calls him a brother in a long, drawn-out conversation full of tears. The people who love him know his weakness, knows he can't shut up, knows he has to have the last word. So they keep him busy in conversation while they call the police.
It works. The boy is saved, for now.
But the love story is over now, for good. It'll be many more mistakes later before he gets another chance with someone else, and not many more after that before he fucks it all up again.
But the story as a whole isn't over.
There's still a brother to discuss.
When someone says the word "pub" to you, what do you imagine?
If you're older-fashioned, or simply don't play many multiplayer games, you'll probably think of a more traditional definition. You'll think of a local bar or tavern, where everyone knows each other, the atmosphere is welcoming, and lonely people can be less lonely.
If you're a modern gamer, especially one who is competitively-oriented, you'll think of a public gameserver. That is, you'll think of unranked and much less competitive multiplayer gameplay.
In Team Fortress 2 (and, indeed, a lot of older PC games), these definitions blur. Before the advent of matchmaking systems and Xbox Live, playing games online meant relying on the community at large to buy and maintain their own servers. These servers would have their own moderation and rules, and some would go as far as to have their own custom maps, game modes, and weapons. It's this Wild West mentality where mods like the original Team Fortress and Defense of the Ancients were born, and this mindset continued on at Valve for a long time.
In more recent years, matchmaking systems have taken over even Valve games...but community servers still remain alongside these systems. While matchmaking systems have damaged the livelihood of community servers en masse, community servers have not died entirely.
It's in these community servers where the hybrid pub definition comes into play. These servers simultaneously serve as non-competitive multiplayer arenas and their own small communities, complete with regulars, troublemakers, and bouncers (mods). For many players, these were the heart of Team Fortress 2...and their decline hasn't come without backlash. YouTuber Errant Signal put out a video on the matter (linked below), and this remains a common point of contention in other TF2 communities.
The continued persistence of community servers in the face of matchmaking mirrors the continued persistence of the game as a whole. Just as matchmaking systems circulate the new blood away from the communities that need them most, mainstream-dominating titles like Apex Legends divert attention away from TF2.
But maybe that's the way it's meant to be. Matchmaking systems do offer numerous advantages of their own, after all. Streamlined competitive play, a more developer-controlled experience, a more straightforward system for jumping right into the game...
At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how much you love someone or something. Time moves forward.
Let's turn back the clock a little bit more. Our love story, short and sad as it was, pushed us too far ahead to properly understand the brothers.
Before The Boy and The Brother would view each other as family, they would have...a difficult relationship. They met on the 25th of October, in 2008. The Brother had to step in to dissuade The Boy from some...embarrassing behavior we're not going to recount here. Of the things said in this exchange, though, The Brother said something unintentionally impactful.
"You can be somebody."
While this is removed from the context of a warning for bad behavior, it was still one of the nicest things The Boy had ever heard said to him. In the life he had lived up to that point, fraught with neglect, abuse, and ostracization, these four words stood tall like a lighthouse in a storm. The Boy wanted to be somebody, and for the first time someone had actually told him he could be, if he tried.
So he started trying.
The Brother was more of an idol in the beginning than a friend. Someone to aspire to be, not an equal. He...didn't exactly like taking this role, but he accepted it without complaint. The Brother didn't have a particularly happy life either, but he still dedicated his efforts to improving the lives of other people, even in ways as minor as editing some Wiki. It took a good few years before the two become actual friends, and a bit longer to become really close...but a particularly messy incident between the two pushed them far apart again, perhaps without the ability to reconcile.
Team Fortress 2 went Free To Play in 2011, and The Brother took it upon himself to purchase a server for him and his friends to play on. The Brother and The Boy came from the same Wiki, its own kind of fledgling Internet community, and that Wiki's denizens made their way to a new home in Team Fortress that only grew as time went on. In March of 2012, on his 16th birthday, The Boy finally made his way to this server. At this point, he and The Brother weren't on speaking terms, but they remained as civil as they could. After some months of occupying the same spaces but not exchanging words, The Boy finally reached out.
"I'm sorry." he admitted, "And you don't need to forgive me."
The Brother replied, "Thank you for apologizing."
A few more weeks after that, and they were friends again. Better friends than ever, in fact.
Now, in another life, this part of the story would probably have gone differently. Perhaps The Boy and The Brother would have made amends in some other way, without some video game to make it easier. As important as they are to each other today, surely something as childish and simple as a game wouldn't be the determining factor, right?
Maybe it would be, maybe it wouldn't be.
But in this life, at least...it was.
For the younger ones reading this piece, the idea of a multiplayer game not made for eSports is ridiculous. Everything from Overwatch to Super Smash Brothers launches with ranking systems and online matchmaking these days, and as ubiquitous as these systems now are, you would think this has been the status quo for decades. This revolution in gaming is quite young, though- while games have been played competitively for as long as they have existed, it's only in the past five years that eSports have become mainstream. Most games on the market today are built around the idea of eSports, and Twitch streaming, and being a service that users engage in on a daily basis...but that isn't tradition. It's a trend, and a young one, at that.
Before the days where developers and publishers were a part of the competitive gaming scene, tournaments and competition were grassroots events. These communities would emerge in the least likely of places, but one of the more unusual tales is that of Team Fortress 2.
Team Fortress 2's competitive community has existed in one form or another since the game's launch in October of 2007. It has its own storied history, complete with legendary battles, heroes, villains, and everything else you would expect. While Team Fortress 2 was built as a casual experience, the game's mechanical depth betrayed its roots in arena shooters like Quake. This depth, combined with many other design decisions, created a game that could become the ultimate eSports experience...with some alterations. The implementation of Class Limits and weapon bans ensured strategic and balanced play at a competitive level, across various formats over the years.
Ultimately, Team Fortress 2's competitive scene settled on two formats of choice: Highlander, and 6v6. 6v6 is the dominant format of the two, and has all the markings of what makes a good eSport today: an easy viewing experience, plenty of high-spectacle combat, and a ton of momentum. Highlander is a bit of a different story, but still has its own popularity as a 9v9 format, where one of each class is played on each team. There can be only one, after all.
Without any assistance from Valve, the Team Fortress 2 competitive community ran its own leagues, events, LANs, and international tournaments. TF2 has made repeated appearances at the Insomnia Festival, where self-funded TF2 teams from around the world gather to do battle. Very few games have been able to achieve the grassroots success that Team Fortress 2 has, and even fewer have done so while being billed as casual-only experiences.
Only one has exceeded it.
Despite anywhere from apathy to outright sabotage from Nintendo, Super Smash Bros. Melee achieved international success as an eSports title. Around the same time Team Fortress 2 launched, Super Smash Bros. Brawl launched as an explicit backhand to this side of the Smash community. This didn't dissuade them- if anything, it helped, because the Melee scene only continued to grow in response. Many casual players, even, didn't appreciate the radical changes made to Smash gameplay in response to Melee's competitive community...resulting in many players going back. When the next entry in the Smash Brothers series launched- Wii U/3DS- it came with a built-in competitive matchmaking mode and Nintendo-hosted tournaments. Smash Brothers Ultimate has taken this even further, and after so many years, the competitive Smash scene has the developer support it deserves.
Team Fortress 2...does not.
The release of Overwatch and the dominance of titles like CS:GO and Dota 2 (from and supported by Valve themselves) in eSports resulted in many TF2 pros moving on. Money exists in eSports now, but not in TF2. It doesn't matter how much you love something if it can't sustain you, and so...many members of the TF2 community are forced to move to greener pastures. Whispers are abound that some would come back, if they could...but they're adults now, and being an adult means you have to make money to survive. You can't spend all your time playing a game nowadays if it isn't paying your bills. Only children can do that.
Even despite this, the scene continues to survive. People donate their time and their money to keep the competitive scene going, but nothing lasts forever. Unless something changes soon, it's only a matter of time before the competitive scene dies completely. Unlike TF2 at large, the competitive community's days are clearly numbered, and Valve continues to do nothing.
It was 2014, and his heart was broken, and his stepfather was becoming ever more physical and loud...
...but a spark in him refused to go out.
In March of 2015, he turned 19 and he left home on a 20 hour bus ride.
Through this time playing Team Fortress 2 competitively, he met some people who sympathized with his plight. He lived on the border of Georgia and Alabama, and they lived in Virginia. Carrying a single box with all of his worldly possessions inside, he hopped on a bus and left his life behind in hopes of starting anew.
It...didn't go well. We won't recount the story here. Nobody is innocent. Everybody is guilty, in one way or another. Don't move in with strangers, kids.
The Boy returned to the border of Georgia and Alabama, but he refused vehemently to return home. To his prison. He instead chose to share a small storage room with two friends, sleeping on a too-small bed on a too-hard concrete floor. As bad as that may sound, it was still better than the frying pan of home and the fire of Virginia...because for the first time in over a decade, The Boy finally felt safe.
After another year of this, however, The Boy's desire to rebuild revealed itself again. As nice as things had become- despite the fact he had been out of his abusive environment for well over a year now- it still wasn't enough for him. He wasn't happy yet. In parallel, The Brother was escaping his own abusive household...in the piercing winds of Colorado. The Brother needed help, and after all these years, he knew that he could trust The Boy to do so to the best of his ability.
In October of 2016, The Boy left the border once more, with no intention of ever returning. His relationship with his blood family was complicated at best, and at this point he didn't feel like he had any more of a choice. He would build a new life, with the new family found in The Brother, and he would never, ever return home. He would build a new one instead.
For many people and many good reasons, death is a sensitive subject.
Nobody really wants to think about it any more than they have to. It's depressing if you focus on it for too long- if all you can think about is the end, how can you enjoy everything that comes before? There are things in this life that keep us tethered. We need these things to stop ourselves from going insane, to prevent ourselves from spending our life in preemptive grief for the end of all things to come.
The specter of death lingers over the head of the Team Fortress 2 community. Individual games aren't supposed to last this long. It's been a decade, yet dozens of thousands of people continue to play it, day after day after day. It's home to them now, whether they're here to compete, to reflect, to create, and any number of other things. People claim that Team Fortress 2 is dead near-daily, yet the evidence indicates that it's nowhere near dead.
It is, however, going to die. Regardless of what else happens in its lifespan- even if it booms as big as Fortnite tomorrow- Team Fortress 2 will die, because everything will.
In the current state of things, Team Fortress 2 is in a steady state of decline.
Make no mistake: in the context of Steam as a whole, these numbers are great. These numbers make the repeated instances of "TF2 is dead" seem laughable, and it is. For now.
However, if you take a closer look at the picture...you will see that the playercount is in steady decline. In fact, most of 2018 showed TF2 coming closer than ever to hitting the dreaded 50K mark.
Outside of raw playercount, you also have to look at the activity of the development team at Valve. Team Fortress 2 used to receive 2 or more Major Updates per year. These updates would add thorough rebalancing, new weapons, new maps, new cosmetics, and sometimes more. One would come in the Summer, and one would come in the Winter. Starting in 2016, though, these updates became an annual rather an biannual occurrence.
As of the time of writing- February 2019- it has been well over a year since the last Major Update (Jungle Inferno) was released for Team Fortress 2. A temporary Halloween event did occur in October, as did a small balance and cosmetic patch in early 2018. While there are whispers of the next update in development, these whispers are quieter than they've ever been, and many players are beginning to lose hope at the idea of Team Fortress 2 ever receiving another update.
11 years isn't bad, all things considered. Most games don't live anywhere near that long.
But for many, Team Fortress 2's current status seems like an injustice.
The competitive community has contributed blood, sweat, and tears to the dream of Team Fortress 2 as an eSport. Community server operators have become fewer and farther between- without the old Quickplay system and with the new matchmaking system, it's near impossible to drive traffic to your server unless you're one of the few big names remaining.
Team Fortress 2 continues to be one of the most-played games on Steam, and one of its biggest moneymakers, year after year. Why, then, does its community suffer? Why won't Valve give the game the support it deserves? How is this fair?
Death is many things, but fair isn't ever one of them.
In Colorado, it's for the first time that The Boy feels happy. Living with The Brother and tackling life's challenges together. Feeling safe each and every day. Struggling with all kinds of adult problems still, but freer than ever from the pain of home.
The Boy is not, however, free from the pain of grief. He and The Brother both lost someone in early 2016, and the grief finally starts catching up to The Boy then. We'll call the person they lost The Mentor, because that's what she was to The Boy- the one who helped him develop his writing skill, every step of the way. Without her, he would've been unable to turn to writing as an outlet and career. The Mentor was closer to The Brother than The Boy, and he felt her loss even harder. Together, though, the brothers could give each other the support they needed.
Everything dies, though. Even an arrangement like this one.
The Brother meets a girl. The girl becomes The Wife. They love each other deeply, and eventually The Boy needs to get out on his own to make room for the kids. It's...a little bit messy, but ultimately amicable. They've been through worse.
Unfortunately, however, that didn't mean the brothers were ready.
For the year of 2018, both are in constant financial trouble. Without the ability to pool their resources, they have to repeatedly call in favors from their friends and family to survive. They have to do things they never thought they would have to do. It's the greatest challenge adulthood has to offer thus far, and neither are able to do it alone just yet.
The Brother had The Wife to fall back on. And her daughter. And their son. The Brother had his own family now, and he would make sure they were happy, healthy, and safe.
The Boy did have people of his own, and many did help him...but like before, only from a distance. While The Boy was still in Colorado, he was far from The Brother, and, indeed, any human being to spend time with. He did not have the means to see The Brother often, if ever. Isolated in an apartment to call his own, the grief and the pain of past years were free to let loose.
The Boy was taught a lesson, over and over again, that year. That he couldn't do it on his own. That if it weren't for the charity and kindness and competence of other people, he never would have survived. He already hated himself to some extent, but he only grew to hate himself more as he repeatedly put the people who loved him in a position where they had to save him, or no one would. It seemed hopeless.
At the end of his apartment's lease, at the end of the year, he chose to stay with some other random people he met on Craigslist. They weren't crazy or anything, but it wasn't working out. They were, however, much closer to The Brother and where he lived...and on Thanksgiving, The Boy and The Brother finally reconnected.
There were hugs, and tears, and apologies. Their importance to each other had been reaffirmed. For the first time in a year, The Boy felt happy again, and he realized why- this was Home. Being with The Brother and his family. The Brother's son wasn't even a year old yet, and The Boy realized when he looked upon him that he would need to be better. Much better than he was now. The Boy wanted to be The Uncle, or The Godfather, or anything more than just a boy by the time The Son grew up.
The Boy realized what he had to do.
Return to the border, to his old home. Not an abusive household, but to a place where he could sustain himself and rebuild from the ground up in order to become worthy of titles like Uncle or Godfather. He would take a year to make all of this happen, and he would return triumphantly, to live happily ever after.
Before he stepped into the car on the day he left, The Boy and The Brother hugged for one last time and cried together. They made promises we can't be sure they'll keep. Promises to return home.
Once he was back on the border, The Boy found himself in a slump. Just for a few weeks, sure, but still a slump. He had been through a great ordeal, and what's next didn't seem like it would be any easier. While he was on the border, he planned to see his great grandmother before she passed, get in touch with the part of his heritage he embraced the most. He planned to make what amends he could with his mother and the rest of his blood family. He planned to get his body in shape and pay his debts and build a safety cushion and all matter of other things that people swear they'll do when it's a new year.
He'd get to it all tomorrow. One more day.
His great grandmother died before he got to see her.
She hadn't seen him in years, because he was too busy thinking only of himself. Because he was too busy making excuses. Because he was-
Forget the format.
My great grandmother died before I got to see her. It's been about a week now, and I wasn't even here for a full month before it happened. I repeated the same mistake I made with my Mentor- I assumed I had more time than I did, then they died before I could say all the things I wanted to say to them and now I'm miserable. It's hard to sleep. I screamed for a solid minute the other night- a guttural, visceral scream unlike any other I've made- at the intensity of everything I'm feeling.
For some idiotic reason, I thought the deaths would slow down, or stop, when that's the exact opposite of what happens as you get older. I've realized now that more grief is coming, more tragedies that I can never prevent. My brother, my blood family, everyone I love and cherish is going to die and there is nothing I can do about it.
The other night, I hopped back into Team Fortress 2. In a game of Lakeside, a player on my team was doing perhaps the best Plankton impression I've ever heard, and it killed me. I roared with laughter and I played along, and for just a little while I wasn't thinking about how everyone I love is going to die and how much I wish I had spent more time with them. For just a little while, I was happy again, and I felt at home, in my favorite game of all time.
I've been lingering on that experience ever since. It's why I made this. For those of you who made it all the way through, congratulations: you have the patience of a saint.
I've been told I move too fast, and I talk too fast, and I dominate a conversation and don't leave room for other people to catch their breath. I am not the protagonist of some love story or great fantasy. I am human and I am flawed and one day I'm going to die.
But I can't grieve everyone's deaths before they happen.
And I can't grieve the ones I'm grieving now forever. At one point or another, I'm going to have to let go of the grief that has dominated my life for the past two years, because I need to move forward. I need to rebuild so much. I have a brother to get back to. A home to return to.
I just wish it were easier. But it isn't. It has never gotten easier.
But it has gotten better.
I've grown so much from The Boy I used to be, and I have so much more growth left to do. The day She left me and the weeks after, I managed to convince myself there was no hope for me, and I'd die before I ever escaped my environment.
But I made it out. I haven't gone back since I left. I'm a work in progress, sure, but I achieved my life's goal when I turned 19, and now all I need to do is keep going.
While I am doing my best to let go of this grief, I am not going to let go of my feelings for the people I've lost.
I am going to let go of Team Fortress 2, though. For one reason or another, I will stop playing it eventually.
But I'll never forget the difference it made in my life. I'll never forget how happy it's made me, even at my lowest points.
I'll never forget the feeling of coming home.