Eli Thompson, a former law enforcement professional, has taken to policing a popular 'GTA Online' role-play server, and his fans love him
Eli Thompson, a former law enforcement professional, has taken to policing a popular 'GTA Online' role-play server, and his fans love him
Lawbreakers of Los Santos: Sheriff Eli Thompson would like a fucking word with you.
A standout character in the increasingly popular world of roleplaying in Grand Theft Auto, Sheriff Eli – the in-game persona of Eli Thompson – is quickly becoming one of the most popular streamers on Twitch. His schtick? Rather than succumbing to the bedlam of GTA Online, Sheriff Eli presents himself as the ultimate lawman, bringing some sorely needed law and order to the streets of Los Santos.
Thompson is a member of State of Emergency, a role-playing community that features a number of popular Twitch streamers acting out an ongoing, ever-evolving drama of cops and robbers in a highly modified version of GTA V, called FiveM. Developed over years by a team of volunteers, FiveM preserves the essential structure of Grand Theft Auto V while making a few key changes aimed at creating the ideal playground for acting out fantasies both elaborate and mundane.
Thompson isn’t the biggest name on his server (that honor belongs to uber popular streamer Lirik), but his pitch-perfect act has made Sheriff Eli a fan favorite. At his best, Sheriff Eli sounds like a foul mouthed twist on every highway cop that's ever pulled you over. "You live in the land of wish-I-had and I live in the land of what-I-got. And what you got is appre-fucking-hended," Eli bellows at one would-be thief. This probably has something to do with the fact that Thompson worked in law enforcement for nearly a decade before turning to Twitch.
Speaking over Discord, Eli and I chatted about how he got into role-playing, how he developed the character of Sheriff Eli, and where he sees his new career going. If you’re interested in tuning in to watch Sheriff Eli bring law and order to the streets of Los Santos, Thompson streams every weekday on his Twitch channel.
Tell me a little bit about how you started role-playing in Grand Theft Auto V.
I had never really heard of role-play before this. I mean, I played ArmA Life for maybe a week, but it wasn’t something I could get into. I remember my last day in ArmA Life: I was a turtle farmer and I went into town to sell my turtle meat and then I was strafed by a guy in an attack helicopter. I was like, "That was the worst six hours I’ve ever spent. What am I doing?" I didn’t want to play anymore.
GTA RP looked to me like it was a multiplayer version of LSPDFR, a single-player mod for Grand Theft Auto V that allows you to play as the police. At first, I didn’t devote too much time to it, and then I had a loss in the family – my younger brother was killed – and, after that, I didn’t really want to invest much time into interacting with other folks. I was able to use the game as a kind of escape. That’s when I started investing a lot more time, and I rose through the digital ranks, from deputy up to sheriff, and then I was eventually transferred over to the state police, which is kind of an honorary organization in SOE [State of Emergency, the online community associated with Thompson’s server] for the higher ranking law enforcement or medical services personnel.
So why Grand Theft Auto V of all games? Is it because the game itself lends itself to this kind of role-play? Or the its infamous reputation in general – somewhere truly in need of some "law and order."
Both. The great thing about Grand Theft Auto V is that Rockstar has taken so much time to make it feel real. Characters feel purposeful – people are dressed for work or the beach.
That being said, anyone who has ever played GTA Online – to say that it’s in need of law and order is an understatement. Part of the thrill is going in and committing crazy crimes, but at some point, when there’s no accountability, people get bored. There’s no more challenge. It’s funny to take an environment like GTA – a game whose attraction is the ability to do "anything" – and make there be real consequences for every action. If you are out there playing recklessly, you’ll pay the price.
For me, part of why people connect with Sheriff Eli is that he’s a remarkably well-rounded character. Can you say a little bit about how you went about developing the character?
There are a number of different personalities that go into Sheriff Eli, but the development really goes through how we do in-game training in the game and the community at SOE. In our community, there are diverse backgrounds – military, police, etc. – from all over the country. When we were developing the training program, we didn’t say "we’re going to use the LAPD’s standard," but build something that was unique to SOE that’s unlike any other law enforcement organization. Because the environment that you’re attempting to police is unlike any other environment.
In the real world, human beings have anxiety and natural deterrents that exist, and keep them from committing crimes. In the game, it’s not that way. Obviously, there’s no physical threat. So standardized police training – "Get out of here or you’re going to get shot" – isn’t really effective. In terms of the use of force continuum, officer presence – that psychological effect of being around a police officer is the thing that we emphasize the most. You know, "Party’s over." That’s where the Eli character was born. I went from being able to control two suspects at once to five or six. Now, if I roll up on eight or nine armed felons behind a bank in a fistfight, I can handle that call on my own because the officer presence lends itself to that. So it was an evolution of attempting to create a persona that would be the most effective law enforcement officer in this specific environment.
How thick and/or thin is the boundary with the work you've actually done in law enforcement? How much does that shape your character?
It’s thick and it’s thin. A lot of people when viewing it – at least at first, and especially if they have never played – see it as just a game. Everything is fake. But while they’re obviously digital representations, there’s an actual human being involved. And human psychology is the same when it comes to the application of police methodology when it comes to interrogation and conducting investigations.
There are certain things that in the real world that you can use as a law enforcement officer to try to control a situation to restore order that you cannot use in the digital world. And there are things in the digital world that you can do that you would not be able to do in the real world. I think that's something we take advantage of. A lot of people ask me, "Well, the language you use that's awfully colorful, is that something you'd use in real life?" And I say, "Like... no! Definitely not!"You shouldn't be talking to every driver you pull up on, like, "Hey, you fucking bananahead!" Again, though, in the digital world, where we emphasize officer presence, setting the tone is important. You have to come out at a higher emotional level, especially if you're coming to a call with violence.
How much contact do you have with the developers of FiveM? How does that dialogue shape the kind of performance you do in-game?
They consult with us pretty regularly. We have a family of people who understand that what we're doing here is a delicate balance. If the police are so handicapped that there's no enforcement at all, then the balance is ruined. Likewise, if the civilian populace or criminal populace is so handicapped to the point where they can't function, it's also ruined. There has to be a balance there for that to exist. In development, we try to take that kind of thing into account across all levels. Some people are like "The police deserve to have drones all over the city." But that would just be a nightmare for everyone who is playing because it does take away that sense of fairness in the mental chess game that we're trying to play with one another.
The great thing about Grand Theft Auto V is that Rockstar has taken so much time to make it feel real. Characters feel purposeful – people are dressed for work or the beach.
If you are a regular viewer of streams, you can see that just in the last couple of days, a decision made to allow the game to spawn higher level supercars. So you wouldn't find a Lambo or McLaren F1 at the supermarket. But the addition of that one small thing has caused the number of pursuits we’ve been in to go up by like 200 percent. So little things have a big impact because of how invested people are in furthering their character. If you give them a tool, they are going to use it – that’s true on both sides of the fence.
How much do media depictions of policing – fictional or not – change your approach to role playing?
People will tweet me and say "This reminds me of The Wire," or "This is just like watching COPS," which is the longest running show in the history of TV. But the all references I heard about have one thing in common, which is that they evoke a real emotional response. You’re having anxiety because your favorite character might get caught. Or you’re watching COPS and everything seems normal, then a car busts through a fence and then takes off 100 miles an hour and now you’re in pursuit.
It took me a long time to realize why I liked the State of Emergency community so much, because there are a lot of rules and things that you have to do. Some people might say "It's just a game, what a pain in the ass!" But the thing that's so addicting about it is those real feelings you get from watching and playing. As we develop the world, no matter what we do, we can't lose that. If we over-develop or under-develop the world to the point where that is lost, then it won’t be special anymore.
Often, our media encourages us to identify with the underdog. Why do you think that people have connected so strongly with Sheriff Eli, who is kind of the opposite of that?
It’s open to interpretation. I think there's a misconception that we hate the folks that play law enforcement characters on some guttural level, like we hate the Lean Bois [an in-game crime ring] or the criminals. In my view, I think that it's honestly just because the pendulum has swung so far that way. It's not really an underdog story anymore when almost everything you see is dedicated to that kind of gameplay, whether it's doing criminal stuff or trolling. There’s something to be said for foregoing the instant gratification of something like that for a longer term longer commitment or investment in other people's enjoyment. Others before self, which is think is consistent with real-life fireman, police, or military. We ask our people to make that commitment, so it's something people can identify with.
You can't kill anyone [in the SOE server]. There is no easy out. I’ve seen other games where there's a "new life" rule – if you say "I don't want to role-play with Will anymore, his character pisses my character off, so i'm going to kill his character," then you constantly have to start over. You're forced to develop those relationships and work through conflicts that you don’t have to work through in other games. If you make an enemy of the other 23 people in the world, you’re going to have a bad time.
So I think that's the fascination people have with the law enforcement side of role-playing. And we counsel our people for that; they are out there to maintain a level of law and order that allows for the community to have these longer-term, relationship-based roleplaying encounters that couldn’t exist in a world of complete lawlessness. Obviously, you’re not going to be able to roleplay a taco truck vendor or a medic when there’s a guy with a minigun blowing everything up that he sees. You have to have that baseline of law and order in order to do anything else, and I think by providing that, we allow some of the very talented role-players in the community to do what it is that they do best.
Do you have a routine for getting into character? I’m struck by how good you are at never breaking character, even under the most absurd circumstances.
I don’t spend my day walking around and screaming into people’s faces, obviously. I'd be in a mental institution. But I do spend time getting into the mindset of what, making sure my equipment is good to go, getting into the game, and then saying "We're going to war." That's the mindset I adopt. It’s, "If we don’t get out there and stop them, then who will?"
Once I’m in character, I have no problem staying in the role and I think that's partly because it’s so immersive. There's a lot going on. I'm not the only one on the law enforcement side who multitasks. I keep detailed notes; I have a patrol log of my activities and interactions and encounters. I try to run warrants or traffic enforcement; I switch around to be as dynamic as possible. And i think it's that level of activity that never really surfaces on stream that allows me to stay in character for as long as needed.
I’ve read elsewhere that you left your previous work in law enforcement because it wasn’t enough to support your family, but Twitch streamer doesn’t exactly jump to mind as the obvious solution for that problem. How and why did you make this switch?
More than a decade ago, I worked in federal government information technology systems, consulting with the Navy and the Marine Corps – specifically, U.S. Southern Command. My career was going very well; I did not even know that Twitch streaming was something that someone could do. So it's embarrassing now to say this, but had no idea how YouTube or Twitch worked. It wasn't until I started being a part of this community and other content creators went out of their way to help me that I got going with this. I never even considered it, and, up until the fundraiser [in which other State of Emergency streamers raised money for Thompson to purchase his own streaming rig; previously, he had only appeared on other streamer’s broadcasts], people would say you should definitely do Twitch or YouTube. After the fundraiser, I was like "I can't let these people down." So I just jumped in with both feet to make sure this doesn't suck.
Explaining it to my family was difficult. It's not a two second explanation, where someone says 'I'm a doctor' and people get it. I tried at first – I’d say 'It's digital entertainment,' but then most people think porn.
So you’re doing this full-time now?
Yep, I’m doing it full-time. I set up a schedule, and it’s been great to support the other content creators at SOE. I don't necessarily see myself as somebody who is special or better than anyone else. I think that I’ve benefited tremendously from being surrounded by so many people who are professionals at their craft.
How difficult is it to explain what you do now to your family, friends, and old co-workers?
Explaining it to my family was difficult. It's not a two second explanation, where someone says "I'm a doctor" and people get it. I tried at first – I’d say "It's digital entertainment," but then most people think porn.
In terms of my old coworkers and some of the people that are a part of my life outside the game, it's not something I necessarily share that much. That’s partly because this wasn’t something where I said to myself, "I want to be on Twitch, and this is how I’m going to make a living." I don't feel like I’m in it for the self-promotion. But the character is so loud, that's how it has to be. But I make sure to thank everyone around me and stay as humble as possible. My family – they're figuring it out. They'll watch the stream and videos, and they will joke with me about it and that's great.
Last question – how long do you plan to do this?
I don’t know. It’s been unbelievably eye-opening in terms of how kind and supportive people can be of someone else, and I feel like it's my responsibility to be as supportive and as kind to those people as they were to me. I think about that every single day when I turn on the stream, or go onto YouTube.
I don't look at the number of viewers or the subscription numbers because every single person’s time valuable to me. I never want to get to a point where I say to myself, "I am too important or too privileged to acknowledge this one or this one." It's important for me to keep that freshness and remember how lucky I am to be in the position I am and how much I owe to others. As long as I can keep that mindset and people want to watch what I’m doing, I'll keep doing it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.