The View From Under The Bus; The Terrible State of Online Journalism; Reddit's Need For Sacrificial Lambs
The dust settles on another e-sports drama, one this time with a high profile casualty. The uneasy alliance between Reddit and onGamers was broken due to some rogue behaviour on the part of one of their most prized assets, the journalist Rod “Slasher” Breslau. With a ban reimposed and looking unlikely to be lifted, the reality facing the news site was the loss of at least fifty percent of all their traffic, perhaps even more. In the end, to have a chance of reversing the decision, Breslau was fired and issued a string of public apologies.
The first thing I suppose most would find surprising is that I was sad to see Rod go. I generally don’t like to see people fired in e-sports unless they are malicious liars and thieves. In an industry that has so many examples of incompetence, it is hard to even list this as a legitimate reason to terminate someone’s employment. Opportunities in e-sports are so limited that anyone who actually makes a living from it must have slogged and laboured for so long. Holding on to a job in a fickle and ephemeral environment, one where an angry mob can rise up and demand your head or a seemingly stable company can fall faster than a house of cards in a wind tunnel, is even harder. There is no doubting the qualities of these people.
Several people gave me virtual pats on the back following the news. They suggested that it was an opportunity for me and my publication to fill a void. I haven’t really ever subscribed to the theory that to win someone else has to lose, which is probably stupid. I like competition in our industry. Not the cut-throat, brutal politics of character assassination and smear campaigns it often becomes but rather the purest form of competition; namely when one front runner, the pack leader, forces you to elevate your own efforts. When someone in that race is suddenly disqualified we are all the worse off, the impetus to be better suddenly losing some steam, the overall pace at which we run dropping a gear. Rod, and the whole onGamers publication, were such competitors. While I have no doubt that some will now have renewed figure, that they will want to finish first, I will mostly plod along questioning the legitimacy of the race at all. No one should ever want to win by forfeit.
If I was to describe the relationship between Rod and myself it would be best said with the term “bi-polar”, a phrase Rod has used to describe me on many occasion. Perhaps it was appropriate because there were both ups and downs. We have tore strips off each other publicly, denounced each other’s work and provided mostly unwelcome feedback to one another. Privately we have bickered and congratulated in equal measure. These are easier types of behaviour to engage in than to speak honestly about mutual respect. That competition can sometimes make fools of us all, especially in journalism where a Ricky Bobby-esque mantra of “if you ain’t first, you’re last” is drilled into us from our junior years. So, even though we have said some unpleasant things about each other and Rod is a significant part of why I never got to play my part in the onGamers project, I still wouldn’t like to think of an industry without him. It’s an admission that still doesn’t come easy but I respect him and value his contribution.
The reality is that Rod was a true pioneer in his field. His longevity in the industry is almost unparalleled, fifteen years in all, all as a journalist and broadcaster. Most of us throw in the towel long before that for obvious reasons. He was one of the first e-sports journalists to elevate himself to a celebrity status without anything akin to a successful playing background, he did it mostly based on the accuracy of his reporting. He made a reputation for being the “man in the know,” breaking embargoed stories and doing so across a variety of games. When most writers were content to be “scene journalists” and refusing to even touch anything outside their comfort zone, Rod straddled as many games as possible, taking on the mantle as the first real “industry” journalist we had.
He also was an instrumental part of bringing journalism to the forefront of the new wave of e-sports broadcasting, being an integral part of the first e-sports talk show “Live on Three”, as well as playing a significant role in MLG’s broadcasting and frequently being an industry spokesperson when mainstream gaming shows came looking for someone with clout. He was pushing and advocating social media at a time when most people, even reporters in mainstream journalism, were still trying to get their head around whether or not it was a fad.
On top of that, with his high profile clashes with organisations and industry figureheads he brought the debate about the ethics of journalism to the forefront of gaming as a whole. While the embarrassing Alex Garfield tirade about “ownership of information” was easy enough to shoot down on the basis of its faulty assertions, what it showed was that the reporters in this industry were not just a bunch of failed players trying to remain relevant among our peers. It showed we actually wanted to, and could, produce journalistic work like anyone else. It put a spotlight on our output and cast us in a fresh light.
He was also instrumental in the creation of onGamers. Having left MLG he ended up at the CBSi owned Gamespot, a popular mainstream gaming website, and helped bring e-sports reporting to a wider audience. Constantly pushing for a bigger and better staff, eventually the results made CBSi create that a whole division dedicated to e-sports alone, which went on to become onGamers. Strange now that having played such a significant part in its genesis that he should be the first person to get fired for a series of situation mostly beyond his control.
If that last sentence doesn’t wash with you, if you think Rod is paying the consequences for his actions, then you truly don’t understand the current e-sports landscape. There was a lot of truth in Bill Gates 1996 “Content is King” essay. When he opened with “Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting” it was a great example of his prescient genius. The core of that belief still remains true; content truly is king. Yet, in e-sports at least, the business models we rely on lead to content creation being something of a loss leader, certainly at the outset. Premium subscription and pay per view models are widely rejected, a constant cause of controversy. Advertising revenue is smashed against the rocks of adblock, some websites reporting that 80% of their viewers elect to use it. Most sites are reliant on third party content aggregation websites, such as Reddit, or partnership promotion to even see traffic spikes. “Engagement” is a new buzzword – how do we get those who come once to come back of their own volition? Fixing all of these problems takes time and when you’re haemorrhaging cash at a greater rate than you anticipated, time ticks away faster than a Summer vacation.
So, the pressure comes from the top. The mandate is to get results by any means necessary, to ensure that as many eyes as possible are cast over your content and it is quantifiable. For the higher ups it is an easier pill to swallow that they have lost money again if there is at least growth at the end of a monthly report. It suggests that one day not only will there be an end to the financial loss but also, on a long enough timescale, they can dare to dream of profit.
No real reporter should have to worry about such things but in e-sports we are all hyper aware that the numbers game is everything. Top of Reddit, number of retweets, unique views… We scramble not to do our best work but the work we know can hit the metrics the businesses that pay our salaries use to measure success. To do anything else is to lack an instinct for self-preservation and, as we established right at the start of this piece, if you lack that you’re going nowhere in this business. The staff at onGamers knew that their project was a gamble, a major American network rolling the dice to see if they can make something out of this whole e-sports thing. Be under no illusions – even with the backing of CBS they had a finite amount of time to get things right and grow that brand. The numbers had to be there. So, while Kim Rom made a point of going out and picking up the brightest and best in the e-sports industry, that wasn’t necessarily done out of reverence for the craft of reporting, but rather to ensure they had a virtual monopoly on the best content. This way, they surmised, they could always ensure they had the bulk of e-sports traffic heading their way.
It didn’t take long for them to dominate the e-sports space. What they hadn’t factored into the equation were two things. The first was how reliant they, like everyone else in e-sports, would be. The second, due to their size and stature, was that Reddit would clamp down on any gaming of the system they engaged in. And of course they did systematically engage in gaming that system because if they didn’t then the chances are CBSi would be packing up their toys sooner rather than later. So yes, with livelihoods on the line, they did engage in what is, ultimately, little more than a violation of the terms of service of an aggregation website. If their own Vice President of Esports, Rom’s title, is engaging in the upvote jiggery-pokery then that tells you something in itself.
After that first fateful sanction, they managed to wriggle away from the consequences of a site-wide ban by making a number of apologies and agreeing to not submit their own content again. Publicly they talked of their ignorance to the rules of Reddit, which is of course was absurd. Everyone knows exactly what they are doing when they game Reddit because it is done so begrudgingly. Still, it was enough to get put on notice and they knew they had to tread carefully.
Such delicate footsteps and subtlety were never Rod’s strong suit, which is why the mantra of “Fuck Slasher” has so often rang out through various mediums. For all his qualities as a journalist he still remains at times painfully naive, even when speaking knowledgeably about a subject a permanent look of confusion is cast on his face. To the outsider it might seem that he is channelling the information from a higher power rather than projecting it from within. He is also trusting, never really expecting anyone to stick the knife in. He wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in Boardwalk Empire, let alone fifteen years. This was to prove his undoing with one fateful “private” message to a user who will always be able to tell the story of how he got someone he never met fired from their well-paid, well-deserved job, with the wretched pride of the troll.
Despite assertions to the contrary I think we can assume a few things. Rod’s crime was ultimately getting caught. The need to bring in that Reddit traffic didn’t suddenly disappear and all realistic solutions to the “Reddit problem” as it is dubbed are all long term. The idea that onGamers were going to let the chips just fall where they may, with so much riding on it, seems ridiculous. Also, it is almost laughably stupid to use the website as a conduit for requests to submit content, given how easily traceable it would be. Pressure, it seems, can make us do wild, crazy and dumb things.
In the aftermath people have tried to make out that firing him being the right course of action and him being thrown under the bus are mutually exclusive viewpoints. This isn’t true. As he was the one who was caught in the act, and therefore will be the guy publicly seen as being solely responsible for the consequences, then he is the person that has to be the one punished. By the same token, if there is to be anyway back for onGamers on Reddit – and without it they are facing a rocky road that their financial backers aren’t likely to want to travel down – then they need to distance themselves from the guilty party. Rod could just have easily been sanctioned in the same way that you presume the first guilty parties were, or could have received a pay-cut as they have dished out to other staff guilty of transgressions. None of these outcomes enable onGamers to express false remorse or zero tolerance, to make it look like the actions of the “rogue employee”, to use the “ESEA Defence.” Without that possibility what does it matter? Chances are everyone ends up in the same boat that Rod now finds himself in. Sometimes you have to sacrifice the one for the good of the many.
Which is why they gave Rod the platform to go out like Captain Oates, taking that fateful walk off into the e-sports wilderness and shouldering all the blame. There was no talk of the current climate we all have to endure, the numbers game, the pressure exerted on every content creator to do things we’d rather not. There was no statement that the only reason they were in the mess they were in to begin with was that senior staff members had committed worse transgressions in the first place. It was a professional farewell, honourable even. Undeniably it glossed over a lot of uncomfortable truths.
It is weird like that. Fired because of Reddit, subject to trial by Reddit, the aftermath assessed on Reddit and all done because his employers need Reddit. It seems that the legacy of what is just another content aggregation website, one that will surely fade like the others, is that it simultanously tapped into and fed online communities need for drama and instant justice. It poses as a free-speech vehicle while empowering a select few to censor free from almost any reprisals. It claims to be against harrassment and abuse while acting as the ideal anonymous conduit for both. Non-adherence to its rules has become treated like a scandal in its own right, rather than the trivial matter it is. E-sports companies make business decisions based on the contents of Reddit threads. We increasingly view the community as a Reddit sub-forum rather than even the users on our own websites. Strange, when the way it works is to actually reduce discourse to little more than consensus through fear, differing opinions downvoted into non-existence if only five more people disagree than agree; users bullied into deleting comments altogether for fear that their "karma" will take too much of a hammering if people are feeling particularly malicious. This is not a platform that should be responsible for the outcomes of anyone's livelihood. It rewards those that appeal to the lowest common denominator, that pander to mob mentality and take advantages of fads and trends. The people beind the site, despite posturing to the contrary, wouldn't have it any other way. Those are the factors that have played a major part in making it so popular, the illusion of it being a meritocracy while actually creating a feedback of indoctrination.
There is a real irony in Slasher being the one to fall foul of Reddit’s rules. He is one of the people who has always pushed Reddit as being good for e-sports, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. He is someone who made a point of getting on personal terms with people such as Reddit’s General Manager Erik Martin. He never called out Reddit’s bullshit or application of double standards. He didn’t bring any attention to the staff generating witch-hunts against banned users by divulging information that is supposedly private. He was one of their biggest advocates, a borderline disciple. Now he ends up a poster boy for the penalties of non-compliance; unemployed, forced into public to show contrition, made to blame and knows any future employers will have to think long and hard about “taking a risk” on what was, only two weeks ago, a sure thing. The passion of the Slasher.
But that is how it works these days. It’s not enough you pay, you have to pay in public. Your employer doesn’t just get to throw you under the bus, they get to talk about how sad it all is as they speed up and crush your bones with each passing wheel. Onlookers get to gawk and point. There is no going out quietly. Everyone has to know that your actions absolutely do not reflect on theirs, whether that is massively contradictory or not. “He was one of us” they say “then we found out that he thought / did this, so for you guys we cast him out.” It seems you have to adopt the temporary status of a pariah as part of the leaving process.
It’ll blow over, Rod will be back but he must be questioning the wisdom of a return. He said on his “Live on Three” appearance that he wanted to keep working in an industry he had given half his life to working in. I hope when he does he finds it all very different.