In e-sports rumours are not hard to come by and, provided you have just enough status to lurk around the right water cooler, they are almost invariably true. The reasons for this are quite simple. It’s a small enough industry that every one knows every one else and as such any titbits of information spread like norovirus in a call centre. The reasons for why people feel the need to do this is as equally mundane. Generally it’s because with so many people vying to climb the e-sports ladder even something as simple as “knowledge” can set you apart from the rabble. The only problem is you have to tell people in order for them to know you know and before you know anything else the highly prized secret has become cheap and tawdry goods in the possession of all.
As an interesting aside, whistleblowers are far rarer creatures and in e-sports people are more likely to retain a secret when someone is doing something wrong. This isn’t even for any sophisticated blackmail purposes, rather it is simply to avoid burning bridges in such a manner to diminish ones career prospects. At the highest level of course it is about the classic coda of cronyism – “you scratch my back and I shall scratch yours”.
Given the frequency for leaks of information you would think that more e-sports journalists would make announcements prior to those involved. However, the incestuous nature of the industry once again acts against its best interests. Sources insist that only they know about it and if you go public they will surely be outed, even though they are the tenth person you have heard the story from. Organisations make wild claims to own that most transient of commodities, information, and protest about how you hurt their business and in retaliation must surely hurt yours. Never has this been more beautifully demonstrated when the serial narcissist Alex Garfield threatened to blacklist a long-standing ally in the form of Rod “Slasher” Breslau over leaking information about his organisation, the name of which – Evil Geniuses – perhaps points to more than a small portion of wishful thinking.
King of the leaks Rod "Slasher" Breslau
Of course whether it is made public or not the journalist content to publish these leaks will find some things to become apparent. The organisations affected will likely not consent to co-operating in future content, such as player interviews, and you will find yourself taken off mailing lists, which is often a blessing in disguise. The symbiotic nature of the promoter and the promoted is one that generally can only exist for a prolonged period of time when they are of equal size. If one gets bigger than the other then it is all too simple, and arguably necessary, to detach and go in search of a more suitable match. For example, it matters not a jot whether I promote Evil Geniuses or interview their players. Certainly, their reach is greater than my own and therefore I am surplus to requirements. Conversely, smaller organisations often reach out and ask for interviews and I have to reluctantly decline as the results are not commensurate with the effort expended. When a relationship exists where one is hyper aware that the other is bigger, like dating someone who is way out of your league, the tendency is to tread lightly and that means information is discussed privately but never published.
When someone does do it, when the cat is out the bag, the community reaction matches that of… a cat newly released from a bag. A flurry of lashing limbs, hissing and squalling at the sheer gall of the situation. Typically in e-sports it is the community that benefits from such leaks that are the biggest complainants when they occur. At times like these it is easy to understand why journalists remain one of the most ignored and undervalued roles within the industry because clearly everyone with even a remote interest in e-sports is a keen expert with impeccable credentials. What other conclusion could one draw as the forums light up with lectures about ethics, responsibilities and accuracy?
There is no rhyme and reason between what is a good leak or bad. To provide a specific example probably one of the most significant stories I broke was the one about the World Cyber Games becoming “mobile only”. We had been provided a letter that confirmed this, which had been sent to a WCG partner, on WCG headed paper and signed by their CEO. It was absolutely unquestionable. Upon releasing it we encountered the usual stages of breaking story, which are much like the stages of grief.
“This must be an April Fools”
“This can’t be real”
“LOL Cadred have been duped”
Then Came Anger…
“FUCK YOU CADRED”
“CADRED MAKING UP STORIES AGAIN”
“WHEN HAS THAT RETARD RICHARD LEWIS EVER BEEN RIGHT ABOUT ANYTHING?”
Next was bargaining.
We were approached by Samsung, who of course owned WCG effectively treating it as a marketing tool, to explain how we got the leak. We told them about the letter. Then they asked to know who gave us the letter. Naturally we declined to inform them. This prompted a fairly angry internal response from them as they tried to find where the leak came from. Partners and Exhibitors of WCG started contacting us “can you please just tell them it wasn’t us”. We had to explain it defeats the purpose of protecting a source if you are subsequently willing to narrow down a list of suspects. Telling them this took us briefly back to anger.
By the same token other journalists and news outlets wanted to see the copy of the letter and speak with our source. They offered all sorts of incentives to this end but we simply referred them to our initial report.
While we were of course thoroughly depressed having to go through this rigmarole, the community were also shifting into panic mode. The sky was falling. It was like they had forgotten that WCG hadn’t been relevant to e-sports for years anyway.
People realised that what we had reported was accurate. We were applauded for doing a good job and we were linked to across the world, in mainstream gaming press and e-sports press alike. The community started to realised that e-sports was better off without the shambolic tournament and equally decided to give credit where it was due for our diligent reporting.
It was our most successful day in terms of traffic as we moved, briefly, out of the niche of e-sports and into something more mainstream. This is a testament that good reporting can reap rewards and, in the end, everyone agreed it was a “good leak” and focused their anger on WCG.
However, in the aftermath and with that anger, slowly but surely WCG started to reverse their position. They had verified the letter was real but the backlash had given them pause for thought. By leaking the story and creating the furore we did we were actually changing the outcome of what we reported. While it was accurate at the time within a month WCG wasn’t in fact mobile only and it limped on for a short while until its most recent mercy killing. I ask you then, was it a “good leak” or not? Accurate at the time of release, verified and something that would absolutely have come to pass had we not highlighted it we faced another problem that all reportage outlets face – the PR offensive.
To use another simile, leaking information becomes a lot like Schrödinger's cat. That poor wretched creature exists in both a living and dead state simultaneously and we only know which one until we observe it. In this instance, had we not reported on WCG going mobile only then that would have come to pass. By leaking it we saw it not happen. The accurate reporting existed in both an accurate and non-accurate state, the outcome of which could only be decided by making it public.
When you leak something you have disrupted someone’s plan. The subsequent reaction might radically alter that plan, even to the point of forcing them to reverse their decision .This is frighteningly common because public opinion, rightly or wrongly, carries weight. If a story causes an outcry then the subject will often release a statement qualifying the facts, pointing to inaccuracies, arguing semantics. The ultimate goal in the response is to justify the original action and also make it known that a better course of action is now in place.
At this point those taken in by this measured response will sneer at the gutter press and call them fools without realising it is them that have been duped. They don’t understand the game. You gather the facts, you publish the facts, you force the response then report on that response. If you don’t publish often the occurrences you already knew to be happening will happen and their own particular spin will be put on it. The catch 22 is if you report ahead of their schedule, they can change the plan and then ridicule you for it. If you don’t you’re left getting a fraction of the attention your foreknowledge would have warranted. To report or not to report – that is the question. The former can harm your reputation, the latter your bank balance.
A common question asked when you are publicly corrected for writing what was correct at the time you wrote it is “why didn’t you reach out for confirmation?” I ask you to imagine a situation where you have several sources telling you a politician has been pocketing expenses and they provide solid evidence. You approach the politician and he says “this is a simple misunderstanding and an explanation shall be given in due course.” Not only is it a very child like belief to think that people you are reporting about will always say “it’s a fair cop” and admit that what you know is accurate, you also provide them with an opportunity to destroy anything incriminating. E-sports reporting is rarely this dramatic but given that many have a predilection for syphoning off money it could be.
I won't bore you with too much detail regarding non-disclose agreements, or how bogus ones that would never stand up are circulated around this industry. More often than not if you are seen to be someone who "breaks rank" then you will find penalties to be taken against you, be it fines, removal, being ostracised. This is another reason why often reaching out for comment is a fruitless endeavour.
Specifically then to the XDG situation that I reported upon. We had an incredibly reliable source and we verified with another one of almost equal footing. It is absolutely best practice to reach out to the organisation in all instances, even if it is to simply accept their “no comment”, but it is not always possible nor, ultimately, necessary. Subsequent comment can be published later. A news story can evolve over days, weeks, months… Not all the facts necessarily can be there as the deadline calls for publication.
The much respected player at the centre of the storm, Lyubomir "BloodWater" Spasov
What we were told – that Lyubomir "BloodWater" Spasov was moving to the bench and retiring at the end of the season – was what we reported. A fellow reporter gave XDG a platform to deny this and then to complain about “inaccurate” reporting. These accusations had their founding in little more than pedantry and rhetoric but they were easily digested and synthisised into a kind of hysteria. That melodrama drowned out the fact that the vast bulk of the story was true, the roster changes all correct, the timing of the decision accurate. Did it beg further questions? Absolutely. There was no doubt that the answers would be forthcoming but equally any answers that were coming were coloured not only by the leak but the outrage to the decisions. I had hoped to be the recipient of those answers, though they elected to go another way. Understandable.
Think on this. That melodrama benefited XDG by quite some way. It deflected from their poor team and man management, it eclipsed the accusations of nepotism… I’m confident they breathed a heavy sigh of relief when they realised all it took to launch a counter-attack was to simply change their story and speak of their disappointment about journalistic standards. I wonder then why, given everything we have said prior to this, their version was given more credence than that of the initial report.
Interestingly enough what was also drowned out was what was admitted by both player and organisation alike – that the player had indeed offered to stay on the bench for the rest of the season and wasn’t immediately retiring. XDG had decided that they didn’t even want the player on the bench. So, in many ways, they did something worse than bench the player – they kicked him altogether.
Subsequently we’ve been told all of this was reactive, that the original plan was indeed to keep Spasov on the bench, as they should given his calibre. In the aftermath of the leak however, a leak they have supposedly attributed to the player – as they put it “a personal situation with a player was exploited by someone close to the team and an eSports community member” – they decided he couldn’t remain close to the organisation. True or not we can’t possibly know. I’ve reached out to the player but whether or not we can find out the truth of it is another matter entirely.
Whether we do or not the point of all this is I ask you to be an audience that embodies an adult level of scepticism. Why would you greet the words of a reporter with more cynicism than the version of the person being reported about? One has an obligation to tell the truth, the other to subvert it. Which isn’t to say accept all reporting blindly either, yet we need to speed up our arrival to the destination we all want and we all benefit from – where journalists can do their job for each and every one of you, without being undermined by every charm offensive that comes in the wake of honest reportage.
I leave you with this. I’ve been a sports reporter and am friends with a few. I know the grim realities of how the back pages work. Every sports journalist knows a guy, who drinks with a guy who went to school with the club physiotherapist who mentioned that player X had been in for a medical. It is the worst kind of third hand reporting and it happens all the time. They’ll run the story, without a byline, and see if it sticks. The club won’t deny it even if it’s patently untrue and if it turns out to be true in a few days time it’ll be trumpeted as an exclusive, the back page resplendent with a magnified version of the original “leak”, complete with official comment from all concerned parties. This happens probably once in about thirty such stories. To those of you who talk about standards I tell you that in many ways, thanks to e-sports being a much smaller scene, we do better than the mainstream quite frequently.
I’d never play that fast and loose with reporting but people need to comprehend that even those who strive for complete accuracy are going to fall short on occasion. On this occasion we can’t be sure of which version was completely accurate and we may never know. What we do know is if the initial report hadn’t occurred we’d not have enjoyed the subsequent debate, nor had as timely an official response. History, most likely, would also have played out differently.
So, as you can see, it's a lot of effort and stress for not a lot of reward, far easier to "play ball" and put out the pre-approved pieces. For the sake of the e-sports journalists that want to do more of this, embrace such reportage, even if it is with a healthy cynicism. Watch it unfold, read between the lines, draw your own conclusions. This is part of the rich tapestry of journalism as a whole. But when you lash out at the reporters who are writing as much for you as they are for their own pay-cheque you only encourage a culture of silence occasionally punctured by slick PR. There is nothing more tragic in any field of journalism than an unwritten story.