Thorin on esports journalism, OnGamers, and future aspirations (Part Two)

Oddball 2021-10-12 08:00:12
  In part two of our interview with Esports Historian Duncan 'Thorin' Shields, we explore options that established writers could take in the field, some insight into OnGamers and other large publications, and on editing methodology from someone with over a decade of dominant experience in the industry. If you didn't read part one of this interview, you can read that here. This interview was conducted through audio and transcribed by the interviewer.   For this next question, I wanted to preface it by first asking, do you think it's a fair characterization to say that you'd prefer in some cases to have your written work be unedited? In theory, my work is never edited. Like the only time it's been edited I would say for the last like...it's actually basically almost never been edited. I think maybe in the first couple of years, there were a few bosses who might have done stuff, but almost my entire career I have either been the editor-in-chief of the website I worked for. Or when I would write for big publications for the last 10 years, what would happen was they would basically hire me and they would even themselves usually say, "Look, we won't fuck with you at all, you have full editorial control, just submit the piece. We'll fix the typos, and we'll just publish it." So I think it's more that I'm in the unfortunate position where it's, "who would be qualified to be my editor?" Almost no one. Not only have I actually been an editor-in-chief myself for over a decade, but I've also just done so many reps at writing that I just know better than almost anyone else what my writing should be.  Especially because—here's the key detail—normally the reason why you would have a writer-editor relationship... there's two obvious reasons. One is you're really inexperienced, you need someone else to help imbue you with some of the techniques they understand, help you fix small problems, inspire you to push in different directions. I don't need that at the moment. And then second, they're trying to make your work appropriate to the audience they perceive on the site that they work for. Well, I'm lucky that on the second part there, I don't have to care about that at all. I'm not making articles to try and have the most hits. I'm trying to do really awesome pieces that...for the sake of business I hope to succeed for my partners, and certainly some of them don't seem to have any complaints. But for example, I'm not trying to tweak a piece so that it goes from 30,000 hits to 40,000 hits, because I cut out this section. I'm not doing any of that stuff. If I think it's interesting, I think it's good, it's good. And I will say things that are edited will help you with things like, "This is a bit rambly, '' or "This wasn't well phrased." Again, all I'll say is like, at this current point in time, I don't really know who would actually be capable of doing that for me, unfortunately. I wanted you to expound on how you’ve come to that conclusion. I know you’ve heard this example of Tiger Woods, despite probably knowing more about gold than anyone alive, he still had a driving coach. Michael Jordan still had a shooting coach. Obviously these people might not know as much, but a second pair of eyes can still be beneficial. You don't think even a not as qualified editor could improve your work? The problem with that, first of all, is the sport of basketball or golf existed long before those people and is incredibly expansive beyond them. This is essentially like if I invented basketball, and was the best player. In that case, you're always staring at a deficit to me. When I started in this field, my type of writing—it literally didn't exist. Nobody was doing historical content. Nobody gave a fuck. It was probably for the first 10 years people only marginally cared about that sort of stuff. And even then you'd have to tie it incredibly to the topic of the moment.  So I would say it's more like this. The problem in esports is, it's not that nobody ever hypothetically could be qualified to be my editor. As you're pointing out, if there was someone like an incredible literary editor, for example, who just came to me and they were like, "Look, here's my work, check it out. If you like it, I'd actually tell you that we could make changes to your work", that would be interesting.  One of my problems is this. I was actually a bit surprised that you would even reference that. I didn't know what you were referencing, but when I tried to sort of think through where you could have seen me make these opinions, oftentimes I have railed publicly against editors of, for example, the big sites that I think are cynically put together. The current version would be Upcomer—past versions would be ESPN Esports, Yahoo Esports, TheScore Esports. These are websites where they have the money to hire the top writing talent, they have fantastic writers. And what happens is they hire those writers, and then they give them an editor-in-chief, and then the editor-in-chief edits their work often heavily so. And then after the fact, people then go, "Who were those writers?" I asked them stuff like, "What happened to this article? Seems like it's a bit short. Did you not think to mention this detail?" Or, "What the hell? You were hyping me up that this piece was going to be great." But it didn't quite hit the note. They would then sort of tell me privately, "Oh yeah, my editor just took out this section you're talking about." Or, "He didn't feel like that flowed so well, or he just didn't think it was important."  And the problem I had was this: in this scenario, I'm as a friend almost acting like their editor. Like I've looked at the piece as well, and what I'm basically saying is I disagree. Well the problem is, I fundamentally disagree with how these editors edited that work. Because these editors in almost all cases didn't come from esports. And they weren't even big deals outside of esports. These were like the shitter level people in a media company or a sports company. And they just managed to get the gig of like, "Oh, can I be the editor when they do the esports site?" And they just got given that gig by someone else who doesn't know the space.  So my problem is those people were extensively doing editing work on people's articles who were already the best writers, as if they themselves were actually qualified to do that. But they weren't. And they were making worse articles as a result. And then as a very quick tangent, they were also taking some of the best writers in esports. People who were amazing writers, but as individuals were very insecure, and they were manipulating their insecurities to allow them to edit their pieces heavily. So that after the fact two things: the editor could justify, "Look, I'm brilliant at my job. I helped you make that piece great."  Two, the person who was already a brilliant writer, would literally think, "Wow, good job. This guy was here, he saved my piece. I mean, he told me there's all these flaws with it. I would have been a fool if I published without him." So I basically think those editors, they're not even doing what the job is supposed to be. That's some fucked up ego game they're playing. Where it's almost like a toxic relationship with their writers. So that's the kind of editor I'm thinking of when I think in that regard. And unfortunately, that's all there really is in esports at the moment. I will say, there's people like Drexxin from Esports Heaven, for example, who is a rare exception to that. I mean, if someone like him even said that—I don't know if he said he'd want to be my editor—but if he said he just wanted to look at pieces and give me feedback—he's someone I respect the opinion of. There are people that I would do that with.  The other thing to add is this: it's not like I'm just someone who's just a writer. And then I just said, "Fuck anyone from ever telling me what to do, I'm the best." Like I said, I've also been an editor-in-chief for 10 years. So I've also put in a massive amount of reps literally working. I've taken people who've never written anything before and sat them down, "Here's how you do the news post. Here's how you do your article." So I've also put a lot of time into reflecting on how you do that. So essentially, it's not that I just write the piece and throw it out there. I also then use that other side of myself and basically edit my own piece as it were. 
Related: Thorin's Time: Until You Become Idols to Your Rivals
  For years now you’ve maintained success as an independent journalist using things like sponsorships and Patreon. With so many big sites dying—ESPN recently, I’m sure you’re not the most confident in Upcomer—do you see it being a trend that more creators will follow your steps in going the Patreon and Twitch route? I suspect a lot of them won't. Like I think people who are in video content, it's different. If you're in video content, you already have to learn skills, like your public persona, how to market yourself, what your brand is, how to be charismatic or entertaining on camera. These are all great qualities, because they're gonna help you build the individual brand as you, which you could then leverage with direct sponsorships and Patreon. You could do that approach. The big problem I see is most of the really good writers or talent who work for events, are trapped in that world. They aren't the ones who control the mechanism of how their job works. They need, for example, a website to pay them thousands a month. Otherwise, that same work published anywhere else won't make them that money. And a lot of them you'll notice, they're just amazing at what they do. They're just an amazing analyst, or they're just an amazing writer. They don't tend to be people who took that and then worked on the other skills as well. So a lot of the people, even if their friends around them are very good, who ended up at these websites—they've kind of built the prison themselves there. Because they never actually attempted to make themselves independent or self-sufficient. They wouldn't survive in the wild. That's why they just go from website to website to website, and hope there's always a new one available that can pay them what they need to live.  So even though I do think it is the best approach, I think in general, if you look at wider media, just as the music industry went from wanting to get the big contract and to eventually be the one with the best contract in the world in the music industry, to now where a massive artist can take what they built within the system and take it outside the system. Have their fans pay them directly, sell things immediately to them, and tailor their entire little community around the people around their music. Instead of just trying to get everyone in the world to listen to a song once on Spotify for X amount of cents. I'd say in the same sense of esports. If you can do it, if you've got the kind of the balls to try and build up the independent base—it is the best approach. It's going to just give you so much freedom and satisfaction in life. The trouble is, I get the sense a lot of people are kind of mentally trapped in the system, they think being a writer means you have to write for the biggest site, because they're the one that has the most viewers, therefore they can potentially pay you the most. And that's how you're going to make your success. So I would like a lot of people to do it, I just am not really as confident that they'll even try quite frankly. Your last major venture was at OnGamers. Say that there weren't any problems with Slasher causing the Reddit ban—could the site have survived?  The funny thing here is—this also shows how perspective is different in different people. Because I personally—on my limited life experience working there for just under a year—I personally think there was no way it actually could have lasted more than about a year beyond that. Like Slasher himself isn't the actual reason the site died. It's not like if he just didn't do that—ask that guy to post on Reddit—it would still be alive. I still think it would have faced a lot of the same problems. And it was a very expensive project, like a lot of these big sites. And it definitely had certain markers it needed to hit year on year on year so it could actually continue. I personally don't think it could have done that.  Basically, the short mechanism goes like this: we were hired to that site, because we were all people who knew how to promote our own work, and our own work individually got ten-hundreds of thousands of hits. We were hired for our ability to generate hits and promote the work. The trouble is, I was told by people in the company, "It's not about hits. We could have ten times more hits than we promised, or we could have half as many hits as we promised, and that is not what will make the site succeed or fail. What will make it succeed or fail is how it does in its margins." Which are actually based on selling direct sponsorships. Not just having like a million views and then people see a banner ad. As in like a literal sponsor. So your Worlds coverage is sponsored by KIA Motors or a CS:GO major is sponsored by Irn-Bru. The idea is, that's the sort of sponsorship we needed to sell. That was what the whole business was going to succeed or fail on. And so those are sponsorships where I'm talking about selling a sponsorship that might be like $100,000 worth or a million dollars worth. That's what would have actually been the way that the site could have parlayed that good content into being a very successful site for years to come. And potentially if it had done that, it could have massively scaled up the business. So as far as I knew, we were in a terrible position for that. I don't think next year we were even going to be close. Here's the other problem: it wasn't us and other esports people who were selling those ads and sponsorships. It was people who were general people who worked for GameSpot who were doing it. So they were more just general gaming or tech people. So I also don't think they understood esports to sell the sponsorships.  I will say, if you want a counterpoint to that, when I did a Reflections interview with Kim Rom (my boss at OnGamers), he actually implied that there were other ways it could have gone. That it could have succeeded. And he had, I thought, a very telling comment. I thought about that a lot myself since he said this—he essentially just thinks we were like a year or two away from where we needed to be. As in it was only a year or two late. He thought you could have actually sold like all the video packet video footage to sponsors...basically I think it was an example—I'm actually probably gonna do some content on this in the future—it's one of those things of an idea that's ahead of its time. 
Because what people won't understand is, if an idea is too revolutionary, it will actually be limited to success, because people won't know how to execute and market it. It's too early. Just think of the idea of early adoption. If nobody adopts it early on, it doesn't matter how good it was. It might actually have been the best invention. Meanwhile, five years later, maybe another guy comes along with essentially the same idea, but he just does it five years later. And people are in a different headspace or they've had time to think about the original idea or something else has changed in the world. Other things have come in line with where the idea was at. And suddenly, it's the best idea ever. I mean, obvious examples would be (not the best example ever) Reddit versus Digg, Facebook versus Myspace—these classic ones that people would know from culture. So I think there's some of that to some degree. Have you ever considered writing an esports book before? What has prevented you from doing so? Yeah, not only have I considered it, if you think about it, it's probably an obvious thing to guess I've obviously been asked many, many, many, many, many, many, many times by people either in the publishing industry or people who were agents who are contacting people like that all the time. And as you can imagine—especially over the last 10 years—whenever you get these little pop-hype moments for esports where for a second appears to pay us into the mainstream, you get mainstream interest. They think to themselves, "How do we monetize this like we monetize everything else, and strip mine it for our commodities?" So they try to think, "How do we make shitty products? How do you make books about this? How do we make documentaries about this?" So I was obviously one of the people that many times they've come through and go, "Oh, you're the Esports Historian, would you like to write a book about the history of esports?"  The problem was this. One, the publishing industry is in a terrible place right now. We'd have to have a time machine to go back like seventy years before it makes it worth my while. Secondly, if you look at the kinds of books that are being written, I don't actually think no matter what plebs tell you that anyone actually right now wants to read the real history of esports. It sounds like it's a really interesting book, but would it really be? If you're a fan of League of Legends today in 2021, how many chapters are you going to read about Quake in 2000? You might think you would. If it was a magazine article, it was a thousand words, you'd probably read it. Are you really going to read a couple of chapters with thousands and thousands of words in them each about some obscure game? Probably not. You think you would, but I don't know if you would.  So when I actually have talked to these publishing people, I've personally always pitched a very different approach. It was never the idea of the dry history of esports. I had one idea, for example, I pitched something that I think was a great concept. Unfortunately this publishing house showed initial interest, and then it must've got lost in the mix, and they didn't give a fuck.  My idea was to do a book of profiles on people through the history of esports. And the title of it—by the way, steal this idea if someone wants to, I don't give a fuck—it would have been called "The Heroes and Villains of Esports." And what I would have done is I would have taken major figures in the history of any of the games I was interested in. And all I would tell you was their story narratively around them competing in the game, but I wouldn't emphasize the mechanics and aspects of the game.  I would tell you, for example, Doublelift's stories in League of Legends. But it will mainly be the story of the fact that he was homeless. And then the fact that he was someone who was viewed as just an idiot with good mechanics. And then he had to overcome being on a troubled team. And then eventually he became the talismanic piece of the LCS that went from place to place and was successful everywhere, and won the World Championships. But then he didn't succeed internationally. And then there was the whole thing of what happened with his development as a person. I would make it like that.  The idea is, I haven't even mentioned League of Legends. I haven't mentioned Kai'Sa, or peeling for him in a teamfight. The premise would be, you actually could read this as like an airport book. And it would just be a really interesting human interest piece. You wouldn't have to know that much about esports. Similarly, I would have taken for the villains angle people like sAviOr from StarCraft. And I would show you how it's entirely fitting. If you know about how this guy's style of player and mentality to dominate and gain every edge in the game of StarCraft worked, you would understand why I actually personally put his match fixing through that prism. And I see it as someone trying to gain extra edges over others when he thought he couldn't get caught, and he could get away with it, and he could cheat effectively and maneuver. And same way whereas in the game, he would like to move people around the map. He was also sort of manipulating younger players to do some of these things for him, so you'd have plausible deniability. It actually is all fitting in with his character who the guy was if you know some of the things behind the scenes.  So this is the kind of stuff I would be interested in writing as a book. Unfortunately I don't feel as though actually the industry part works in publishing. I don't feel as though the monetization options are there, where this would actually be a viable way to make money off doing it all about the history. I don't necessarily know if it has the audience people claim it does. So personally, I think of a lot of my current written articles as almost like serialized books. That you just do in piece by chapter by chapter and you get paid per chapter. And I'll tell you what, I get paid way more per chapter there than I would from the book. Plenty of people—except the biggest authors in the world—if you ever calculate how many hours it took to write the book, versus how much they actually made, a lot of them worked for below minimum wage. That's just a passion project or something you do because you want to see yourself in print. I don't really have to have that impetus, thankfully, because I've got a lot of freelance article writing potential or videos. I can do any medium I want, basically. So it's not that I wouldn't do it, I have some interest in doing it. I just don't really know that that's where the world's at for me at the moment. You mentioned you had a change in perception after everything with OnGamers. Over the last few years, what's the biggest change in perception that you've had regarding the esports industry? It's probably the Flashpoint epiphany. Which is when people say everything is optics, or that in politics, it's all just about perception management and all these Orwellian terms—even when you hear that you just initially approach it you go, "Yeah, sure. But at the same time, you know this guy does believe this, and this guy is trying to do this." We all still sort of get trapped back into imagining there is substance behind what's projected. But I would say my experience over the last three or four years in esports has been realizing that even a lot of people I thought were fine or seemed cool in the industry were just people where there's not a lot of actual substance to them.  Like when push comes to shove, they don't really care about this player having proper representation. When push comes to shove, they don't really care about if this company has a monopoly over tournaments. They don't really care if the game developer literally just banned someone for saying something political. They don't really care if the game developer refuses to ban someone for seeing a literal racist slur. They don't really care about any of these things. They're just making tweets on the internet. They're just working in the games industry because games are fun. And that's about all that happens and they all go to bed and they all sleep like babies apparently. So basically, I wouldn't say I was like a naive fool for thinking there was more. But I was probably naive and foolish for thinking those people cared about more. So that's another reason why I'm also sort of...just to make it sound pithy, I say I'm quitting the esports industry and starting my own industry. What I mean by that is, I'm not going to work with the people I think are just full of shit. And I'm going to try and find—and it is very much fucking panning for gold at this point in time—the few people I think really are quality and then work with them. 
If you enjoyed this interview, follow the author on Twitter at @OddballCreator.

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