During the 2019 Inven Global Esports Conference
, the Esports Historian, Duncan “Thorin” Shields held a panel titled, “Online Journalism: A View of the Esports Journalism Landscape from the Trenches”, where he talked about the history of esports journalism in parallel to both the gaming industry and the esports scene. This 25 minute panel took us back to the early 2000s and ranges from the dot com crash, distribution, content aggregators, and loops back into our current affairs in esports journalism. While this panel was aimed at teaching young journalists what the past was like and also how to survive in the present, it serves as a good history lesson for anyone curious as to how the modern esports media has gotten to this point.
I’ll start out with a quote from the astronomer Carl Sagan. “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe”. What’s interesting is that it might sound like a very niche topic of esports journalism, but actually, to tell the story of esports journalism, is basically in parallel to tell the story of esports and gaming, which [esports] is a smaller subsection of [gaming], and actually you’ll find it connects into many global events that dictated the whole course of the industry that had nothing to do with esports in and of themselves. The trickle-down knockdown effect of the dominoes meant that’s why esports changed for good or ill for the last two decade in this point and time.
If I take you back to the point in time in 2001, when I was getting paid...I just want to point that out. When I was getting paid that BIG
$100 dollars a month, everyone told me I actually joined esports at the worst time ever because they told me, “bad luck, esports journalism is over mate. The dot com bubble crashed and there’s no money in online journalism. You won’t make any money”. In fact, one of my best bosses early on had said, “I really like your work, you’re really diligent, but ya know what? Stick around for a few years because in about one or two years, there’s going to be this brilliant invention called ‘micro transactions’. Everyone will have this digital wallet and they’ll be curating their front pages and you’re going to make millions”. The reason why I bring that up is because you might even hear it during this conference (IGEC) with people saying, “micro-transactions are the future and we’ll have this to be able to pay for digital media”, but it hasn’t come yet, it’s like a flying car, brilliant idea, but hasn’t really come about yet.
The Dot Com Crash
The interesting thing about the dot com crash is that it very heavily affected esports because esports was similarly massively inflated. You might not believe this but the biggest Quake site in 2001 used to have a single rectangular banner ad on the top of the website that paid $10,000 a month by a peripheral company. The reason why they didn’t continue the ad is because, what were the metrics to show that was worth $10,000? Just as I said, we’re going to look into the esports industry itself.
In journalism, there was no metrics! There was no distribution, no video platforms, no social media, no content aggregators, there were just websites. The websites themselves didn’t even have enough content for their own site and that’s where the initial growth of journalism came from. On my website, let's say (hypothetically) I do my content, a few news posts, but I don’t even have enough content for each day working full time. So what I have to do is find an interesting story from a rival website and write up a post about that, maybe an interesting interview, and then I cite the website and hopefully they reciprocate and link to us, so then we get some traffic through the door.
The same happened when the budgets got slashed with the tournament organizers. Back in 2001, there were $300K prize pool tournaments. Now, if you look at the years following, the same exact tournament goes to a prize pool of $250K, $200K, $150K, because what the actual advertisers and sponsors realized was, “wait a minute, if there’s no metric for what I’m getting for the $200K, what if I just give them $150K”? Then they discovered that [it produced] the exact same thing. Then, obviously now you’re in free-fall because now it’s, “how low can they go”? You’re still willing to put on the event and if it’s a passion industry, you go right back to the bottom again.
So, back in these days, there was very very low pay, and as a result, there wasn’t professionals, there weren’t people with journalism degrees, those people were trying to get a job in the journalism industry; it was all amateurs. Again, it was people that, maybe if they were lucky would make $100 writing for a small website, where you literally live on the goodwill of other websites linking across to you, but there was one play in these early days that has been forgotten and it could have changed, not only the whole industry, but the whole world.
There was a website, back in the early 2000s called Geekboys which was ran by a guy named Andreas Thorstensson, the founder of Popdog
, and what he created was, in 2000 and 2001, he made Facebook before there was a Facebook. He had an actual website where every pro player had a profile, every fan had a profile, and you could add people as your friend. You could direct message people, you could sign a guestbook, this was massive! The problem was, there was no monetization option. He actually gave that up after a couple of years and let it go to someone else. The site does not exist anymore (it does, but not in the same fashion. The site is now just a bio of the creator), it didn’t even make it past a couple of years. You can see, what happened with something like Facebook...although to be fair, he wasn’t conning all the college students to get on it, and also he wasn’t deciding what your political views should be. Maybe he had the wrong business plan back then, but he was just trying to make a cool website, not take over the world.
The interesting thing for me was the actual content back then—the real journalism—was terrible. Even my own stuff wasn’t that good. I’ll give you an example. One of the things I innovated in the industry was, when someone did an interview, they would literally just take the “chat log” from whatever program they used to do the interview and THAT WOULD BE THE INTERVIEW!
It’d have the timestamps, a little smiley face when they would laugh when the guy said something, “haha, LUL”, it was ridiculous! So, my innovation was, how about we strip out the emojis? How about we put the actual question in bold with proper formatting? This revolutionized everything. Don’t ask me how I come up with these things, it’s just what I do. Anyways, the point is, there wasn’t a lot of great content back then.
So then we moved to the second phase—by the way, I’m using phase to purely mean a period of time, not a California based industry that aggressively exploits the Pareto distribution. By the way, I also wanted to see Milo Yiannopoulos, one of my heroes (laughs), not Zeitgeist for everyone out there [reading this]. Whatever, I had to get one in there, mate.
The Second Bubble
So, I call the second phase, the second bubble. You know this one isn’t going to be a good one, is it boys? Again, how it connects to the global and economic financial markets is, this phase is going to go from 2004-2008. What happened in 2008 was a global financial crash in the housing and finance markets, and this is why this kills esports. Remember that esports, even to this day, is a small cross-section of multiplayer gaming. That’s why, for example, the streamers in Fortnite are bigger than the esports pros. Until about five years ago, online multiplayer games were an INCREDIBLY
small cross-section of gaming itself and gaming wasn’t even that ubiquitous of a hobby, some of us were still in lockers, not always out of choice...we got put in them.
Back in this point in time, when you have a recession like this happen, it trickles down. They’re not going to put as much into the gaming scene. The companies that actually do sponsor stuff, the first thing they’re going to cut is the marketing budget. They’re going to go into the marketing budget and gonna go, “where’s the fat? Where’s the stuff that doesn’t get a return, that can’t actually be guaranteed”? That’s where esports gets cut every time. So, unfortunately in this phase, it was nothing to do with esports. It wasn’t that the writing was worse, in fact, it was much better, people had actually leveled-up, but in this period, there was a build-up and then the big crash. A lot of people would actually be giving this talk right now if it wasn’t for this particular crash. There were a lot of great people we lost sadly.
The Venture Capital Period
In this period, we had the first money starting to get pumped in. VCs come in, and you saw the first ridiculous spectacles where people were a bit too aggressive in the space. Famously there was team called Meet Your Makers paying top players like $10K salaries a month. I can tell you, that even now there’s players that don’t make $10K a month in certain games, so the idea that they would get a return on that was a little naive, but okay, they were being aggressive, they were trying to get their foot in the door and dominate the space. The problem is, they were living off of VC money and once that money ran out, so did Meet Your Makers. Indeed they did meet their makers somewhat.
Then you had the CGS. DirectTV, a cable company trying to put esports on. Now, they bastardized the whole industry, they took all the games, they ruined it, they tried to put in on TV and it really didn’t work unfortunately. Again, an ambitious move, a bold move. This had a knock-on effect for journalism because in journalism, if money is coming through the door, you want exposure. So, we had the first big sites. I told you about the Geekboys one, right? Well, that one was just an experiment basically.
Now you had the first big sites, GotFrag, SK Gaming, some of these names will be familiar to some of the people [reading this]. These were the sites, if you were the top guys of these sites, the owner of the site, the head of it, you might actually make a salary. Now that might sound great, where you might make $30K or $40K a year, a lot more than you used to. If you were a top talent, a freelancer, maybe you make a nice part-time job, and to be fair, the hours people were working back then were part-time hours, you didn’t necessarily need to make the full-time salary if you’re making a few hundred dollars a month. You’re only doing a few articles, a few columns a month, but you started to get the big numbers that come along with this. Now you could actually have sites which could legitimately show you numbers from the backend that had millions of unique viewers. Now we actually had a metric to go back to the companies and say, “now we can show you something”. You’re not just gambling and saying, “ah, I spent some money on gaming and...do people like my product yet”? The problem is, once when I went to one of these sites that had a really nice back-end that looked perfectly set up with all the stats, I went to my own article and refreshed it once and said, “wait, it just went one hit on the thing”. He was like, “oh yeah, as many times as you refresh, the counter will go up”. Then it was like, “ah, it’d be a shame if someone created bots for example to raise the viewership”. Now, that would never happen in the modern day with any streaming platform or anything like that by the way, I just wanted to make that clear.
Anyways, moving a bit along, the industry didn’t have distribution. So even though we had, in theory, the same model. We had big sites that can link to each other, but they don’t need to because now, the big sites have money, they have staff, they’ve got enough content for their website. They don’t need your content, no matter how good it is. In fact, why would they advertise your content? That was the philosophy now, so unfortunately, people who were lifted up along the way with the community sharing, they were in a hegemony. The big sites siloed all their users off and people who didn’t work for their site, well, you’re nobody, it doesn’t matter how good your article is. If a tree falls in the forest and a tree falls, and no one hears it, then are Faze criminals? That’s a question for us all to answer philosophically. The point is, if you’re in esports journalism, this period is defined by industry politics. I say that as one of the worst people ever at playing industry politics during this decade. I wasn’t very good at it, but as a result I learned a lot of good lessons when I took all my beatings. So, you had to basically write for the big sites and if someone does like you, if you don’t have the right connections, you could be the best writer in the world and writing for...whatever website I was writing for at the time (essentially a little jab at his own status and website). I will say, before this crash, we were starting to get some legitimate journalism. People were putting in the hours, they had the experience, the skillset had been developed. You even had some of the initial people who had real training in journalism, a real background, people who knew what they were doing and had some writing skills. So then, you had the first Palahniuk columns (unsure, but I believe this is correct. It is in reference to Chuck Palahniuk, famous author of Fight Club, but also a freelance journalist). People that would actually attack things in the community that were worth writing about. People would expose things, write about the future, try to make guesses as to where the industry would go and what techniques we have to employ to get there. Like I said, the page views were going up and we started to get the first video content. Bandwidth was obviously better, you had the platforms like YouTube, etc. There wasn’t streaming yet but we were starting to get to the point where multimedia components came in, it wasn’t just a news post overall. Crucially there was actually some good writing back then, people were starting to take forays into that area...but I told you, this phase is called the second bubble; it’s not a good ending...still better than Game of Thrones though, ya know, cause GoT forgot about all those other seasons didn’t they?
The Dark Days
In the third phase, also not another great name, we’ll call this “the dark days”. So, it’s all sunshine and light going through this whole thing here (laughs). In the third phase here, roughly 2009-2012, the global recession cut the legs out of the industry; all the budgets got slashed. It didn’t matter how much work you did, how good the work was, you couldn’t scale it up. You were limited by the global cap on the media, marketing, everything, and obviously, esports was the loser in most of those battles because we weren’t as big as TV, as big as sports, things that have the traditional metrics where a business looks at it and says, “that makes sense. I know what I’m investing in”. The irony is, the more you look into how metrics are judged by the Newzoos of the world, etc, it’s easy to laugh at them until you actually find out what a Nielsen rating is. It’s about 10 times worse! No one even knows what those numbers mean, it’s absolute nonsense that real TV doesn’t even have real metrics...but that’s an aside.
One of the secrets of esports was revealed at the time because this period was basically a crucible. If you were someone that was in it for money, you might as well have left, because not only was it dying, it was dead. Again, this was another period where you would have told people, “ah, esports journalism, brilliant. You should have been there years ago, it’s over now. It’s like Pogs or something now”. You probably don’t even know what that is.
Anyway, when we got to this point, the secret that I learned was, you have to be happy with whatever your compensation is, relative to all of those different economies to scale. Esports, what do other people make? Gaming, what is even possible in gaming? Digital media, does anyone even know if the NY Times makes good money? If you’re judging on an absolute scale of, “I must make $50K a year, I must make $500 an article”, you’re the guy who left esports then. You might have been the guy who had a great skill set and you seemed like a rising star but you thought, “I’ll go elsewhere. There’s money elsewhere, there’s a better job elsewhere”. So, only the losers, or the really cool people who could see the future, stuck around, so you decide which one.
This was probably the darkest time for esports because, those very same sites still existed. Yes, you had the initial branching out of publications, you had the content aggregators like Reddit, but to be fair, Reddit was only big in games like Starcraft and League of Legends. Games like Counter-Strike and Quake, players weren’t on Twitter, you didn’t have content on Reddit, it was still in the old model of the big websites, and this is the problem. I told you those websites were already siloed. They didn’t share, they didn’t necessarily have to hire someone else, but now they got even more cynical. Now they didn’t have a budget, whereas before they’re paying one guy $300 to write his four articles, now they’re going to pay $200 a month for someone to do 40 hours of work every week.
Again, you’ll see how this connects back to the global economy. This links into very topical things at the moment. Low cost labor, migration of work movement. You could see this in the pro scene, it was mirrored. When Starcraft 2 popped off, if you watched an online cup in Europe, half the players would be from Ukraine, Russia, Poland, countries where if they win the $50 and they get $150 salary, a guy from Norway wouldn’t even be able to pay his taxes with that. The guy from Ukraine, that’s better than his living salary actually, so to them, they were the guys who were grinding. The downside of the knock-on effect it had for esports journalism is that English websites were literally hiring writers where their second language was English. So, these people had to level-up a lot, some of them were doing their best but they weren’t at the same level as fluent English [writers].
The angle that [sites] took with native English writers, probably the darkest of all, is that they basically ran the old intern scam which I notice American companies still run today and we all pretend it’s cool, right? So, you hire an intern and go, “you better work really hard if you want to get this job mate”. They can’t pay you anything of course, but you get valuable experience and exposure. So you wreck that guy as much as can for six months, after that, if he’s lucky, you might throw him the $50, $100, and he just has to be happy with that. Or, if you want to save $50, you just start it all over again. “We’ve enjoyed our time with you, but we don’t feel this is the right direction”, you move along and bring a new guy in that starts at zero again. You train him up, you can’t pay him anything and at the end, he either goes elsewhere for more money or you fire him, or he gets almost nothing. So, in this period, understandably yes, there were still people that were writing from a position of passion, there were still people where the money was enough to get by to do what they wanted to do, but sadly there was also a lot of people who were just brought in as low cost labor, and quite frankly, a lot of them didn’t make it to this point because now the money came back again and the [sites] hired the big names again. Sadly, those people (the interns) were somewhat just used and they were basically like in the animal farm analogy, they were the boxer. They were the useful guy that had to work away and at the end he was a Pritt Stick (a German glue brand which created the first “glue stick”). “I made my piece of paper with him”.
At the end of this period in time, understandably not that many innovations [happened] because people are learning the job every single time and they’re caught in this groundhogs day cycle that I used to have as an Editor-in-Chief where I had to hire someone then fire them, then hire someone and then my boss would say, “but we’re giving you $300 entire budget for the website! Where are all the great writers”?! It’s like, who's going to work for $100 mate? No one is. So, then we move to [our current state].
The money begins to return and it just doesn’t return, it gets even bigger. This is why I don’t blame anyone who got out at those early points. Every time it was dead in the water, every time it wasn’t going to be redeemed and it was linked to things in the real world that were dead in the water, that nobody could make money from, that there was no progression or future in because ad revenue was dead and sponsorship was dead. When the money started coming in now, which lets face it, began because viewership started to rise, you had the streaming platforms, VODs, and all the distribution.
At this point in time, it’s not just Starcraft 2 and League of Legends that are on Reddit, now CSGO is on there, Dota2 becomes a big game, and as a result, the key moment is the actual lifestyle brands are coming into esports. It’s not just a mouse manufacturer coming in to sell his rubbish new mouse, now you have someone who wants to sell you some potato chips or something. The key thing to note is that, in the past years or even decade, there were some Korean tournaments that had Coca-Cola as a sponsor, Pringles, but that activation would be less than with [a single current] big streamer. That’s the scale you were on [during those times], it wasn’t a real buy, those companies weren’t really in it. In fact, I doubt the head marketing guy [of the big companies] even knew about that, it was probably some intern-level guy at one of those companies that said, “I’ll take a gamble on this one. Ah, it didn’t really work out, whatever, we’ll try it again next time”. Or he gets fired and they slash the budget.
The interesting thing is how this affected journalism because now, the flood gates haven’t just opened, there is no flood gate, there isn’t a dam. Everyone is, in theory, equal, because in a world with Reddit, Twitter and Youtube, and full access to the means of distribution, anyone can write an article and if it gets to the top of Reddit, they get the most hits. It doesn’t matter that they’re writer X for website Y. The key aspect that happened at this point in time is, people who were journalists, they had become a brand. Well, if I am the brand, and I make 100K hits on a Medium article, and you would have made 100K on your [big] website, well, now you have to negotiate with me if you want the 100K hits. You don’t give me 100K by letting me write the article, you just negotiate pay to compensate me for giving you the 100K and then I [myself] market it. No one goes to your website. They go to your website when they click on my article to [visit] your website because they went on Reddit, Twitter, or Youtube. So, this was the key difference, but the problem is, as with many aspects of the industry, we’re not all forward-thinking, we’re not all people that want to take chances.
The Old Model
[During this time], there was unfortunately a world in which people still thought the old model worked. We tried to make the big sites again, but we wanted to make an even bigger site! We had OnGamers, which I was a part of (part of CBS-I, a huge American TV network), where you stack all these big content creators together and you say, “okay, this guy can get half a million hits, he can get a million, he can get a million”, you calculate it all, okay, 10 million views and you package that to whomever, Kia or Coca-Cola. You try and get the big activation and get millions [of dollars], but I can tell you that right now, the second part, getting the big activation...it never happened. What happened is, the sites would hire you, they would pay you the big salary, and initially, those big sites, whether that was OnGamers or theScore esports, Yahoo, the old dinosaur from the search days came back with some more dinosaurs. You had ESPN pretending that they cared about esports even though they still don’t have CSGO on their website despite reporting on CSGO. So does CSGO exist or doesn’t it? That’s one of those Disney philosophical questions about the forest, isn’t it? Don’t worry, everyone is gettin’ it in this one.
So, you’re basically in a world where, for the first year at a big site, you’re actually getting told that you’ve nailed it. You’ve revolutionized the industry. What happens is that when you get all those people together, you don’t have to build it up, it instantly gets millions of hits. Now, some guy at the parent company of your media company goes, “holy moly, they’re getting millions of hits immediately”. Sadly, he thinks to himself, “well if we got the millions, we can sell to the sponsors”, which by the way I already said that bridge was never made. Secondly, because on their normal website where writers don’t have marketing skills, and who literally think that writing some terrible column where they crowbar their own political views in a video game review is going to get millions of hits, it’s not. Those [other people], they weren’t providing the same value. So, you’d have a side media company under the same branch that might have 50 employees that are getting half the views of us, but this is where the problem came in. Basically, they thought, “in year one, if we got 7 million unique views a month, imagine where year five is going to be”. They did the ol’ passive move that half the business people here do, where you take something and say, “right, the Warriors have won three championships in five years, if we expand it out to about 10 years, they’ll have won like, nine championships”? Like no, it doesn’t work that way, it doesn’t expand outward. People thought that’s what you could do. They were like, “there was 7 million in the first year, the third year will be 24 million”. Obviously it wasn’t 7 million each time because we had the market cornered and we had maximized it to some degree. So now you have to move to a new world, it’s not going to work in that particular sense. You’re getting the same kind of hits overall, you’re marketing it in a similar fashion, you can make some money but there’s no room for growth beyond that. You’re getting all the hits you can and, esports is somewhat siloed because it hasn’t fully broken into the mainstream. The monetization issues have put us where we are now, and now is obviously “the future”...whatever that means. My joke is that, I didn’t travel through time, but I have [traveled] one day at a time, so we’re going to the future now, so what is the future?
I will have to say, looking at my own career, looking in the rear-view mirror and trying to project forwards, I’ll actually mirror something I heard Ryan Morrison say in his comment before when he was talking about streamers and influencers. A big content creator, you might as well call a streamer a content creator;it’s all just people that get hits, you get exposure, you get the eyeballs and that’s what you sell to companies, along with lifestyle elements and if you fit their brand and all the fake company values, right before you sellout to China and wreck everyone. Anyway, in this kind of a world, the disconnect right now is that people don’t realize that if you’re the big company, some of the big orgs that I had joked about earlier, the Call of Duty orgs, the LoL orgs, they’ve done an amazing job getting these massive deals of car companies, lifestyle brands, the problem is that no one has yet realized, the amount that it costs to sponsor Cloud9 versus what it costs to sponsor me, or a famous streamer, well, you have to pay way less to me or a streamer. We don’t have a whole organization to run, we don’t have a massive investment plans, etc. If you saw the actual numbers we could generate...there’s actually an article coming out where someone noted something that I’ve actually never noticed myself. They said that if you look at the total number of YouTube hits on my channel, where I started heavily putting videos on my channel at the end of 2014, he noted that I had more total video hits in that span of time than the entire Intel Extreme Masters YouTube channel which is being sponsored for millions of dollars every year and has had, I assume since like 2007. So, all I gotta say is, who won that one Carmack (VP at ESL)? I just had to get the petty ones in there, otherwise what’s the point in even coming to these things? (laughs)
Image courtesy of the Esports Awards
As we move forward, I don’t claim to know the future of esports, I only sell that for consulting fees, I don’t just give it out for free to you plebs. I’ll tell you my final secret of the industry. This is the one secret I learned. If anyone actually knows me as a person, it’s quite an ironic and amusing thing that I learned because I always say that for the first 10 years of my career [I was trying to be] the best writer that I could, being an elitist, some even thought of me as arrogant, aloof, all sorts of bizarre things. At the time, I was just trying to be the best, but what I didn’t realize was, how do you get money from doing that? If people don’t like you, they won’t hire you for their site. If you do content that’s too extreme, that’s too hardcore and only for the purist, the casual fan can’t enjoy it. So basically, the secret I’ve learned is that, yes, when you write your articles, try and make them clever, try and make them poignant, make a hard-hitting point, be diligent if you can, level-up your craft—that’s all great, but the one thing you must do if you want any kind of consistent success, is you must entertain people. If you can entertain people, that will get you through the door, that will keep them even when the article isn’t even that interesting as an overall topic, I mean, think of some of the videos you see other content creators do. You watch it no matter what it is! They’re wrecking someone politically... great, let’s sit down and get the popcorn out. That is the secret I would say in the end. Esports is less of a sport right now than it is basically WWE, it’s entertainment, it’s about the stories. You have to create the narratives, perpetuate the narratives. If you want to be successful, make yourself one of the narratives. Maybe pick a country to have a feud with like the WWE, maybe pick a few people in the industry, tell them you’re gonna give them the smackdown in the summer. It could work, right? I’m not saying I would try it, I barely made it work myself if I’m being honest, but that is the secret, entertainment is the key.
Izento has been a writer for the LoL scene since Season 7, and has been playing the game since Season 1. Follow him on Twitter at @ggIzento for more esports and League content.
For more insight on the reasoning for this panel, check out Inven writer Nick Geracie's interview with Thorin
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