2023 feels like an extinction level crisis for video game journalism
The end of Waypoint
In January 2017, I sent an email to Waypoint, VICE’s gaming vertical, pitching an essay. Here’s an excerpt — the meat of the pitch:
This is a completely bonkers pitch — drawing connections between essays in Kill Screen and The New York Review of Books. It’s not bad, per se, but I think my chutzpah outpaced my capacity to actually follow through. If accepted, this would have been my first published freelance story ever.
A few days later, to my surprise, I heard back from Waypoint’s editor-in-chief, Austin Walker. It wasn’t a long email, but it was kind: I like your clips, Austin wrote. (My pitch included two reported opinion pieces I had written for my college paper). Have you got something closer in style to what you’re pitching? he asked. I didn’t, and the conversation ended.
Waypoint was one of the rare outlets in games media that might have accepted a story like that — and did, in fact, publish countless other pieces of zany, searching, off-the-wall criticism and journalism. Now, it’s gone.
On Thursday, Waypoint staff took to Twitter to announce that the vertical had been shut down by VICE.
“I'm not sure where to begin, except to say, with equal parts fury and sadness, that Waypoint is over,” tweeted Patrick Klepek, the site’s senior reporter. “The team, myself included, have been terminated by VICE, and our final day running the website, the podcasts, and streams, will come to an end on June 2nd.”
Beyond sadness, anger, and frustration, my immediate reaction was that video game journalism appears to be entering something like an extinction-level crisis.
There are plenty of people and outlets left doing good work. I’m not going to fall into the trap of listing all the good folks who are still doing “real” journalism or “real” criticism about video games. There should be more!1
But increasingly, journalists have been asked to pull double shifts, to clock in as marketers, managers, and financial strategists on the side2 — a confounding trend when you consider the fact that publications employ (and handsomely compensate!) business people and publishers. A few months ago, I wrote about esports journalism, and the feeling that it had become an exercise in perpetually pouring concrete to set the foundation for a structure that would never be built; paving miles of road to nowhere. For so many, the job isn’t about journalism anymore. Online publishing is a fucked up management sim: How much shit do I have to shovel to keep the lights on? What parts of myself — what ambitions — do I need to jettison to keep my job?3
I’d like to offer a mini-defense of what people often call SEO bait. It can be really rewarding to spend a few hours writing something that 1) gets a lot of traffic and 2) thereby serves the demands of a lot of readers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with stories that are optimized for search. All that means at its core is that a lot of people care about something at a particular moment; if you have the expertise, it’s good to perform a public service and cover that thing. People don’t necessarily want a 4,000 word feature about what TenZ’s crosshair is, or what the best iPhone games are.4
Those stories can’t be the only thing. The bargain, as I’ve written before, used to be that fluffy, “easier” news stories did the heavy lifting with respect to traffic; that, in turn, enabled some journalists to chase more complicated pieces that might not pay off for the publisher but which could spur social change and maybe even bring in an award or two.
Waypoint unabashedly chased the latter half of that equation, publishing criticism that tested the bounds of video game discourse. It was heady, thoughtful, sometimes-academic but still approachable, and curious as a matter of principle. And it accepted pitches and chased ideas that simply would not have had a home anywhere else in the tier 1 video game publishing ecosystem.5
Waypoint’s closure shuts a door that will be hard to reopen, simply because the economics of online publishing suggest that what Waypoint did should not have been done, even if as a reader (and I imagine management seldom reads its own product) it was evident that the work Waypoint did was indispensable. (I am not really interested in cataloguing all of the great work Waypoint did to prove why it mattered, but here are two pieces that I think illustrate my point: Inside the Gaming Library at Gitmo, America's Controversial Military Prison, and ‘Kentucky Route Zero’ Pays Off on Nine Years of Hope and Doubt).
When national news outlets took the lead on the story of Jack Teixeira, the 21-year old Air National Guardsman who leaked reams of classified documents to his buddies on the gaming chat platform Discord, I started writing an optimistic draft about how, on the whole, traditional journalism was handling the story pretty well. That story wasn’t about games per se, but it had all the weirdo modifiers and adjectives (leaker, chat room, gaming!) that so often stunlock traditional journalists. That most of the coverage of Teixeira and Discord seemed relatively clear-eyed and straightforward was a sign to me that, maybe, gaming had reached a point where no matter what, readers who care about games would still largely be well-served by the media.
I still think that’s true. But I also see Waypoint’s existence as a litmus test of a healthy culture. If games journalism is a garden, Waypoint was proof that it was not a monoculture, that games journalism could be more than just announcements, or business news, or 2-3 well-known feature writers crunching to try and cover as much as possible because, if not them, who?
Now the garden is dying, maybe even dead. Who knows what will be paved in its place.