- The Launcher Postmortem
The Launcher Postmortem
Why did The Washington Post kill its video game vertical?
Illustrated elements by Sonny Ross
Hi, I’m Mikhail Klimentov. You may know me for my past video game coverage, such as my investigation into the “culture of fear” at TSM. In previous editions of ReaderGrev, I’ve written about Skibidi Toilet and the Built By Gamers YouTube channel, as well as layoffs at Evil Geniuses.
If you value reporting and criticism, consider subscribing on Patreon. And if you’re a subscriber, stick around till the end for an exclusive sneak peek at some stories I’ve got in the works!
November would have marked my four-year anniversary at Launcher, The Washington Post’s now-defunct video game and esports vertical. But in January, I got an email from The Post’s editor-in-chief — with most of the Launcher team cc’d — inviting us “to discuss an important matter” with HR.
I DM’d two of my friends on Discord: “I think I’m about to be laid off.”
20 Washington Post employees were laid off in that round of cuts, which followed the shuttering of the Washington Post Magazine in December. Since then, The Post has announced still more dramatic cuts: Buyouts have been offered to hundreds of employees, in an effort to reduce headcount by 240.
With that in mind, it’s worth saying up front: Launcher didn’t do anything wrong.
As was reported when the layoffs were announced, our team was hitting its pageview targets1 , and we had never received any indication from anyone that we were in any sort of trouble. (For context, as an editor at the site, I worked on the vast majority of the pieces published by Launcher, and had access to all of our analytics, which I checked obsessively). If anything, we felt relatively safe, since we were technically under the auspices of a department at The Post that was tasked with designing products to attract new readers. Our wins were acknowledged, now and then, on Slack and in big newsroom meetings. Launcher, in fact, did a lot right!
I suspect that cutting Launcher just looked to some in management like an easy way to stanch the bleeding — bleeding from a wound that was more grievous than previously known, judging by the later announcement of additional, sweeping cuts. This is hardly a relief. After getting laid off, I quickly came to the realization that no achievable amount of success or esteem in the gaming world would have saved Launcher.2
The oft-cited statistic that video games make some unfathomably large amount of money that eclipses the earnings of the film and music industries is a good pitch to the suits, but normal people don’t think in those terms. They just enjoy media — games, movies and music alike. Until the people in charge of our institutions personally understand games in those terms, no abstract revenue figures or gestures at cultural heft (“Highest-grossing movie!” “HBO TV show!” “Fashion collaborations!” “Super Bowl of esports!”) will amount to much in the long run.
I don’t have some grand games media critique. I don’t know that there are obvious takeaways from Launcher’s story for other outlets or journalists. Still, I’d like to talk about where the site was, vibe-wise, around the time that it got shut down.
It should go without saying that I thought the vertical was good.3 We were a small but nimble team, and our stories (never paywalled, unlike the rest of The Post) covered the video game journalism basics — breaking news, reviews, tips, rankings, etc. — with the rigor expected of a major newspaper. We also published industry-leading stories about Twitch, unionization, Activision Blizzard, Bobby Kotick and just the plain joys of making and playing games. (The links in this paragraph make up a small sample4 ). These articles served long-time fans of gaming while also being accessible to the type of reader who might subscribe to The Washington Post.
(Because “Launcher was good” is self-evident to me, I’m having a hard time articulating that thought in any way beyond “Launcher was good.” So here’s Launcher’s founding editor, Mike Hume, on what Launcher meant to games journalism.)
In late 2022, after Mike shifted into a different role at The Post, Riley MacLeod was hired to lead the site and articulate a vision for what its future might look like. We spent a lot of time discussing that vision in Launcher’s final months, though I’ll note that my recollections here are colored by my opinion, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the other editors and staff at Launcher.
One of the questions that came up frequently in those conversations (at least on my part) was whether and how “a video game vertical run by The Washington Post” could be better — better than it was, at least, at whatever moment we were discussing it. Given the size of our team, we knew we weren’t going to compete with much bigger sites where the mandate would be to cover everything. But I struggled a lot with the nagging feeling that we were insufficiently essential to readers (a hard-to-explain but intuitively-felt quality5 ).
To that end, one of our biggest problems — aside from, of course, the financial issues entirely outside of our purview — was a lack of resources6 , bandwidth being one of them. Our team had some of the best writers on their particular beats, and many of our best stories and scoops came from deep embeds in certain scenes and long-term relationships with sources. This is one of the things that can make a site or even an individual journalist essential. My reporting, for example, often focused on Riot Games — its leadership and Valorant in particular, and I now enjoy credibility with readers who care about those things.
Replicating that depth of focus and attention wasn’t impossible, but it required time7 and appetite; you have to want to be omnivorous as a journalist, and sometimes, for any numbers of reasons, you may not want to be. In theory, we could have barnstormed forever, making Launcher mean something for every kind of gamer. But I’m not sure that would have been healthy, or even possible. Maybe that’s just an excuse, though!
There’s a secondary concern here, too, which has taken on a political valence in recent years: Did our coverage represent the interests and concerns of the broad gaming audience?8 The truth is that at Launcher, the preoccupations of the individual writers largely made up the site’s output. That’s not a bad thing, or at least I did not and do not see it that way. In fact, it was an explicit part of our pitch to writers. I had hoped, naively, that Launcher could be something of a “forever home” for games writers, where we could deputize them to chase the stories and leads that most mattered to them. This felt like a healthy alternative to what a lot of other outlets were doing. I’m not sure how possible this is without a wealthy owner — and even that’s not always insurance enough.
It’s worth noting that this piece, if written at some different point in time after the layoffs, would have probably looked quite different. Even now, I could write dozens of additional words expressing my frustrations, and hundreds more expressing my gratitude. The only thing that I know would appear in every version is this: When I got laid off, I started going to the gym more and caring about the machinations of video game companies less. That was good. I hope this newsletter is written in a sufficiently informal tone to not give the impression that what it’s expressing is carved into stone.
There’s a lot I still miss about Launcher. Writing the difficult stories. Writing the easy ones. Turning on the money spigot for writers whose work I wanted to support. Coordinating big projects, like our Game Awards live blog. Obsessively updating the editorial calendar in Trello. Making positive little tweaks at the margins of journalism (like noting the terms of a review embargo at the top of a review, a practice I have not seen replicated since).
There’s not too much to be gleaned from how Launcher was shut down, which makes the end-of-newsletter “here’s the pithy takeaway” posture a bit hard to strike. I’m grateful for the experience and to the team I worked with, but I worry about the future of games journalism. On my coworker Riley’s last day at The Post, we had a long conversation that mostly amounted to me yelling “Where do good games writers even go?”9 I hate that The Post was some of my teammates’ last job in journalism. They were good at what they did, and they made Launcher a good website.
I don’t really know how to end this newsletter. Maybe I’ll just end it abruptly. Like Launcher.
Thanks for reading ReaderGrev! If you have a tip, I can be reached on Twitter at @LeaderGrev, or via email at mikhail (at) readergrev (dot) com.
If you’d like to become a paid subscriber and receive exclusive access to more newsletters like this, subscribe on Patreon.
1 The full analytics paint a more nuanced picture. Our average and EOY numbers for 2022 were good; we hit our marks. But under the hood, a lot of our traffic came from Wordle coverage. There were entire months when we were buoyed by months-old Wordle stories. We were aware of the fact that a likely dropoff in Wordle traffic was a challenge we’d face in 2023.
2 I’m going to paywall a few paragraphs here in the interest of my continued employment at The Post. Subscribe on Patreon!
3 I genuinely struggled writing this paragraph. I’ve written so many obligatory “here’s what video games” are paragraphs for The Post; the idea of writing a “here’s what the video game vertical at The Post was, if you didn’t know” paragraph was so draining I almost opted not to write it at all.
4 If you were a Launcher reader and have particularly fond feelings about any of the stories we published, let me know! I’d love to hear from you.
5 I considered writing a passage about Competitor Derangement Syndrome (“X site publishes the best reviews!” “Y outlet always gets the ### scoops!”) but while that’s a fun phrase I don’t really think it was actually something we thought about much.
6 One of the banal bandwidth-resource issues was that at an institution, every decision about some new format or offering was freighted with meaning. Ideas that fell outside the standard operating procedure took forever to get approved — and the fact of needing to seek out approvals killed some ideas off-rip. The team did really valiant and experimental work with Twitch and TikTok in Launcher’s final months, but it was always an uphill battle.
7 With few exceptions, one of the rules of online written media is “publishing more = traffic = good,” and one of our big goals for 2023 was simply to increase our output (though not in the skeevy ways most commonly associated with “increasing output in 2023”). That requires time, though!
8 If it is not obvious, I am not talking about the bad faith version of this question. I am not particularly interested in “are game reviewers out of touch?” as a subject, sorry.