What's the point of esports journalism?
Also: How's this whole Substack thing going?
Why do you write?1
When I write, I usually have a hazy image of what I’d like to create in mind. Then, The Process™️ turns that murky vision into something solid. But sometimes, I write to figure out what I think and how I feel. That’s what I’m going to do here.
Earlier this month, GAMURS Group, a media network that owns a bunch of gaming and entertainment websites (Upcomer, Prima Games, Dot Esports, The Mary Sue, etc.) laid off or let go of a large number2 of staff and freelance writers. The network blamed the layoffs on two things: the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, which an internal email described as “one of GAMURS’ banking institutions,” and a too-frenzied expansion period that resulted in underperforming content.
NEW: Gamur Group, which owns Destructoid, Siliconera, Twinfinite, and a bunch of other gaming media sites, announced several layoffs today, blaming them on big "operational inefficiencies," and saying it would push performance metrics even harder moving forward:
— AmericanTruckSongs9 (@ethangach)
Mar 20, 2023
Because my background is primarily in games and esports, I want to focus on cuts at one site in GAMURS’ portfolio in particular: Dot Esports. As far as I can tell, only one employee was let go: George Geddes (who I’ve written about before).
“The investigative unit at Dot Esports will likely be closed as a result,” Geddes wrote in a statement on Twitter.
When I opened up this newsletter draft, I had a much meaner headline in mind, which I won’t spell out here (for professional reasons, but also because I’m not sure I believe it). But the underlying point of that idea informed the current headline for this newsletter: What's the point of esports journalism?
Well, what’s the point of journalism? A lot of journalism is about telling readers what’s going on.3 That’s good!4 But these days, there are a lot of places — social media, mostly — where someone might find information about what’s going on. (This is a big problem for outlets that also want to make money). There have been a lot of attempts to solve this, but one method that generally tends to work is giving readers new information that they can’t get anywhere else, and just doing that a lot.5
When I think of capital-J Journalism and Journalists (in a positive light) I think of people who pursue stuff readers don’t know — and might not find out if not for journalists. Whatever you think of him, Geddes did this for Dot Esports. Now, he’s not there anymore.
The journalists who still work for Dot Esports do a lot of the thing I mentioned two paragraphs earlier. And I mean a lot. My method here is hardly scientific, but at a glance, many of the writers at Dot appear to write 4-6 stories per day. Now — and I grant that I may be wrong! — this doesn’t seem like fun or stimulating work. While writing this paragraph, I clicked on a few random bylines on Dot’s website. One editor recently published “Is Twitter down? ‘Your current API plan does not include access to this endpoint’ error, explained.” Earlier this week, another writer published “Is Pokémon Go down? Here’s how to check the server status” and “Pokémon Go unexpectedly goes down in the middle of another event” six minutes apart.
To be fair, while these may not be glamorous stories, there’s clearly an audience for them. Also, I’m not highlighting these writers’ work because I think it’s bad. If I’m a Twitter addict, that first story might be a lifeline if I ever ran into an error trying to access my favorite website. Meanwhile, a lot of the stories about stuff readers don’t know that I snobbishly hold up as an ideal won't necessarily have any material bearing on my life. The former type of story solves my problems.6 The latter helps me better understand the world.7
But despite that cheery lens, I prefer the latter story, and see it as infinitely more Important. As a writer, I also know the former (the bread and butter of most working esports outlets) is grueling to produce. You can be a good journalist, putting out accurate, thoughtfully-constructed and helpful stories. Many of the people in this field do just that. But writing 4-6 stories per week — let alone per day — is tough work. It is a grind. And I struggle, a bit, to get what it’s for.
There’s this common understanding that as a young person or a new entrant into a field, you have to “pay your dues.” In the past, that may have meant getting coffee or lunch for your superiors, or working in the mailroom. Grunt work. Undignified. But in theory, once you’ve paid your dues, you pick up the Upward Mobility perk, and get to do better and more interesting work.
On the surface, this principle goes hand in hand with an unspoken rule in journalism (it may as well be a law of pageview physics): that high-traffic grunt stories (for video game outlets, these are often guides; Polygon’s Animal Crossing Jolly Redd guides and their Breath of the Wild shrine map are “the #1 and #2-most-visited pages in Vox Media’s history”) pay for the [snob voice] Important stories. Guides don’t win awards,8 but they enable sites to publish award-winning writing.
Now, you could jettison that model and just publish high-traffic stories. But in practice, I can’t picture many writers who would want to do that. To me (and to a lot of journalists, I imagine) the work is a calling; whether good or bad, a big part of how I view myself is tied up in the Idealized Mission of Journalism.
Before I got into real journalism, I worked at The Atlantic, on the business side. I helped run a daily publication for a client of the magazine’s digital consultancy. (Imagine the Harvard Business Review run by Deloitte and you’ve basically got it). I don’t think I could have done that work forever, but I understood at the time that I was contributing to The Atlantic’s bottom line and supporting the journalism of some writers I admired and hoped would remain employed in the industry.
If you took that away, though, I would feel way worse about my work. And that’s how I imagine it must feel to work at many esports outlets these days. If at least some part of the enterprise isn’t producing new information, isn’t committed to capital-J Journalism, what’s the point? Can you really cobble together an editorial strategy from “pageviews go up until writer burns out and then we swap them out for someone fresh?” Can you nourish a staff of eager young writers on “the goal of this publication is to hit X impressions on our ads?”
What happens when there just isn’t more dignified work? If you worked at a place where everyone’s job was to get everyone else coffee, eventually you might start asking questions. Do I have any prospects in this field? Is this an industry I should keep working in? Why did I take a job at the Getting Coffee Factory?
But also: Where else could a writer even go in esports media these days?
How’s this whole Substack thing going?
The number one question I’ve heard from friends and peers about this newsletter has been: Are you going to monetize ReaderGrev? The answer is: Maybe! Soon?9
I started this newsletter about two months ago. I miss the legal protections that come with writing for The Post, and I’ve definitely found it a bit harder to report for the newsletter (“It’s for a ReaderGrev newsletter” is a hard sell). As an outlet, though, I really like Substack! Writing for works requires focus; writing for you can be whatever I want it to be — and more often than not I want to be discursive and diaristic. (Read: lazy).
For now though, there are two things holding me back from charging for the newsletter.
Right now, I have enough pledged subscribers (readers who have input their credit card information and told Substack that, basically, when I flip the switch to offer paid content, they’ll pay10) to file a 1099, alerting the IRS to Substack as a source of income. That's not a big number, but a lot of that support comes from friends and colleagues and I really appreciate it. Still, before I start charging, I'd like to know that I can commit to this newsletter. I haven't published much this month, for example (more about that further down). I'd rather forgo a few months' subscription payments than alienate paying readers by not putting out newsletters.
I’m still trying to figure out 1) What I’m doing here 2) What I provide here 3) What performs here. A lot of successful Substack newsletters have a very clear value proposition. Many of them are transparently about aspiration: things the reader can do to live a better life, be a better person, or be more proficient at [insert career or hobby]. How does my writing fit into that space, if at all?
Substack has emailed me a few times to assure me: “Your subscribers want to pay for your writing!” I’m grateful! I’m also going to wait a bit longer before I test that willingness.
Another big thing I’ve noticed since I started publishing here: sharing and networking really matters. Take a look at the graph below (it’s my total traffic, day by day).11
Each bump — with one exception — came the day I published an issue of ReaderGrev. The outlier is the final, biggest bump, which came after a reader12 shared my issue on HBO’s The Last of Us in the comments of a post on the r/television subreddit. The big takeaway: sharing means a lot, and it does a lot!
At traditional publications, search traffic rules. A lot, and I mean a lot of traffic comes from people looking stuff up on Google. Substack doesn’t have a lot of reach on search, and besides, most newsletters are bespoke and hairy in ways that don’t quite translate to or answer search queries. That’s why recommendations and word of mouth matter so much.
Keep your eyes peeled for Launcher stories next week
Launcher, The Washington Post’s video game vertical, closes in one week. After March 31, we stop publishing.
But the site’s last two weeks have been and will continue to be eventful ones. We’ve published two stories already as a part of our final slate; we have four more on the docket for next week, including one by me. These stories really matter, and I am thrilled that we get to run them.
I think all of these pieces — Launcher’s final offerings — represent the best of what the site was and could have continued being. For now, I cannot recommend enough the two stories that are already out:
How Twitch lost its way — A months-long investigation into the issues that made 2022 such a rough year for Twitch (and which have already spilled over into 2023). Layoffs. Staff resigning in protest. Creators in revolt. It’s all here.
Christopher Judge is blazing a new trail — Christopher Judge has portrayed his fair share of big guys: a goon in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Teal’c in “Stargate SG-1,” and Kratos, the God of War. This profile digs into his hopes to have a similarly massive impact behind the scenes.