(Editor’s note: This is the first of a recurring column that will cover the ins and outs of esports media and journalism. With more interest than ever in esports, there has likewise been more interest in the reporting to this industry and what goes into it. I hope to shed a light on the industry through interviews with media professionals and news analysis from the perspective of someone with six years of professional journalism experience. Anything you’d like to see? Send me an email at Vince@slingshotesports.com. Enjoy!)
The moment didn’t necessarily reverberate through the entire esports community, but it was enough to rattle some.
At the conclusion of what would be the final episode of “Best of III,” a Twitch show run by the Daily Dot’s esports section about the fighting games community, a co-host alluded to an impending shutdown of the Dot’s esports vertical.
It turned out to be false, but there was indeed something going on with the Dot’s esports vertical, which was eventually acquired by Gamurs at the end of October and re-branded to Dot Esports.
Some of the staff has remained as Dot Esports continues to shape its coverage going forward, and I had the chance to talk to Kevin Morris, the editor-in-chief of Dot Esports and one of the original Daily Dot Esports employees, about Dot Esports’ history, future and the details of this summer’s uncertainty.
Vince Nairn: First of all, let’s start with some of your background. How long have you been at the Daily Dot (and now Dot Esports)? How did you get started?
Kevin Morris: I was at the Daily Dot for five years. I was there from the very beginning. I was the second reporter at the Daily Dot. The Dot back then focused on kind of emerging internet communities. I think it was 2013. I don’t know why, but I found esports. I had been a gamer for a long time. It’s not that I didn’t know about esports. But I started just exploring the community on Twitch, and I started getting an idea for how big it had grown. It fit so perfectly into the Daily Dot’s philosophy at the time and was also — it was just so clear it was going to become a huge thing. It was obvious to anyone who kind of took a glance at it. So I started writing on it. I started working with a reporter on the Dot who had a lot of experience. Pat O’Neill was his name. We just started writing stories about esports, and I got pulled into it. We launched the esports section at the Dot in December 2013 with one half-time writer and me. That was our section. It grew pretty quickly. We had something like 400,000 visits in our first month and we just kept going from there.
VN: How did you go about trying to map a coverage strategy for something that was even newer at that time than it is now?
KM: We kind of specialized that in the Daily Dot, so I had done a lot of reporting and investigative reporting about other online communities and cultures. This was this community that lived almost entirely online. I had experience covering Wikipedia, Reddit, Facebook, things like that. So I had kind of developed strategies for breaking open new beats and figuring out the way to cover them. So I kind of knew what I was doing, but also not really because it was just so different. I had a lot of help from people like Ferguson Mitchell, Sam Lingle. People who knew this industry way more than I did. Just generally speaking, the way that you break open any beat is just through original reporting. You reach out, you find people, you break news and start cultivating your sources that way.
VN: How has the landscape for esports journalism changed with larger, mainstream outlets like ESPN and Yahoo coming into this scene?
KM: Other than taking some of my best writers, I don’t think it’s changed very much, to be honest. If anything, it just makes the scene (larger). It’s a mixed bag. It’s better for the writers. You’ve got this growing but still very small class of esports journalists and writers. And that’s great. I’m a little bit worried about a bubble — a very small bubble because we’re talking about esports media. But I think there’s a legitimate concern that some of these organizations coming in, they’re not really interested in the business of esports journalism. They’re interested in esports as a marketing tool to bring people to their website. I hope they are (interested) for the long term, of course. But us, for instance, our survival depends on making a business model out of this. That’s not true for them.
VN: Yeah, speaking of that, how have the last few months been for you with the transition from being under the Daily Dot to being acquired by Gamurs?
KM: Stressful, but ultimately very, very good. I think things ended up about as well as they could. I’m really happy with Gamurs and the leadership there. The CEO and COO were in town here for two weeks. They finished the acquisition. They really believed in the Dot Esports brand. They’re longtime readers of Dot Esports. They understood my vision for us, and they want to support it and give it resources to see it through. I’m very happy with where it ended up. As far as before them, the Daily Dot had been a great corporate parent for a long time. It was going through some trouble. It was hard to justify the cost of our esports team. The company wanted to readjust and focus on fundamentals to keep going, and it was pretty clear they would have to sell us off. We were basically in limbo for like two months. It was not fun. But I understood that the Dot needed to do it. The Dot now is in a much healthier situation. I have a lot of co-workers there. I’m happy it all worked out for the best.
VN: Yeah. And obviously, the announcement on Best of III kind of let the cat out of the bag that something was going on. How did you kind of handle that situation? Because there was something going on, but you couldn’t really say anything about it — and I remember because I emailed you seeking a comment at the time, too.
KM: There was nothing to do because conversations were ongoing. There was clearly just a bit of miscommunication there. Nobody had ever said with certainty that we were shutting down on that Friday. There was so much up in the air. There was really just nothing to say except we’ll update you guys soon. That was it. It was frustrating from a PR perspective because I’m a journalist. I understand how frustrating that can be. But when business conversations are ongoing, you really can’t say anything about it.
VN: What led you to use Medium as a site?
KM: Medium is a very good short-term solution, but we’re probably looking to move off site eventually, just because it’s difficult to sustain yourself on Medium through ads. They have options, but it’s not really where they need to be. The Medium staff are incredible. They were really helpful in moving us over. I think for a publication that’s really capable of making lots of sponsored content deals, Medium is very valuable. If you’re going to to do the Buzz Feed model, and you can do that, then Medium is a fantastic option because you don’t have to pay for their developers. But you can’t run programmatic ads on Medium, and that’s a big problem. Sponsored deals take time, and most sites don’t want to use them as their exclusive revenue stream. They want to do a mixture of different types of revenue.
VN: Richard Lewis is probably the most prominent journalist in the scene and used to be with you guys for a while. How much did the content ban on him in the League of Legends subreddit affect Dot Esports?
KM: Well, first, I’d like to say that If Richard’s stories generated zero traffic, I would have still kept him on because I believe in the work he was doing. At the time, a lot of people thought that I fired him or we forced him out, and that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. As far as traffic, it was something as a wake-up call about using Reddit as a traffic source. Not that we needed one, really. Reddit, I think their admins and the staff philosophy is really unnecessarily hostile to media, and especially new organizations, and I think it’s really unfortunate. The 1-10 rule and not letting content creators submit their own work. For a lot of people, that’s their only way to get noticed. A lot of times, the people enjoy the content somebody submitted because that’s the whole way it works. Fundamentally, everybody in esports needs to move away from Reddit. For a lot of reasons. I think when you’re dealing on the scale of esports in terms of traffic and views, Reddit seems hugely impressive in terms of the traffic it can get. The spike you can get from a really good Reddit story is mind-blowing when you start out. I think for a really big story, the biggest I saw was something like 3,000 concurrent viewers from Reddit. In actuality, in terms of the scale of traditional media and even niche media within the scale, the traffic that esports Reddit sends websites is significant, but it’s a fraction of the total of what a traditional media website gets. Unfortunately, the rewards are so immediate from reddit that people are just hyper focused on it. But it has a very low ceiling on what types of traffic you can get. I think we hit that ceiling at the Daily Dot, and that more than anything made me realize we needed to move beyond that.
VN: Whether it was Richard or Jacob leaving, there was a definite shift in your content that became noticeable throughout this year. What kind of shaped that? Was it a philosophical change? A matter of personnel?
KM: There hasn’t been a big philosophical change. It’s been more that we were kind of in a holding pattern at the Daily Dot for a long time. We couldn’t expand. We barely had a staff to cover the news for the day. Now we can bring on writers to write about the subjects we’ve been wanting to write about for a long time. I do think that a lot of esports sites focus a little too heavily on results and tournament previews and stuff like that. I think they don’t really think hard enough about what readers want to read. It’s kind of a reactive response to the industry instead of proactive. That’s kind of the big philosophical underpinning of our coverage, is we want to be proactive.
Editor’s note: Kevin later emailed me and wanted to include this at the end of his response: “Now that we’re on our own again, we’re absolutely going to keep pursuing original journalism, and are making some hires to do so. Breaking news, investigative journalism, features writing — those are the parts of the job I love most.”
VN: How have you gone about covering Overwatch? It’s in a very interesting place because there’s a lot of interest about the actual game, but that hasn’t funneled — at least yet — into interest about the pro scene. How does that influence your decisions about coverage?
KM: Esports used to be just called pro gaming or competitive gaming. It wasn’t about whether or not there’s a pro scene, it’s just that it’s a competitive game. People are interested in reading about the competitive game. We write about what the audience is interested in. I think the pro game will develop, and as it develops, we’ll certainly write about it more. But we’re not interested in writing about a tiny Overwatch tournament with just a few teams just because they’re professionals at that tournament. If the audience is interested in it, we’ll write about it.
On the Radar
(A rundown of important stories in the esports media realm and analyzing what they all mean)
ESPN’s Jacob Wolf reported during the League of Legends World Championship that the ROX Tigers were set to disband in the offseason, a report that was met with a (predictable) denial from the organization and vitriol from the League community. It even prompted a response by another media outlet.
Wolf’s report turned out to be true, and the Tigers have indeed disbanded. In the days since, there hasn’t been much from anyone who vilified the report or claimed it was false. But that really shouldn’t matter because reporting should not be about vindication at all; it’s about giving people the news, whether they like to hear it or not.
What’s problematic is the idea that a report “turning out to be true” should set Wolf free from criticism in the first place, as if his stories are inherently incorrect until they are proven true — that he’s guilty until proven innocent. It reveals a significant level of distrust between the community and esports journalists, or perhaps a lack of fundamental understanding of what journalism entails.
There’s no benefit to a news outlet reporting something that’s false. There seems to be an idea that Wolf or others in the space report rumors or conjecture and hide it behind citing anonymous sources. That’s a ridiculous notion that carries no weight in any other industry. One false story can significantly hurt a reporter’s career, and even if reporters would ever “make up stories for clicks” (a notion I find absurd but am not ignorant enough to think it’s never happened), that definitely shouldn’t be the default reaction to seeing an anonymously-sourced report. Using anonymous sources is a risk, especially if the story is about something that hasn’t happened yet. A lot can change in a short time. The ROX Tigers could have won worlds, found a rich investor and re-signed the entire roster. But weighing the risk comes down the reporter and their editors, a conversation nobody outside has any knowledge of. An anonymously-sourced story from a reporter, especially Wolf, who has exhibited extreme accuracy in the last year, should be seen as true unless proven false — not the other way around.
When Richard Lewis broke a story last week about Riot Games being close to a deal with MLB Advanced Media for streaming rights to League of Legends broadcasts, some who aggregated the report refused to cite Lewis’ original report.
Any chance of you correctly sourcing my report on the MLBAM deal? @ztharli
— Richard Lewis (@RLewisReports) November 17, 2016
Thank you. I have been a journalist for over a decade and I work for Turner Sports, so "Youtube Commentator" is a bit off.
— Richard Lewis (@RLewisReports) November 17, 2016
Both were eventually corrected, but it’s interesting nonetheless. In the case of the SBJ/SBD, it’s another example of a mainstream outlet not knowing enough about esports to know Lewis is more than a “YouTube commentater.” For Yahoo, it could be a bit more cynical. Yahoo’s director of esports, Travis Gafford, is a longtime target of Lewis’ ire, and leaving out his name could have very well been intentional. It’s also worth noting that Lewis’ content has been banned from the League of Legends subreddit, so others aggregating his work (though an entirely fair practice) could gain all the traffic benefits the original piece did not. Acknowledging Lewis — or anyone — properly is a basic principle in aggregation, and both news outlets should have been more astute in doing so in this instance.
Kelsey Moser is no longer at The Score. She’s become one of the most well-known names in League of Legends while focusing on covering the European and Chinese leagues. She tweeted Saturday about her departure from The Score and did not have any details to share publicly about her next move. It will be interesting to see both where she ends up and how The Score replaces her, as she has built a strong following based on the quality of her work that will not be easy to replace.
Cover photo courtesy of Kevin Morris