(Editor’s note: This is 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!)
Richard Lewis’ career in esports has led to this moment, even if he didn’t believe so.
Lewis, the respected veteran investigative journalist, has in the last year added another significant role to his resume as the desk host for ELEAGUE, the Turner Sports/WME|IMG venture that produced two seasons of Counter-Strike, January’s ELEAGUE Major and now the Street Fighter V Invitational, which began this week. Lewis had been on the desk before joining Turner, though being on live TV came with added adjustments.
As a journalist first, and somebody who has been in the esports scene for more than a decade, Lewis said he never expected to end up on TV and that it “still doesn’t make sense.” But he’s excelled with ELEAGUE and has drawn praise from both Turner executives and people who work behind the scenes on the show.
Lewis also has an active YouTube channel and recently launched a new website to host his written work. In the first of a two-part interview, I talked to Lewis about his first exposure to esports, making adjustments for TV and why the esports media should advance beyond Reddit.
Vince Nairn: You’ve had so many different roles and a long tenure in this space. How did you even get into this? What was your start in esports?
Richard Lewis: I’ve always been a writer. That was what I wanted to do when I was at university. I really put a lot of time into it. I was kind of writing short stories and fiction and stuff back then. When I was deciding my career path, realistically what I want to do for a living. I had been writing for so long, that journalism is probably the way to go on that one. All the people I had read about and admired were journalists. I transferred into a course about journalism and started learning about (the industry). Then I took over the university magazine. Reporting and that kind of thing, writing editorials and opinion pieces, that was what I wanted to do. That became the sole focus. Simultaneously, after I graduated, I started to learn more about esports…I wanted to work in journalism, but I was unable to because it’s incredibly hard field to get into. I didn’t want to live in London. I didn’t want to go down that road. The average journalist in London makes about ($15,000) per year, and you’re expected to live off that in London. There were all these tales of local journalists cooped up in houses, sleeping on the floor or couches. That type of thing. I didn’t want that life. So I went and took a regular job and just felt that “Well, I’ll get a job eventually.”
When I started learning about esports more and more, I wanted to make a contribution…I signed up with a very popular blog at the time for Counter-Strike: Source, Source Junkie. I started submitting articles for free…and people seemed to like it. There really wasn’t anything like it. The standard of writing wasn’t very high, and people liked it so much I started getting offers from bigger sites that were like “Why don’t you come write about Quake.” “Come write about 1.6. Counter-Strike: Source is waste of your time.”
I was doing all of this work and then eventually, working at a blog and making no money wasn’t gonna sustain me. I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the shit jobs I was doing outside of esports. About 2006, I doubled down and wanted to get a full-time paying job (in esports). That just so happened when CGS was taking off. That was kind of validation. I ended up working there and ended up making ridiculous money for not doing much. They pretty much were hiring propagandists. They weren’t really interested in reporting but wanted people to write things to make the league sound like it was the best thing since sliced bread. And I don’t mind saying that at the time, it was my first job in esports, I sold out. I wouldn’t say I drank the Kool Aid; I knew what I was doing was PR and not journalism, but it was very high paying PR. When CGS died, my commitment to never do that again was very clear. And I linked with Heaven Media and started being an advocate. I started writing stories the scene didn’t want written. People owing money to other people. Secrets. Lies. Dodgy contracts. Because this was an emerging industry, and people were getting away with murder. These people were young, naive, and people were able to take advantage of that. And I talked about a bunch of taboo stuff. It was the first kind of weekly esports column. It was called Gonzorrhea because of (my name). I was writing up about cheats and liars and frauds and how we could make esports a better place. I don’t understand why people didn’t listen. And it kind of became a cult thing. It was one of those things where every Monday people would be like “What’s Richard gonna say this week?” I started having a bit of a more presence on video shows, and I got into being kind of a spokesperson for what was good and right in esports. I had people saying “we’ll pay you to work for us if you just shut the fuck up and stop rocking the boat.” And I could’ve made a fortune, but that’s not what I want to do. My brand by this point — there’s a long form interview I did with Thorin, not sure when it was, but a few years ago. I said I wanna be the guy who lifts the veil on esports, and that’s what I was interested in.
So obviously esports becomes more successful, becomes more mainstream…I think the vast majority of people know that I tell the truth. I have the interests of esports at heart. I’m not looking to make money. I’m not looking to defraud anyone. Rob anyone. And that’s a desirable level of authenticity to have. I think that’s why I have the job Turner. It certainly wouldn’t be anything else. On Twitter, I say what the fuck I want to say when I want to say it. I’ve earned that right. I put over a decade into this industry. I will say whatever I want, and if people don’t like it, they can go fuck themselves. When you spend 10 years in any industry, you are entitled to comment on that industry, and people shouldn’t tell you to shut up because they don’t like what you say. That applies to everybody. You may disagree with some of the other icon figure out there. Like Scoots, people attacked him when he took a stance against gambling. He’s entitled to that opinion. He’s put more into this industry than a vast majority of people who now make in this industry. So that’s important to me.
But to end up on television? That’s something that still doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t think of myself as a TV guy. I don’t think I’ve got the look. I don’t think I’ve got the polish of a TV guy. But I’m happy it’s something I can say I did. If it continues for a long time, I definitely wouldn’t be sad about that. But the journalism thing is what gets me out of bed in the morning. Being the guy who gets to say “This is what’s happening. No one’s talking about it. I’m gonna tell you all about it. Together as a community we can pressure about it.” We can change esports for good. That’s what motivates me.
VN: Getting on TV gets into my next question. What was one change or one adjustment or one thing that surprised you when first making that transition to being an on-air talent?
RL: It’s just you’re no longer — I’ve always been a big believer that the show comes first. I think when people have diva-ish tantrums and when they put themselves before what the audience sees, that’s a big turn off for me. I don’t like people who do it that way. I see a lot of talent that operate that way and think that way. I obviously won’t name names, but I think there are a lot of people out there, and I know people know it when they see it. If somebody is trying too hard to be the star of the show, or if there’s somebody who’s in a bad mood and they can’t leave what they’re upset about, whatever they’re feeling, away from the broadcast. I think people can recognize that at home, and I don’t think that particularly makes a good viewing experience. So I’ve always had the belief that the show comes first. But still, to the degree when you’re doing it on TV, the time constraints are unbelievable. You are going to an ad break in 30 seconds. I have to be harder as a host to get people to wrap up their points because I have to get us to that commercial, and I have to do a lead out. Otherwise it’s going to look terrible because we’ll just be talking and it will go to a commercial. I’ve got to know which camera to look at because most esports events are one, two if you’re lucky. You only gotta know if it’s a closeup or desk shot. That’s all you really have to know. With this it’s a lot different. You’ve all gotta be conscious of what camera’s showing what so you can incorporate it into whatever you’re talking about.
Just overall the idea of having to be polished and on point and completely aware. You have to put a lot more work into controlling the flow of the show. You’ve got to put a lot more work into directing the traffic, controlling conversations. It’s been a big learning experience. I’m still probably far off what the average TV host does, but I’m definitely a better host with one year under my belt with Turner, than where I was coming in. But it’s still a tremendous undertaking. You don’t have just one point in your ear now. It’s maybe three, and they’ve all got different things they wanna do. You’ve got a sound guy. Sometimes you’re gonna get tossed an audible. So what you rehearsed earlier in the day, that’s gone because tech problems come up, but the show’s gotta go on. It’s super difficult because it’s gotta look like it’s TV polished, that it’s TV ready. Esports was always rough around the edges and we embraced that. TV, it’s got to be ready.
VN: At what point did you start to feel comfortable with that transition? I talked to Jason Baker a couple days ago for an interview about production, and he said you were really good at handling feedback in your ear while also moving the show forward. When did you get comfortable?
RL: I guess there’s no real nice way to put it. You’ve gotta be able to, when you’re the host, you’ve gotta be able to be talking, and what comes out of your mouth is effectively filler. It’s buying time. Your brain isn’t linked to your mouth. It’s shit. Your brain is actually listening to the producers. “What we’ve got coming up for you,” is actually just filler. It’s a sentence to buy me time to hear what is fed to me in my ear, and what comes after that filler sentence is what’s important. So you have to know how to kind of package everything. Fortunately, I’ve always been the talkative kid in the class. I’ve been the kid who the teacher said “Keep talking and you’ll go nowhere in life.” That’s always been me. That’s an actual skill I’ve always had. I’ve been able to talk and talk to give my brain time to catch. It gets harder as you get older, but it’s certainly easier with a few people in your ear telling you where you need to get to.
VN: Reddit is something that has long been a topic of your ire. It’s also the hub for esports news consumption right now. You have a well-documented relationship with the site, and even a few times you’ve posed the idea of what the world would be like if media outlets boycotted Reddit. What would it take to get to a world where something like that was possible? Where esports media and journalism could exist beyond Reddit?
RL: It comes to this self-sustaining lie. Reddit is the definition of the emperor’s new clothes, right? People go to Reddit to talk and discuss things because it’s easy for them and it’s collated for them. And because it’s easy and collated for them, that creates the traffic. So people don’t want to boycott it or stand up against it until they get banned or their traffic is affected because the traffic’s there. But why is the traffic there? It’s there because they know people go there to discuss things. So it becomes a self-sustaining cycle. If everyone just boycotted Reddit, if every user in the world stopped using Reddit in one moment, that site is completely fucked because it’s useless. It produces nothing. It produces absolutely nothing. It’s other people’s content. That’s why I laugh with utter contempt that Reddit — and I’m not talking about the moderators, who are just volunteers I’m talking about Reddit’s actual staff. Reddit’s executives. People who sit in board rooms and try to explain why this website that is in the top 10 most popular, highest-traffic websites on the internet still can’t turn a profit.
It’s an embarrassment how bad Reddit is run. The executives are incompetent buffoons. If you can’t monetize what they’ve got there — I almost think they’re not interested in money. They’re interested in influence, and I think that’s very worrying to me. But to stay on point and on track, if every user just doesn’t go to Reddit tomorrow, they’ve got nothing. But because people won’t do that, you’ve got nothing. Reddit treats content creators with utter contempt. You can’t submit your own work. You can’t ask people to submit your work for you. You can’t vote for your work. You can’t ask people to vote for you. Your content, which generates a debate on their site, drives traffic to their site, completely free of charge, you can’t even get anything in return. You gotta hope that maybe just maybe, somebody notices it and decides out of the blue to submit it to Reddit. And that enough people — mainly the first 10 people who see your work, because of the stupid algorithm — you hope the first 10 people who stumble across it in the new queue, which is terribly curated and could be zipping and whizzing by at a rate of knots. You have to hope those first 10 people like the work of think it’s relevant enough to upvote it. If not, you’ve got nothing. And that entire piece was a waste of time in terms of traffic. That’s why you have to have other platforms. People need to build other platforms. You need an active Twitter. You need an active Facebook because you’re just at the whims of madness because Reddit has no respect for you whatsoever. Meanwhile, of course, if you wanna give Reddit some money, you can go anywhere. You can have your links promoted in that subreddit. But the returns on promotion of links on Reddit are absolutely terrible. It’s not worth the money. This is why Reddit is a failing institution.
Add into that, let’s say all of those things happen. My content is submitted, it’s liked, and it hits the front page. Then, there’s a janitor. A volunteer janitor who could remove it for no reason. They’re held to no discernible standard whatsoever. And the executive take is if you’re being censored on the website because they’re stupid and petty, there’s nothing you can do about it. They’re entitled to be stupid and petty. And why is that? The vast majority of their workforce is volunteer and subject to no discernible standard. Or (is that) because they don’t want to pay anybody? They can’t afford to pay anybody to do what moderators do. In other words, they’ve created a system where you can abuse your petty power and privileges you’re given because that’s a form of payment. That’s currency with which we pay you for your pathetic volunteer work. I mean, what an awful website. The sooner that it’s replaced, the absolute better. Because it is just a series of conflicts of interest. We see that certain companies that are in bed with Reddit can get away with having influence over the subreddit. We’ve seen reports recently of journalists, for as little as $400, they can manipulate posts to the front page. We’ve seen political entities like the DNC just “correct the record” that they literally pay people to manipulate Reddit, and Reddit is totally fine with that. They make no attempt to fix it because they’re not interested in making money. They’re not interested in being fair. They’re not interested in a good user experience. They’re just interested in trading that traffic for political influence and connections with big companies. It’s disgusting.
Reddit is an absolute sewer, and not a sewer in the way these bleeding heart, over the top liberals think it is. Like, “Oh my god. It’s just full of neo-nazis.” It isn’t. You can’t even have a dissenting opinion on Reddit and not get banned. There’s so many layers of bureaucratic voluntary nightmares to even go out and post on Reddit your honest opinion. This is a website that’s doomed to fail. Look at all the other social media companies that try to control the narrative. They fail as businesses. Twitter’s stock is in the toilet. It’s like internet stock from the 90s. That’s where Twitter’s at. Reddit’s gonna go the same way. Facebook is gonna go the same way if they’re not careful. What you’re gonna see a new generation of social media. Things like Minds.com, like Snapchat, that are gonna come in and do the thing these failing institutions do, they’re gonna do it better, and that’ll be that. And as soon as esports, by the way, starts rejecting Reddit, the better. Because Reddit is not a fan of esports. It doesn’t care about esports. All it does is provide a space for the content we create. Hard work we put in. They proved it as well. None of the default subreddits will ever contain esports. They’re not interested in it. So we should completely pull off. Gaming and esports is a huge amount of traffic to that website, We should just withdrawal, make our own websites, make our own curation websites and invest all our energies toward that, and we’re removed from the Reddit paradigm, which I know is extremely frustrating for multiple (outlets).
VN: How realistic do you think that is? It’s easy for a lot of us to say that we’d support that or want to do it, but it would be another to actually follow through with it.
RL: Of course they won’t do it. They absolutely won’t do it. This is what’s hilarious about it. I’ve said to organizations, the League of Legends subreddit has banned my content, even when it’s completely valid, because I’ve been bullied, abused, stalked, harassed. I’ve had all sort — and this the mods doing this. This is volunteer mods doing this behavior. What I’ve done on Twitter is point out this is happening, and for that, for what happened off Reddit, Reddit staff has said its OK to ban me. The official stance of Reddit as a corporation is if you tweet anything they don’t like, they will ban you from ever being able to use the website. Let that sink in, by the way. Reddit is policing what you can and can’t do off Reddit, and that is not just moderators. It is a corporate approved message. That’s what Reddit believes. Reddit says that is OK. So if you want to support a company that does that, that’s fine and dandy. What I’ve done is I focused on my YouTube. I still broke stories. And here’s the thing: People will get frustrated. “Why can’t this be discussed on Reddit? We want to discuss it on Reddit. Why is a moderator censoring these people?” And eventually they come to where they can get the information because that’s what people crave at the end of the day. Information is important. Reddit is convenient, but that’s all it is. It produces nothing of value, and as a result of that, wherever the information is, that’s where people will go.
What I’ve said to organizations is we can wreck the League of Legends subreddit, which by the way is swirling down the toilet in terms of traffic. It’s becoming less and less important now to be on the front page of Reddit. I’ve talked to multiple editors at multiple sites, and they said 18 months ago, two years ago, a front page League of Legends post would really drive your traffic targets for an entire month. If you had enough of that, you were over the top for the year. Now, it’s actually not that important. You’re making a fraction, a fifth of what people used to get in terms of traffic. As a result, people are focusing on other things. It’s bad for League of Legends. It’s bad for Riot Games. Rot Games could stop the subreddit being the No. 1 place for League of Legends information, but then again they’re even trapped in that cycle of “This is the most popular place. We need a presence there” whereas “If we don’t have a presence there, where we have our presence will become the most popular place.” That’s how people need to think.
Like I said, it hasn’t affected me at all. The only thing it’s done is hurt my growth. For example, people like MonteCristo and Thorin, their YouTube videos will have all those subs from when it hits the League of Legends front page. I haven’t had that luxury, so I trail behind them in YouTube subs. But honestly, I’ll get to where they are now, just in a longer rate. My information is still relevant. The work I still do is good. People want to read it. On my Twitter, I’m coming up to 100,000, which is pretty crazy for a journalist. I’m not worried about it at all. Meanwhile, all of the moderators and people who run the subreddits that banned my content, who are these people? They’ve got nothing. They’re just nobodies. They contribute nothing. They do nothing. They achieve nothing. They are nothing. So I don’t mind that. I think on a longer time scale, if people gradually pull away — say you’re a team, and you want to do an AMA. Why do an AMA on Reddit? What, because people are there? Fuck that. Do it on your website. And if someone submits it to Reddit, maybe ask for it to be removed. You’re entitled to that, right? There are all sorts of things you can do to really apply pressure to Reddit so you can get control of the traffic again instead of making a third-party institution benefit from your hard work and your content
On The Radar
(A rundown of important stories in the esports media realm and analyzing what they all mean.)
As noted above, ELEAGUE premiered the Street Fighter V Invitational this week. It’s ELEAGUE’s first real push away from Counter-Strike (aside from last summer’s Overwatch Open) and will include another weekly live show Friday nights on TBS, starting this week.
On the surface, it seems like a risk for ELEAGUE to go away from Counter-Strike and its community that embraced and adored ELEAGUE. That said, ELEAGUE has been clear about its desires to build its own brand in esports and not have it be tied to any particular game. Short of ESL, which runs events for multiple games (though is still mainly thought of as a Counter-Strike-centric company), there haven’t been many attempts or successes at this sort of plan.
That said, if there is a game besides Counter-Strike that seems made for TV, it’s Street Fighter. Neidel Crisan, director of esports for Capcom, told me the following during an interview that will run in full later this week:
“When I think about casual person trying to sit down and watch., you have two big, bright colorful characters on the screen and two big life bars,” Crisan said. “The name of the game is to deplete the other guy’s life bar.”
It will be interesting to see how ratings for the Street Fighter V Invitational compare to Counter-Strike, a scene with a much bigger following.
Boomeo has become active in the Counter-Strike scene as of late. The IMG-backed company is focused on providing instructional videos for new CS:GO players by the professional players and teams with which it has partnered. But there’s also a news section to the website, which features a bunch of original content, including a TLDW (Too long, didn’t watch) section that recaps and breaks down major events.
It’s still early, but this site is definitely worth monitoring as its vision becomes more clear.