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Media column: Robert Paul discusses esports photography and trying to stand out in a static industry

Robert Paul media column
Robert Paul is probably the most well-known photographer in esports.

(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 Enjoy!)

Robert Paul is probably the most well-known photographer in esports.

He was first recognized for his work in Smash and the FGC, but Paul has since put together perhaps the most comprehensive portfolio of any photographer in the industry. He’s worked EVO, the Capcom Cup, DreamHack events, the League of Legends summer finals and the MLG Columbus Counter-Strike Major, among others. I talked to Paul about the evolution of esports photography, how to find the best shots in a typically stale environment and what he’d like to do in his career going forward.

Vince Nairn: There isn’t really a ton of esports photographers. And you’re kind of the main freelance esports photog. How have you gone about building a portfolio and getting to the point where a lot of organizers want you to shoot their events?

Robert Paul: It kind of started out as me doing it on my own because it’s something I was just interested in doing. I had bought a camera back in 2011 and needed something to do with it. I was going to a lot of Street fighter tournaments. I had seen some photos coming out of DreamHack and EVO and stuff, and I just thought I’d take some shots of local tournaments. And I made friends with one of the owners of the venue there. It was run at a LAN center here in New Jersey. He had me come in for some small events they ran there. To put is as simply as I can, it sort of spiraled out from there. Some other local events saw me work and got in touch about shooting their events. I traveled to other events. As time went on and I got more serious about it, I traveled to other events and shot stuff on my own and used that to leverage myself into pitching my work to more and more events.

VN: And you started obviously in the FGC. Did you always want to stay there? Did you think there would be a time where you expanded into more games?

RP: I’m an avid gamer at heart. I love all sorts of games. I came up doing photography in the FGC, but my roots are really back to shooters, like Doom on my first PC. I love StarCraft as a game. It’s a wonderful game to watch. It was never about whether or not I wanted to stay in the FGC. It was more of if I would have the opportunity to branch out and the means to do that. The first couple years I was doing it, it was all FGC and Smash. It wasn’t really until 2013 or 2014 when Red Bull ran Battlegrounds for Starcraft in New York City. By that point I had made some connections and was able to get a press pass and go to that. Blizzard later saw my photos on Reddit, and that wound up turning into me shooting BlizzCon for them. So it was never about staying in the FGC or not. It was just a matter of time, I think, before I wound up doing other stuff.

VN: My first job out of college was at a small newspaper in Ohio, and our photographer would always talk to me about how he liked shooting certain sports, or sometimes certain sports led to better shots than others. Does that apply to esports? Is it different when you’re shooting different games, even though the generic concept of people sitting around a computer is more or less the same?

RP: Yeah, absolutely. I always try to have at least a working knowledge game of every game I’m covering. I’ve never played Call of Duty before, but I shot a bunch of Call of Duty stuff for MLG last year. I made sure to study match footage well enough so I knew what kind of map type we were on, and I knew the flow of different map types. I made sure I was aware of who the teams and players were and making sure I knew, “This guy is very emotional and reacts a lot,” and “this guy maybe doesn’t.” Or this team just had a roster shuffle or might have grudges. That kind of thing. Dota, for example, those matches can go 45-50, 60 minutes or more, so understanding that kind of flow. If you don’t understand that, you’re gonna be sitting around not knowing what’s going on or waiting for a match to end. You could be standing around waiting for a player photo, waiting for a guy to stand up. But if you don’t know where the match is at, you could be waiting for a long time. So it’s really important to have a working knowledge of any game you’re going to cover.

VN: What’s it like shooting a Summit event? Had you done any of the Dota or Smash ones before the Counter-Strike one?

RP: That was my first time working with The Summit. We had been in talks before the Smash Summit to come out, but it was super last minute and we weren’t able to make it happen. In some ways, it was the same, but it was very different. It was super relaxed. That same vibe you saw from the stream and content was kind of the same vibe that I had in approaching the shoot. Super relaxed and laid back. There’s always that pressure I put on myself to make sure I’m doing the work I need to be doing to get the shots I want to get, but it was super laid back. It was much less intense than shooting an arena or something. I just shot DreamHack Masters in Vegas, so it’s pretty wild to go from that to The Summit. The same game, same players, same on-screen talent, but in a very different setting.

VN: Esports events can easily lend themselves to a certain type of photo, almost to the point that they can become stock. What are things you try to do to differentiate or stand out?

RP: I’ve been told I have an uncanny way of being in the right place at the right time, and it’s just kind of constant awareness of what’s going on around you. You can ask anyone I’ve ever had a conversation with during an event. I will dive out of a conversation so quickly if I hear something going on in a match or the crowd go crazy or a player say something. Even if I’m talking to somebody, I’m trying to stay in tune with what’s going on in the event. It comes down to looking past — you see all those grand arena shots of the lights and the stage and the crowd. You see the people in the crowd holding up signs, and those are important shots to get. But you start to want to make it not all look the same after a while. It’s kind of a matter of paying attention to the smaller things. The interactions between teammates and more intense focus on certain people in the crowd and certain reactions, that kind of things.

VN: You’ve taken some of the most iconic photos in esports — specifically the FGC. I think APEX 2012 always come to mind. But do you know when it happens immediately that you got a great shot? Or do you find when you’re going back and editing that something came out much better than you imagined it would?

RP: It’s a little of both. A lot of the times yeah, you’ll get the shot and look at the back of camera and go “Crap. This is big.” And you go running back so you can get it out to the social team or whatever. And then other times there’s shots where later things kind of come out and you think, “There’s a really cool moment.” At the Summit, there was a shot of the Gambit guys I got after they had won a match before finals day. I’m in that tiny little room just grabbing shots of the guys as they’re wrapping up their match. It’s just a shot of the coach and one of the players with their hands on their head and over their mouth, like they couldn’t believe they just clutched out that win. And I didn’t notice it at the time because there was a lot to go through, but it was such a cool moment to see how shocked and relieved they were. It’s something just a little different from the normal excited reaction or sad reaction you’d normally see.

VN: What have you seen in terms of how the community reacts to photography in esports? Because it seems like a fundamental shift in this generation. It’s easy with the internet for those things or the importance to kind of be lost. How have you gauged how the community feels?

RP: When they see them, they like them. But it’s not often people go and seek them out. If you were watching the GlobalOffensive subreddit during the Summit, there were no photos on there. It was all Twitch clips and text threads. Even though there were photos going out each day, none of that was making it to Reddit. But I’ve also seen instances where photos do make it to Reddit and they blow up and it’s amazing. Or it’s a behind the scenes thing nobody else would have gotten to see. It’s appreciated when it gets noted, but it’s often a challenge for it to get noted in the first place.

VN: I’m sure it’s incredibly frustrating for you, but it’s fascinating to see from the other end is photo usage rights and how easy it is for people to just take photos they don’t have permission to use — and how difficult that can be to corral. How have you tried to ensure that and search for the right fights to pick? How do you handle this entire concept?

RP: It’s gotten a lot better over time. I’ve had lots of outlets and stuff — a lot of the uncredited and unrequested usage comes from smaller outlets. From the bigger outlets, most of the time you’ll get people who want photos for free. I’ve had a number of outlets come to me and be like “Hey we want photos but we don’t have a budget for them.” And I’m like “You’re full of crap. I know you pay for photos every day in your other verticals. I know you know how this works.” Esports is kind of odd. A lot of the events, like MLG, Riot, they’re work for hire. So all the photos I deliver are really not mine anymore. They belong to MLG, Riot, Blizzard. And so a lot of outlets have come to expect the photos are free. Riot distributes them for free. Blizzard, MLG distribute them for free. It’s interesting because I don’t think any other industry works like that.

In the sports industry, you have wire industries and staff photographers. In the music industry, you have staff photographers who go out and stand in the pits for their outlets. In esports, you have the publisher giving them out for free. In one regard, it’s nice. Because if I was just trying to go out and be my own wire service, that would never fly. Even on a good day, I don’t make enough from any kind of image licensing to make going out to any event viable. So in that case, it’s sort of nice the events harbor in-house photographers to do that stuff because that’s how I get my work. But it sets up a weird situation for anyone who’s not. I’ve tried to work with outlets to do coverage for Riot events because they do these huge stadium events and everyone covers them. And they’re just like “No. Why would we send you? Riot gives these photos out for free.”

VN: What game do you like the most or think lends itself to the best shots?

RP: To this day, the FGC stuff is still my favorite. The community is just so invested in the event’s success, and the cool thing about an event as EVO — as big as it is and they did the finals in Mandalay Bay — all those people were there to watch the finals of an event they participated in. Whereas League of Legends, they might watch the game, but they didn’t compete in anything. And so, you look at the FGC, and those people are super invested in the results of this tournament. You get from the early pool’s matches to the grand finals, people who are super interested in what’s going on.

VN: Where would you like to take esports photography going forward? Are there things you haven’t done yet, projects you’d like to do, photo essays, stuff like that. Where would you like to take your profession in esports?

RP: I’d love to see more documentary work. Team profiles. Player profiles. Storytelling. Event stuff is nice, but it’s not always about storytelling. A lot of times you’re there to get social photos. You’re there to get marketing photos. You’re there to fill a need for the event organizer. And a lot of times your photos can be used to tell a story, but you’re not there looking for a story and specifically sitting down, looking to take photos to do that. Video has kind of taken on that role, but I think there’s still room, I think — I hope — for photo heavy documentary pieces.

On The Radar

(A rundown of important stories in the esports media realm and analyzing what they all mean.)

TheScore interviewed banned Counter-Strike player Braxton “Swag” Pierce last week about playing in the Counter-Strike Summit and whether or not he thinks his ban will ever be overturned.

It was an interesting interview and a rarity — I searched and can’t find an interview Pierce did since his ban, so this might have been his first. It’s insightful and definitely worth the read, but there was one question I feel should have been asked. Nowhere in the interview did TheScore even mention his ban, other than to ask Pierce’s opinion about the online movement to get him unbanned.

Pierce and other players from iBUYPOWER were banned permanently from competing in any Valve-sponsored events because of match-fixing. It’s long been a topic of conversation among the community, and Pierce’s participation in the Counter-Strike (a non-Valve sponsored event) reignited the debate about Pierce and other members of iBP potentially being unbanned someday. But Pierce was never asked about a question about the match-fixing, which is disappointing.

I don’t think Pierce should have been interrogated about the details of the ban or forced to dwell on his mistakes, but especially considering the rarity of Pierce speaking publicly, the interview was a missed opportunity to have Pierce address match fixing and his ban.

This is a bit outside the norm for this column, but I wanted to mention the end of “Sports Reporters,” which aired its last show on ESPN on Sunday. It’s funny looking at the sports media landscape now and seeing roundtables, debate shows and the “hot take” culture that has permeated the industry. “Sports Reporters” was the original: respected voices throughout sports media sitting together to discuss the important topics of the week and how they impacted the entire ecosystem. It was a simple idea but one that really paved the way (for better or worse) for how fans would consume sports content these days.

Although many of the tenets of sports journalism are yet to completely translate to the esports industry, the “Sports Reporters” model — gathering smart people to talk about important topics — certainly has. In honor of the final “Sports Reporters,” I wanted to end this week’s column by simply sharing the reporters and writers in sports media who inspired me to get into the industry (even if they never appeared on that show) because I know that show served as inspiration for so many young journalists.

Growing up in Cleveland at the time LeBron James was going through high school and his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, I became quite fond of Brian Windhorst. The way he always seemed to know everything that happened inside the Cavs or with James was incredible. He has covered James since James was in high school, and I remember most fondly how Windhorst staked out the place where James held free agent meetings in the summer of 2010 when for a while nobody else knew where they were happening. That’s reporting chops.

Another Cleveland journalist, longtime Plain Dealer columnist Terry Pluto, influenced me with the way he delivered his points. Pluto explained roster moves and big-picture decisions by explaining to readers the front office’s reasoning for making a decision — even if he didn’t agree with or like it. Pluto’s way of thinking opened up my ability to try to always see things from multiple perspectives.

As for national writers, Jonathan Abrams and Lee Jenkins are at the top of my list. They’re the two best long-form writers in sports.

Make sure to check out previous editions of the Slingshot Media Column with guests Tim Sevenhuysen, Richard Lewis (Parts 1 and 2), Mark Register, Duncan “Thorin” Shields (Parts 1 and 2), Tomi “lurppis” Kovanen, Ferguson Mitchell, Travis Gafford, Kevin Knocke and Kevin Morris


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