Slingshot media column: Kevin Knocke of WWG on audio content in esports; reporting roster moves

(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!)

Esports content is almost exclusively made in two forms: video and written.

There is also no audio-only content in the scene. Even Rough Drafts, a League of Legends podcast Slingshot hosted in 2016, had a written component with every edition. That’s where Kevin Knocke has come in.

Knocke, now with WWG Esports, has made his way this year in attempting to bring classic sports talk radio to esports. His show, WWG Esports Today, airs at 7 p.m. on SiriusXM Channel 83 and is the only one of its like. I talked to Kevin about his target audience, new role with WWG and what place audio-only content has in esports.

Vince Nairn: First of all, your background is kind of interesting. I know you started out as a StarCraft caster then worked for Blizzard a little bit and got into audio broadcasting. So what were the steps that kind of led to your career playing out how it has?

Kevin Knocke: Sure, so I have this weird personality trait I’ve had my entire life where I become way to obsessed with something. I become borderline professional at it, and then I just never, ever do it again. So when I was a kid, growing up, I played piano, actually. And I was reasonably good at it. I used to travel around to competitions. I taught piano through high school. Haven’t touched a piano in 10 years. Then in college, because in rural Missouri there’s nothing to do but drink and regret, I started bowling. I got myself up to a 200 average in house leagues. Then I moved to San Francisco, and no one bowls unless it’s ironic, so I just haven’t bowled anymore. I’ve always kind of been that way when it came to competitive games. I would get obsessed and wrap myself in something for a long time. So 2010, StarCraft 2 comes out. I was obviously an old Brood War fan as a kid. I have a lot of fun memories of booting up Brood War. So when StarCraft came out, for the first time, in a strategy game, I actually got real into the competitive scene. And of course that led me to the forums of Team Liquid, where I was exposed to the Justin.tv community and decided to fire up a stream. I had to decide very quickly if I wanted to be a mediocre player or concentrate on something else. I had a penchant for broadcasting, had been on the radio in college. And so I decided to try to make it as a commentator. So I fired up a stream and basically just casted anyone’s game who would send me a replay on Twitch. That became a weekly, goofy, just-for-fun kind of thing, and my stream viewers grew. Eventually I funded a trip down to MLG Dallas. The commentary was actually cut to the entire audience because sound-proof booths weren’t standardized yet, so they actually wouldn’t play it to the audience. My would-be boss at IGN and I sat down and talked (and he hired me). That was my literal path into the game. It just became one of these hobbies I became obsessed with, like I was when I played piano or as a bowler or stuff like that. I was broadcasting 10 times a day, editing 3-4 hours per day, posting on social media, failing going to grad school at the same time. It was just an obsession that ended up paying off in the end.

VN: Going to Blizzard and then transitioning into traditional media. How did that all lead into what you started doing now?

KK: After a while at IGN, it was sold from News Corp to Ziff Davis. The decision was made that esports would not be part of the new IGN. So our division was sold to Blizzard, so it was kind of a natural transition to Blizzard, and we were acquired and picked up. I went on to be the video producer for StarCraft 2, Heroes of the Storm. On the team, I helped with a lot of the videos you see on YouTube and Twitch. Stuff like that. I didn’t do the in-game cinematics. I’m not nearly talented enough for that. At all. God, those guys are amazing. Working at Blizzard was an interesting experience. I loved the people. I certainly loved working with all the IPs I grew up playing. But Blizzard has a reputation has a way of developing games slowly. It’s a big company, and I found that atmosphere didn’t really resonate with me. Nothing against Blizzard, I just like working a little faster and creating more content. So from there, I had an opportunity to move back to the Bay Area and head up a division for a partner of Blizzard in China, Nebbies. Did that for a while, went back to work for IGN. But then I found out what I wanted to do truly was help a group develop awesome content from the ground/ I felt I had a strength in that, and now I find myself at WWG hosting and producing content, which is kind of always what I wanted to do.

VN: It’s interesting because so much of esports content is either heavy in video or writing. You for a while had just the strictly radio show. How did you go about trying to carve your niche that way, which is one that’s really pretty unique in esports?

KK: It’s interesting because straight audio content in esports has always been relegated to podcasts. And I am a believer in audio content in general. It will always have a place in our society. I don’t have any illusions of talking boxes coming back and ruling the day as mass media, but we are all walking around. We all have opportunities to engage in audio content when video isn’t available. Myself, I remember fondly growing up as a St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan and just flipping on the games every summer evening and listening to Jack Buck and Mike Shannon call the game every day, and I gained from a pretty young age a love of good quality audio programing. And so when I had the opportunity to do a Sirius XM show, which was done in partnership with IGN — and thankfully, I have been able to continue doing that with my new company, WWG — I kind of took pride in it because I want to make something compelling that I believe people will want to listen to. It’s difficult to wade into the world of esports from the standpoint of good quality audio content. But we had an opportunity to do so through Bleacher Report on their channel. And you know what? I’m a sports guy. I grew up listening to sports casters. I used to host a sports show in college. I want to do real sports radio for esports. And I feel we’ve been able to accomplish that. My shows are about presenting the news, getting access to the players, bringing on reporters to break down games. And it’s kind of fun. I’m producing a program I always used to listen to growing up. It just so happens to be about esports now.

VN: How have you gone about just trying to show what you’re doing to an esports audience that’s kind of reluctant to that medium? Because you guys have had some high profile guests on and have had some good conversations. What are the challenges you’ve faced in terms of trying to get more exposure to it?

KK: I think it’s a couple of factors. You mentioned in there that we by our very nature in esports are very video driven. We want to consume live video at any given time. And really what I’m trying to do is fill the niche for people — for example, what I think is really cool that there is a massive untapped audience that isn’t served by any esports content. So broadening my reach maybe isn’t the best way to look at it, but rather I think there is this huge untapped audience that I just need to get out there and find and bring into the content that may even be new to general esports content to begin with. I get a new picture or a tweet every day or week from someone in their car saying “Oh my god I can’t believe I turned on and I’m listening to esports right now.” Or a trucker in Minnesota who’s driving across country — and I shit you not, this actually happened — who’s calling in cross country because he just can’t get to a place with reliable Internet, so he’s never gonna be able to catch up on the games. So I was the only way to get him info along his long trucking route. And that was such a cool moment. To be god honest, is radio going to be the defining medium for esports? No, I don’t have any illusions of that. But I do believe it has an important part in the overall media landscape that’s currently untapped. So my goal really is trying to find all those underserved customers and give them that sort of content.

VN: How did the opportunity with WWG pop up for you, and how are your responsibilities changing day to day going forward?

KK: WWG is relatively recent. We’re a division of ComicBook.com, which obviously has a very big presence in the comic book world and are just getting into the gaming and esports side. I was doing my radio show and working on some content with IGN at the time, but I had started to become more and more acquainted with the folks from WWG. I started to understand what they put together. It was important to me that they wanted to start moving into live coverage and video for esports. That’s another area I think is criminally underserved right now, just general live daily video content. Whether it be fantasy style shows or talk shows. We get a lot of “75 people on a webcam feed” podcasts that go for 12 hours, and that’s pretty much it. There’s not a lot of full hour, half hour, real, TV-produced formats. And they had a real interest in looking into that, so tentatively that’s the stuff I’m kind of developing right now. We’re just testing our tech and starting to go through the paces at the moment.

VN: What’s one thing you think will be important going into the next year with regards to helping people understand what the actual role of the media is? I feel like there’s a fundamental lack of understand about that at times — sometimes even within media members themselves.

KK: Ultimately, I think that we’ve seen the most successful journalists, love ’em or hate ’em in some circumstances, have always built a trust with their community that has been demonstrated with provable facts over time. I think the role of the media now in esports should be to move toward that. Provide reliable information and honest to god present a little bit more than is just your day to day stuff. I think that you’ll never, ever build that sort of trust unless you’re delivering that sort of content. And I think fundamentally it’s not only on the public to kind of understand what the media does, what they’re trying to do, and why you need to be able to use anonymous sources. But it’s also on the media, I think, to talk directly to their fans a little bit better and say “This is why these things happen. This is why we do what we do, and this is ultimately what we’re trying to create at the end of the day.”

VN: There’s one example you personally were involved in. I forget when it was, but sometime early in the summer you broke that FaZe Clan was no longer going to be in WESA, and to that point, you had a large following but you were mainly known just as radio or the rest of your background. You had never really stepped out into the breaking news realm. And you were met immediately with skepticism saying it wasn’t true, or WESA just formed and there’s no way they were leaving, all of the usual stuff. How did you navigate that situation?

KK: Part of it, of course, is I have faced public scrutiny for a very long time being in front of camera. So I’m no stranger to the mute button on Twitter. So I’m already conditioned to internet culture and “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” and so forth. So the people more on the troll side of things, that’s easier to deal with. You just don’t engage. But for the people who were genuinely questioning things, again, proof is in the pudding. I have to just trust that — and don’t forget, I presented some wrong information there, too. Information that didn’t come out as correct. I was also given information from some of the sources that had leaked that to me that they were considering pulling Major status from the next ESL event as well, and that was not true. I later retracted that statement. Basically, I just have to keep delivering, and that’s where the credibility comes from. So in this specific circumstance, other than maybe one cheeky tweet I made to someone who said I was just fishing for followers, it was (fine). You just have to trust that if you’re getting good information, if your editors trust you, if you’re going through a real journalistic process where you can present your sources anonymously to the public — but people need to understand that generally, they’re not anonymous to your editors because your editors have to be able to follow up and ensure that the information is true and you’re not just publishing clickbait, fake news crap. Then again, there’s nothing else you can do. If it’s so wildly inaccurate, it’s on you. But if it’s not and people don’t believe you in the interim, you just kind of have to ride out the wave of angst. There’s not much you can do about it.

On the Radar

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

A PVP Live article from last week demonstrated problems with publishing for an entire audience versus publishing for Reddit. The reporter, James “Obscurica” Chen, wrote that Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett might have given away online that he intended to sign with Cloud9. The article cited Twitch chat and never mentioned any attempt to reach out to Dardoch, Cloud9 or Team Liquid. Chen received harsh criticism on both Twitter and Reddit after the story was published.

Not every news story is (or should be) written for Reddit. It’s easy to fall into that trap because of the obvious way Reddit traffic fuels esports news outlets. But not every story is written for that specific audience, and it’s difficult for outlets to navigate reporting for the web and reporting for Reddit — two philosophies that don’t seem to agree with one another.

In today’s media landscape, aggregation is common when reporting about every scene. Almost every outlet does it to some extent (Heck, there was even an instance last week where Sports Illustrated aggregated its own content). The esports community sees aggregation differently because of the way Reddit works. Any story that has the same information as another one is removed from the page. The first (or sometimes, a later one with more upvotes and discussion) submission remains. So when news breaks, competing outlets aggregate because the item is newsworthy. The result is a flood of posts about the same topic to Reddit, and they can stay up for an hour sometimes before all the duplicates are removed. Seeing multiple posts about the same item of news (justifiably) annoys Reddit users, which has created angst among them.

The fundamental lack of understanding regarding aggregation leads Reddit users to have visceral reactions and claims of “clickbait” regarding many short, aggregated articles. Chen tweeted that he didn’t intend to post the story on Reddit, but it ended up there anyway, and the rest is history. He wrote a story for his entire audience, not for Reddit. Chen didn’t write an article because he wanted it to be on Reddit; he posted it because he thought it was news. The community did not see the difference.

To be clear, the article should not have been published in the first place, which PVP later recognized. But it outlines the greater challenges of publishing for Reddit and how that can be difficult for outlets (which is a misstep we also made this week with a story about Samsung Galaxy’s roster moves that had a poor headline, was posted by someone else to Reddit, and rightfully criticized).

Tomi “lurppis” Kovanen has been outspoken about his distaste in reporting roster moves before they happen. The topic resurfaced this weekend after Jarek “DeKay” Lewis broke a story about SK Gaming replacing Lincoln “fnx” Lau, and it was later found out that fnx learned of the move after it had been reported instead of from the team itself.

To lurppis (a regular contributor to Slingshot among his other ventures), reporting roster moves serves no greater good and benefits only the reporter breaking the news. His back and forth with Dot Esports’ Callum Leslie is interesting when it comes to gathering differing viewpoints.

There is some validity to what lurppis is saying. Roster moves generally don’t matter in a larger sense (I ask you this question: Name one roster transaction in the history of sports that mattered outside of its own ecosystem?), and reporting them is often more about reporters showing their ability to cultivate sources than of any need or greater good. But that’s not the point of reporting them.

A reporter’s job is to report news, and roster moves are news. The entire point of reporting is to add information to the market place, which makes the argument about whether or reporters should publish leaks irrelevant. Further, it would make no sense for a reporter to withhold a story when others surely wouldn’t. It’s not about being self-interested; it’s about not being self-destructive.

Slingshot Editor-In-Chief. Former newspaper reporter from Cleveland, Ohio, who appreciates clean copy and good Counter-Strike. You can reach him at Vince@slingshotesports.com

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