Slingshot Media Column: Travis Gafford on Yahoo’s goals, investigative journalism and conflict of interest

(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!)

The first year of Yahoo’s venture into esports has been interesting, to say the least.

The publication launched its esports vertical in March, with interviewer Travis Gafford among the first hires. The results have been mixed depending on who you ask. Gafford’s League of Legends interviews have always been popular in the community, and Yahoo also hired respected FGC writer Michael Martin and, more recently, League of Legends analyst Kelsey Moser.

Yahoo has come under scrutiny for its relationships with the organizations it covers. Yahoo partnered with the ESL in August, and Gafford’s coordinated announcements with Riot Games and League of Legends teams have sparked questions (mostly within the media) about conflicts of interest and how Yahoo views journalism.

I talked to Gafford, Yahoo’s director of esports, this week about his career, Yahoo’s goals, investigative journalism and conflicts of interest.

Vince Nairn: How did you get into all of this? And what was your experience like at each step leading you to Yahoo?

Travis Gafford: I think a lot of people, I get a lot of messages from people who want to get into the scene, and they ask me how I got into this, sort of looking for a template to go off. It’s funny because I don’t think anyone could use me as an example for themselves. In 2011, I had just graduated from Long Beach State here in California and had a degree in communication studies. I wanted to work in some capacity in the video game industry. I had been watching StarCraft 2 esports for a while I also played League of Legends but wasn’t following the competitive scene. I applied for a job at Riot, went through interview process, didn’t get it. I was very bummed about it. Then I was actually going to apply for an entry level job doing QA for a third party contractor at Activision.

I ended up meeting Doublelift, and that’s an entirely different story. But he ended up living with me for a brief time. Within a couple weeks, he had decided he wasn’t going to go to college and was gonna do esports full time. I remember having this conversation with him and I told him I want to do esports. And he said I should interview players. I had a degree in communication studies. And I wondered why don’t I care about League of Legends esports the same way as I do StarCraft? Nobody’s telling the stories of the League of Legends players. There was no access, no gateway to learn about any of this stuff.

So I started this podcast, which I thought I’d just put it on a resume at some point. It ended up being really popular. I ended up working at MLG Providence in Rhode Island whenever that League event happened a couple months later, and I went full time into it (later).

VN: What was the landscape like at that point? As you said, there really wasn’t anybody doing this. How did you try to figure out what to do?

TG: It was funny. It was pretty much just, Peter and there was another pro, SYDTKO, at the time that Peter was friends with. They introduced me to different people, and I eventually met Dyrus and others. He was on the second episode of State of the League. And I was just kind of posting on to Reddit because no one was doing that stuff at the time. I’d love to see a way to find what the subreddit was like in 2011 because it was so much different. But I just started putting my podcasts on there. And yeah, people were really receptive. And then just taking the feedback. People kind of give me crap for being monotone now, but back then, despite having a degree, I wasn’t the best presenter or host. It was just kind of grinding away at it. Even now, I think so many pro players are concerned about what they’re going to say and how they sound. Now I’m trying to live up to a standard and wonderful work with Yahoo media team. Back then, it was just I recorded this thing and put it out there.

VN: Yeah, what have been some of the biggest differences you’ve noticed in regards to covering this industry from the time you started interviewing people and where we are today, with more people — and more mainstream media outlets — in this space.

The super easy one is just the production resources. When I started my podcast, it was me with a webcam and just no good gear. For instance, I was super excited when Razer noticed my podcast and sent me a headset. About a year later it was me with a handycam that I had to save up to buy. $450. And I had this crappy Sony microphone. I was talking to Ariel Horn (Riot Games executive producer) about this, and the first event he did was PAX in 2012, I think. And I had flown myself up there and was sitting at an airbnb, handycam and microphone and was just doing my thing. Then this year, at worlds, just a couple years later, I invited him into a studio that Katie Couric does stuff in and this whole control room. It’s hilarious to look at how much the stuff has evolved over the past four years. For the longest time I was working out of my bedroom, now there’s an office and producers and we can all work together to create very cool content. And I think just generally standards have risen on the stuff that gets reported. We were all kind of just out there on our own for a while. There are now people doing this as amateurs are getting feedback and guidance from industry veterans. A lot of really good improvements overall.

VN: What is your editorial philosophy at Yahoo? There’s this ongoing debate between journalism and content creation and the differences among them. Where do you think Yahoo falls within that spectrum?

TG: I think if you look at the work we do here, we definitely stand as not just a content creation group, but also a real editorial voice and reporting group, whether it’s us reporting on the news and the roster changes — and you can see all the news Kelsey (Moser) is doing every night with the Chinese league right now — or whether it’s me sitting down with the co-heads at Riot with all that happened with the BAMTech deal. We really want to provide our viewers with content that feels real. That being said, I think we also know that a great deal of esports is the fun and personality aspects. A great deal has been built off that. The personal mission I had when I started was to help create fandom in the League of Legends space. That has kind of echoed out here as well. If you look at some of the pieces we’re producing — if you look at Froskurinn piece we did recently, it went really in-depth with her — I think a lot of what we’re doing here is the storytelling.

VN: Is investigative journalism a mission of Yahoo Esports?

TG: I think that when there’s an opportunity — and here’s a bit of the situation. We don’t really have investigative journalists on staff who do this as a main gig. And if we were to do a lot of that, we would want to make sure we have all the right resources and tools. But I’m never going to go off and pursue a project like that without the right resources. And quite frankly this space has very few people who can tackle that sort of thing.

VN: Yahoo has partnerships in the esports with organizations — ESL comes to mind first. How do you handle any conflicts of interest when it comes to covering organizations you have these corporate relationships with?

TG: All of our media members, content producers and talent are very set apart from all that stuff. Those things that happen are controlled through Biz-Dev people, partnership folks. There’s a lot of different sections. For instance, I report to the VP of sports, who is in the media org. There’s a different org who handles that stuff. And the mission that I think I give everyone here is you can say whatever you need to. I think I was very critical and people on our staff were very critical of some of the things in the industry have done, whether they be our partners or not. I think I was able to press Whalen and Jarred on a lot of the issues at Riot. Whenever (IEM) Oakland was kind of a bust, anyone on our staff was free to talk about that. If you look at traditional sports as well, I think there’s a lot of the same kind of things.

VN: How do you measure success for Yahoo Esports? What are your goals as an editorial outlet?

TG: Setting aside any sort of metric, it’s really just the relevancy we feel we have in the space. It’s really great whenever any of the fans come up and say they like a story we did. I was really proud of the reporting we did on the BAMTech deal. When I went to MLG Vegas, people came up to me. I think getting that kind of feedback and feeling that we have that kind of recognition as doing this at the highest level.

VN: For many outlets League of Legends kind of reigns supreme in terms of coverage. How do you go about mapping out coverage plans for everything else?

TG: There’s a lot of different factors to it. Hard to say any one thing. Some of it is the staff. I try really hard here and I think our whole organization does to identify really talented people and bring them on. If we think that Smash is a big deal and we can find somebody who’s really great at Smash, bringing them on is fantastic as well. Beyond that, I think there’s also just this general understanding of what games seem to be on the rise. Overwatch is one that I think you’ll see more next year. Maybe we should do more Overwatch coverage or we should try to get set up to do more. Just sort of thinking it out that way.

VN: How do you treat Reddit? And how has the evolved through the years? It’s a lot different when you’re just a guy with a podcast compared to being a part of a large corporation.

TG: In the beginning, I think for me, again didn’t really know what I was doing. I still am in my mind a member of this community, but back then I was just random guy who went to the subreddit every day. I would just say what I want, and there were no repercussions on whatever I said. Now, obviously, the things that I say have repercussions. And people would sometimes incorrectly apply what I say as being not just my opinion, but a reflection of the company I work for. I think generally there’s just a more controlled approach for me and thinking before I say something. At the same time, I really still believe in engaging with our audience. “Hey, this is something I think maybe we went above and beyond on.” It’s really valuable and helps people understand we’re not just throwing things together haphazardly.

VN: You recently hired Kelsey Moser, who is someone most known for her writing. Do you expect her to continue to write? Or will there be more of a video focus that falls in line with most of what else you do?

TG: She’s gonna keep writing, but we really want to do more video stuff with Kelsey. Even in the weeks before she joined us, she was doing stuff on her YouTube channel, and I thought it was really well done and received well. She’s dedicated to improving on video. That being said, she isn’t going to be based in LA for the first part of the year. She’ll be going back to Shanghai to continue her studies over there. Similar, Michael Martin is based out of Seattle. So it’s figuring out the best way to integrate her. But the short answer is yes, she’ll be doing more videos.

On the Radar

(A rundown of important stories in the esports media realm and analyzing what they all mean. With the holiday approaching and an otherwise slow week in the media, there’s only one item today. Expect more when the Slingshot Media Column returns after the New Year.)

With the year coming to an end, it’s worth revisiting the launch of esports verticals at Yahoo (above) and ESPN. Both have been fascinating to monitor. ESPN’s launch in January was met with skepticism from a community that is famously reluctant to mainstream outlets. There was also the odd disappearance of Rod “Slasher” Breslau, one of the outlet’s first hires, only to have him reappear months later as an Overwatch interviewer for Yahoo with no explanation about any of it.

Overall, ESPN’s foray into esports has gone about as expected: It has focused on the foundational aspects of traditional sports journalism (roster moves, previews and recaps, features, podcasts, power rankings) and translated it to an esports audience. The company also went all out for coverage of the League of Legends World Championship and had its own analyst desk and a host of people reporting. There are points of criticism, as there will always be with the Worldwide Leader, but it’s clear ESPN has taken its esports coverage seriously, which was a major concern within the community upon launch.

 

Slingshot Editor-In-Chief. Former newspaper reporter from Cleveland, Ohio, who appreciates clean copy and good Counter-Strike.

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