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Slingshot Media Column: Ferguson Mitchell of The Esports Observer

Media column Tim Sevenhuysen
In this edition of the Slingshot Media Column, Vince Nairn talks to Tim "Magic" Sevenhuysen about using statistics in writing about League of Legends.

(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!)

As a publication designed for people looking at esports from the business perspective, The Esports Observer has always taken a bit of a different approach to coverage than most media outlets in the space.

There won’t be the interviews or feature stories typical of most other esports publication on TEO, and there’s a common theme of business and bigger picture ideas that prevails through most of the site’s work.

Editor-in-chief Ferguson Mitchell has also taken a bit of an abnormal road to journalism, as he helped form an esports club at the University of California-Davis and simply started writing after that.

TEO has undergone a handful of changes in the last year and also came under the fire during the summer as the site’s undocumented backing from ESL co-founder Jens Hilgers was uncovered by Richard Lewis.

I talked to Mitchell about that incident, TEO’s tweaks and goals for 2017, and we went inside one of the major stories he broke about an alleged League of Legends dispute in November.

Vince Nairn: First of all, I know you’ve been around the esports media scene for a while, so I guess if you could, just give a brief rundown of how you got in in the first place and every step you’ve taken along the way

Ferguson Mitchell: Yeah, so it all started with StarCraft. I was about four years into a degree at UC-Davis that eventually took me seven years. I liked gaming and I got to StarCraft, and there was a club on campus. They were playing very casually, and this was around the time CSL was starting. So I helped our club form and did all the paperwork on campus, got all the club funding. And we competed in CSL and were pretty good for a couple years. We were one of the top teams in the nation. But then I graduated, and you can’t stay on a school-funded club as a random person. At the time I was transitioning to casting. StarCraft II, this was about 2012, it was starting to get into doom and gloom. There were a lot of concerns about the direction of the game. And so I started writing. I basically wrote a blog on Team Liquid called the Declaration of Interdependence, which was kind of a goofy blog. I had done some casual random writing before but this was my first esports piece. It was about how Blizzard held all the cards but it couldn’t have a successful esports culture without the community. You can’t just be by yourself as a game developer. So it went into the ways to interact with the esports community. From there, I used that and pitched to Brent Ruiz, who at the time was running ESFI World, who hired me as just a volunteer writer. I started doing match recaps and some other business stuff. I was big into the NFL at the time (and still am), so I was doing a lot of comparisons between traditional sports and esports. That was good for about a year. I did some coverage at MLG Anaheim. Chobopeon, Slasher — all the old school esports journalists, many of whom are no longer esports journalists. That went on for about a year and a half, I’d say. ESFI World, it doesn’t exist anymore. It was kind of trying to transition into being revenue positive. I remember being paid in energy drink packets. It was definitely a weird time for everyone. There’s many weird stories that happened. There was one time we snuck into the Marriott in Anaheim and tried to bluff our way into the Team Liquid suite. It was fun times.

Anyway, so that kind of ended, and I wanted to challenge myself to write. I started an independent blog, and I had a lot of time as I was trying to get a career. I currently work in the library of UC-Davis. At the time I had lots of free time, and I started an independent blog and challenged myself to write 500 words per day on some topic. About six months into it, the Daily Dot was forming, and I got a job. I was one of the writers there under Kevin Morris. His first hire was Patrick O’Neill, who is now doing politics writing out of San Francisco for I think still the Daily Dot. And a writer who doesn’t do any esports writing anymore, named Jeb Boone, who was also big into writing about Yemen. And he went on to write for VICE and a bunch of other places. But the Daily Dot, most people now know as — Sam Lingle joined us, and then we started to get some big names. Richard Lewis. Jacob Wolf, and kind of started to form this established media culture and journalism, and I think that’s in large part thanks to Kevin Morris because he has the traditional media background but also had this interest in gaming and was willing to put up with people like me, who had no background in journalism. I had an engineering background. It’s actually funny because as a student, I never got an A on a paper. I was a bad writer. I didn’t enjoy the process. I never put time into it. I was just not interested in writing. Then I realized you can just write about things you care about, and it’s way easier. So that’s how I kind of transitioned into becoming a journalist and analyst. So the Daily Dot went well, and I was there for about a year and a half and learned a lot of things and some of the skills. At the same time, I was also working full time and got married, had a kid. And then basically last September (2015), I was put in contact with the folks at the Esports Observer, specifically Thiemo Brautigam, and he asked me if I would consider taking more of an editorial role in writing about business. It was a different approach than what was done at the Daily Dot. It was much more general, sports-style approach there. It seemed like a better fit for my writing, and I also wanted to get more experience in editorial work. Throughout my role there, there’s been a lot of changing of the guard with the administrators, so now it’s me as the EIC there, with Chris Hana from Influencer.gg as the CEO.

VN: Your path is interesting because I think there are a lot of people who have or are on their way to doing something similar. You said you started out writing and knew nothing about journalism at all and have, I think, made a full pivot. Where did that shift first kind of start, and how did you evolve into becoming more of a journalistic thinker?

FM: It’s kind of almost second nature to the job. Because when you write about things and want to make a convincing argument, there’s a certain level of morality you have when you make arguments. The basics of journalism steer people toward that morality. You want to be using well-researched evidence and arguments that have backing that are supported by a lot of people, and not just random things people say. I definitely learned a lot of terminology and the methods of doing journalism by working with people like Kevin Morris. In terms of personal growth, it was confirming the type of writing I wanted to be doing the whole time.

VN: There was one thing I talked with you about doing, and let’s get into it now. You broke a story about the North American League of Legends teams signing their LCS agreement amid threats from Riot Games. Now, I think a lot of people don’t really know what goes into to reporting out a story like that, so let’s just kind of go through the process. First, when did you first hear whispers that this might have been going on, and what was your initial reaction in terms of what to do next?

FM: I heard it second hand, and when you hear something like that, it’s obviously a pretty dramatic thing. There’s a level of evaluating things when you hear these kinds of charges. When you hear about things anonymously. There’s a level of importance you assign. For instance, when you hear about Azubu not paying people, you think “Oh, of course.” But when you hear if Riot Games, for example, wasn’t paying people, that’s a much bigger story because Riot Games is a much bigger company and has also established a history of paying people. So you have to evaluate each rumor you hear on different levels. What I heard, which was Riot was basically using threats to coerce teams into sign on to next year, that’s huge. It also comes with a level of particular timeliness with what was happening between the debate between Marc Merrill and Andy Dinh during the summer and the formation of the PEA, what eventually led into at the time, this whole Counter-Strike situation between Counter-Strike organizations. So there’s definitely a level of importance. So when I heard the rumor, I had no way of verifying it. The sources were not providing me with any evidence. When I compare it to what happened a year ago with the Activision Blizzard/MLG buy, I had actual paperwork to go along with that. That kind of thing would be much harder to fake, and it turned out to be absolutely true. And my job there was just framing it correctly. This I had no way of verifying to be true. But when I heard it, and we heard it from numerous sources, it seemed important enough to broadcast.

VN: So you’re told this information, and as you said the magnitude is gigantic. So what is your process of following up from there? “Oh, I need to reach out to this person, but they might not know anything. If I ask this person, maybe that person hasn’t heard it and might tip it off to someone else.” How do you just kind go about trying to report out a tip like this that you said you initially didn’t have many ways to verify?

FM: There were so many moving parts to it. There was the rumor that Cloud9’s Challenger team, which had made it to the LCS, wasn’t able to be bought because Riot was blocking it. There was the rumor that poaching was going on. There were so many different elements you would have to verify to run it as a “this is actually happening” story. Because of the importance of it, I made the decision just to run it as a rumor and reach out to as many individuals involved in it as I could, which turned out to be every single team owner in North America and Riot Games. The only party that responded was Riot, and their response was a simple denial, which is fine. And I also had another individual reach out to me, another anonymous source I later updated into the story, that Echo Fox had already begun to poach in the context now that we know Riot put out that confusing statement. And there’s ambiguity about the contract database. There’s no way of knowing the full story. The way I look at it is there’s a gradient. There’s black on one side, white on the other. Some elements of what we reported may have been true, but the bottom line is what we were reporting at the time, the individual charges, I think was more a perception of people as they were hearing about it. Because threats are inherently a perception that you have. If we’re talking about a criminal trial, they have to fit a certain case. But in terms of how I was hearing it, it was definitely a perception. And you can imagine many different situations where Riot went to teams and said, “Hey, you haven’t signed the agreement for next year. If you don’t sign up, your players are going to be dropped.” That’s a very logical statement to say. Your players aren’t going to be protected by our poaching regulations because you are not a part of our league anymore. That’s a very logical thing to say, but depending on how you say it, you could be taken as a threat; it can be taken as hostile. It can be taken as any number of things. Additionally, how Riot communicates, they have official emails going out but they also meet in person with the team owners. Somewhere along the line, I think the sources I was hearing from interpreted what Riot was saying, either logically or illogically, as threats. And that’s the rumor I heard, so that’s what I ran with.

VN: So as you’re kind of going through that, I’m sure it’s not surprising to receive a denial from Riot Games. Then they follow it up a few weeks later with that confusing statement about Echo Fox. Still, at the same time, how do you go through the process of evaluating your own reporting? Even though denials are common and can be expected, did you ever have that hesitance of “Wait, did we do this right?”

FM: I mean, ultimately you have to look at the worst case scenario, which would be Riot saying no, all the teams saying no, and my sources (recanting). But that wasn’t the case. It was just Riot saying no. The teams never responded. I think Echo Fox issued a denial about Adrian when the score published their report. You have to make a decision in that moment. Is this news important enough to risk the blowback of getting it absolutely wrong? And in this case because it was so big, because the potential harm on Riot’s case if they were actually using threats, I determined that it was worthy to make it public because it’s so substantial if true. And it seemed logical it could be happening, and it seems logical that it could have happened. And I think it’s important for the community to be aware of the potential of this happening. And I think it’s important for Riot to be cognizant of how it frames different things, and can be interpreted by the teams that it’s talking to. I worked freelance for Riot for close to a year, and there were lots of communication issues when I worked there as a freelancer. It’s definitely something I could imagine happening where the esports department’s message is factual and not trying to be threatening, and then one individual in the esports department could have been joking around with a couple teams, and those been interpreted as threats. There are so many different things that could have happened in terms of communication breakdowns that led to that being interpreted as a threat or hostile. And it’s important for Riot to be aware that it needs to be very careful how it talks to these teams, especially after such a public argument about monetization and debates about relegation and the future basically, of how it structures its league.

VN What has your transition been like as the editor-in-chief of the Observer. What has the process kind of been like for you?

FM: I think it’s the difficulty of running media organizations, especially in such a niche market. Esports is big, but it’s still very niche. It’s still unclear exactly how to be successful as a media organization. There’s a lot of stress involved, and I think that’s why some people step back from roles or want to change, and it’s definitely something where it’s unclear exactly how to create the big names. Especially in the media department, there are people still vaunted as the end all, be all. The Richard Lewises and Thorins are still treated as they were when they were doing journalism. And they still do some journalism, but that’s not all they’re doing anymore. But that leaves questions for who steps up as the actual journalists to uncover these kinds of stories. It’s much more difficult because when you’re talking about funding, if it’s based on views it’s very hard to make a name for yourself as a journalist. Even in traditional media, people like David Fahrenthold, who spent the last two years tracking Donald Trump’s charitable contributions, he got very lucky to make a name for himself. And he still probably cost way more money existing as a journalist than he brought in revenue.

Definitely in esports we have a problem where subreddits and Reddit in general have a lot of power in terms of getting viewership, and it’s hard to develop a natural following. That’s something at the Dot we were very focused on getting people to visit the homepage. Now it’s interesting to see that approach being taken by TEO in our newsletter — we send out a newsletter every day. Seeing how people engage with those things. TEO in general is a very interesting experiment with what will work int eh future of esports because we’re not an outlet that works for traditional esports readers. We’re writing for the professionals. We’re writing for CEOs, for interested business people who may not be involved with esports at all but are interested in what it’s about. We want to put things in context. We want to put out explainers

VN: How did you kind of handle the situation in the summer between Richard Lewis and TEO, specifically one of your reporters at the time, Thiemo Brautigam, and the reporting about ESForce and Jens Hilgers and his ties to TEO?

FM: It was weird, and there was further communication breakdowns between Richard and me and my team that caused things to get a little bit personal. And also because I worked with Richard for close to a year at the Daily Dot. It was a weird story to me because I thought (Hilgers’ financial ties to TEO) was always public knowledge. I think a previous version of the website had something about him funding us or his ties to the company, and it disappeared. I may be wrong on that regard, but that was the impression I had at that time. It also kind of spiraled because no one asked us the question. “Hey does Jens Hilgers run you.” To which our answer would have been, “Yes.” Instead, the story came that we were trying to hide it or promote for ESL or all these companies Jens is involved in. And that isn’t the case. And I remember a conversation specifically when I was hired, with Jens. He said “Call me out on my shit.” He said explicitly that “The fact that I’ve given you money does not absolve me from criticism.” I think if you look holistically at our coverage, we have been critical of Bitcraft and G2, ESL and WESA. But how Richard Lewis chose to cover the story was to focus on an individual author and things he had written about instead of looking at the site holistically, which is definitely something you can do. But it was weird because it seemed like something we had never been asked about that was suddenly being publicized as something we’d been intentionally hiding. But personally, it was a good wake up call just to put that disclosure in. But it’s not something that has ever affected my writing. I was definitely very aware that Jens was soon thereafter criticized for that deal with Fnatic, and I try to put that in context whenever possible.

VN: That moment was just kind of crazy. I remember checking Twitter that day Richard came out with the video about it, and I just happened to see it. Were you paying attention? Did you have any idea what was happening? Or did you just check your phone and all of the sudden see this blowing up?

FM: Yeah, I live on the West Coast so I’m always a little behind on everything. It was weird, and there was definitely some miscommunication. I had talked to Richard on Skype, and then someone who didn’t know I talked to Richard on Skype said he never talked to us. And Richard was like “Yes I did. I just talked to Ferguson on Skype.” People can take thats tuff out of proportion and take that personally. It’s definitely a lesson to just wait a little bit and be patient and plan your responses accordingly instead of acting out passionately. I think that’s a good lesson for any journalist and any person on social media to take to heart. It’s something we could have put out immediately as a big statement immediately and been defensive about. Instead, we just chose to better in the future. And you’ll find, I hope, that anything we’ve written that has anything to do with Jens, we’ve put the disclosure in.

On The Radar

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

Mitchell’s comments above about the reporting of The Esports Observer’s November story about Riot Games were a bit disconcerting, specifically that he talked about reporting the story “as a rumor.” It was a significant walkback of the sentiment of the original story, as if the readers were supposed to know the report was based on conjecture and not fact — a distinction that was not made in the story.

Second, the idea of reporting anything as a rumor is troubling and undermines the process of journalism. A report should never come out based on “rumor.” If an outlet is reporting a bit of information, it should be because that story is 100 percent true. Reporting information “as a rumor” sets a dangerous precedent because the job of the journalist is to report what is actually happening and not feed speculation. An argument could be made that transparency in reporting rumors would help — some kind of disclaimer of “this is what we’re hearing but it’s not a certain fact.” — but that’s also problematic. Reporting on rumors is an inherent structural risk to the institution because the more people who do it, the more risk exists for misinformation. As readers see reporting on rumors normalized, there’s a far greater risk for error.

TheScore Esports came under fire recently because of its approach to aggregation, specifically with quotes given exclusively to other publications. The buzz started Jan. 29 after TheScore aggregated an article done by a writer for Esports Heaven identified as CyanEsports. The original article was an insightful look at how esports team owners decide what games to support, and it included interviews with compLexity’s Jason Lake, Splyce’s Marty Strenczewilk and Root Gaming’s Paulo Vizcarra. The aggregation, done by TheScore Esports a day after publication of the original, linked to the original article and published three of the quotes, making sure to cite where they came from.

Technically, that’s all TheScore was required to do. TheScore is probably the leader in esports news aggregation, and its practices are quite common in just about every other realm of journalism (politics, sports, breaking news, etc.). A quick glance at Sports Illustrated’s wire will reveal a bunch of 300-word stories with a quote given to another publication and some context around it. (Hell, SI even aggregates its own interviews sometimes, but that’s straying from the point).

The problem stemming from this particular story is a bit more layered. TheScore technically did nothing wrong, but there’s a general question to be asked when aggregating a story: What context is added in the aggregation? It’s one thing to throw context — or even additional reporting — around a quote or two given to another outlet and make that a news article. It just seems disingenuous when that concept is taken a step further, as TheScore’s article was more or less a rewrite of the original. Beyond that, there is an extra layer of heat when an outlet as large as TheScore, with more than 230,000 Twitter followers aggregates an article in such a manner from a smaller site.

Let’s be honest: Many readers — in esports, at least — gloss over the part where the original source is mentioned, and many might have thought TheScore (through no fault of its own) did the original reporting. (For what it’s worth, TheScore has aggregated multiple Slingshot articles in the same manner, and I had no problem with it).

TheScore was heavily criticized on social media, including from Strenczewilk, one of the sources in the original story. TheScore issued no response to any of the criticism, but its aggregation strategy has changed in the month since the incident.

Recent aggregations by TheScore have included a short summary of what’s in the story and a link to the original. That’s it. So though TheScore wasn’t technically doing anything wrong, the ethical shades of gray appear to have been eliminated.

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