Slingshot Media Column: Thorin on audience consumption, outlets’ sustainability and what the industry will be in five years

(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!)

The evolving esports media space has perhaps never been so robust, and there’s not anybody better to talk about it than Duncan “Thorin” Shields.

Thorin is a noted esports historian and writer, video podcast host and desk analyst. All of his experiences give him a unique angle on the industry and where it will proceed in the future.

I spoke with Thorin for the media column (an hour-long interview that will be split between this and next week) about changes he’s seen in consumption, how media outlets can become sustainable and where the power lies with journalists. Check out Part 2 in next week’s column. (Note: The interview was conducted audibly and transcribed and edited slightly for clarity)

Vince Nairn: Obviously you’ve been around this game for such a long time. Have you seen any changes in consumption habits of the audience over the years? How they digest articles, etc. What kind of shifts, if any, have you seen?

Duncan “Thorin” Shields: The big problem is in the early days, obviously, websites weren’t necessarily literally news websites. They were more like communities who had a news section. In those days, people would want to know stuff like a roster move or tournament change, but it’s not the same sort of delivery mechanism where news comes, there’s a press release, leaks, and things get out there. And then there’s journalists to put it out there. It had its own natural order as to how it all got out there, and it was a lot more scattered. The problem, I feel like, is we don’t really have a control group to know what that era was like in terms of consumption because you never were even close to the threshold.

A lot of how things were done back then, there weren’t even necessarily central sites. There would be the biggest site, which by de facto would be the central site. But in reality, a lot of journalists worked for one site here, one site over there. Often a community site might be a site in Denmark, a site in France, etc. So as a result, this is really early internet stuff, and in a way this is why hyperlinking existed. You’re not just gonna go to one website and get everything. Each site is going to re-post what they think is interesting. So it’s more like that. You’d be a member of the community in your country, and if you were really into the game, maybe you’d be going to the biggest site…Later you’d have SK Gaming and Got Frag, and eventually you get to and these websites. But it was more like you had the big community site, and then you have the regional ones.And so back then, I know in terms of consumption, there wasn’t really even a choice for the viewer. It was all in the hands of who was delivering the content. If you worked for a site, ignoring the big sites. Say you worked for a big site in a German community. It depended on how interested those journalists were in, say, top French teams changing players. If they were interested, maybe they’d link the news or maybe an interview with that player. It entirely goes, believe it or not, by the tastes of that person. So a lot of the journalists were the gatekeepers of the information because basically it comes down to whether they think it’s interesting or not and worth writing something about. That also means the content wasn’t the highest quality because that means it basically was rewriting other people’s news in your own words for their site and their community. I realize TheScore Esports thinks this is revolutionary shit, still, but that’s actually kind of low-effort content, believe it or not.

The key thing for me was when we came to the era of Reddit because it’s funny so many journalists think Reddit is a terrible thing and brings only bad things to the community. I think they’re too focused on the negatives, which are intensely negative and — more frustratingly — are entirely unnecessary. But if you had to actually do a plus/minus, I think it’s overwhelmingly a good thing that Reddit came along. Because the key thing Reddit did is it absolutely smashed the hierarchy and hegemony of the big sites. It meant that literally, you could be a nobody and write for a blog and do something that’s good, and it happens to catch that wave or frequency of people who read it and like it, and they’re the ones who encounter it first. If that happens, you could be a no-name person writing for some terrible blog, and you could be the No. 1 thing on Reddit. You could get all the traffic that the same piece written for the biggest site in the world, would also have got. Not entirely, because there will be some natural traffic, but in esports, especially early, Reddit really kicked off so big that I would say the vast majority of traffic still came through Reddit in that sense. So I think the good thing is even though it comes with the obvious downsides — you’ve got to court public opinion, and you’ve got to hit the right timing window, and all these other things that were never a factor before. Because obviously the upside of writing for the biggest website is you can write the most controversial column ever that no one agrees with, and it will still get all the traffic because people on the website will click it.

Sure, that aspect doesn’t fit the same way but I think that kind of the freedom aspect of Reddit is what changed the consumption of not only the fans, but the key detail is more importantly, it changed how the content provider delivered the content. And that, for me, is the most revolutionary aspect that’s happened over the last few years. Because that’s allowed people like me to essentially be freelance and yet have none of the downsides of working for a huge website. (I can) actually build my own brand outside of a website. These are all things that weren’t possible in the past.

VN: And the power has kind of shifted as well, right? Because the (big sites) had all the power because they could pick the stories outside their region to share. Now Reddit has that power. What are kind of the pros and cons that come along with that structure?

DS: The pros are that’s why journalists are now earning more than they ever have before. There was a brief period in time around the mid-2000s where journalists were starting to earn a decent amount, but that was largely just purely due to inflation of like internet sponsorship and that we hadn’t gotten to the point where there’d been another recession and kind of the dot com bubble burst. So that was essentially just, it wasn’t real. It was just market value going up by people investing money, which eventually, it turned out they hadn’t invested it wisely. So the scene went back about five years in pay. So they key with Reddit is this is all the traffic you bring in. And since a person can become a brand, and people will read that content. For example, people won’t just click on a link because it says “ESPN.” They click on the Reddit link usually if they can identify the writer of there’s an appealing title. I think it made the journalist the brand for the best people.

So for example, if someone like Fionn was writing for TheScore, but now he goes and works for ESPN, everyone who likes reading his stuff is going to go to ESPN. It’s not that people are going to the score and clicking around like, “Where are those articles I used to like?” I wonder who they were by.” No, they know exactly who it was by. So in that sense, it shifts the power to the journalists, which I think is a good thing. Part of the reason these sites could keep you under their thumb — and they’d never say it like this, but if you kind of characterized it “You know what? You’re the best writer in the world, and we’re paying you a pretty good salary. If we don’t employ you, and you go to another site, if they’re not as big as us, you won’t get the same number of hits.”-

In the Reddit world, you can take that audience with you. You probably brought that audience there in the first place. So it puts a lot of power in the journalists’ hands, and I think that’s why a lot of sites have stepped their game up. And that’s why people have had this mercenary style when sites pop up because these sites were never very loyal to the journalists in the first place. I think it is kind of coming home on that way for a lot of sites.

The downside for Reddit, and I’ve pointed this out as a good thing for big sites in the past. Essentially it’s the inverse. If you’re a really big site, and let’s say the editor of that site really does think I’m the best. He can hire me, pay me my salary, and I know I’m gonna get traffic on any of my pieces. So as a result, I have entire freedom on whatever I want to write. Now in the Reddit world, unfortunately, you are not gonna get traffic on certain pieces. And you might have a very fine-tuned sense on what they would be, but there are some where you still never know. This is a dynamite piece, home run, knocking it out of the park. I’m making great points, have a couple quotes, and you could post it, and it could get completely shit-canned within five minutes, and it’s a complete waste of all the time you put into that. That is intensely negative for a journalist, especially for a lot of people that come from print journalism. That didn’t exist. By the time someone buys a paper or magazine, they don’t have a choice to un-buy it and not read the article.

I also used to give this analogy. Reddit, the downside of it is downvoting. Obviously, that’s not what the system was designed for. They didn’t build it thinking people will just downvote all the shit they don’t like and therefore that stuff will disappear. They thought people will just be like mini janitors for us, and they’ll downvote stuff that’s not relevant, and then we’ll have a utopia where all the good stuff is on the site, and all the bad stuff that doesn’t need to be there will be removed. Instead, what people did was, “This is a really good article, but I don’t agree with it. Downvote.” So my analogy I always gave was Reddit is like if you read the newspaper on the train, because you’re reading it and it takes like 10 minutes, so you don’t need it anymore. And people will just leave the newspaper on the table or the chair, and the idea is the next person to come just has a free newspaper to read if they want, kind of just a polite thing to do. My analogy for Reddit would be if you came along and saw the newspaper and thought, “Well, not only do I not want to read it, but you know what? Nobody should read this,” and you go through and mark out all the articles. That’s the downside of Reddit, that someone can actually do that. And here’s the key point I make: If you don’t like an article, and you don’t want to read it, the right course of action is to do nothing. “It’s of no interest to me.” Unfortunately, people downvote, and making sure that (next) guy doesn’t even get to see it. That’s the intense downside.

People think they have to sort of court an almost kind of schizophrenic personality of the entire community as one person and figure out what this schizophrenic guy likes today and what’s going to go spastic over, and what he’s actually going to be willing to leave alone if he doesn’t like. So it puts people who are content creators in a really weird kind of neurotic frame of mind, I’ve noticed, because a lot of them are young as well. Maybe they haven’t thought about the industry too much. A lot of them do get tossed kind of to and fro with the waves of public opinion and what is successful and what isn’t. And like I say, there is no permanent thread running through what will succeed and what won’t. Even when you think you’ve nailed it, you’re gonna have failures. And by the way, it can go the other way, too. You can write a piece that you think is maybe OK, but “Oh wow, that’s my best piece ever (on Reddit).” I do appreciate being told my shit (work) is actually better than my other stuff. So content creators, this is the way you have to adapt, basically. This is the way the world works, and so even though it doesn’t make necessary logical sense, there is sort of a rhyme or reason to it, and you have to anticipate that. My approach is you just have to do enough good stuff that it will get through.

VN: What do you think about the ability to sustain for media outlets entering this space right now? A lot of them are tied to larger corporations, now, whether that’s ESPN or Yahoo. I know you’ve had personal experience working for a handful of outlets that tried to do this independently and didn’t necessarily survive. What do you think it takes to be sustainable if you’re an independent outlet in today’s esports media world?

DS: I think the big problem I see is when a lot of these outlets come in — this is probably the No. 1 problem with esports journalism, is when outlets come in, it feels like every year, there’s like 100 new people who want to get involved. Well what experience do you have? “None!” Have you ever done anything good? “No. I’m gonna start now!” Well why would you succeed? What field in the world can you just start and in six months be the best in? It would be a pretty fucking terrible field, wouldn’t it? That’s people’s entire plan. And it’s not just journalists, but these entire sites as well. So they come in, knowing very little about the space. Or even, present company excluded, having some experience in the field that seems like esports journalism, and they think “Oh, I’ve got this all figured out here.” And if anything, those guys are in the worst position. They have to almost unlearn what they knew before. And that takes longer than staring at nothing if you ask me.

So the big problem is I see a lot of these sites come in, and they have incredibly unrealistic expectations of what’s gonna happen. They don’t know this space, so they have notions like “If we get lots of traffic, we’ll succeed.” That’s as flawed as me making an esports team, getting a bunch of really good players, having a bunch of tournament success and going “Where’s my sponsorship? I should have the same that Cloud9 has.” Well have you looked at the industry? Cloud9 didn’t get those sponsors by being the best team. They got those sponsors by doing the best business. Id say that’s the model people need to have in esports journalism. It’s not about having the best articles or even the most traffic. But what can you parlay that into? So I actually think at the moment in esports journalism, it seems like it’s over-inflated because people like ESPN and TheScore came in, waving their dick just flashing loads of money to people. But if anything, those sites haven’t capitalized as much as they could.

If I had to guess, from having worked at OnGamers, which is part of CBS (Interactive). I know that in that world it wasn’t people at OnGamers who were striking deals and trying to sell ad space and stuff. It was the ad space office that worked for the whole company, and those people had no clue about esports. If I had to guess for ESPN, it’s probably a similar scenario. And as a result, I don’t think they’re even vaguely close to efficiency with what deals they could get for the traffic they get and the exposure they have. I think they’re in a terrible position. I think personally, my own personal sponsorship opportunities are incredible. That’s part because of the brand I built, and also because I have agents working with me who know the space. So I actually feel like some of these sites, with no exaggeration, should be doing million dollar deals per year for partnerships. This really should be the case when you consider the traffic.

One of the key disconnects between the esports industry and the mainstream — which still exists — is the thing the mainstream doesn’t understand yet is what an esports view is worth. They understand what a TV view is worth or what a radio (listen) or a print media view. They know exactly the metric for what that’s worth in dollar amount and therefore what you spend to get it. The problem in esports is they don’t understand how much 100,000 views are worth. If I tell them I personally can get them 500,000 views, they don’t understand how much it’s worth. So believe it or not, they amount they’ll offer to me might seem OK if I come from the doldrums of what esports was 10 years ago, but it’s terrible compared to what it’s worth if you had a radio show that got that much. If you were the Joe Rogan Experience and you got that much. You can definitely market up a lot more.

So I actually think that’s they key issue. We’ve got a lot of people coming into this space who are enthusiastic and want to do things. They don’t have a lot of the knowledge. So even if they get good writers and put out good content — which is the equivalent in my analogy of the team  having good players — that’s very different than having someone who is able to do the business. If you haven’t got someone who can actually do the business, if you haven’t got someone like Jack (Etienne, Cloud9’s CEO and founder), someone who really knows the industry and how to market that, get the most out of it and build relationships, then you almost can’t succeed. You will on some basic level because if you’re good, some people are gonna get involved with you. But you’re never gonna maximize it. You’re never gonna be efficient with it. That’s the big disconnect I think still exists, and I think it will be in the next five years where sites start to figure it out.

I actually think, believe it or not, that ESPN and TheScore will probably lag behind for a while because they don’t seem to be the people where high up they have the guys who know the business in terms of the esports side. They’re in the real world business, and they maybe know that, but there’s a disconnect in that company between esports people and non esports people. In my opinion, it would actually be someone like a Jack or maybe one of the guys from the CoD games. Hex from OpTic or hastro from EnVyUs. These guys seem to know what they’re doing with business They can build a championship organization whether the team’s championship level or not. If you put these guys with essentially the best players in journalism, and you’ve got a site that would be making millions and would be a massive player because we’re at the point now where you could be as big as like a Breitbart, if you really knew what you were doing in terms of esports journalism I think.

VN: That actually kind of leads into my next question, which is what do you see the esports media landscape looking like in five, 10 years from now?

DS: The reason why this is an incredibly open question and one that’s very fascinating is because it’s not just that esports is figuring that out, but esports is figuring it out and has the real potential to succeed in that area in a way that traditional online journalism can’t and is failing. We all know that the reason why games review websites are obsessed with identity politics — something that couldn’t be farther from playing fictional video games — is because how else do they get any traffic? They’ve got to write a column that somehow ties into that, gets some outrage, sparks discussion. They can’t just write a fucking review for a video game because nobody reads that shit anymore. No one trusts and no one cares. We can all read our friend’s review, who we know what his tastes are and has a way better sense of what a good game is. Traditional media is absolutely a drowning man flailing as he goes down, and good riddance. I hope he goes down in fucking Davey Jones’ locker and dies there.

The key for me is, that’s why I think these big entities who have come into esports actually are failing. They’re trying to do the same things they’re doing in traditional media, which isn’t working in itself, in a new community, and they don’t get why it’s failing. For me, the key transition point, I kind of alluded to it before, but the key point at which esports journalism — which, by the way, it’s already succeeding more than it ever has before. The moment it really hits the top end of the trajectory and supernovas, as it were, is the day (and I realize this is a failed experiment, but bare with me), someone like ESPN gives someone like — let’s say me. I think I’m a pretty good candidate — their own Grantland. That would be the world. Because that would be what I’m describing. Then you have someone who knows the scene, knows the people to get, knows the actual hierarchy that they’ll actually excel in, because obviously the secret to Grantland — which, by the way, Bill Simmons should have probably done some fucking work on that instead of just going on TV and being a dogshit analyst. In his day, he was a very good journalist, and the key to the success of Grantland was nothing to do with what Bill Simmons did. It was getting Zach Lowe and turning him loose, and giving him all the resources he needed to become probably the best sports journalist the world has ever seen. And do fantastic stuff, revolutionary content. Develop his own perspective, who now everyone who used to be a Bill Simmons fan would be like “Oh, this is the better version of Bill Simmons.” And everyone was on board. And as a result, that site was a phenomenon for a while.

Now I realize they fucked up the business part. They fucked up the hierarchy and what they unfortunately did was the guy who was the gatekeeper, keeping all the business guys away from the talented people, he, essentially, got the bop. Got the kibosh. So that’s unfortunate, but I think that’s what will be the obvious next step in esports journalism because the key detail that is also why people leave websites that were big website before — TheScore is a very good example. They’ve lost all their talent. All the top-tier writers are gone from TheScore, and that’s not just for dollar amounts. Some of those writers are so talented and had gotten to the point where they were making enough to make a comfortable living. You’re not gonna leave where you’re entrenched in, where you like the people you’re working with, a home that they’ve been a part of, something they’ve built, just for like $1,000 more. No, they’re not leaving for that much. The real reason some of these people leave is because the description I gave before about how the power has shifted to the journalists. Esports sites know that. They understand because they had to live through that. Big sites that came in, TheScore and ESPN came in and have all this money, “Hey, you’ve written some things. Come work for me” and didn’t know they were hiring like the best guys in the scene.

They think they bought those guys. And they think it’s the old world where, “Oh, you have to write for me, right? We’re TheScore.” Well no way. I can go anywhere I want. So the key thing to me is at the moment you’re starting to see some of those sites give concessions, and that’s how you get some of those people to come to your site. “I’ll give you as much or more money, but I’ll also give you these freedoms and the budget to do something else creatively. I’ll give you a little more say in how things are run, perhaps.” Because the reason why you’ll probably never see Thorin write for ESPN, TheScore — any of these big sites — is primarily because not only do I get maximum freedom and still the ability to make money. More importantly, it’s the restrictions placed upon you that, for me, are just unacceptable. For example, they would tell people who wrote for their sites, “Yeah, you can’t on any sort of regular basis appear on anyone else’s podcast.” Anyone from esports would realize how ridiculous a premise that is. Because you’re not buying a guy’s soul. You literally lose nothing from him going onto another podcast. He wasn’t gonna do that podcast for you anyway. And you lose the exposure and cross-pollination from someone else’s site, someone else’s podcast.

That’s a perfect example to me of where they’re unnecessarily restrictive in the way an old school office job would be, but we’re not in an office and that’s not the world we live in. And also, the just don’t understand the world of esports journalism and how media works now and the fact that actually you want people to be everywhere. You want exposure to be everywhere. You want all roads to lead back to Rome in terms of your site. Essentially you’re going to have to cede some of the power because you realize the brand isn’t just you. It’s gonna be you and your writers. But in doing so, I think you’ll only gain. So personally, the next step is when you get the site that’s like the halfway point between the old school big media site and esports people. It’s kind of like a mixture of who’s in control there. They can have say over the money things. But the esports people have to have some say in it. They don’t have just some editor who just came into esports because that, to me, is the big flaw, thinking that the old world way will work in esports.

On The Radar

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

As Thorin mentioned above, TheScore has lost perhaps its two best writers in the last few months. Kelsey Moser left in December to join Yahoo, and Emily Rand announced Feb. 21 she was leaving TheScore, with her future destination not yet announced.

Likewise, Tim Sevenhuysen, a regular contributor, hasn’t written a story for TheScore in almost two months. There has been a noticeable shift in TheScore’s content recently, which has coincided with the departures of Moser and Rand, two of the most respected writers in League of Legends. Taking into account Tyler “Fionn” Erzberger’s departure from TheScore for ESPN last year, and it’s a significant hit to the outlet’s written content.

TheScore is still the dominant news aggregator in esports, as outlined a few weeks ago, but there has been less original content and more evergreen stories (top five lists, etc.) than usual in recent weeks.

The first editions of TheScore’s podcast have been good, and there have been solid guests, including Liquid co-owner Steve Arhancet and former League of Legends pro Marcel “Dexter” Feldkamp. TheScore has also started streaming on Twitch with video producer/editor, Lisa Doan.

Twitter’s deal with the ESL and DreamHack to live stream all ESL One, IEM and Dreamhack events (in addition to Twitch) seems like a smart move for the social media platform. If viewers don’t have to leave the platform to be able to watch and comment on an event, it makes sense. That said, it’s difficult to influence a large group of users to migrate from one platform to another, especially with how much of a giant Twitch has become.

The other potentially fascinating part of the deal is the weekly highlight show that will be exclusively streamed on Twitter. The idea of an esports highlight show — a SportsCenter for esports, for better or worse — is a new concept. It’ll be interesting to see how it turns out. In one respect, a well-produced highlight show with analysis and breakdowns of the week doesn’t exist and is a niche that could be filled. At the same time, the availability of highlights as they happen has largely made wrap-up shows like this obsolete — which is the same sort of dilemma ESPN’s SportsCenter has tried to navigate in recent years. Still, a commitment to live esports programming from Twitter is intriguing and definitely worth monitoring.

Richard Lewis has launched his own website where viewers can find all his videos and written content. Lewis is the top reporter in esports and is currently a host for Turner’s ELEAGUE.

Lewis’ website is basic but crisp. It includes links to all his videos and written work you won’t be able to find on the ELEAGUE website. He coincided the launch with the release of The Gonzo Awards, his annual venture to talk about the worst of the worst in the year of esports.

Make sure to check out previous editions of the Slingshot Media Column with guests Tomi “lurppis” Kovanen, Ferguson Mitchell, Travis Gafford, Kevin Knocke and Kevin Morris

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

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