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Slingshot Media Column: Thorin (Part 2) on broadcast rights, how he defines good work and which players would make good casters

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 Enjoy!)

In Part 2 of my interview with esports historian Duncan “Thorin” Shields, we talk about the impact of broadcast rights on the future of esports, why podcasts and videos are important and what he considers “good content.” Make sure to check out Part 1 here. (Note: The interview was conducted audibly and transcribed and edited slightly for clarity)

Vince Nairn: You’ve become somebody recently who’s become, I’m not sure advocate is the right word, but somebody who identifies and tries to help lesser known writers in the space. You’ve done that with Stuchiu. WallabeeBeatle is another guy now who fits that description. What do you consider good work? What are the things you look for when you’re looking for those people who might be a little under the radar of the community?

Duncan “Thorin” Shields: First and foremost, there’s gotta be something appealing about it. And almost always, the most appealing thing you can find is a different point of view. And when I say that, people are gonna think, “Oh, does that mean controversial?” or it has to be like “No one’s ever thought this before.” No. This is actually a theory in life I have as well. Fans who think someone is controversial almost always don’t understand the concept of personal expression because the more personalized it becomes, it will naturally come to represent that individual. So the point is me and some of the people you’ve listed off here could all write an article in which we say the favorite for the tournament will win the tournament. So there’s nothing controversial about that. All of those articles would be so different from each other because of what different of people we are, how different our experiences of the same basic materials will be, and what we then do with it. For example, someone like Stuchiu is going to take a different storyline and run with it than I am. He’s going to craft it a different way, and he’s going to qualitatively judge certain criteria above other criteria that I might personally prefer. So then we’re gonna end up with this — you can’t necessarily say interesting because that’s something completely subjective and in the eye of the beholder — but it’s going to be tailored to our entire perspective.

So that’s they key for me. That’s the No. 1 key in esports journalism, assuming you want to do that kind of feature content, or you want to to be a podcast personality. You got to build up your personality, essentially. And then your work is gonna be something that is like a byproduct of your personality and the way you think, and the way you see the world. So the people who have the basics of that, like on an initial basis, they’re the ones that catch my eye first. Because I’m reading their stuff, and maybe they don’t know the industry or they don’t know many of the things behind the scenes, or maybe they’re even new to that game. So they’re probably not going to have some amazing insight that blows my mind and I’m gonna say nobody has ever said that before. But the way they write it, I’ll start to get interested in both the article and their way of seeing the world. That’s what makes me want to read the next piece. I want to know how they’re going to see this thing.

So let’s say, for example, so G2 just made the new super team (in CSGO). That’s gonna be a really good team. But what about this guy? What would his world view be? What would he tie it into? What would he contrast it with? That’s the main thing that always interests me initially. First and foremost, I just like to read those people’s stuff. Beyond that, I want to see how they write. Writing is a skill, so if they develop that, it can become good in a sense of technically. But obviously, you never go through an article and think “This is just fantastic technical stuff. All the content was shit, but it was so technically good.” Nobody gives a fuck about the best guitarist in the world where all his songs suck. Whereas The Ramones, one of the all-time greatest bands, they wrote all their songs on one note of the fucking guitar, and they have about three chords in their entire catalog. But it’s fantastic shit. So you’ve got to grab people with the content first, which is always what gets my attention. And then yeah, maybe more so than other people, as a general thing in life. It’s an incredibly naive world view, but I just get pissed off. My super power is the ability to every day wake up, erase from my mind the reality that the world is harsh, cruel, uncaring, unfair — there’s actually no concept of fair and unfair, good and evil, anything like that in the entire universe — and then re-engage with the world, and then get upset that things aren’t fair, just, kind, the way they should be.

That annoyance is what makes me in this particular case want to promote these people and be like, “These people are so good. Does everyone else not know this guy?” Or “Hey, you have a site, right? Do you have any openings?” Obviously, if I like some of these people enough that we build up some kind of personal connection, then sometimes, yeah. I’ll help them out a little bit or give them some pointers. But I will just say, to conclude this rant, one thing that is not a way to grab my attention is to try to forcibly hold me hostage and say “Look at my piece of shit article that’s the third thing I ever wrote. It’s pretty sick, right?” Or to ask me “How do I become good at this?” Fuck off. Imagine going up to a really good guitarist in a band and going “I’m thinking about starting lessons. How do I become really good at the guitar?” Get the fuck out. That is so obnoxious. That is not the way to get people’s attention.

VN: What are your general thoughts about the idea of broadcast rights? Especially when you think about the Riot/MLBAM deal that Richard (Lewis) broke a couple months ago or just the general idea that maybe this is going to shift sooner or later?

DS: This is basically the secret narrative of the esports industry from about the last two years or so, which is that if you don’t understand the basis of how sports broadcast rights work and intellectual property and online media, then it doesn’t matter how you try to dig in and interpret every industry topic that’s come along in the last two years. You will always be kind of missing the point. You won’t be getting to the pulse of the issue. Because all of this industry politics and the back stabbing and deals and counter deals and people trying to make a coup over here. And people trying to start a league, and trying to deny people from starting a league — it’s all ultimately based around the notion that at the moment esports is a million dollar industry. But if broadcast rights exist and big players come in and bid for those broadcast rights, it then takes that exponential step up to become a billion dollar industry. And the day that happens, that’s the table everyone wants to be sitting at.

It doesn’t matter right now if you get to be the No. 1 league and you can succeed and make the millions. Everyone at the moment is going all in at the moment — or heavily investing — at the notion that they want to be the someone who survives the steel cage death match royal rumble scenario when someone at the end is gonna emerge, and they’re gonna have the broadcast rights to sell to a massive company — maybe a TV station, maybe someone outside, maybe some sort of just a sponsor — for billions. That’s the point. The ESLs of the world. ECS was obviously massively playing into this. These people all want to be either the people who sell the rights, or then it’s the people under them who aren’t in a position to gamble for that. They want to align themselves with the right people so they can then get a part of the money. This is one of the things people never understood with the players rights issue and PEA. The big deal with the PEA issue had nothing to do with players picking where they compete. That was the surface level issue the players wanted to take umbrage with themselves because they weren’t convinced PEA was going to succeed and they didn’t know if they could believe the people within their orgs, and they thought their owners were maybe trying to hoodwink them.

But the key detail there was it was about teams trying to get in on broadcast rights in the future and try and make profit themselves, not just be someone who competes in ESL and it’s like “Here’s your prize money!” I don’t get any of that. It goes to the players. “Well congrats for taking part! Now I take all the millions.” They wanted to be in the model where it’s like “Oh well here’s my cut of the pie.” It’s like that Simpsons episode where that guy’s on trial and that witness comes in and gives an obviously forced testimony and it’s like “My laundry is done” and they hand him the sack with the big money sign on it. People wanna be the guy getting the sack with the money sign. At all levels of hierarchy, people are trying to figure out how to get involved with the broadcast rights that they think will inevitably come. I don’t know if they ever will, and certainly some will come. But I don’t know if it will ever be the billion dollar level. The most amazing thing to me about the Riot/MLBAM deal is that from what I can tell it’s not even exclusive. I don’t know which old school executive made that deal and thought he signed some killer deal because as far as I can tell, they took everything from this guy. They took his lunch box and everything. He’s got nothing now. He traded everything for like a toy dinosaur with a broken leg. I don’t know what that guy thought he was getting in that deal.

So if that’s the type of deal, it shows the mainstream doesn’t really understand this industry yet. Maybe we’re still further away than people think. Actually, I think a lot of people investing in teams right now, putting millions in, I think they might be getting a little hasty if they can’t survive like five more years. But it does seem like if the trajectory continues, one day broadcast rights will be the ultimate money maker. If anyone knows anything about all the American sports, that’s the one thing that all activity is based on when they unionize. All unionized behavior in lockouts is about getting more revenue to them than the owners. And then with the owners and the league, it’s all about who gets what part of the pie. And then in football in Europe, massive transfers were spurred on and inflated by broadcast rights on television and that becoming the biggest thing. So as much as it’s great that a fan buys a jersey and you can win prize money, and that someone sponsors a tournament, that is all small potatoes if one day someone is paying $2 billion to broadcast — I won’t say the LCS because obviously let’s all hope they’re dead and gone and well buried by that point in time — but I’ll be kind and say ESL Pro League. Now I’m really thinking 5-10 years, right?

VN: And how do you see the fight for broadcast rights, especially when thinking about large media entities entering this space like Yahoo and ESPN. How does that potentially lend itself to conflicts of interest? We’ve already seen Yahoo enter a partnership with the ESL. How do conflicts of interest kind of affect what happens ethically in this space?

DS: I think unfortunately, if you’ve studied the sports world like I just described, it’s just going to be part of the territory. If you look in American sports, part of the broadcast rights is not one company owns all the broadcast rights. In the NBA playoffs, they all bid for each specific part of the playoffs. They clearly got a deck of options and it depend on how much money you got and who has the most money. For instance, we all know TNT doesn’t do the NBA Finals. They do the Western Conference finals and that’s it. To me, media companies themselves, that’s something they wanna do as well. Because in some sense it’s a power dynamic here and in this sense, it’s who can deliver something more exclusive to their viewers, and they themselves wanna get involved in the broadcasting spectrum. Obviously they’re not directing profiting from the broadcast itself and the money that generates. They’re profiting from carving out some exclusive component to the media content delivery, which the other site which might be just as well funded or have the same traffic, but they don’t have that because they couldn’t get that deal. The downside is obviously the conflict of interest to me is going to massively affect the success of some sites — which people they partner with. The flaw I see there is there’s an obvious in for corruption where big league and big teams and whoever else partners with certain sites can obviously influence certain sites and what the cover, what they suppress. But unfortunately that’s just part of the industry.

One of the things that was really underdeveloped in the early days of esports was no one even used to go to players and teams once news was known and say “I’m going to publish this now. Just a heads up.” And the reason no one did was no one understood, like in real journalism, that you don’t — unfortunately you can’t always use every leak you get. This is what people started to do in 2010 or so, like Slasher, or Richard later, began to understand this concept and use it sometimes. One of the reason like every big story gets out, what used to happen is those same stories might have broken, but the guy who would have broken those stories, his editor goes “Listen, I know this is a good story. And you have a lot of good stuff here and you have nailed those bastards, but we’ve gotta go to them, unfortunately. We’ve got to tell them about this because they might be able to offer us something bigger than this.” Squash that story or publish it a week from now and in return I’ll give you a bigger story, or something to you that is a bigger story but might be a smaller story to us. A trade of value. People tried this at times in esports. It was one of those examples where I think Slasher did a deal with Evil Geniuses once, not to reveal that he knew a player was being signed and in exchange he got the first interview with that player. I forget who it was. It might have been someone in StarCraft. But he got the first feature interview with that person.

So yeah this stuff has happened before, but unfortunately, those backroom shenanigans are only gonna become more prevalent as more money and more power gets in the scene. While in that sense I think it’s somewhat harmless — assuming you’re not trading (a story) that’s like “Yeah, all these guys are fucking kids, so give me a sick announcement about a sponsor you got.” Obviously not that sort of ethical trade. But unfortunately when it gets to the level where league can have an influence over people, it’s obviously going to negatively affect journalism, but it’s also going to be part of the path up to people having more power in journalism. Unfortunately it’s a give and take scenario.

VN: In addition to being a writer and journalist in that sense, you’ve also made a shift to being a desk host. It’s interesting because we’re getting to the point where that first wave of players from what I guess we call the modern era of esports is getting ready to finish playing. It seems like the natural progression is wanting to become an analyst or caster or desk host. Who are some of the players you think that are in the game right now who would make good on-air talent, in CSGO and League of Legends?

DS: The big problem is, in CSGO especially it’s a lot more limited because you have to be able to speak English fairly fluently. So that limits a lot of our talent just because of the incestuous nature of CSGO. We don’t split up teams and make them all speak English. There are a bunch of people who would have a fantastic mind for the game or even have entertaining personalities that just wouldn’t be comfortable on camera. An obvious person for CSGO — I actually think he could be the best analyst — is Ex6tenz. This is someone who if he spoke really fluent English — he does speak English, he just doesn’t choose to, and he lives in that hermetically sealed bubble in Belgium where he doesn’t have to, for some reason — but he could be an on camera analyst and I think he could add a a little entertainment, understand how to work with his teammates. He could be the best analyst. I would love to see this guy do a weatherman segment and break things down. Think of all the things we could do in that sense. Unfortunately, it’s someone where it’s almost certain he’ll never go down that path.

They themselves have locked themselves off for it. CSGO is a little trickier, and in general in CSGO I feel like I would end up going with people who are more entertainers. I think the flaw is that a lot of the people in CSGO, I know from first hand experience, there were ex-pros who came and tried to do it. If you notice, almost every single one quit after three or four events. And what the fans don’t understand is those guys didn’t quit because they don’t enjoy money or don’t enjoy getting paid to watch the games and give their opinions. They quit because they didn’t think it was worth it for the lifestyle. The amount of hours you have to sit there and not do stuff, and the very little free time you get. And the fact that you have to travel a lot again just like when you were a player. This is a massive strain on a lot of them. So a lot of them (do something else). People like (Sean Gares), he’s an example of someone also who probably should be an analyst if you wanted to do something that would ultimately make you the most and increasing your personality. There’s another person who’s universally loved. Good image. But you don’t see people in a rush to do it. Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of things that put them off. In CSGO, I’m trying ot think of my dream pick if they could already speak English, had good comms, etc. If you let me coach him, this is the key detail, OK.

NBK could be the ultimate one. First of all, the bastard’s good looking, which we all despise. He’s actually very good at the game and played all the roles. He’s been on all these different teams, and he’s actually committed himself to speaking English for a long time, so his English is pretty good. But more importantly, I would not allow him to get a speech coach. Because I don’t know about you, maybe it’s just the English ear, but I really love super hard, fucked up French accents trying to speak English. I don’t like it when they learn English and learn to tone it down a little bit. I want NBK, happy, shox, all of these guys to speak English through their French accents. It’s more entertaining to me. It sounds sicker. It sounds like a really cool accent. The thing about NBK and why I would have to coach him is I’d like to see him be a bit more savage. He’s played the game — the political game — too well. He’s a really nice guy who says all the right things, you know.

Despite Reddit, which thinks he’s just a cryer or whatever. But he does a very good job of that, so I think his problem would be to be good on television, he would just need to bring out a little bit more of the fire. A little bit more of the personality. Which, by the way, is absolutely there. This is how different somebody can be in person and in game. In person, he’s incredibly amiable. Incredible guy. Entertaining. And yet as a player, many of his teammates think he’s an overly serious robot who’s too driven at the game and doesn’t chill out enough. It’s like a night and day contrast. I just wanna marry some of that outgoing part with the rest of it, and I think he’s got the whole package,

In League of Legends, I’d say most of those players are so overrated on desk it is fucking unbelievable. Most of them are just garbage. Most of them just come on and give very watered down, simplistic answers. That’s why I think it’s hilarious the idea that because you’re not a pro player, you don’t know much about the game. Mate, go and listen to some of those people who were active LCS pros when they go on the desk. They give the most ABC crayon colored answers and explanations for things. “Oh yeah, I think it was that the first gank against them that is why the game started in a bad way.” Sound. Fantastic job there, mate. Some of them are really terrible. So you need people who are real thinkers. I’ll tell you one where this would be my dream pick for League of Legends because this guy has it all. You know how I said in CSGO, if I could really pick anyone with no restrictions, I’d pick Ex6tenz, right? The one guy who everyone has fucked up in League of Legends by not getting is nRated, the guy who was the support player for SK Gaming and Fnatic before that, a couple years back. This guy has good English. He’s outgoing. He knows all the players. He has played a long time. And his mind for the game, like figuring out what’s happening and how the meta evolves and adapting, it’s so good. He’s the kind of person who literally every time I interview him, it’s like, “OK. I put up my feet. Here’s the question.” And then I sit back and listen. “I can’t wait to hear where he’s gonna go with this.”

A pretty good NA equivalent, not quite as good but I think he’s a really good thinker as well is Scarra. It’s no surprise at all that he eventually got into it. Those are my favorite interview subjects. The guy who I’m gonna do an hour and a half interview, and I’m only gonna ask nine questions because there’s not gonna be time to ask any more questions. And I hope they’re good questions. I’m not gonna ask any filler. I’m just gonna ask the question, and they’re gonna talk for 15 minutes. Tell the whole story, take me through all the aspects. And these guys, each answer is like a Thorin’s Thoughts video. People are always like “How do you do that?” They’re doing fucking 10 in a row without knowing the topic beforehand. These guys are just fantastic. I think the only downside is until broadcast stuff gets really big, and it’s not quite there. Despite all the stuff with MonteCristo and they argued about the rates. The rates only got big the last couple years. Until we get to the point where to be like an NALCS analyst you get paid $500,000, you’re not gonna get someone who could be the Sean Gares-type guy. They’re just not going to do it. There’s going to be things they’ll prefer to do elsewhere.

VN: My last question for you is you had a tweet a couple weeks ago that was about the idea of some outlets and people not necessarily seeing the importance of podcasts and videos. And that’s something we have admittedly struggled with finding the right approach, too. But what do you see in the importance of audio and video content in today’s landscape?

DS: The thing that tilts me is because, if you’ve noticed in general, whether people think I’m good in these areas or not, I have branched out into almost every kind of medium I can get my hands on. I do vlog type videos. I do video interviews. I do written pieces. Desk stuff. I’ve kind of tried my hand at everything and see what it is (works best). I’ve kind of figured out to some degree what each medium is good for, ideal for and what you can develop in each. So the way I think about my work and my whole career is, I think about it in a base of ideas. I develop a base of ideas. And some of them aren’t gonna be ready now, you know. Some of them are for now but only for today if I can get it out in time. But the point is I have all these ideas and by working in all these mediums and trying to get good at them all, or at least improve, I get a good sense of what should go where. Abstract notion of which ones play more in which situations. I know what should be like a vlog. It’s usually more opinion based and thoughts in the moment. Whereas an article, that’s a very concrete idea and it ties into other things and there’s a natural structure that flows and moves things along one into another.

And talk shows and podacsts, for me, that’s conversation. The key thing there is a podcast to me, ideally, you get one or two — two or three interesting minds, get them all together, throw in some ideas, and they’re going to throw in some ideas and bounce them off each other. The conversation is going to develop ideas to the same degree and manner as an article, but it’s gonna go somewhere completely different. Because when you’re writing an article, there’s not some genius guy sitting next to you going, “Well what do you think about this?” That’s what the podcast can do.

So the key is, first of all I love listening to them. I think really good podcasts are fantastic. Second, I think a lot of what makes a lot of shit podcasts is that there’s guys out there who want to do the podcast. They dont have the ideas or the interesting thoughts. They just want to host it. I think it’s best when it’s just a bunch of interesting people. So the people I was encouraging in that sense are the people like Stuchiu, like FIonn, WallabeeBeatle, Kelsey (Moser), Emily Rand, all these people to do their own podcast or be involved in a podcast, so that you don’t just get the article from them, or the video from them, or the tweet from them. You can see what’s going on when their mind interacts with ideas and someone else. I think a lot of people haven’t put their own efforts into that. Not only do I think a lot of them, the learning curve would make sense to them and they’d improve quickly even if they’re not good at talking right now. But I also think that it would massively help build their brand. I think it would start to become — people would start to see it’s not just good articles, but the perspective they have. And they’d get interested in that.

On The Radar

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

Gamurs and Dot Esports announced last week that Gamurs will merge into Dot Esports. Starting Wednesday, the homepage will redirect to Dot Esports, which will be the hub for its wide-ranging esports coverage.

It certainly seems like a smart move on the surface. Dot Esports already had a strong reputation within the esports community before being acquired by Gamurs late last year. As Thorin told me last week, there really isn’t a strong amount of brand recognition in esports news consumption — that is, people who will read a site because of the site rather than who writes for it — but Dot Esports, starting from when it was part of the Daily Dot, generally has been thought of positively in esports and is probably the more recognized brand. It also makes sense to consolidate and simplify.

Gamurs has bought out and consolidated numerous esports news sites, including GoldPer10, eSports Nation and eSports Guru and received $1 million in investments late last year.

Blitz Esports has recently made a buzz with League of Legends video content. The site used to be Instant Esports, which was a mobile app that published esports content from a variety of sites.

Blitz has a combination of interviews and other video breakdowns, including “in a nutshell” segments that Editor-In-Chief Mark Register used to produce independently. The interviews are a bit different in that there is no host. Players are asked questions, and there’s a text overlay on the screen of what the question was.

I will have Register as next week’s media column guest for a deeper look at the new site.

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


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