Media Column: Richard Lewis on broadcast rights, the need for investigative journalism and launching his website (Part 2)

(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!)

Richard Lewis’ career in esports has led to this moment, even if he didn’t believe so.

Lewis, the respected veteran investigative journalist, has in the last year added another significant role to his resume as the desk host for ELEAGUE, the Turner Sports/WME|IMG venture that produced two seasons of Counter-Strike, January’s ELEAGUE Major and now the Street Fighter V Invitational, which began this week. Lewis had been on the desk before joining Turner, though being on live TV came with added adjustments.

As a journalist first, and somebody who has been in the esports scene for more than a decade, Lewis said he never expected to end up on TV and that it “still doesn’t make sense.” But he’s excelled with ELEAGUE and has drawn praise from both Turner executives and people who work behind the scenes on the show.

Lewis also has an active YouTube channel and recently launched a new website to host his written work. In the second of a two-part interview, I talked to Lewis about broadcast rights in esports, what journalists can do better in this space, and what he’s looking to achieve with the launch of his website. (You can read Part 1 here)

Vince Nairn: One topic that is really interesting now, and I asked Duncan about this a few weeks ago, is the fight for broadcast rights in esports. Duncan made the point that everything that has happened, more or less, in the last few years is all leading up to this fight over broadcast rights someday. What is your overall take of this concept and how that can affect media coverage?

Richard Lewis: I think this is the great uncharted territory that we really need to start looking at. Again, I think there’s too many people not putting enough in to get a lot out. I think broadcasting rights need to start getting explored because it’s all well and good that every tournament is on Twitch. I’m a big proponent of Twitch. I think they revolutionized the industry. I fully support what they do. But equally as well, there’s no money in running live events anymore. There really isn’t. Profit margins are so small. People do it as a prestigious thing. People will make some money on it, but ultimately you do live events to get you the status and the reputation to be able to do other things. You make way more off running a sustained online league because the big metric in esports is hours of content consumed, not viewing numbers and viewer peaks. Now that said, if you’re a broadcasting platform, there should be an expectation that you’re gonna chip in, that you’re gonna pay for exclusivity. You’re starting to see that more and more now. YouTube did it with the ESL (Pro League), and I think a lot of people got upset with that. But actually it was a net good. The viewer numbers might be low, but here’s the thing. YouTube isn’t gonna care about that because it’s people, who would not otherwise be on YouTube, using YouTube and learning about their streaming service. You’re breaking down that barrier in your brain that it doesn’t look like Twitch, so you don’t want to use it. All of this is good. It’s establishing a user base. And they’re doing that off the back of a very desirable product, which is the ESL Pro League. The money that YouTube paid to get that has directly been passed onto players who have agreed to play in the league and rejected exclusivity elsewhere, like ridiculous notions like PEA. That money coming in goes to, obviously, ESL. They’ve got some serious money in the bank that they could start putting into their events to make them better. Better tournaments. Talent. Better admins. They can run better events, have better conditions for players. So this is a net good. So what if you have to go to YouTube to watch it? Think about how it works on television: You wouldn’t cry if you gotta go to Channel 3 to watch this Champions League game, and have to go to BBC1 to watch this Champions League game. This is how it works. This is how the sports industry has continued to grow through recessions and made more money because they have this model, this television money model. If we get that, I think it’s gonna kick start a new phase of esports growth. What we need to do of course is maintain the viewing numbers overall so it remains an attractive proposition for newcomers coming in. Twitch, YouTube, TBS — there’s gonna be other companies. ESPN has obviously televised stuff as well. But other channels, stations, platforms, they’re gonna want to put more money in. And we need to make sure that when they come, we have a desirable product to purchase. I think that money is going directly into esports and directly into the hands of people who can do something good with it. I’m actually OK with it. It’s one change I don’t think I’ll be pushing back against.

VN: From a journalism angle, what is one thing you see in the landscape right now that we as a collective can be better on? Maybe we’re overlooking? What’s one area in which esports journalism can improve?

RL: It’s the same story, and that is the key thing I want to see is fearlessness. I don’t want a bunch of cowards being the fourth estate in esports, and unfortunately, they’re everywhere. There are people who want the cushy lifestyle. They want the status. They want the access, but they’re never gonna break a meaningful story in their lives…I think of myself as a journalist first. And then I see these people who do chummy interviews with their friends, who accept holidays, you cannot trust them because of the connections, because of the ties. They’re not interested in turning over the rocks because if you turn over the rocks, they might lose their money. They might lose their status. They might lose their access. These are the “journalists” who call up companies and say “Hey, can I have some free stuff? And I’ll write some good things about you.” What is that? That isn’t journalism. That’s not what we’re supposed to do. And guys look up to people like that (and want to emulate it).

But this is the reality we live in. You have to walk that line between saying “Do I want to be a personality? Or do I want to be a journalist?” And I think sadly I see a lot of people who claim to want to be a journalist but in actuality want to be a personality. They’re not willing to take the stand. They’re not willing to have their reputation dragged through the mud for months at a time when they know something they reported is true. It’s too hard for people. They don’t want to go to war every day they wake up, go to war with people with more money and bigger followings, and get in the trenches. They don’t want to do it. They’re scared of it. They’re scared of what it means. And if you’re scared, you shouldn’t be a journalist. You’ve got to live and die by that. Being a journalist, if you’re doing it properly, it’s a lot like being a soldier or a street fighter. You go out there, go to battle and you know it could be career suicide to report some of these things. But is it the truth? And is it in the public interest? And if the answer to both of those questions is yes, you have a moral obligation to publish it. I don’t care what everyone else is saying, if everyone else comes to you privately and says “If you break that story, people are gonna lose their jobs. People’s reputations are gonna be harmed. Esports is gonna look bad.”

VN: Not my problem…

RL: Yeah. Not our problem. None of those things. Exactly. You swore an oath. That’s what you do when you say “I am a journalist.” You have a code of ethics and conduct that you live by and you cannot bend it for anybody or anything. I’m not saying everybody is gonna be a complete Zealot about that like I am. People are gonna have lapses. I’ve already talked about early in my career when I wrote PR, but I knew it was PR. That’s fine. You gotta understand that greater beat. When you get to the end of your career, do you wanna be remembered as a journalist? Or do you want to be remembered as a shill. That’s the reality. My journalism might not be the best out there. My writing might not be the best out there. The stories might not be the biggest all the time. I might have a very strange area of focus. People might not always agree with the opinion pieces I put out. But I’m pretty sure when I get to the end of my esports journalism career, I’m gonna be remembered as a guy who actually did a net good. The work I did helped the industry. I wasn’t a shill. I didn’t take the money. I didn’t shut up. I did what I thought was right for the industry. And unfortunately I just wish more and more journalists were willing to take that stand. I see too many people afraid of holding themselves to that standard because they don’t want the money to disappear out of their bank accounts. They don’t want to lose the status out of their lives. And I can’t respect people like that. Maybe that’s not fair because everyone’s gotta eat, but I took that risk. I took that risk every day for years. I still take that risk now. I’ve got a TV job. I work for a big media company in the US. Every time I open my mouth, I walk the tightrope about whether all that goes away. I lose my house. I lose my visa. I can’t be in America anymore. I completely lose the life I’ve spent all these years building for myself, but I am compelled to be out there and to walk that line because that’s what I believe in.

I have a lot of unknown and young journalists, people who want to interview me and ask for advice. The best thing you can ever have is a fucking backbone. Nothing else matters. A good source network, that’ll come over time. Writing style, an editor can prop you up with that while you learn the ropes. It’s just about being fearless. It’s about being able to stand up and say “This is my work. This is what my sources have told me. This is the truth. Fuck you if you don’t believe it. Come at me.” That is the attitude you have to have as a journalist. And I see publications like Slingshot employing people who do that, and we need more people to be out there doing it. And then maybe we can start holding some of these people accountable so they can’t keep getting away with the same things over and over again because they know it’s not just one journalist that’s watching them, and a journalist who people are starting to think is a bit of an old crank or a kook or whatever. But now it’s a series of journalists. If you slip by Richard Lewis, it’s the other five who are gonna get you. That’s what we need, and if we get there, the industry is gonna be in a much better state.

VN: I agree with you that fear has a lot to do with it and why having a backbone is so important. That’s kind of an inherent quality. But beyond that, I wonder if there’s also a layer of people simply not knowing what journalism actually means. A lot of people aren’t journalists first who like esports, but the other way around. Do you think there’s anything to that?

RL: Obviously a lot of people that end up as journalists in esports, they don’t have the formal training. They aren’t necessarily educated in that particular field. But they know they want to do it. They can write, and they want to get out there. Sure. I guess you could give those people a pass if they’re not fearless or not breaking big stories. I can totally respect that. But that said, there’s books out there. You can go out there and pick up a book and figure out how to do it. But people don’t do it. They don’t read a book. They kinda just cruise by and ask other people for advice. What are you doing to collectively progress and become a journalist? Educate yourself. I’ve got a recommended reading list I give out to students all the time, stuff I learned and helped me stay on the path. Once you adopt the mantle, you gotta know what you’re getting into. I think there are people out there who are just cruising, like you say. They tried being a manager. They tried being an analyst. They tried being a player. They failed at all of them. So you’re gonna try to be a journalist now? I don’t respect those people either. Sure, maybe you eventually go on to be a perfectly fine journalist. But until you reach that point, I’m not gonna hold you in a particularly high regard. I’m going to judge you on your merits, which I guess would be dubious at best to begin with.

Certainly, there’s not a lot of incentives. It’s the one area where there’s not a lot of money. Journalism isn’t particularly paid for. People don’t like it. People don’t want it. Obviously the people who have a lot of power and money in the industry don’t want journalists in the industry because they might find out how you made that money. As a result, you find that there’s no incentive to buckle down. I still see people asking for volunteer website articles. “What like you want me to write articles for you, like every day, and not get paid?” “Yeah, it’s a great learning opportunity.” “What am I learning? How to get fucking used?” There’s no educational aspect to that. Because usually the person asking you to do that, they’re not an editor with a journalism degree or anything like that. It’s the manager of a website. So you gotta be careful. I don’t’ want to condemn people universally, but if you want to be a journalist, that should be your primary focus. It shouldn’t be something you do on the side. It shouldn’t be something you’re not passionate about. It should be something that defines you. You get up every day and you go out and try to do a better job the next day than you did the day before. You continually look, continually develop, break big stories and serve the community that you’re interacting with.

VN: Can we in esports media learn anything from traditional media? Or should we check everything we’ve learned at the door because of how different this industry is?

RL: I think the first thing people accept is the news is sacred, and people throw money at it. Very often at these big networks, it’s a loss leader. You might make all the money for having a popular sitcom, and the profit you turn from that, you dump into a news department because news is important. But news doesn’t generate profit in and of itself. It can’t be monetized. You can’t monetize news in the traditional sense. You can have a website, and you might have some advertisements on it, “This report is brought to you by…” Well as soon as that happens, if I then have to report on that company (what happens). And big, mainstream companies are even guilty of having this kind of conflict of interest. There was a newspaper, The Telegraph, that had ties to HSBC Bank, and they took a lot of money in ads to prop the newspaper up. Then there was a big banking scandal and no coverage seen in the newspaper because the editor said they couldn’t do it to the advertisers. “If they pull the ad money, we are fucked.”

You’ve almost got to have something else, and then hermetically sealed is the news department. Let’s say for instance a company like Twitch set up Twitch News. And they made a studio and hired a staff and had anchors and they did 24 hour programs. Documentaries. A news desk. And on there you would find where Twitch fucked up. Twitch did this. What’s fucked up with Amazon? And it’s hermetically sealed. Nobody’s gonna get fired. Nothing’s gonna get pulled. And that’s it. Why couldn’t that be something that exists? People have to realize that the news it the news, the news is vital, journalism is vitally important. It costs money to get good journalism. Mainstream media realizes that. No TV network makes a profit off their news department.

VN: Last one, and it’s two parts. First, you did an interview a while ago, it might have been with Dexerto, in which you said you wanted to eventually do a 30 For 30 style documentary in esports. Is that still someday a goal for you? And also, what are your goals for the website you just launched?

RL: The 30 For 30 documentary, the good thing is Turner is very much interested in creating that kind of content, that ancillary content. We’ve already filmed some pilots for some ideas that we want to use that we’re looking at internally, whether or not that could be something that becomes a regular program on TBS. We don’t just want it to be ELEAGUE. We want to create esports programming, which more people should be looking at, honestly. It shouldn’t just be about tournaments. It should be about documentaries and interviews. I’m talking about a real, dirt under the fingernails look into esports, and Turner is very interested in that. I’m pretty sure we’re going to create some sort of esports documentary. I’ve already shown the production team I work with, all Emmy award winners, I’ve already shown them the documentaries we do in esports, that we’re used to. It’s not very high. I know we can do better. I’ve already sent storyboards out and loose ideas for people I think would make compelling viewing outside esports as well. For instance, I don’t watch baseball, but if anybody’s seen the 30 For 30 “Catching Hell” and how (Steve Bartman’s) life is turned upside down. That is a compelling story. And I don’t like the sport, but it’s not about the sport. It’s about some dude’s life after making a mistake. And when you capture those moments, the setting and context doesn’t matter. It’s the human story the people are interested in. I’m certain we can do something like that. I know Turner wants to do something like that.They’re invested in it. I don’t know when it’ll be. I don’t know how involved I’ll be. Certainly I’m the guy banging the drum in the office but maybe because I’m banging that fucking drum they’ll tell me to go away and let them work in peace. But I think something like that will be coming, and I urge everybody to do it. I’ll throw Twitch in here. I’ll urge Twitch to take some of that Amazon money, and sure they’ve got a tech deficit to catch up with and some other things, but instead of these weird and useless acquisitions I see them buying — they’ve got Curse now — why don’t you take some of that money and make a programming department so you can have programming on Twitch? Netflix subscription type stuff that links with Amazon Prime that you have some esports stuff in there. That’s gotta be worth a $10 million investment, right? I’ll help you spend it. Come and talk to me. ESPN as well, of course. People like that. If you wanna make great esports content, trust me, the stories are out there. And people are ready for that comment. They want it. They thirst it.

Regarding my website, what I’m trying to do with it is basically make it a receptacle where I can put my reports out. The video format is one thing, but I found there’s something to having a report written out. Laying out the evidence. Presenting the facts in a way that isn’t gonna get deleted, removed. It’s gonna be there and stand the test of time. It’s not gonna get caught up in the YouTube curation system. There’s some stories I’ve been working on for a while now. I’ve got some game changers coming in. I’ve been revisiting match fixing again, and obviously I’m very interested in these websites that do these case openings and skins websites. This is one of the greatest cons that’s ever been foisted on the esports community. These case opening websites are a sham. I actually got a coder to flip and give me access to the back end. I’m gonna publish my findings. I think this is almost a phantomlord-level story, where I think this is gonna change the industry. I think it’s important that people know this is not an honest way to make a living. This is a cash grab.

On The Radar

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

Lewis’ comments above about YouTube live streaming esports events were particularly fascinating because there has been some backlash among the community since ESL Pro League began streaming there last month.

The ECS followed suit by announcing it will also stream its online league, which begins this month, exclusively on YouTube. So two major online leagues have abandoned Twitch for YouTube, which especially interesting because ECS launched initially in partnership with Twitch.

Lewis makes a good point. Why should it matter to YouTube if raw viewership numbers are down compared to what they were on Twitch? YouTube is exposing its platform to an audience that otherwise wouldn’t be there. And beyond the total numbers of viewers, the metric that seems to matter in this instance (as Lewis pointed out) is time spent watching, which should remain about the same.

The next major shoe to drop will be with the World Esports Association. It will be interesting to see if WESA seeks some sort of exclusive streaming deal for WESA-sanctioned events in the future. Right now, ESL Pro League is the only one, and it’s broadcast on YouTube.

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