Media Column: Callum Leslie on Hearthstone coverage, journalistic fearlessness and calling people out on Twitter

(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!)

Callum Leslie is not afraid to call out esports media members on social media.

The Dot Esports journalist of more than two years is one of the most outspoken critics of esports media on Twitter — a watchdog of the watchdogs, perhaps. It’s an interesting and vital position to take as the entire esports industry (media included) is extremely young, and every part needs monitoring.

I talked to Leslie this week about being that, how coverage of Hearthstone esports compares to other games, and what journalists can do to be fearless.

Vince Nairn: How did you even get to this point? How did you first get into esports journalism, and then wind up at the Dot. What has been the gist of your journey to this point?

Callum Leslie: I’ve been with Dot Esports for coming up on two and a half years on the various iterations and with various roles. I’ve always been very interested in journalism. It’s always been something I wanted to do. I was getting my degree in history at my university, and then I started writing at the student paper as the politics editor. Caused so much trouble I didn’t get asked back after one year. I caused some trouble, wrote some of the biggest stories in that paper’s history. Sadly, that paper no longer exists because our publisher wasn’t good with money.

So in 2014 I was coming to the end of my degree and was big into YouTube, and I watched some gaming YouTubers play Hearthstone, and I got really into it. So that was really my entry into esports. I’m not sure how, but I somehow discovered Hearthstone esports. I remember the first thing I ever watched was IEM Katowice 2014 for Hearthstone, which, if anyone remembers, Artosis and Gnimsh were invited, and Lothar was the Polish qualifier, and there was a German qualifier as well. It was, in the grand scheme of things, horrendous. But that was my first exposure to esports. I started consuming all that content. I was kind of just kicking my heels looking for jobs. I started writing at GosuGamers, writing under Nydra, who was a great person to work with. It was a great place to work. There was a lot of freedom with what I wrote. There wasn’t a lot of structure, and it was a great place to really sort of make my name a little bit and also understand how the (industry) worked.

Then in December 2014, Kevin Morris reached out to me to come on board with Dot Esports, and I started as a freelancer. I was effectively full time about January 2016 and officially full time later that year, then moved onto weekend editor last September. That’s where I started. And I started doing exclusively Hearthstone, and then with it being a small team you have to break out, and I started doing everything and eventually became sort of the news guy. There have been some months where I’ve counted, and I wrote about 12 different games. It’s interesting. That keeps it fun.

VN: What’s the transition been like since Gamurs acquired you guys late last year?

CL: It’s been an interesting time. Obviously, you spoke to Kevin at about the time we moved over. Obviously, there was a lot of uncertainty toward the end of our time at the Daily Dot. Not always the greatest place to work every day. The atmosphere wasn’t really great (because of that). But since we came on board with Gamurs, the team is all excited about what we’re doing. Riad (Chikhani, Gamurs CEO) is a super enthusiastic person, and that’s kind of infectious. We went from being part of a larger website where, the CEO of the Dot, Nick White, I’m sure he appreciated what we were doing and thought we were doing a good job, but he didn’t know anything about esports. And we were sort of off on our own, as to where Gamurs, we’re kind of front and center of the group and whatnot. Riad’s involved. He pops into our Slack pretty much every day. We have communication with him, which is fun. It’s nice to feel like a part of a big team, and obviously since the merger, we’re part of one bigger team.

VN: You mention your initial interest being in Hearthstone. What is it like covering that scene? We say esports is a niche market, but I think Hearthstone takes that even a step further.

CL: If I were to say I’m writing about all of esports, and the entire esports audience is the same, that’s like saying the entire sports audience is the same. Football fans like different kind of content than basketball fans, and we respond differently than baseball fans. You have to kind of know who your audience is and what you’re dealing with. Hearthstone is a more casual audience. The most famous and influential people in this scene are more content creators over professional players. And the audience can be a bit more casual. I think we’ve seen Overwatch be a little more like that. You look at the subreddits. I think that’s the best snapshot of the engaged player base. Overwatch and Hearthstone are very game focused. League of Legends and CS:GO, esports can pretty easily penetrate that front page. Hearthstone esports doesn’t have the greatest audience. It’s more games stuff.

VN: And how does that, would that, can that affect how you’d go about covering it?

CL: We’ve done a lot of trial and error. We’ve been at this for say two and a half years in relation to Hearthstone and are starting to really make progress. It is mostly game focused because that’s what people want to read, and I think it’s difficult because there’s this fundamental misconception about what we’re trying to do as journalists. There’s this idea that everything that’s written is to be enjoyed as wide an audience as possible (is clickbait). But everything is clickbait, right? If I’m writing a headline that doesn’t make you want to click on my article, then I’m just not doing my job. But it’s about writing the important stories as well. I wrote a lot of stories, especially earlier on, about unpaid tournament winnings. I’ve done a reasonable amount of feature stuff and interview stuff that was interesting. Sometimes things aren’t important but they’re worth covering. The PVP Live story, which is a story I’ve been on now for two years. It’s not like every time I write a story about something shady PVP Live did with the (Hearthstone Pro League), it gets massive traffic numbers, but it’s equally an important story and a story that needs to be told. It’s a very fine balance, and it’s something I’ve always liked about Dot Esports. Traffic isn’t the be all, end all. We’re not paid per click or anything like that. We’re paid by hour or piece, and stuff is assigned based on whether or not it’s important.

VN: One thing I’ve found interesting since we launched is that a lot of people in esports media don’t really have any sort of journalism background. And that lends itself to a lot of different potential problems, and you have kind of become the person who is incredibly vocal about other people in esports media on social media. How did you kind of adopt that role?

CL: I just think I’m angry Scottish guy. That’s the problem (laughs). And I do try to tone it down at times and get less angry because that’s just better for my blood pressure. But for me, and I say this in no negative way whatsoever, but when I started working at the Dot, the guy I looked up to, who had the profile and respect of being around a long time was Richard Lewis. You look at how Richard does things, he doesn’t pull any punches, and he’s not afraid to call out bullshit when he sees it. Richard and I might not agree politically on really anything, but apart from when I’ve kind of been shortsighted and an asshole to him, I do really respect Richard and think he is someone people should look to. Ethics and integrity have always been at the heart of what Richard has tried to do — and what other people have done, too, but he’s the example.

But I think it’s just we need a press in esports, particularly when it’s such a young industry. And it’s not just journalists. We have team managers who have no experience managing people. We have coaches who have no experience bringing out the best in people. We have content creators and streamers who have no experience in production or how to deal ethically with the things you’re doing. We have journalists accepting gifts from the people they cover. We get offered gifts sometimes from people, and we have to politely decline. You shouldn’t be accepting free stuff from a team you cover. You shouldn’t be accepting trips to tournaments, paid for by the tournament organizer, unless that’s an explicit sponsorship, and that’s a different kind of thing. Native content and paid editorial content is a thing, and that should be separate from the main editorial content. We have done it at Dot Esports in the past, but I believe we’ve used entirely different writers every time we’ve done it, someone who doesn’t participate in the day to day coverage, to try to create that firewall.

VN: I talked to Richard for previous media columns. One thing that Richard said that particularly interested me was that we can’t have a fourth estate — journalists, that’s what we are — that’s full of cowards. It’s safe to say we don’t have a lot of people who have that fearlessness to risk access or friendliness to go after a story. How much of that do you think is straight up fear versus maybe not really knowing how this industry works?

CL: I think it’s a mixture of a lot of things. I think Richard made a good point. We do have a lot of people that are trying to stay on the friendly side of journalism. There’s a place for that. There’s a place for the Travis Gaffords of the world, who are friends with everyone and who can get interviews with everyone because of that, and the audience can take what they want from that content. Then there’s also a place for people like Richard, who will risk everything (for a story). Right when I started getting involved with the Dot was when the match fixing scandal was happening, and that (story) involved people Richard legitimately called friends, effectively ending their careers. And he has his own feelings about that, but I don’t think he would have ever held back that story because of it.

PVP Live is a great example for me because one time I had a good relationship with them. And one of the reasons I had so much information about the finals is because they were gonna hire me to come and work for them. Obviously that would never happen now if they did decide to run these LAN finals, but yeah, I do think we need a certain amount of fearlessness. With respect to all the writers in the scene, not everyone is as good at chasing a story as everyone else. Some people aren’t necessarily capable of running that down and risking that access. You can get that wrong, and it’s a difficult hit to take. There are examples of writers chasing down stories and ending up tied in knots with no story and having burned all their bridges. So you do have to (be careful).

On The Radar

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

Kevin Knocke tweeted late last week that WorldWide Gaming, a subsidiary of Comicbook.com, planned to pull away from esports. The site is still publishing esports content as of Monday, but Knocke tweeted about looking for new work and another former WWG employee said the division will close.

What’s stunning about that development is WWG’s esports section launched less than a year ago. Getting rid of coverage less than a year after starting it means WWG never truly gave its esports division a chance. The media industry isn’t a short-term gain, and if WWG and Comicbook.com weren’t willing to give its esports division even a full year, then why launch it in the first place?

Make sure to check out previous editions of the Slingshot Media Column with guests Tim Sevenhuysen, Richard Lewis (Parts 1 and 2), Mark Register, Duncan “Thorin” Shields (Parts 1 and 2), 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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