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Writers vs. players: how journalism can hurt eSports, and where to find the balance

Writers vs. players: how journalism can hurt eSports, and where to find the balance

Rod “Slasher” Breslau is a GameSpot writer who covers eSports, a beat he’s worked for some time. In early January he broke a number of high-profile stories about professional players signing to new teams, a move that was met with ire by many professional players eSports.

“You’re supposed to report on news. Not do a shitty unexciting job of announcing information that does not belong to you,” Greg “IdrA” Fields, a StarCraft 2 player wrote via Twitter.

“He’s ruining a lot for a lot of people by stealing the spotlight of the deserving. A man who will never get my respect,” Mitch “Krepo” Voorspoels, a professional League of Legends player, wrote.

Other members of the eSports community began attacking Breslau for writing about player announcements before they were official, a move that could rob teams of both publicity and sponsorship opportunities. A number of fans spoke in his defense. The debate spilled over onto Reddit.

Opinion articles were written about whether or not professional gamers respected the work of reporters. The truth is a little more complicated. This isn’t a story about whether eSports respects journalism, it’s a story about an industry trying to find its way.

I like breaking stories

I spoke with Rod Breslau to try to figure out what was going on. The world of eSports is deep, and most of my video game knowledge was worthless there. This is a world with its own rules, jargon, and personalities.

“I really like breaking news as a journalistic medium, and I personally find it to be an exhilarating, difficult, necessary, and legitimate,” Breslau told the Report. “I understand it’s difficult for a singular person to have relationships for exclusive features/interviews teams/leagues/developers, and then also use information behind the scene to try to break stories. They are welcome to take any actions they feel is necessary, such as denying me interviews, and I have a right to inform my readers this is happening, and let them decide on how they feel about it.”

While many worry about these stories harming the teams’ relationships with their sponsors, Breslau is a reporter, and his stance is simple: That’s not his problem.

“People love to talk about who joins what team, and it’s not my responsibility to watch out for Evil Geniuses’ discussion with related sponsors. Currently there is next to no information on player salary and contract length for Western teams, where everyone waits for tweets from players on when their contracts end to try and figure out what will happen next, instead of knowing ahead of time,” he explained. “Salaries are kept secret and it’s virtually impossible to compare rosters. In Korea, the situation is slightly better, with press reporting on star players salaries and contract length for big stars over the years.”

Breslau is trying to report on eSports the way outlets like ESPN report on mainstream professional sports in the United States, where this sort of story is common and expected. The problem is that eSports aren’t organized like baseball or football, and the stories Breslau writes for GameSpot can have negative consequences for the teams he covers.

Enter the CEO

Alex Garfield is the CEO of Evil Geniuses, one of the more successful teams in eSports. “… EG, as far as talent goes, it’s the most successful talent agency in the industry by far,” Garfield said in a Forbes interview. “The revenue that we’re doing, if you take the next five North American competitors and combine them, we’re probably still doing two to three times as much. It’s not really a result of EG being a pro team, but the fact that EG is a really good marketing agency that knows how to show value to brands.”

The team counts Intel, Kingston, and Monster Energy as official sponsors. Garfield seemed hesitant to speak with me for this story, and insisted on looking over some of my published work before agreeing to speak on the record.

“When a player move is leaked, it makes the team look bad to its sponsors, and it decreases the value the team’s sponsors get out of the official announcement,” he told the Report. “Since eSports teams are supported so predominantly by sponsors, and not by ticket sales, merchandising, and revenue sharing, like in athletic sports, it has an impact on our ability to do our jobs.”

“It’s not going to make or break a team’s business, but if you put a lot of time and effort into convincing your sponsors to foot the bill for a new player, and you have everyone excited about the acquisition and its announcement, it’s very deflating to both us and our sponsors to have the news leaked,” Garfield continued.

He points out that when a reporter breaks the news of a player joining a new team in the NFL, that story doesn’t impact the deal. It hurts no one. In eSports, where sponsorships and promotion are such a large part of these deals, a story being released on a major outlet like GameSpot can seem to take the buzz out of a big reveal. The PR aspect of the news, reveal, and subsequent excitement are all but lost. This can negatively impact the deals themselves, leading to a loss of income for the team.

Breslau had told me that Garfield had threatened to revoke his access to the team, and I asked the Evil Geniuses CEO if he had made such threats.

“Look at it from the team’s perspective, whether that’s EG, Liquid, or any other eSports team,” Garfield responded “You have the journalist, in this case, Slasher, consistently approaching you throughout the year requesting access to your players for interviews, and also requesting the inside scoop on situations that don’t directly involve you… The journalist needs your help in those two areas. But when it comes to your needs as the team, namely, not having your player signings spoiled, the journalist doesn’t reciprocate.”

Garfield then laid it down. “What motivation would any team have to work with such a journalist?”

Liquid team founder Nazgul also offered some thoughts in a blog post. “Slasher on the one hand wants to use Liquid for information supply, as well as work with us officially on interviews and other content,” he said. “Yet, on the other hand he will look for leaks outside of my organization that will impact me negatively upon releasing the information. I view this as poor relationship management. I don’t think it works like that anywhere, neither here nor in other sports.”

The relationship between the press and those we cover is always a high-wire act, but in the eSports community that balancing act has much higher stakes. Reporters need access to the teams to do their jobs. The teams need to protect their business interests, and the deals that allow them to make money and pay their players, while they also rely on the press for publicity. It’s a matter of relationships, and from the teams’ perspectives it’s hard to justify giving access to a reporter who may be making it harder them to stay in business.

This won’t stop the reporter

“As much as Alex says sports are different than eSports in the way organizations make money, that doesn’t sway how I feel about writing on free agency topics,” Breslau told me. “They are sports stories, no matter if the money is different.”

Garfield argued that there were ways for both sides to work together. If Breslau would agree to hold information until the official release, they could set up in-depth interviews, and give him details about the subtle aspects of the deal, including negotiations. This is information that eSports fans would love to read, and is rarely shared.

Breslau told me he’s definitely interested in such an arrangement, and in fact the pair have begun talking. “[Garfield] is willing to offer up much more information, such what other teams were involved in discussion, which offers were higher, though he still won’t talk on salary, than was previously given, which is a big part of it. It will be better for everyone as long as some of the nitty gritty details get out,” Breslau said. 

“I’m a little worried about having this agreement with some organizations/teams but not others,” he continued. “Don’t want to be seen as playing favorites. I’m also not the biggest fan of embargoes in general, but also not used to getting them much. So yes I’m open, I just want more information released, and have some general reservations.”

Breslau pointed out that his job wasn’t just looking for exclusive information to break stories, as he has a long history of also publishing interviews with players and writing about eSports as a whole. But breaking news is a part of that job. “I decided to do things this way because I wanted to mix it up, and bring in what I feel is an important part of sports-like breaking news journalism to the eSports field that doesn’t have many of these stories. I love free agency in sports, and am just going along those lines,” he told the Report.

Moving forward

I asked Garfield if he had considered making the players he works with sign non-disclosure agreements to try to steam the leaks. He told me that the teams themselves are rarely the sources of the information.

“It doesn’t really have anything to do with EG, or Liquid, or any other team not doing a good enough job of keeping things quiet and under wraps. His sources are usually from third parties, like tournaments, and other teams,” Garfield told me. “For example, if you’re bidding against one other team for a free agent, and you sign the free agent, the other team knows where the player went. That other team would be an easy source.”

The narrative being sold is that those in eSports don’t understand the point of journalism, but in my lengthy conversation with Garfield I found just the opposite.

“I don’t think that journalists should function any differently than they do in real sports. I expect journalists to look out for their own needs and the needs of the public,” he told the Report. “I wish we had more in-depth journalism, like there is in pro sports, for example, when you can read an article after a major player acquisition and get the inside scoop on how the signing went down, which other teams the player was considering, and how down-to-the-wire the negotiations were. I think that kind of stuff would be really interesting for eSports fans.”

The friction comes when writers break stories that can hurt Garfield’s ability to run his team, and that same writer later asks for access to players for stories. Garfield is interested in finding a middle ground, where he can keep big news about players under wraps until an official announcement, while also helping in the creation of larger, more in-depth stories about his team and the world of eSports.

Breslau is interested in the same thing, but he also seems unwilling to give up the thrill of uncovering, and publishing, exclusive information about players. There is a middle ground here, and both men are working towards finding it, while looking out for their own best interests.

This isn’t a case of eSports not understanding journalism, this is a case of eSports dealing with the pros and cons of being covered like a real sport. Congratulations, both sides have grown up.

Image Credit: The image of Alex Garfield was taken from this article.