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Feb. 28, 2023, 2:15 p.m.
Business Models

Is there a future for video games journalism?

The world’s power brokers are investing desperately in the games industry, but games media is another story entirely.

By every conceivable metric, the video game business is booming. Industry-wide revenue forecasts are scheduled to eclipse half a trillion dollars by 2030, after generating $184 billion in the relative down year of 2022. About three million people are tuned into Twitch — Amazon’s live-streaming giant — at any moment in time, where they watch world-famous streamers sink into languid “Call of Duty” marathons from the comfort of plush silicone chairs. Sixty-six percent of Americans can be categorized as gamers, if you include the casuals who enjoy the occasional round of “Candy Crush” on their iPhones. Many of them certainly bought tickets to Ryan Reynolds’ 2021 “Grand Theft Auto” send-up “Free Guy” ($331 million at the box office), and more are tuning into “The Last of Us,” the HBO series adapted from the 2013 PlayStation classic, which is currently the hottest prestige program on the docket. Roger Ebert famously once said that video games could never be art; now, the late master’s website is running raves about Pedro Pascal’s performance.

All this is to say that a dedicated video game desk — or at least a dogged video game reporter — is an essential requirement for any newsroom dedicated to fluent coverage of pop culture. When Ilhan Omar is showing off a monster PC rig and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is playing “Among Us” as part of a voter registration drive, we’re certainly in the midst of a vibe shift. And yet, even as the hobby’s imprisoning nicheness crumbles, a ton of journalists on the games beat have suddenly found themselves out of jobs. The field is in the midst of a brutal, paradoxical contraction. The world’s power brokers are investing desperately in the games industry, but games media is another story entirely.

Last month, Launcher — The Washington Post’s gaming vertical that broke ground in 2019 — announced it would be shuttering operations and terminating five of its staffers. (In total, 20 people from the Post’s editorial division were laid off.) The news came on the heels of a number of smaller, more enthusiast-oriented publications hemorrhaging staff members at the behest of management. GameSpot and IGN, two bastions of games coverage, were shrunk by their ownership groups (Fandom and Ziff Davis, respectively), as the calendar turned over into 2023. Fanbyte, which perfected a breezy, chatty, almost Gawker-like approach to industry news, has been rendered a ghost ship by cuts last summer by parent company/Chinese entertainment conglomerate Tencent. Even G4, the ancestral early-aughts cable broadcasting company dedicated exclusively to video games — which relaunched in 2021 with a slew of familiar faces — lasted barely a year before it was shut down by Comcast in October.

The carnage has engendered a fatigued pessimism in those who want to make a career writing about video games. There are so many stories in this sphere waiting to be broken, and ostensibly, interest has never been higher. But who, exactly, wants to publish all of that hard work?

“I don’t believe games journalism in the form we’ve known it is going to exist in a few years,” said Merritt K, content manager of Fanbyte, and one of the few employees of the site who wasn’t affected by the layoffs. “There will be a few people covering big stories, either brought on by large media outlets or crowdfunding through Patreon, but there doesn’t seem to be any appetite for traditional coverage of games either on the supply or demand side.”

Merritt, like everyone else who writes about video games, understands that the current bleakness of the games media ecosystem can be attributed to some macro trends in a febrile economy. Media companies across the board are slashing budgets, and many of the offices affected — like BuzzFeed, Vox, Bustle, and Gannett — aren’t reporting stories about “Final Fantasy XIV.” Still, it’s telling that when The Washington Post began its layoffs, the video game staff was so vulnerable.

The fear is that these kinds of pivots are emblematic of an ongoing discrepancy in the way games media organizations maintain their bottom line. Fanbyte has ditched its blogs and reports to function exclusively as a repository for guides, walkthroughs, and explainers for a slew of popular video games — the advice you might seek out when you find yourself stuck on a “Zelda” That content draws a ton of easily monetizable SEO traffic, and ideally, the corresponding revenue would be reinvested in the more artistic faculties of games coverage. But in a moment when every venture capital prognosticator is warning of a forthcoming recession, editorial mandates have regressed into their most avaricious forms. 

The same fate awaited GameSpot and Giant Bomb, two veteran video game media companies that were previously owned by CBS, and were both sold to Fandom in 2022. Fandom’s speciality is its Wiki system: The company hosts a vast network of Wikipedia-like rubrics themed after popular media franchises (the Marvel Database, the Resident Evil Wiki, and so on), which provide huge swathes of empty HTML stubs where an army of anonymous amateurs can write dubiously sourced treatises on the origin of the X-Men. The crucial distinction? Wikipedia is a nonprofit organization, while Fandom is owned by a private equity firm in Dallas. Naturally, Fandom doesn’t have to pay those who add content to its Wikis, nor is it traditionally in the business of funding professional editorial shops. So nobody was too surprised when, months after the acquisition, the company sanded down its payroll and terminated around 50 employees across both of its newly purchased assets. The aspirations of Fandom’s subsidiaries are incongruent with the priorities of those who currently own and operate games media. The marriage was always going to end badly.

The mercenary implication of this strategy is that both Fandom and Tencent hold a remarkably dismal perspective on the overarching value of games journalism. Rather than bankroll anything additive for the hobby, they have instead decided to build a nameless, faceless empire out of the muck of SEO optimization. It is, perhaps, easier to make these cynical decisions in the realm of video games, which still carries a kiddy, low-art stench among the graying cadre of media executives.

Those executives are obviously wrong to dismiss the dignity of gaming culture out of hand, but lately, like Merritt, I’ve been wondering if a sustainable audience truly exists for the sort of imaginative, in-depth coverage of the industry that might encourage an idealistic J-school student to sign up for the job. Are the walls closing in for a reason? Is the juice not worth the squeeze? Stephen Totilo, a fixture of the beat who served as the longtime editor-in-chief of the pioneering gaming blog Kotaku and currently covers games at Axios, rejects that premise entirely. To him, a profitable games media organization requires a long-standing vote of confidence from upper management. Totilo has seen what that looks like himself: During his most well-resourced stint overseeing Kotaku, the site reliably harvested 16 million readers per month.

“Games media does need to be paid for, which requires leadership at outlets like the Post and elsewhere to sell enough ads or subscriptions to support it — or, get this, not expect this beat to immediately justify its cost,” said Totilo. “For gaming outlets, it requires leadership that understands that reporting takes time, requires strong editors as well as strong writers, and that it will ultimately pay off.”

A source at Launcher told me that some of the site’s best performing stories were its investigations into the seedier underbellies of the hobby — mismanaged e-sports organizations, bad labor practices, and so on. I’ve been working in the media for over a decade, and in that time I’ve learned to never take the lowest-common-denominator consensus of venture capital brokers at face value. Jeremy Gordon nailed it recently when he noted, in the fallout of the Gawker shuttering, that there is a certain type of digital media proprietor who sincerely believes “that anything unique or smart or fun has to be dumbed down for readers to get it, but when you dumb it down it turns out nobody wants to read that either.”

That said, games journalists are at one unique disadvantage compared to the rest of the cultural dialogue, because an expansive alternative media ecosystem exists on YouTube and Twitch where hugely influential content creators, like Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg and Mark “Markiplier” Fischbach, provide their own commentary about the games industry in direct competition with reporters. No, PewDiePie isn’t launching the investigations you might find at a more formal media enterprise, but he does possess millions of subscribers who rely on him to illuminate and extrapolate upon the daily slate of headlines in the hobby. For some young gamers, a confederation of their favorite talking heads — all operating their own bespoke social brands — achieves the same purpose as the IGN homepage. It makes you wonder if the sudden spike of unemployed games journalists might be felt more acutely by the public if there weren’t a bedrock of YouTubers sharing the same foundational bandwidth. After all, a YouTube channel is never at the mercy of mercurial ownership.

Gene Park, a former Launcher reporter who is now migrating over to The Washington Post’s Style desk, acknowledges that some gamers believe that platforms like YouTube and Twitch have marginalized the roles of games reporter. But he also notes that there’s a symbiotic relationship between those who report the news and those who parrot the findings on camera. “Many of those creators rely on the journalism produced by places like Bloomberg, Kotaku, or IGN, all of which have the kind of support and protection you’d need to accomplish such coverage,” said Park. “The industry is a gargantuan beat to cover, and the broader audience, that holy grail for anyone in the media today, will only grow more skeptical of companies who seem out of touch.”

Additionally, while some influencers create a product that is journalism-like, there are no ethical precepts or fact-checking protocols buoyed to a YouTube video, and Merritt speculates that that laxness makes creators more amenable to cozy relationships with games industry agents. “Publishers and PR are likely happier dealing with them,” she says. “[They’re] likelier to agree to deals for positive coverage.”

I like to believe that the media business is resilient — that, despite the enveloping aura of precarity, we’ll always be able to find a new buyer for good work after the old one boards up shop. I still believe that to be true, but it’s also undeniable that we’re running dramatically low on dream jobs in games journalism. If you wish to savor the triumphs and heartbreaks of the reporting process, if you want to sink your teeth into a story without getting sidetracked by engagement mandates or daily blogging duties, you’re unlikely to find those thrills on this beat right now. There are a few venues left for that kind of discursive games writing — Wired and Bloomberg both employ talented games reporters who are given the slack to chase down ambitious projects — but for the most part, writing about games during this employment crunch requires one to grind out an endless slew of skeletal, AdSense-mining templates that have been strategically expunged of the faintest whiff of voice or verve. Case in point: Fanbyte has a Wordle section. Every day, one of the dwindling members of staff writes up a short guide to the daily puzzle’s latest solution, squeezing out whatever ambient Google traffic is left to be found. That is what constitutes a job in games journalism in 2023.

“Arts coverage has always been slim in every general news outlet. I got into journalism because I wanted to be a music critic, and there’s usually just one of that in each city newspaper. You either have to wait until that critic retires or dies before you get a chance at that job,” says Park. “There seem to be many opportunities to be part of games media, but if you want to do the kind of journalism that takes lawyers and document hunting, I do think there’s truth that there’s very few opportunities for it. It is a painful truth.”

Park’s conclusions bring to mind another conversation I had with a Launcher reporter, who asked me to keep her anonymous so she could speak freely. She told me that covering games at The Washington Post was the culmination of a lifelong aspiration. At last, after a career of stray bylines and institutional uncertainty, she could enjoy the ironclad security of legacy media. But nowhere, not even a newspaper owned by the richest man in the world, is safe for long. Now, as she shores up her portfolio and embarks on another job search, the reporter is contemplating a sobering realization: There isn’t another spot for her to land. Launcher represented the ceiling of her field. And now it’s gone. So she’s considering pivoting to a different beat. Maybe, at her next stop, she’ll be a tech journalist, rather than a games journalist. Before long, there might not be anyone left to cover the video game boom.

Luke Winkie is a journalist and former pizza maker in New York City. See his previous stories for Nieman Lab here.

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash.[/ednote]

POSTED     Feb. 28, 2023, 2:15 p.m.
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