Getting the Venom Out: Why I No Longer Want to Be 'The Esports Reporter'
What I thought was an altruistic mission to cover the rise (and now fall) of an industry is unfortunately now a curse.
Last month, after a year on Substack, I wrote about my experiences, both positive and negative, with the platform. That piece was different than most of what I’ve done on this platform over the past 13 months, but it was cathartic, and selfishly, I enjoy writing about bigger philosophical audience-engagement topics.
So what follows is a bit like that—some thoughts on how I’ve been feeling, not just this week, but over the past couple of years. Thanks, as always, for reading.
Earlier this week, I had one of the most negative interactions with a potential investor that I can remember. My company, Overcome, is in the fundraising process, and while we’ve seen some significant traction in the past six weeks, the job’s not finished, and I’ve spent as many hours fundraising as I have producing content.
I did all the right things one should do when fundraising venture capital: I got a warm intro from someone in my network, I sent a detailed, yet short and sweet description of my company, our successes and our plans, and I linked our deck, a 13-page, honest and more detailed look at our business, the market and the opportunity.
The investor in question wanted all of that before agreeing to an in-person meeting—weird, but not abnormal, especially in an investing bear market where everyone feels there’s an impending recession coming, but how bad said recession might be is unclear.
The asks weren’t the negative, though. The response was.
This investor looked at our deck for less than 30 seconds. I’m not even sure they read our blurb. And their response? They weren’t interested, in part because of my association with esports.
I spent most of Monday night and about half of Tuesday morning depressed. I called and messaged my company’s advisors and friends and was genuinely confused and upset. Many gave sage advice. One said to write this person’s name on a piece of paper and hurl it in the trash. I did that. It felt good.
But I’ve spent all week unable to shake this feeling: Why am I, one of the loudest esports skeptics with the biggest platforms in that industry over the past decade, automatically assumed to be making something in esports? And if that’s going to continue to happen, have I wasted eight years of my life dedicated to something that’s failing by no result of my work?
I have a family to support and I am not a moron. Overcome is not an esports business. We’re creating content around the broader gaming industry, geek culture and the creator economy. Not a day goes by where we think esports is the path forward. We’d be stupid to do so, as esports contracts and it becomes more and more clear that the esports consumer does not exist in mass.
So why, even when I demonstrate that in a blurb and in a deck, am I being punished for it?
Over the past eight years, I’ve viewed my career through what some may call a stupid or entitled, altruistic lens.
Early in my career, I demonstrated quickly my ability to network and build genuine relationships with the people whom I cover without kissing their asses or behaving unethically. Those connections led me to garner unmatched and unrivaled access to some of the most powerful people in the world, many of whom between 2016 and 2019 made hundreds of millions of dollars of investments in esports.
Since I started reporting on the esports beat in my sophomore year of college in 2014, I’ve never bent the knee. I’ve been steadfast and hard in my convictions. I’ve said what I believed, and I’ve believed what I said. With that has come loud and often unpopular criticism of some of esports’ most pivotal moments.
In May 2017, as billionaires like New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and half a dozen more sports and telecom magnates agreed to put $20 million behind the Overwatch League, my reporting on those agreements demonstrated skepticism. When I finally got the opportunity to interview then-Overwatch League commissioner Nate Nanzer, I needled him on these buy-in prices. I’d later be much more forward with my criticism in my commentary for ESPN.
“This company has never made a successful esport themselves,” I said of Activision–Blizzard in a January 2020 video. “They have made the game and the community has built it. They’ve tried to do this inorganically with Overwatch and it has not worked. No one gives a crap about Overwatch at this moment, at least at the large massive scale that they care about others.”
Riot Games, the major publisher behind League of Legends, is not immune to my critique, either. In April, I wrote about that company’s lack of success in the esports market, despite what many—admittedly including myself—believed were much more reasonable asks of $10 to $13 million in franchise fees.
I’ve felt my job was, and partially still is, to chronicle the rise and now fall of esports. Not to be its champion and certainly not to blindly parrot the assholes who were recklessly spending hundreds of millions of other people’s money over the past decade. Arrogantly, if I didn’t do it, then who would?
Somehow along the way, though, my notoriety made me the esports reporter, without the added context of the critique and the hard-hitting nature of my work. That’s what I am to thousands of people, and it has continued over the past two and a half years to cause me frustration. Because while covering esports is the lion’s share of my career, I am not stupid nor complicit enough to think it is worth continuing to be.
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If you’re not up to date: Esports may as well be a fire extinguisher to any investor conversation in 2023. And for good reason! Those assholes who I mentioned earlier launched every venture imaginable in the esports space: leagues, teams, merchandising, gambling companies, performance-improvement offerings, crypto coins and NFTs, and, worst of all, at least for me, media companies.
Think about gaming as an upside-down pyramid for a second. If the top layer is “gamers,” defined as someone who plays gaming at least once a month casually on any device (PC, console or mobile), then “esports fan” is at the bottom.
Why? Because to be an esports fan, you have to live, eat and sleep not just any game, but specific, multiplayer games with limited, and in some cases, dying, user bases in the Western world.
Sandwiched between those two groups are many layers: people who play games once a week, people who play games multiple times a week, people who watch other people play games, people who watch esports’ biggest events of the year, and then, finally, that “esports fan” bottom layer.
So why then would I—someone whose entire livelihood depends on audience support—put my time and effort into content for that core niche, who also have demonstrated an unwillingness to pay for content? I haven’t, and I wouldn’t. I’d be a fool to do so.
Instead, I’ve thought about the past two and a half years since the ESPN Esports layoffs as a two-part career reinvention.
First, I’ve focused on a partial pivot from full-time beat reporter to producer first, reporter second, focusing most of my day stealthily producing podcasts and documentary TV.
Within 15 days of leaving ESPN, I founded Overcome, the production company I facilitate those projects through, and bootstrapped the company with nearly $30,000 of my own money. We grossed nearly $200,000 in revenue in 2022 and were just a hair shy of break-even. We currently have one active podcast and another in development, two TV projects in development and a consulting deal with a major New York-based marketing and sales agency. I love my team at Overcome, and while some days are difficult, the traction we see daily with our work is extremely reassuring.
Second, of the reporting and writing I still do, I’ve expanded my palette, first at Dot Esports and then at Substack. I reported on the landmark Epic Games v. Apple antitrust trial for a month, I broke a scoop about top game executives’ political donations ahead of the 2022 midterms, I wrote about “The Last of Us” breaking a pop culture barrier for gaming content, and I unearthed new documents about the scary few days that Twitch’s most popular female streamer, Amouranth, went dark after accusing her husband of domestic abuse.
On the podcast front, my show ‘Visionaries’ welcomed on some of the world’s most successful content creators, such as Ludwig Ahgren, Anthony Fantano, QTCinderella, developers of titles like ‘Marvel Snap’ and ‘Among Us,’ co-creator of the ‘Super Mario Bros. Movie’ and ‘The Last of Us’ star Troy Baker.
Sure, there has been esports content in there, too—again, altruistically thinking about the need—but anyone paying attention thoroughly knows my point of view: Esports is dying and I am not hitching my tow to its success.
That’s why that interaction earlier this week stung. It basically illustrated to me that I am to pay for the sins of others who did act careless in esports and reassured negative (albeit, deep down, I know untrue) insecurities that I’ve wasted eight years of my life covering this industry. That something I thought was doing good is all for naught.
The skills I’ve picked up over those eight years are valuable and transferable, though, and if nothing else, that’s the silver lining! I’ve become a better on-camera personality, I’ve learned to write and report diligently, I’ve picked up lessons on so much about running a business, and, most importantly, I’ve met and bonded with hundreds of people who I know, deep down, genuinely care about me.
The point of writing this newsletter isn’t to call for sympathy or for help. It’s, as a close friend likes to say: To get the venom out. Writing’s been my job the past eight years, but it’s also still very much an escape. Seeing something on paper written down is valuable to me.
If you’re one of the now-9,000 subscribers(!) to this newsletter, I genuinely appreciate you. Thank you! It means a lot and it’s reassuring that so many people do care about my voice and opinion. We’re going to keep doing this thing and if I have my way, it’s only up from here.
But I don’t want to be the esports reporter anymore. Truth is, I haven’t wanted to for almost three years. I hope now that’s clear.
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