Why Substack Is, and Isn't, the Right Platform for Gaming Journalism

After a year of being independent, it's time to reflect on what's gone wrong and right.

MacBook Pro near white open book

The prospect of going independent has always been attractive to me. I’ve been encouraged on multiple occasions by people—venture capitalists willing to bankroll me, friends who have the utmost faith in my acumen, and others—to make the jump. But it never felt like exactly the right time. I knew months before my ESPN exit that the independent route on the documentary and podcast production side of my life was the right call, but on the reporting and writing side, I still wanted to feel secure with a publication behind me.

The line between influencer and journalist is blurring more than it ever has. Some of the most popular content on YouTube at the moment is react or commentary content, by voices such as MoistCr1TiKaL, Hasan Piker, Ludwig Ahgren and others. Often these folks are using the work of experts like myself or other journalists to inform their opinion, which they are sharing to their audiences of millions of people. 

Despite the increased visibility, it has been hard for games journalists to thrive—often taking low-paying jobs at major publications that provide them a name and access. I’ve been lucky that the nearly five years of reporting I did at ESPN made me recognizable to many people in the gaming and creator economy industries. And I am privileged that the opportunity to commercialize and monetize my skillset has been bigger than those of many of my peers.

That said, after a year of doing this, I’m not sure Substack is the right platform for games journalism. Here’s why.

For starters, there’s not a gaming section on Substack’s homepage or its explore page. To find my work, there’s a few ways you get here. You either: 

  • Follow me on Twitter;

  • Are recommended by another writer, like Ariel Helwani or Joe Pompliano;

  • Or find my work through another news website which is aggregated my reporting.

That last point is by far the biggest hindrance to my work on Substack, and it’s one that I’ve voiced privately to Substack’s team over the past year since we started working together. I’m a news reporter—I’ve broken hundreds, hell, maybe even thousands now, of stories about the inner machinations of the gaming and esports industries. Even now, as a part-time reporter and full-time production company CEO, I’m beating my peers to scoops. Yet, if you just followed gaming or esports news on Google News, most news sites’ biggest driver of web traffic, you wouldn’t know this.

Substack has almost no integration with Google News. Only the most prolific and successful Substack writers, such as Platformer’s Casey Newton, are able to get Google News ranking. It’s a mix of both technical help, which the Substack backend doesn’t provide much of, and a less formulaic reputation score that comes with backlinks from other reputable websites—hard when gaming and esports journalism is in the mud and most sites have become Google search engine optimized-focused content farms.

So yes, I’ve broken stories about how much debt some of the richest people in the world owe Activision Blizzard for their esports leagues, which politicians donated to Republican and Democratic candidates ahead of the midterms last year and a dozen stories about how the esports industry is falling apart as we know it. Almost none of my traffic has come from Google, a stark contrast to my time at ESPN or Dot Esports.

So how do most writers on Substack thrive?

More recently, by recommendations and the overlap between their audience and other audiences that already use Substack. Among the most subscribed-to Substacks are the right-wing political writers, like Bari Weiss and Matt Taibbi, sports writers like Joe and tech writers like Casey. Joe’s recommendation of my work has driven me significant subscribers—and even gotten me angry emails from Boomer sports executives who don’t understand Substack…

There’s almost no gaming ecosystem on Substack, however.

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Before I showed up, I can really only think of two gaming writers on Substack who were garnering significant audience: Simon Carless, who writes GameDiscoverCo, and Nathan Brown, who writes Hit Points. Since I launched The Jacob Wolf Report in April 2022, more have come to the platform—like Richard Lewis, my former mentor and the most prolific esports journalist.

But you see my point, right?

There are hundreds of writers covering the politics, sports, culture and technology beats. If their readers like one person, it’s very likely they’ll find another they like, too. If they’ve paid for one newsletter, it’s more likely they’ll subscribe to another, because their credit card information is already in Substack’s system. That’s the upside of Substack.

But outside of industry power players, there isn’t a big ecosystem of people in gaming using Substack. Instead, they’re on platforms such as YouTube and Patreon, watching the aforementioned influencers who are taking journalist’s work, adding a layer of original commentary and distributing to a much, much bigger audience.

I’ve gotten dozens of messages since I launched this Substack from members of my audience on Twitter, Discord and other places interested in monetarily supporting me, yet they’re not familiar with Substack, so they’re not comfortable entering their payment information. They’ve asked if they can Venmo or Cash App me to support my work, all of which I’ve declined out of concern from an ethical point of view.

I do believe that the gaming and creator economy audience is interested in putting their dollars behind journalists and creators. But I’m skeptical, at least based on my past year of experience, that Substack is the right answer. I think Patreon, which is more common among creators, is likely the better answer.

That said, there are things to love about Substack as a journalist that Patreon does not provide. For example, the Substack Defender fund offers $1 million in legal defense to writers on this platform, a huge benefit for someone like me, whose work has routinely drawn legal threats over the past decade. YouTube and Patreon don’t offer that level of protection, and media liability insurance is expensive.

The distribution element of Substack is also super easy. It’s not hard to attract someone to this platform and get them engaged with your work—and newsletters are certainly more reliable than social media in terms of generating engagement. Open rates for my work hover around 50% total, which is pretty fantastic, considering how busy most people’s emails are.

I’ve also found a new audience on Substack, thanks to recommendations from people like Joe and Ariel. I’ve become certain readers’ go-to source of information on the video game industry. Maybe those people aren’t as interested in the space as my Twitter audience, but to me, it’s exciting for folks to want to better educate themselves on gaming, and I’m very thankful that I’m one of the sources they choose to do that through. That is a big honor.

The tried-and-true statement in marketing is to find the niche that you’re most knowledgeable in and leverage your insights in that niche to corner a market. I believe that much is true, but I’m conflicted on how best to exactly to do that in gaming and the creator economy. I have a lot of ideas, but the right answer isn’t always apparent. In fact, it’s almost never apparent.

But I’m humbled and flattered by the success I’ve found here on Substack and the support from my readers to continually engage with the work, week after week. I think I’ll keep at this, and over the next year, I’m positive I’ll start experimenting in other areas, too.

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