I Used to Hate Influencers. They May be Doing Journalists a Favor.

After years of free, premium content, Gen Z and Gen Alpha’s media consumption habits are changing the game.

Welcome to the first edition of The Jacob Wolf Report at its new home on Patreon and BeeHiiv!

I’m Jacob Wolf, an award-winning investigative journalist who, for the past nearly 10 years, has covered esports, gaming, internet culture and the creator economy. You may know me from my work at ESPN, Dot Esports or The Daily Dot, or from the podcast I host, Visionaries, which each week focuses on gaming, new media and the Internet’s impact on our lives. I’m also the founder of Overcome Media, a digital company focused on creating newsletters, podcasts, film and TV.

On Monday we announced some big news: After 16 months on Substack, The Jacob Wolf Report moved to Patreon. And it wasn’t alone: We’ve teamed up with ReaderGrev, the newsletter written by Mikhail Klimentov, one of the founding editors of The Washington Post’s video game vertical, Launcher.

You may have heard or read in some of our announcement content, or read in our interview with Digiday, some of our larger aspirations behind this whole thing. It’s no secret that I’ve spent the past six months pitching investors and chatting with talent for what we want to be one of gaming’s first subscription-backed media platforms. Something akin to Defector, the subscriber-supported sports news site founded by some of the crew that formerly ran the sports blog Deadspin.

I’m hopeful that’s what we can do. If you’re a paying subscriber, thanks for being here and for supporting us in that aspiration. If you’re not a paying subscriber yet, please consider becoming one! Shameless plug: If you sign up in the first 60 days, you price-lock for nearly a year and will receive a physical medallion, among other benefits, as thanks for your support in this journey.

Building a successful media business in gaming is incredibly difficult, but specifically why that is isn’t quite understood by both audiences and the people building these businesses. The old adage is that young people—or in this case, gamers—don’t read. But I don’t think that’s true. Some say influencers have replaced journalists, which is partially the case, but nowhere near the whole truth.

What has changed about young people’s media consumption habits is that they want to feel personally connected to who delivers them information. Being a “news robot,” as I call it, isn’t good enough anymore. In a world where there is so much noise on social media and too much content to even begin sorting through, quality can be drowned out by quantity. In that kind of environment, standing out is a more sure path to people’s attention. Quality writing often takes a backseat to being interesting and relatable—and developing a parasocial bond between audience and influencer.

To show my hand here a little bit, over the past six months, I’ve been doing two things: Talking to potential investors and—more relevant to this piece and discussion point—connecting with games, nerd culture, and creator-economy journalists and content creators about my ideas for a bigger media enterprise in this industry.

When I’ve talked about the idea of becoming a personality and blurring the line between influencer and journalist, I’m very often met with skepticism and pushback from my peers. For some, that’s because the word influencer means something very dirty: it refers to people who are open to being bought, or doing anything and everything to monetize themselves and their content. Others, though, point to this odd, hard-to-describe rigidity of the meaning of a journalist, passed down through generations and schooling. How dare you even consider being an influencer?

Yet, I don’t think all influencers are sellouts, and frankly, I think many of them have done people like me a favor.

Influencers have helped reestablish the practice of paying for content again. As they come of income-generating age, members of Gen Z, and eventually Gen Alpha, will already be used to paying for content they enjoy—in no short part because of Twitch streamers, Patreon creators and others creating paywalled content on the Internet.

I’m a Zillennial, right at the tail end of the Millennial generation and the beginning of Gen Z (I’m 26). My generation, right now, is probably the majority of the people currently actively consuming gaming content (though it’s hard to quantify).

For decades, we’ve gotten content for free—or close to it. We grew up with torrenting on Limewire, sharing passwords to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu and near-endless free, premium content on platforms such as Twitch and YouTube. That makes us hard to monetize.

Our perception on the value of content is awful. We’ve always gotten content for free. Why should we pay?

But people two, three, four, or, hell, even one year younger than me are very different, though. If they like a creator and find value in their voice, analysis or information, they’re happy to pull out their credit card and contribute. Especially if it feels like they’re helping someone they know in the process.

This is where most of the media companies in gaming have gone wrong.

G4, the Comcast-backed, Tucker Roberts-led1 gaming broadcaster, and VENN, backed by some of sports’ and gaming’s wealthiest investors, differ in some ways. What both did incorrectly, though, is add a layer of polish that removed the personal nature of the creators on screen—even though some of those creators, in their other content, were making content from their homes. When you aim to build a SportsCenter-level set and turn gaming creators into TV anchors, that parasocial2 bond is broken. With that comes an innate inability to monetize and difficulty making advertising brand endorsements feel genuine.

Though G4 and VENN aren’t the only failures, the genre’s other writer-dominant media ventures have suffered from much of the same issue.

Take Fanbyte, for example3 . Backed by one of China's wealthiest conglomerates, Tencent, the site staffed up with talented writers and editors in 2018. It continued to pick up big-name talent over time, too, including Elise Favis, one of Launcher’s founding writers.

But after four years of trying to establish mass-audience reach through op-eds, general news coverage and more, Tencent gutted Fanbyte in September 2022, laying off most of its staff.

Today, Fanbyte is a margin-focused guides website, honing in on some really high-player count games such as Final Fantasy XIV and Destiny 2 and creating search-engine-optimized content for these communities. Its page visits are lower now than the month prior to its layoffs in September, but taking an educated guess here, its margin of producing content is also much higher.

That’s what the gaming media market is today: Chasing the dragon of the next big Google hit.

It’s what IGN, Dot Esports and the other GAMURS websites4 and Dexerto do so well. But I’m pessimistic this will last, as AI-scraping and how Google delivers content changes—though some of my peers may disagree5 .

Even without AI taking over, though, these businesses are subject to an immense amount of pressure. When ad CPMs6 fall, their bottom lines are drastically impacted. When a game falls out of favor, they have to quickly pivot. Turnover among staff is also quite high, as young, often poorly-paid writers eager to break into the industry burn out while churning out article after article focused on search-engine optimization.

I’m hopeful that what influencers have done—once again creating a monetary relationship between creator and consumer—will turn things around, and that gaming journalism can and will follow. That’s what we’re trying to do here. That’s what we’re trying to build. And we’re most grateful to have you along for the ride.

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  1. Tucker Roberts is the son of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and over the past six years, he’s been focused on the company’s mostly unsuccessful entry into gaming and esports.

  2. Realize this term may not be that common. It’s defined as, according to Dictionary.com: a relationship that a person imagines having with another person whom they do not actually know, such as a celebrity or a fictional character.

  3. I’m singling out Fanbyte because their investor is Tencent and in theory, should’ve had bountiful resources to build a financially successful business. But they aren’t alone or particularly unique—other websites like Upcomer, Inven Global and others have had the same problems.

  4. I used to work at GAMURS. Figured I should make this disclosure.

  5. I’ve heard from peers that Google would never use AI to scrape content and redeliver its information, because it’d hurt their AdSense business. Personally I think Google innovates faster than they think of the consequences. Guess we’ll see?

  6. Cost per mille: Defined as how much an advertiser pays per 1,000 views. Very relevant to programmatic advertising.