Earlier this month, the owner of a well-known eSports site announced on Twitter that he was looking for some graphic designers. His followers raised a reasonable question: Would the positions be paid?
"It's eSports, so of course it's unpaid," GGChronicle's Christopher 'MonteCristo' Mykles tweeted nonchalantly in response. "Looking for community members," he added, suggesting that hardcore eSports fans would be willing to sacrifice their time for the growing industry's greater good.
In just about any other field, Mykles' off-handed remark would have sparked outrage. A public figure with nearly 60,000 followers on Twitter looking for free labor? Image suicide. Few in eSports seemed surprised, however, let alone incensed.
ESports, or competitive gaming, is rocketing in both profitability and popularity. In the past, it was dominated by enthusiasts, with competitions boasting only a fistful of dollar bills. These days, sports pundits dissect the industry's credibility on HBO while streaming service Twitch enjoys the patronage of over 40 million viewers, thanks considerably to its eSports feeds. Tournaments across the board are ramping up their prize pools, both with the assistance of sponsors and zealous fan communities. Valve’s Dota 2 tournament The International doled out a staggering $2.8 million to its players.
Yet, in spite of the adulations, the nerd cred, and the media’s enthused portrayal of the rapidly growing industry, only a handful are making an actual living. But while eSports’ high-tech athletes and their entourage of coaches, managers, and publicists are slowly being given their due, eSports journalists are still, by and large, community volunteers who subsist only on their own passions and the occasional approval of their peers.
The disparity between what is expected of this demographic and what is accorded to them is enormous. ESports journalists are frequently expected to possess not only encyclopedic knowledge of the scene but also of the game itself. They work around the clock breaking down matches and unraveling player histories, analyzing and expounding on the eccentricities of each new game update. Yet, few would bat an eye at working for free.
Duncan "Thorin" Shields, senior eSports content creator at news site OnGamers, paints a bleak image.
"The majority of people working in eSports journalism earn nothing," he writes over email. According to Shields, the average contributor might find themselves netting $100 or $200 a month—if they’re lucky. At that rate a burger-flipper at McDonalds would be a more lucrative career choice, with its $7.73 an hour wage.
And what about those enthroned at the top of the totem pole? Shields says: "There might be 10 or 20 who are making full-time salaries."
Much like the rest of the scene, eSports journalism is still a nebulous entity. Standards are fluid and writing styles unpoliced. According to Eric Khor, an editor at GosuGamers, the news cycle is frequently built of "somebody paraphrasing another website or embedding tweets as their source." It's a game of speed that comes with few rules. You've got to be the first to advertise a new scrap of knowledge, no matter the cost—unless it involves treading on the wrong toes.
"Because the industry is so dominated by superstars and personalities, some questionable acts go unpunished because nobody dares to write about them," Khor says, adding that journalists risk getting cut off entirely if they ruffle too many feathers among the industry's big names.
In one recent example, Khor says, the owner of a new team demanded the right to screen and veto anything he wrote about his players.
"Being stupid," Khor says, "I complied with it after he said: 'If you want to interview my players in the future, you better listen.'"
There are other demands from other teams. Khor says he's been repeatedly admonished to tweak articles in order to present a better portrayal of the team. Eventually, the situation crescendoed into a single pivotal argument, one that Khor believes resulted in revoked interview privileges.
"What people failed to understand is, it is my job to dig deeper for stories or quotes," he says.
"If you don't want it to be leaked, don't tell anyone or give me a quote on it in the first place. I shouldn't be blamed as a 'tabloid' if your players cannot keep their mouth shut."
Khor says he's sitting on a scoop about the "formation of a Chinese dream team," but can't publish anything about it until an official announcement. "I am very annoyed by it," he says.
Journalists can do little more than gnash their teeth. ESports is an industry yoked to the whims of its celebrities.
"You have to be careful to maintain your business relationships," says Adnan 'Darthozzan' Dervisevic, a one-time writer for eSports team CompLexity. "Without inside information or access, you aren't worth anything."
Take the case of Evil Geniuses, he suggests, one of eSports's most successful and influential teams. If a journalist wants to speak to an Evil Genius star at any live event, however, he or she needs to ask the club's manager for permission first. "And being in their bad book is not very good," Dervisevic says.
Rod "Slasher" Breslau can testify to that. In January, he broke a story about one of Evil Geniuses' new team signings before the team could break the news itself. The backlash was immediate and explosive. Some, including other journalists, suggested Breslau's report was little more than a ploy for attention. Others challenged his professionalism. In their eyes, the leak was tantamount to theft: By reporting on it, he'd essentially robbed the team of its own news—and buzz.
The controversy culminated on Jan. 15, 2013 during the popular eSports talk show Inside the Game. What began as a relatively calm discussion on the matter soon escalated into a verbal lynching when Evil Geniuses's CEO Alex Garfield joined the show.
"When you go and leak announcements, not only do you provide no value for anyone except for yourself, you steal value from the companies that support our industry," Garfield snarled.
"You decrease the number of eyeballs from what they should be getting from their announcement. You actually make the team look bad. Companies know you, and they hate you."
Even today, Breslau is viewed by some with distrust for his unwillingness to conform to the unspoken rules. He seems able to endure that type of animosity. Others seldom can. And on top of navigating the political landmines and the demands of a keenly informed audience, the eSports journalist must contend with the industry’s seeming reluctance to pay its brightest. The former editor-in-chief of eSports club SK Gaming, Lawrence Benedict 'Malystryx' Phillips, likened news writers to clones in a blistering critique of the industry's journalism quality.
"They all write the same type of sentences, void of any personal touch just an automated robot churning out cliché after cliché," he seethed.
In the same breath, Phillips suggested the solution to the industry's quality problem was for more volunteers. Readers unhappy with the state of eSports journalism could volunteer as replacements for journalists they found unfit. Money is scarce in news writing, Phillips warned, even as he looked askance at reporters (who he typified as "teenagers") who prioritized financial gain and personal glory over the notion of "community spirit."
The problem isn’t the lack of willing volunteers, says Andrew Groen, a former Penny Arcade Report writer and Redbull ESports contributor who is more accustomed to regular paychecks than many others in the industry. Instead, it's the expectation of free work.
"I think it’s part of what has helped eSports survive up until this time, and those writers should be commended for their service to the community. But very soon those same writers are going to need to realize that writing for free is actually going to harm eSports."
"Years ago, volunteer writing staffs were great as they kept the community informed when there wasn’t enough money to pay an editorial team. But now that the money is beginning to flow in eSports? If writers aren’t cherished then eventually they leave to focus on things like work and family."
Groen adds that eSports journalism really needs its rare, long-term veterans to "stick around" and provide tutelage to new writers. He argues it ultimately boils down to a question of self-respect. Writers who served pivotal roles in the development of the nascent scene deserve their recompense.
"Writers always devalue themselves (in every business) and it allows companies to underpay them or even insist they 'volunteer.' Lots of people are profiting off the health of these eSports communities, and writers deserve to be compensated for their role in keeping those communities healthy."
Though still a flawed system, eSports journalism is beginning to find its center. A growing number of eSports-centric sites such as CBS Interactive’s OnGamers are starting to provide remuneration to their content creators. But it’s still a distance before eSports journalism can remotely be considered a viable source of income. And though payment is still a rarity, few seem to mind terribly. For many, eSports is, and possibly always will be, a labor of love.
Disclosure: The author is a regular contributor to OnGamers,
Illustration by Jason Reed