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Reddit ban leaves esports site OnGamers fighting for survival

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In November, CBS Interactive’s flagship esports news site launched with big ambitions. As the first esports news site backed by a major media brand, OnGamers was able to sign some of the biggest names in the industry. The site aimed to become the central hub for the world of competitive gaming.

Just nine months later, it’s teetering on the brink of disaster.

OnGamers' success came largely thanks to an almost daily round of hit stories on Reddit, which hosts by far the largest esports communities online, including a half-million strong League of Legends forum. But that left OnGamers crushingly dependent on the drug of big Reddit traffic, which accounted for over half of the site's total traffic, according to Kim Rom, CBSI’s vice president of esports.

On Monday, Reddit banned the site for at least a year. Can OnGamers survive the withdrawal?

The trouble began in April. Reddit administrators discovered OnGamers participating in what they called "vote manipulation"—a broad term that typically refers to actions like spamming a single website’s links and using multiple Reddit accounts to artificially lift stories with upvotes. The site was banned for nine days, and was only allowed back with the understanding that staff would both stop posting their own stories and end any vote manipulation.

This second ban, which will last a much longer time, promises to be far more devastating. The fallout has already begun.

Earlier today, OnGamers fired Rod “Slasher” Breslau, the site’s first employee and senior editor. Breslau was recently caught asking other users to post his stories to Reddit with specific headlines, actions that brought about the latest ban.

Breslau, who formerly worked at the esports organization Major League Gaming, was a driving force in the creation of OnGamers, personally lobbying CBS to hire esports journalists. He handpicked OnGamer's original team and recommended CBSI hire Rom to lead the new esports franchise.

In the wake of the ban, a cacophony of fact and rumors have spread on Reddit and social media, painting a grim picture for the future of one of the biggest, most well-funded esports sites of all time.

The latest ban, Rom said, “has seriously endangered the livelihood” of OnGamer’s staff.

“Roughly 50 percent of traffic going away overnight is a lot,” Rom said, “especially since we are in a stage of operation where we are trying to show CBS Interactive that this esports thing is something they should bet on. We’re an investment test balloon for them.”

Several OnGamers staffers, who asked to remain anonymous, claim that Rom was at least in part responsible for the first ban, creating multiple fake accounts to upvote the site’s content. A similar charge has been repeated on esports talk shows and forums. Rom flatly denied those allegations, however, calling them mere "speculation."

It took significant effort on the part of OnGamer's corporate parent to lift the first ban. Breslau also personally visited Reddit's New York offices, pleading with the site's staff for nearly an hour to reverse the decision.

Breslau admits, however, that the second ban came largely thanks to his actions. He privately and repeatedly messaged redditors asking them to post onGamers content to popular subreddits. This included “instructions on how to post their links, including exact titles, and then having employees vote on those links once submitted,” Reddit's community manager, Alex Angel announced on June 30. “This behavior is totally unacceptable, and that is why [Breslau] and ongamers.com have been banned again.”

Breslau denies he engaged in vote-rigging, however. He posted and voted OnGamers stories, he says, but didn’t ask other staffers to vote. He claims they did that on their own, giving the impression to Reddit staff of an organized attempt to push the stories to the front page.

After conducting an “internal investigation” and speaking with Reddit, Rom fired Breslau who, he said, “violated some very clear internal guidelines.”

The ruleset to ensure the site was in compliance with Reddit rules, Rom explained, was “ironically created by Slasher” himself.

Rom says he's working on “a number of contingency plans” to help reverse the company’s failing fortunes. OnGamers employees, meanwhile, have talked privately about the possibility of rebranding the site, something Rom says won't happen. Meetings about the site’s future are set to take place soon, Rom says.

“This whole incident has obviously been a shock to all of us,” OnGamers video production lead Adam Contini told the Daily Dot. “Being domain banned from Reddit for a year is very obviously the kind of thing that requires us to sit down and really work out where we go from here.”

The biggest challenge for Rom, formerly a marketing executive at hardware manufacturer SteelSeries, will be to market the site to audiences outside of Reddit, something he has admittedly failed to do over the past six months.

Although Rom says just half of OnGamer’s traffic comes from Reddit today, the number was over 80 percent just months before the original ban.

OnGamer’s social numbers are relatively paltry, with just over 3,000 Facebook likes and 11,000 Twitter followers. Some of its employers boast bigger numbers on Twitter, however, most notably Matthew "Cyborgmatt" Bailey (52,000 followers) and Duncan "Thorin" Shields (21,000).

OnGamers also receives a significant amount of direct traffic—i.e., readers surfing directly to the website itself—but, like almost any news site, it relies on social media for the lion’s share of its audience.

After the first ban, Rom says, traffic actually increased. More people visited the site directly, and that readership was more engaged and devoted than the Reddit audience. The only silver lining this time is that OnGamers might finally wean itself of the Reddit dependency, but that’s much easier said than done. The site is, after all, the de-facto home for all things esports.

Still, reaction to the ban on Reddit itself was mixed. While some crucified OnGamers for making the same mistake twice, others expressed frustration over the decision. After all, whether the stories were spammed or not, OnGamers was still an important, valued source of news for the community.

As for Breslau, Rom says the firing is something he takes “incredibly seriously.”

“We’re talking about people’s livelihoods,” he told the Daily Dot. “This is something I unfortunately had to do, the actions of one employee has seriously endangered the livelihood of many other people. No one wins here; it’s all just really sad.”

Image via OnGamers