The Game of Needs
The weird relationship between eSports teams and the journalists that cover them.
The fundamental purpose of journalism is to both serve the public and give voices to those who may not have a voice. The latter point is why many bands, artists, businesses or people on the street make a big deal out of being on TV news or in newspapers: they get exposure from the experience, and their product gets moved out to a larger audience.
However, the key point here is their agenda is being filtered through the journalist and his/her editors, who may ask inconvenient questions or portray people as they are, not how they want to be seen; this is the difference between a news story and a press release.
This became relevant to League of Legends when I read about Duncan “Thorin” Shields’ recent troubles, as one of his Grilled series of interviews was promptly spiked by Counter Logic Gaming. The team has a policy to review interviews before they’re published, and they ultimately have the final word; I've gone through this process myself when I talked to Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles, their new coach.
When I edited and uploaded the interview the CLG manager informed me that, after watching it, it could not be released, at all. He felt it reflected poorly on the brands of CLG and Doublelift. There was no discussion allowed, or debate.
[…] With that said, it’s also pretty likely I will never be able to interview CLG members again, assuming this policy remains in place. Now that I know what is possible I won’t ever consent to work under those terms again, nobody will edit or veto any of my content.
This actually isn't that unusual; especially in the cases of interviewing musicians, the band’s manager is looking out for the best interests of the people in his charge. However, what usually makes uncomfortable content a little bit more negotiable is the clout of the publication; many up-and-comers (hell, even big players) would not turn down a chance to be in Pitchfork, Rolling Stone or GQ.
At the moment, though, League of Legends journalists do not have that benefit; Shields’ Grilled series is probably the closest thing to it.
This is because most League teams (at least, the more popular ones) have a follower count and fanbase that dwarfs that of the people that are interviewing them. This creates an awkward situation where the journalists are put in a place of needing the teams more than the teams need them; traffic fuels dollars and community, and enough of both means they can keep working.
Shields is kind of a unique case, as Grilled will often frontpage on Reddit on virtue of being Grilled. Without the ability to talk to people who League of Legends fans are interested in hearing from, though, the potential for traffic and new followers shrinks.
In this case alone, the four key CLG Twitter accounts who would be providing exposure for this story (DoubleLift, Kelby, HotshotGG and CLGaming) could bring in 200,000+ potential eyeballs if all were to retweet; that is not including Facebook or their sponsor’s accounts, either.
I can say from my own personal experience that I know which teams or players will get the piece (and my work) more exposure than others. It is these players/teams’ that determine who become successful figures, and they realize that.
Also, if their fan base is large enough, a player or team can turn interviews down at their leisure: their own product will often bring similar results. Teams’ own blogs and video series are a dangerous competition: if they really feel like going through the trouble, they can create their own similar product, and much of the community will not notice either way.
This kind of becomes a Catch-22, as the roles reverse to “normal” when you look at the Challenger scene. Players who normally don’t get talked to need the exposure; however, the traffic comparison from the finished product makes doing sustained, for-profit work in this areas a bit difficult.
This is why you will often see interviews with “good talkers” repeatedly; publishers want to make money off content, and if there’s a choice between an interview that will hit the front page of Reddit and stay there for 12 hours and something that will barely crack the top 50, there will be a strong leaning towards the former every time.
It’s hard to come up with a solution to this until a publication comes along that the teams view as valuable to talk to and can afford to shrug off the good traffic days that these people can bring.
It cannot be an extension of Riot or each team’s PR, and it must have a dedication to growing the scene. It also needs to be able to pay journalists in order to keep their loyalty and reward good work; before that, it either needs to have enough investment to provide that initial budget, or generate enough of its own to sustain itself.
That horse might have already left the barn, though: for all I know, this hypothetical publication will make its money with insufferable memes in order to fund the “real” journalism, just like Buzzfeed does.
For now, the community can do what I've always said they should: support independent journalists and publications and look at what you watch or read critically. What’s trying to be “sold” here? Are their answers genuine, or PR-friendly? If all else fails, ask what I call the “Batman question”: “Who benefits?”
Be smart consumers, and reward those who take you seriously. They will reward you back many times over in return.