Executing the Jump
Mid-career journalists these days are expected to learn new tricks. Few have succeeded like the esports journalist Ben Fischer.
By Luke Winkie
The esports press is a ramshackle group. That makes sense, because the business of competitive gaming is new and insurgent, and the people who cover it tend to be untrained and wet-behind-the-ears. Maybe they started at a fan site and picked up a recorder; maybe they’re happy to reinterpret press-releases on a YouTube channel; maybe they work for some of the many, many questionably-funded media ventures on the internet, where they happily pen League of Legends match recaps for a $25 stipend. (Trust me, I’ve been there.)
Sure, the esports industry might be projected to eclipse a billion dollars in 2019, but the journalism infrastructure on the ground floor has a lot of catching up to do. That’s what makes Ben Fischer so interesting. He’s a veteran business reporter who, in early 2016, was instructed by the higher-ups at the Sports Business Journal to add esports to his beat. Fischer is not gamer, much less a Twitch viewer or an esports liaison, so the mandate forced him to pivot from everything he thought he knew about sports to dip his toes in the wild, untamed world of million-dollar DOTA tournaments, sold-out Fortnite stadiums, and kids turning massive profits from the comfort of their PC. He is a bona fide esports outsider — something he has no interest in hiding — and that’s what makes his reporting crucial, professional, and free from the artifice you see from other, less-reputable initiatives.
News-to-Table caught up with Fischer over the phone to talk about the tall task of learning the nuances of this industry, what it takes to gain trust in an ornery, web-literate community, and the things that can make esports more exciting than traditional sports coverage.
What was your journey in journalism up to the point where you were asked to start covering esports? What was that conversation like?
Growing up I wanted to be a sportswriter for newspapers and magazines, but then I realized that I like weekends and not traveling all the time. Then I wanted to be a political reporter, and I actually have a master’s degree in that. But then I turned towards business reporting. I covered a few different beats— tech, healthcare, public education. I got the job at the Sports Business Journal in 2015 covering the Olympics and action sports. And all this time, I’m not paying attention to the gaming world at all. I grew up with a lot of Super Nintendo, that sort of thing, but that’s it.
In the beginning of 2016 a couple people on staff started to write about esports in this, “Gee whiz, look at this thing going on” sense. And our executive editor decided that we needed to start treating this as a beat. They called me, on a January afternoon in 2016, and said, “You are covering this now in addition to your Olympics duty.” It was less of an ask, more of a tell. It was surprising, it seemed like something I wasn’t qualified to do. But compared to the rest of the staff I am young, and at the time it was described as 10 to 15 percent of my time. Flash forward a couple of years now it’s more like a 50/50 split [with my Olympic coverage,] and sometimes closer to 60 to 70 percent esports. I had to start from very low. I knew that Twitch was a big acquisition for Amazon, and that was a big storyline, but I didn’t even know what Twitch was.
The esports industry is so diverse and complex. As far as getting up to speed and learning what was news, and what was worth covering, how long did it take you, an outsider, to get your head around it all?
It was extremely intimidating, and challenging. Not only is it a space I knew nothing about, I knew if I went out there and said stupid things I would get destroyed from all angles. On Reddit, on Twitter, everywhere. It was very scary for the first few months. To my boss’ credit they had very low expectations right out of the gate. As a journal [and] magazine reporter I get to pick and choose my battles, and let certain announcements go by. That gave me the freedom to ease into it. I tried to read a lot, I tried to develop some relationships with industry insiders who were very generous with their time. The company gave me the time to just go to school on esports. It was a good six months before I felt like I had the authority to say anything.
As you said, esports can be a territorial place. You can get roasted if you say the wrong thing. But was there any part about being an outsider that has helped your reporting in any way?
Absolutely. What I found is that as territorial, and quick-to-criticize as people in esports might be, there’s also a strong sense of pride in the community, and a desire to explain it to be outsiders. Even though they’re on the lookout for mistakes, I introduced myself to small orgs and said, ‘Look I’m from the traditional sports industry’s leading insider publication, tell me what you’re doing here and why it’s going to be big.’ Universally I’ve gotten great reactions, and invitations to see their team house. Being an outsider helps, because they want us to know more.
What was the intimidation factor like on top of that? The knowledge of knowing that you had to get things right?
It was scary at the time, but I think it worked to my benefit. I knew it was better for my long-term to not write anything wrong. And that’s not a perspective that comes naturally to a reporter in a daily or weekly paper. Big news comes out and you think, “Well, I should say something about this. I should write a story and put my name on it.” But watching what happened to people who said weird things about esports in traditional media I was like, “Well, I’m going to pass on that.” What I found myself doing is that I would report the stories out anyway, I’d call all the experts who had shown that they were willing to be generous, I’d say, “Why does this matter?” You learn from watching the news and going through the motions of reporting, without actually delivering on it a lot of the time.
You’ve done a good job of cultivating trust in the community. What advice would you give to other people, who might have a similar background as you, going into a space like esports and gaming in terms of creating that trust?
You have to respect the community. I know that sounds obvious, but where most newcomers in media have gotten in trouble is they come in and think they know more than they do, and not thinking through what they don’t know. It’s hubris to make pronouncements about whether this is a “good thing” or a “bad thing.” A lot of reporters go out on the wrong path when they try to turn it into a broad social story about how video games are bad for you, that sort of thing. To a certain extent, I have the benefit of working for a business publication, where I don’t have to address whether something is good or bad for society. It’s a new revenue stream. People are trying to make money, so it’s not really my issue whether it’s good or bad for the world. It just is. That sounds like Journalism 101, but it’s a take environment now.
There’s a lack of good journalism practices in esports right now. I wouldn’t necessarily call the general esports press a healthy scene, and you’re obviously coming into this business with a more robust backing of ethics, Do you think that that’s something this industry is in need of?
I think you’re right to identify some problems and challenges. My thoughts are that esports news [is treated] like a commodity. Just announcements like, “Org B bought a team in game Y,” it’s the same thing regurgitated over and over again. And as far as any sort of deeper dive that says, “What does this deal have to do with this other deal?” That’s where it falls off a cliff. In some sense it feels like media is everywhere in esports. When something big happens, everyone jumps on it. But it’s actually very superficial. The number of reporters that do a deeper dive is very small. There’s five of us? Maybe? So I think there needs to be more of that.
But on a more philosophical level, the thing that alarms me about esports is that there still seems to be a misunderstanding of the role of journalism in a lot of cases. I still see teams that think that reporters that break news before they announce it are doing something that is fundamentally wrong. Or that the role of reporters is to support teams or help teams, and that’s just not the case. It’s your responsibility to keep a sponsorship deal or a player transaction secret. If a reporter gets that information ahead of time, and they’re able to verify it and it’s in the public interest, its their job to publish it. This goes into more general games coverage, there’s a blurring of the line between enthusiast, fan-writing, reviewing, and hard transactional journalism. It’s a culture where I’m not sure if people see the virtue of it.
It’s a double-edged sword. I once reached out to someone on Twitch for an interview and was rebuffed because I didn’t use the quotes he gave me in a previous interview, which was a ridiculous conversation to have. But I’ve also appreciated the lack of media training that exists in esports, and how you get far more spice in an average interview than you would if you were talking to LeBron or something.
Yeah, it’s still pretty flat. I’m texting with very senior people in major orgs all the time. They got PR agencies and the gates are starting to go up. But it’s a very egalitarian and flat system, which is a great change of pace from the Olympic beat, where I have to put in a Secret Service background check to talk to somebody. I’m exaggerating slightly, but I do like that part of esports. It’s very much a community.
What is your favorite part about the beat?
It’s how interesting, and how open to experiment the entire business structure of esports is. As much as I love sports business, the established leagues is a little bit paint-by-numbers. The Patriots do it better than the Bengals, but they all have the basic revenue streams. Merchandise, tickets, sponsorship, and media. In that world, you’re playing around the edges. In esports and gaming, you thought you had one business model and then Fortnite comes in and the whole world looks different in a year. There’s so much more room for innovation and creativity, where in the rest of things we write about, things are far more incremental.
One last thing. I think media people these days are used to bouncing around beats as new industries pop up, and with the general instability of the industry as a whole. What advice would you give to other journalists about being flexible, and agile, as they find themselves covering something they never thought they would be?
My advice is to not overcomplicate things. You need to understand that at its core, business is simple. It can be easy to understand. Clearly you need to educate yourself on any given company or industry. But there’s a whole bunch of people out there who want you to believe that their business is more complicated than it is. Their goal is very straightforward; to provide a service or a product that the market will pay more than what it costed to produce. That is true for any business, and any industry in a capitalist society. I used to cover banking and public utilities. They’re still trying to make a profit the same way the games guy are.
Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from San Diego, currently living in Brooklyn. He contributes to Vice, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Vox, and Gizmodo, among others.
Last edited: March 17, 2019
Author: Luke Winkie
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Illustration: Photo by Florian Olivo on Unsplash