Editorial: Does eSports understand journalism?

16th Jan 2013 | 23:29

It’s mildly uncomfortable—kind of like an itchy turtleneck—to write something in defense of one of our competitors. But it’s much more uncomfortable to see a colleague so ignorantly lambasted in the way that GameSpot eSports reporter Rod Breslau (“Slasher,” as he’s usually known) was last night on Twitch.tv.

On Tuesday evening Breslau joined a conversation on the popular eSports talk show Inside The Game, hosted by Marcus “djWheat” Graham. The stream was paneled by players of Evil Geniuses, the largest and most influential North American eSports team. The group explored the coverage of eSports by journalists in the wake of recent leaks, namely ones made by Breslau about the signing of players by eSports teams like EG.

The discussion that followed, unfortunately, demonstrated EG's misguided views about the role of the press.

People that report the news—either by effort, or by accident—occasionally receive information that hasn’t yet been made public. Unannounced game details. Leaked hardware specs. News of impending layoffs, shared from an upset employee. Different media organizations handle these situations differently, but in general, if the information is valuable and you’ve verified its accuracy, it’s your responsibility to publish it. That’s our profession.

The dance within this, of course, is maintaining relationships. If I published everything I knew about StarCraft 4 (whoops) or Call of Duty: Turquoise Ops (cat: out of bag), Activision and/or Blizzard would be understandably unhappy that a press organization dictated their strategy. It's for this reason that game publishers and other companies, as djWheat pointed out on Inside The Game, use agreements called embargoes in parallel with legally-binding non-disclosure agreements to control when press can report on something. To varying degrees, both groups usually benefit: an embargo lift allows the company to enjoy a surge of coverage, and writers worry less about the race to publish information first, giving us time to prepare better content.

It's the nature and goal of the press, though, to seek out information wherever it exists. A healthy media doesn't rely entirely on official sources—the ones that push out press releases—for information and access. As you'd imagine, the information that's most useful to readers usually doesn't come from the people who have a self-interest in that information.

These are, I hope, self-evident concepts. But I'm stating them because based on last night's conversation, EG and other eSports figures have major misconceptions about how media operates in relation to the subjects they cover. EG's comments during the show indicated they don't understand that it isn’t Breslau’s responsibility to ask them permission to publish information that he’s independently verified. An hour and twenty-five minutes in, EG player Geoff “iNcontroL” Robinson asked Breslau: “When you break that news, you’re not talking to John Bain or Alex Garfield and getting that information from them, the people that would actually hand off an embargo to you. You’re talking to—I’m guessing your sources would be lower people, either players or someone around the organization, right? Or another league or something like that.”

“Well, I mean—sources can be anyone and everyone, but—” Breslau responded.

“I guess my point is the people that would actually give you an embargo are not the people you’re breaking the news on, right?” Robinson asked.

This represents a fundamental misunderstanding about the role of media, and it’s strange that an organization like EG—even in the context of them defensively inquiring about Breslau's goals in scooping their announcements—wouldn’t respect that the natural work of journalists, yes, occasionally interferes with the best-laid plans of companies or governments or individuals. Things got significantly worse, however, when Evil Geniuses CEO Alex Garfield briefly joined the show. About an hour and thirty-six minutes in, the conversation shifted from feeling like an unbalanced, uninformed inquiry to resembling EG putting Breslau on trial.

Garfield lashed out openly at Breslau, saying that publishing confidential information negatively impacts the promises teams and organizations like EG make to sponsors. Garfield suggested that because eSports is so dependent on sponsorship for revenue (unlike baseball, for example), Breslau's actions damage their impact and EG's revenue. “You actively hurt the relationships and the give-and-take that makes our industry even possible," Garfield said to Breslau. "Like where do you think the money comes from? What do you think the sponsors pay for? They pay for marketing. They pay for exposure. And 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. 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,” Garfield said.

From Garfield’s perspective, Breslau’s scoops hurt eSports. They diminish the amount of attention an official announcement can get. “So you’re saying that you can announce Jaedong with a three-paragraph article on GameSpot better than I can announce Jaedong with a five to ten person staff doing an amazing splash page. You can do that better?” Garfield asked Breslau.

“That part doesn’t matter,” Breslau responded. “If you can do it better—you can do it better, you should do it better. I still need to do my job, which is to report information to the public, which includes everything—not just the teams, players, and signings, but also the leagues—” he said before being interrupted.

EG seems to view Breslau, a writer, as one of their competitors. EG Zerg player Greg “IdrA” Fields echoed this sentiment later: “Teams are marketing agencies, at least that’s how the good ones make their money, they make money by people seeing these announcements we put up,” he said. “And EG in particular puts a ton of work into those announcements. So by taking viewership away from that, by taking excitement away from that—and the excitement is really, really important—that takes away, that is actually how we make our money. And you can argue over the percentages to it, but it’s still true. That’s still taking money away from us, and taking attention away from us.”

It's ridiculous, but EG seems to consider Breslau a thief. "You steal value from the companies that support our industry," Garfield later says to Breslau. Assuming that Breslau didn’t illegally obtain his information (you might’ve heard of heard of the British media organization that closed last year in response to a phone hacking scandal), this is nonsense. It may be accurate that eSports rely disproportionately on sponsors, but this is irrelevant—if a reporter has accurate, ethically-obtained, interesting information, they're obliged to publish it. Baffling was a suggestion made later by Garfield that EG and other eSports organizations had talked about blacklisting Breslau, denying him access for future coverage—either as a form of punishment, or as a way of protecting themselves from leaks.

Good luck with that. If EG and other eSports organizations are frustrated that the press is diminishing the hype they expect to generate from an announcement by beating them to the punch, they should concern themselves with the actual source of the leak, not the people who publish it. Leaks leak—it's in their nature. You don't get mad at your floor for being wet because your faucet broke.

Formal coverage of eSports by gaming outlets is still quite new; last night's ugly back-and-forth between Breslau and prominent members of the scene demonstrates that growing pains remain. Both sides want to see eSports become a burgeoning enterprise. A necessary part of that future, though, is eSports organizations accepting that the goals of the press do not align with their own. We're covering eSports because we and our readers are enthusiastic about what you're doing. Alleviate yourself from the belief that we are part of your marketing machinery, and we'll be closer to the future we both want.

Follow Evan Lahti on Twitter.

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