When League of Legends esports athlete Soren “Bjergsen” Bjerg announced on October 4 that he was retiring as a player and would take on a coaching role, the esports world let out a collective gasp. The 24 year-old had been the star player of TeamSoloMid, one of North America’s most famous esports organizations, since he was just 17 years old, and had gone on to become the most recognizable player in the region.
His and TSM’s tweets announcing his retirement raked in nearly 100,000 likes and 5,200 comments. TSM’s Youtube video with Bjerg’s statement shot up to over one million views. The news soared to the top of the League of Legends subreddit with tens of thousands of upvotes and comments. TSM’s Discord server boomed with conversation.
All these different platforms — Reddit, Discord, Twitter and more — are where esports lives. They foster thriving, growing communities based around games, players, organizations and esports at large. Meanwhile traditional media has fallen by the wayside.
Over the last four years, multiple media operations have launched and subsequently shut down esports verticals. ESPN announced yesterday that its vertical, ESPN Esports, would be shutting down as part of the largest round of layoffs in company history. ESPN Esports is the latest to bite the dust; G/O Media’s Compete shut down in 2018, preceded by Yahoo! Esports in 2017.
The closure of ESPN Esports is an especially grim milestone in the history of mainstream esports coverage. Launched in 2016, it was the longest-running esports vertical run by a major news operation; Compete lasted a little over a year and Yahoo! Esports lasted less than even that.
It’s not like esports are a niche — it’s had one of its best years ever. Analytics firm NewZoo projects that esports revenue will surpass $1.1 billion in 2020, and that audiences will grow 11.7% up to 495 million worldwide. The platforms stated above which esports thrive on are also experiencing record growth. Discord’s valuation increased by 75% over the last two years and its user metrics are soaring. Twitch has broken records several quarters in a row, with 5 billion hours of content watched in the second quarter. Communities for esports games across Reddit continue to grow.
How is it, then, that during a golden age for esports, attempts to cover it have failed?
The simple answer is that the traditional model of news coverage doesn’t work for esports. Esports news is often driven by rumors, gossip and analysis, which ESPN Esports and others have certainly replicated in their own content. But whether it’s in a Twitch stream or a Reddit thread, esports is inextricable from an immediate feedback and crowd frenzy that can’t be replicated by a news site’s static comment section.
Stories from ESPN Esports and other verticals perform well in esports forums and generate discussion, but the discussion isn’t attached to the vertical’s brand. Esports communities form around three things: games, players, and organizations. You’ll hardly find forums or Reddit communities dedicated to esports as a whole; often they are split up by game, and then by organization/team. To date, none of these attempts at covering esports have had a focus on developing a community similar to those that already exist in the space. A successful model will have to meet readers where they are and in their preferred methods of communication. Rather than just being a place where people get the news, it will have to be a place where people discuss the news, congregate and socialize beyond it. Equally as important as the reporting itself will be the development of personalities that readers want to and do interact with in real time.
In fact, the biggest hints of what the first site to sustainably cover esports will look like can be found in what thrives in the ashes of these websites shutting down. After Yahoo! Esports shut down in 2017, editor-in-chief Travis Gafford went on to have a successful career as an independent journalist. Aside from his multiple, popular profiles and video interviews with players, coaches and owners, Gafford understands the esports media landscape in a way that no website — not even Yahoo! Esports — did.
Gafford is a regular presence in the League of Legends subreddit, where his recognizable “tnomad” username can often be found in comment sections interacting with viewers. He also co-hosts a weekly podcast live on Twitch called Hotline League, where he and his co-host Mark Zimmerman take questions from a live audience and allow users to “call in” via the podcast’s Discord server, which both Gafford and Zimmerman regularly chat with viewers in. Hotline League’s broadcasts are often indistinguishable from any match broadcast; the chat moves at a mile per minute and is full of memes and outrageous takes in all caps. Callers call in with questions that are often as ridiculous as they are insightful. Coaches and players that appear on the show or in the chat will trash talk and rile the rest of the crowd up even more. Gafford had a Patreon page shortly after Yahoo! Esports shut down, but his solo venture netted him a sponsorship from computer hardware company Alienware, which Gafford said was so lucrative that he no longer needed a Patreon to support his income.
Gafford is just one example of the strong personal brand that many major media figures in esports have. ESPN Esports reporters Tyler Erzberger and Jacob Wolf are active on Twitter where they have dedicated followings and have developed reputations as strong analysts and hardened reporters, respectively. Combined, the two of them have 201.7k followers. Independent journalist Rod “Slasher” Breslau is known for often credibly leaking esports news, and has a following of 414.6k followers — just 100,000 off from ESPN Esports’ Twitter account — despite his poor track record on issues like sexism and gamergate.
In esports, which mostly lacks the city or regional loyalty that traditional sports has, fans are more often attached to specific players than organizations. Players will stream and interact with Twitch chats, tweet, post on subreddits and more. All of these media figures have what the esports verticals of old lacked: a strong brand and intimate familiarity of how esports audiences like to consume media. It makes sense that they would replicate the successful model of those they cover.
All this is not to say that good journalism can’t be done in the esports space. It can and has. But the first publication to sustainably cover esports will be the one that can build or replicate the types of communities where fans already prefer to get their news.