Paper Crowns

I always had a theory as to why there were those little crowns inside Christmas crackers. For me it was that, for one day of the year, every man regardless of wealth and status could feel like a king. A feast laid out before them, surrounded by gifts and all petty grievances put to one side in order that they might bask in warmth and adoration, it was a time to feel important and decadent even in the drudgery of real life was looming in the not too distant future. It was indeed a crown but it was made from the cheapest tissue paper, a reminder that it was a temporary coronation.

IEM Cologne took place just a few days ago. It was a great spectacle, one of the highpoints of the e-sports calendar. Tens of thousands of fans crammed into the hall to watch their favourite players compete, while surrounded by like-minded people. Here, it was OK to cheer and to be overly enthusiastic in all the ways that those outside of the niche would tell them was weird. It felt like any other spectator sport, even if some of the crowd looked more like the mascots than they did the average fan.

And for all that attended there were many more that couldn’t, hundreds of thousands the world over knowing the closest they would get was the official stream, maybe some VoDs, a flashing score on a match ticker and some words on a virtual page. This is why the e-sports press is so important. Whether they know it or not they have the important responsibility of telling the stories that the vast majority of those who care won’t get to see, to bring them closer to the action, the players, the atmosphere and – where possible – to get to the stories behind the theatrics that are presented as being “real”.

The E-sports press has rarely set a high bar when it comes to reporting. There are many reasons for this. It can be the fear of being frozen out for stating facts that companies and individuals don’t want you too, falling into the easy trap of being an extended branch of the PR machine and little else. It can be in the placid acceptance of knowing something to be true but waiting until someone reports on it first in order to not rock the small boat we all huddle in. Many writers are willing but lack the tools to tell the story. The worst trait in the e-sports press by a long way is laziness and at IEM it was evident in abundance.

There were dozens of press assembled in the space that had been set aside for us and yet I saw little evidence of reportage, of producing the work that the fans – whether they expect it or not – should be entitled to. Come the penultimate day, with games still being played and people cajoling for a place in the finals, by the early evening there was something like half a dozen of us left. Everyone else had gone back to their hotels to prepare for the “after party”. This was the priority.

By the same token I watched “journalists” labouring under the delusion that waddling around the various stands, taking picture of the girls in the hot pants and some fans reaching out for freebies, constituted “reporting”. Their rounds of course nicely coincide with their own ability to get as much of for themselves. Under most of the press desks were piles of T-shirts and trinkets that would slowly get bigger towards the end of the day with each slovenly traipse around the venue. Some would even leave their expensive cameras for fear that would be broken in the clamour.

I definitely won’t run down the importance of photo-journalism but this isn’t hard hitting war correspondence, nor is it even good photography. The people that invariably go to these events possess little more than the camera and even if the adage “a picture says a thousand words” were true, which it isn’t, in the absence of any craft or search for meaning the photographs are simply something to look at.

I don’t believe that tastes have dramatically changed in what the enthusiasts want. I believe there will always be a platform for good writing, for well written match reports, for those moments where unwitting honesty is forced thanks to a well worded question… What seems to have changed is how much people are wanting to put into giving the fans a choice. Simply put, why go to the effort of writing something when you can point a video camera at it? Why prepare any hard-hitting questions when the web traffic will be much the same for simply mentioning a player’s name and you can avoid the risk of annoying anyone?

In games such as League of Legends and Starcraft 2, where bizarrely the commentators seem a bigger draw than the players themselves, there has been an over-saturation of streaming content at the expense of other, vital components of reportage. Interviews have, for the most part, become a stale exercise, regurgitation of the same questions in a bid to try and synthesise emotion because that’s what sells. “How do you feel about winning?” “When you lost how did it feel?” “What are you feeling right now?” Sometimes the best way to find out what someone is feeling is not to ask them how they are feeling at all… It is self evident in other answers.

The same for written work. Editorial has almost been entirely shelved because most people don’t feel comfortable writing it. They know that they will have to read replies that tell them it is “unprofessional” to have an opinion, or receive abuse from those who disagree. Feels all a bit too much counter-productive in an industry that has proven time and time again that popularity equates to success and financial reward and the way to attain popularity is to be as bland an inoffensive as possible. This also rules out anything “investigative” because generally if you’re investigating something then there’s someone that would rather you weren’t.

It seems the e-sports industry doesn’t even know what kind of journalist it wants. While the freebie feeding frenzy took place it was also announced that Patrick “chobopeon” O’Neill had been declared Turtle Entertainment’s E-sports Scene Journalist of The Year. A damning indictment on us all that someone who was but a few weeks ago begging for chump change in exchange for honesty is now the standard bearer for another year, while other journalists who have pushed e-sports closer to mainstream recognition or pushed themselves to the brink of bankruptcy to bring you what you deserve get passed over.

And so we come back to the people who are out there tasked with bringing you the stories that should matter. I watched one of the photographic geniuses sleep for three solid hours at his desk, the heat having clearly got to his considerable frame. Other’s wandered around in some sort of trance like state complaining about how hard it was to get interviews, without seeming to understand that it’s supposed to be difficult. They shook hands, back-slapped each other, whooped and hollered as they sat and watched the streams on the big screen, more interested in enjoying the games than what was actually going on around them. Once they’d had their fill of free t-shirts the only other place they could be found was the VIP area, smugly quaffing free coffee while trying not to act star-struck by the players.

And of course there are those who believe they are e-sports celebrities in their own right, that it is simply enough to bless an event with their presence. They spend their time catching up with the players they have seen on the road many times before, the meagre work they produce a crippling chore that they must undertake to justify the money they milk from whatever sources are mad enough to pay for it. They bask in the warm glow of adulation while casting menacing glances at the casters, treated like royalty, muttering “it could have been me, it should have been me” like some jilted ex.

That sentiment seems to lurk at the core of almost every one of the assembled reporters, a rotten sense of entitlement. Those that do it for free use the lack of salary as a justification for phoning it in. Those that are paid use the fact others are paid more. Those that are paid amply complain about a lack of appreciation, which is overlooking the reality that generally the consumers of their content let them off. Why? Well, with the bar being set consistently low all you can really hope for is consistency itself. If the content comes regularly enough and is to the same standard each time, then at least you all know where to find it and what to expect. Fans are getting used to filling in the gaps themselves. If anyone thinks that there isn’t more accuracy, validity and free discussion in the average Reddit thread than there is compared to the average e-sports article, then you are most likely part of the problem.

No one site can cover an event completely at the level it needs to be for it all to be done justice. The e-sports press output needs to be viewed as a whole. In the current landscape everyone gets short changed – everyone except the hacks. Competition is a good thing when it comes with respect for other people’s work. Too many site’s are obsessed with petty one-upsmanship, desperately trying to win a race that doesn’t exist, speed over artistry, quantity over quality, one agenda over another. Instead of back-slapping each other about blagging attendance at yet another free event, how about talking about the merits of the people that actually put out work worth talking about.

Alas, no. After a few days of doing not very much it was far more important to be the first propping up the free bar, boasting like fisherman about who was going home with the biggest pile and when they would be on the road next. That’s the problem with most of the e-sports press. All they really care about is being king for a day.