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The Death and Rebirth of Video Games Journalism
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The death of video games journalism is a bit like Schrödinger's cat – it never really happened, or did it? In the ‘yes’ camp we have The Washington Post’s Launcher vertical. Launched in 2019, it has now been unceremoniously shuttered.
Then there’s the case of Gamespot and Giant Bomb, two long-standing and beloved outlets which were sold to Jimmy Wales’ Fandom last year. The moves prompted Nieman Lab to ask whether video games journalism had a future. To answer the question: yes, but not as you’ve known it.
It’s a useful exercise to cast our minds back to where video games journalism started so we can figure out where it’s going to be in the future. As is the case with most industries, the first serious video games journalism came in the shape of a good old fashioned trade magazine, Coin Industry’s Play Meter.
The business-to-business periodical chronicled the new digital games available for the arcades industry. Taito’s breakout hit Space Invaders catalysed the popularity of video games amongst the masses, with the media following suit.
The New York Times dubbed the period ‘The Great Space Invaders Invasion of 1979’. America’s Atari outfit countered the Japanese-owned Taito with its own arcade and home-games, including RealSports Football, Warlords and Asteroids.
A sleuth of consumer-focused titles (Atari Age, Computer Fun and Computer and Video Games) appeared in the early 1980s, with Namco’s Pac-Man hitting the shelves in 1980 and Nintendo’s Donkey Kong following suit in 1981.
Super Mario Bros wouldn’t come until 1985, a successor of the 1983 arcade-only Mario Bros. The popular title helped propel sales of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
By the middle of the decade, however, the so-called ‘golden era of video games’ was over. The hyper-competition between the American and Japanese games companies alongside legal disputes over copyright infringements and third-party developments had oversaturated the market and left some developers with a bitter taste in their mouths.
Low-cost PCs, including the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum, would change the fortunes of the home-based industry, while a console war between Sega and Nintendo dominated the early 1990s.
Though shows like Channel 4’s Games Master emerged, the primary media medium for video games enthusiasts was print. Sega produced its own dedicated magazine via EMAP in 1995, some six years after Nintendo launched Nintendo Power in America.
The official and independent video games magazines would typically focus on the latest titles on offer from the mega-publishers. Some segments of the magazines would concentrate on game strategy, while other sections were dedicated to industry profile pieces and fan letters.
As Nintendo and Sega fans fought over their cartridges and limited systems, PC gamers saw a whole new world of gaming opportunities thanks to 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D and 1993’s Doom.
The Demo Disk Generation
Soon PC gaming had become ‘a thing’ and the media reacted accordingly. Magazines like PC Gamer, now owned by Future Plc, launched in the early 1990s.
And as PlayStation unveiled its own CD-ROM console, soon video games magazines were providing demo disks alongside their normal editorial offerings. For many consumers, that was the primary motivation for buying the magazine in the first place.
Microsoft’s Xbox (unveiled here by The Rock and Bill Gates) and Sony’s PlayStation 2 ushered in the next era of gaming and competition for the new millennium.
The consoles have got better, while computers have massively improved, but the landscape – PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo and PCs – is roughly the same today.
The Broadband Revolution
By the mid-to-late 2000s the widespread installation of broadband internet access meant that print-only video games magazines started to become redundant. The beneficiaries of this technological change included the aforementioned GameSpot and IGN, which both launched in 1996.
Crucially, video game consumers no longer needed to wait a month for their latest dose of video games news or cheat code. They could simply go to their spare room and find out all the information they needed.
That behaviour would soon be changed. Not necessarily because of video game consoles or internet access, but predominantly because of the types of games people played.
Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty series popularised the first-person shooter and its fourth offering, 2007’s Modern Warfare, provided an easy-to-use online multiplayer component.
Soon players were recording their games and sharing to the world how they had humiliated enemies or pulled off an audacious trick shot.
Companies like Machinima would pay for this content, while clans and their fans formed around increasingly popular YouTube channels. Twitch, then ‘Justin.TV’, launched in 2011 and the ‘streaming wars’ were off to a start.
As Call of Duty ebbed and flowed, the Great Recession hit and the 2010s saw the likes of Minecraft and Fortnite take off. There was more and more content and video game celebrities (DrDisrespect, Ninja and summit1g, to name just a few) were born.
Video games journalism saw its own stars emerge. The most notable name being the late John ‘TotalBiscuit’ Bain. A self-styled ‘cynical Brit’ who started off in World of Warcraft radio, the former financial adviser from County Durham relocated to the US and became a consumer champion with millions of followers.
Around the same time websites like Kotaku, which focused on video games culture as well as the games themselves, became popular.
By the end of the decade games criticism was commonplace in mainstream outlets, with dedicated columns aplenty. Podcasts like Wizard and The Bruizer also cemented video games in the culture.
The start of the 2020s and the Covid-19 pandemic, meanwhile, saw streaming viewership go on overdrive. Video gaming had by that time become the most popular entertainment form in the world, overtaking film and TV in the process.
The average gamer (31 and male) is probably much more familiar with these titles, performers and platforms than legacy media outlets.
And according to The Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report, they aren’t that interested in journalism, with only 47% of all global respondents showing an interest in news versus 67% in 2015.
But then again, how many outlets are taking a video-first approach and meeting video game players on their native platforms like YouTube and Twitch? Not many.
If the history of the industry tells us anything, players like utility with their media. The hyper-link has now replaced the CD-ROM demo, while video has replaced print copy.
In this new media world, however, there are some green shoots with the rise of the video essay. Some critiques can even go on for hours with extremely in-depth insights, explanations and data-laced arguments. So is video games journalism dead or alive? A bit of both.
⭐ Reach For The Stars
Mirror, Express and Daily Star publisher Reach PLC has revealed that its titles shrank by around four pages last year.
The company made the move in order to counter rising print costs. Reach announced the decision as part of its 2022 full-year results announcement yesterday. The business also disclosed that its revenues were down 2.3% year-on-year to £601m, its operating profit had fallen 10% to £71.3m and net cash dropped by 61% to £25m.
Chief Executive Jim Mullen, the former Ladbrokes boss, gave more details on Reach’s US expansion strategy. Reach’s titles, including The Express and The Mirror, will have dedicated staff members for the region, while two new outlets, Irish Star and Reach Soccer, have been launched.
In a move reminiscent of The Athletic model, Reach Soccer will leverage the content created by regional sports reports on The Manchester Evening News, Liverpool Echo and Football London.
The publisher is particularly interested in the sports-mad New York and Boston markets. The move will coincide with the build-up to the 2024 White House election and as sports gambling liberalisation continues in the US.
However, as I’ve previously written in relation to LadBible’s own US expansion plans, the competition will be extremely stiff. Barstool Sports, one of the major players in the Gen Y and Gen Z sports media sector, has a 20-year head start on Reach. The outlet launched in Boston in 2003.
Separately, Mullen also explained Reach’s ‘Customer Value Strategy’. The business is hoping to get more readers registered in order to boost the quality of its digital revenues through first-party data.
The publisher had just 1m registered users three years ago and now has 12.7.m. Of those, 5.6m have been active in the past month and 3.6m are active weekly.
The company went on to tell investors that the trading environment remained “challenging” thanks to sustained inflation and “suppressed market demand” for digital advertising.
🏛️ White House TV
Axios’ Mike Allen has reported that former TV news anchor Kari Lake is in the initial running to become Donald Trump’s nominee for Vice President at the 2024 US elections.
She quit her multi-decade broadcast career in 2021 following an appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Lake later announced a failed bid to become Governor of Arizona.
“Journalism has changed a lot since I first stepped into a newsroom, and I’ll be honest, I don’t like the direction it’s going,” she said during her resignation video from Fox 10, the Phoenix TV station.
⛵ Tight Lips Stop
Ships Small Boats
Number 10 continues to run a ‘we will say something when we have something’ media strategy. It’s a dangerous, yet admirable, game.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak risks continually frustrating Lobby hacks with a wall of silence, while off-message Conservative backbenchers thrust themselves into the limelight.
Labour have been able to benefit from the strategy over the past couple of months, but it’s likely to change as the general election campaign kicks-off properly.
There’s a hint of what that media machine looks like with the announcement of Sunak’s plan to stop small boats crossing the English Channel as part of the government’s Illegal Migration Bill. The pledge is part of a three-issues (the economy, the NHS and immigration) approach to the election.
Despite the criticisms from political correspondents, as tracked in Future News’ sentiment survey, the Number 10 media operation has landed wall-to-wall coverage on the announcement, sparking a debate about human rights in the process.
The Express also had its own media coup to boast about after securing an exclusive interview with Home Secretary Suella Braverman.
Labour, meanwhile, are still failing to put out the ongoing media fire that is the appointment of Sue Gray as Keir Starmer’s chief-of-staff.
The former top civil servant may have authored the so-called ‘Partygate’ report into Boris Johnson’s behaviour during the UK’s lockdowns, but now her own judgement – as well as Starmer’s – has come into question in an extremely public way. This is the first time Labour has faced serious media criticism in 2023 and it’s showing.
Elsewhere, the government’s Spring Budget is set for 15 March. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and his team have been ‘rolling the pitch’ ahead of time.
Due to a dampening sentiment campaign, there are no current media expectations that there will be tax cuts or big announcements next Wednesday.
🕺 The Boogie Man
Talking about election campaigns, the BBC is streaming Stefan Forbes’ Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story. The 2008 documentary offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into political campaigning before the Donald Trump era.
The film particularly focuses on the 1988 Presidential election between Republican George H. W. Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis.
Atwater’s infamous ‘Southern Strategy’ and under-handed tactics, including push-polling and the propagation of false rumours, are laid bare. Sit-down interviews include former ABC News anchor Sam Donaldson and ex-Newsweek man Howard Fineman.
📺 Media and Tech Questions I’m Thinking About
Is Substack really worth $650m?
Can Sky Arts overtake the BBC on cultural coverage?
How useful is GeoGuessr?
Is Meta really a games company?
Why don’t more academics engage with the media?
How much trust would you put into AI?
How many legal battles will there be around generative AI?
🎙️ Podcasts I’m Listening To
Philosophy Bites: Aristotle’s Way
Charles C.W.Cooke: A Constitutional Crisis In The US
Joe Rogan: Coffeezilla interview
Politico’s Westminster Insider: How TV news is made