Gaming has been an integral part of my life. Born in the late 1970s, my first experiences were with the Atari 2600, and even at a very young age I was fascinated by what was occurring on the screen before my eyes. I then grew up in the Nintendo, Sega, and arcade era, competed in numerous tournaments, administered several gaming groups both in-person and online, attended countless conventions, and have owned more games and gaming paraphernalia than I could ever hope to list.
Over the course of the past few decades, I have watched this hobby I love grow from being niche and often dismissed, to the largest entertainment medium in the world. It has been fascinating to be a part of, and I’ve always enjoyed meeting and conversing with other like-minded fans.
In 2015, that led me to create Seasoned Gaming, an outlet I hoped could bring gamers together in a positive way while offering insight into the industry founded upon decades of experience, not just with gaming, but my career outside of the industry as well. Reflecting on the past five years, I wanted to share my experiences and note some of the challenges with covering the industry in the age of social media.
The State of Gaming Journalism
Having grown up with gaming magazines and through the rise of online gaming coverage, I was intimately familiar with how certain outlets approached their coverage. It was this understanding that drove me to found Seasoned Gaming as I believed a degradation had been occurring for years. Also, I would like to say that, to this day, I don’t believe Next Generation magazine has been surpassed. Respect is due so I had to mention them.
Anyway, as I sat down to create the format for SG, I examined many of the popular gaming sites and tens to hundreds of smaller ones. When you take the time to do so thoroughly, you notice that a few trends emerge.
First and foremost, the majority of the well-known sites thrive on headlines and what I refer to as a regurgitation of quick hits. That is, headlines are written with some sort of “poke” to the audience, while much of the content is nothing more than a small quip that’s massaged into a couple of paragraphs. And typically, those paragraphs contain additional links to similar quick hits that have been posted previously. There’s good reason for this, of course: the almighty click. I’ll touch on that more extensively, shortly.
Next, the majority of small sites I examined (and quite frankly some of the major ones as well) demonstrated a few traits. Most of them are far too busy and lack an understanding of UX design. That often combines with overly intrusive ads, links, and banners, resulting in what I can only describe as a visual disaster. It also becomes apparent rather quickly that the content on many smaller sites is not written by anyone with experience in formal writing, or even in the gaming industry itself. Often, those two combine and result in me clicking to close the window as fast as possible.
Much of this, at least in my opinion, can be attributed to the rise of YouTube and social media. Instant gratification is prevalent in many areas of our lives, be it shopping, entertainment, or communication. As social media has grown and video aggregation has expanded, the need to go to dedicated “sites” with competent journalists has lessened. I believe this has also taken a toll on the quality of discourse on gaming, as people are far more apt to read a tweet or watch a quick video than they are to read a several page article.
None of the above is to say there isn’t quality content to be found on small sites or YouTube channels. It’s just that they are often overshadowed and thus not as easily discovered.
It also goes without saying that controversy sells. It’s easy to see that from the outside looking in on a daily basis, but I can speak to it directly. After running a site for years, I can generally tell you ahead of time how much play something is going to get, where it will land, who will share it, and more. I’ve seen all too many times how a single piece of negative news on Xbox or PlayStation can be shared thousands of times, while an insightful article on game development will be read by a mere handful of people.
Battling for the Almighty Click
Clickbait. It’s an overused term and one we are all too familiar with. Despite that, it’s as relevant as ever, and it’s the driving force in the degradation of discourse not just in the gaming industry, but in many other industries. This is due to a simple cycle of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) manipulation.
Sites and channels generate revenue primarily from ad revenue. Ad revenue is determined by a few factors, but primarily on how many unique people visit a page or video and in-turn theoretically see an ad. Thus, to generate more revenue you need more unique visitors. Naturally, this is compounded further by the need to manage SEO. Go back to my statement about controversy driving clicks, and you can see where this is going. It’s a vicious cycle. If you’re a site that has paid staff on salaries and physical office space, what choice do you have but to publish what’s going to drive the most traffic when it’s one of your primary sources of income? At a point it goes from being a choice to a financial necessity.
For a moment allow me to break my own rule and name a few of the worst perpetrators. I often see outrage and complaints when a site like Kotaku will tweet out a ridiculous headline, “The Xbox Series X killed my cat!“. It’s absurd, it damages the gaming community, and I never visit sites like them for those reasons. Yet, in terms of traffic and revenue generation, it works. It will be shared thousands of times, and regardless of whether the person sharing it condemns it, its visibility is continually increased. Simple math then dictates that a percentage, even if small, will click on the link. That in-turn improves its SEO calculation, resulting in additional clicks, and, again, you can see where this is going.
It’s not merely the outrageous posts which are spread on a daily basis. What drives more traffic regularly are platform antagonistic posts, rumors, and “leaks”. I use the term leaks very loosely as they are typically anything but. When you summarize the content and reduce it to its core, it’s a wealth of speculation and mis-information. If you spend any time navigating gaming communities on social media or aggregate sites, you know this type of content is a daily constant and shared extensively.
None of this should really be enlightening. We’ve witnessed this degradation occur across coverage of many industries for years now. But, as it relates to gaming, the issues are then further compounded by the required “traffic qualifications” from developers, publishers, and production companies. This naturally applies to YouTube channels and streamers as well, which has in-turn spawned the loathsome term influencer. At the end of the day it’s about who drives the most engagement, and thus generates the most impressions, quality be damned.
In just a few seconds, I bet anyone reading this could name a site or channel which drives millions of hits while spewing targeted nonsense on a daily basis. And yet, whomever first arrived in your thoughts will likely be among the first to receive press kits, review copies, interviews, etc. In the gaming industry, exclusive and/or early coverage, particularly of AAA content, drives tremendous amounts of traffic. And you can’t blame the developers or publishers. They spend a large percentage of their annual budget to market their products. Are they going to allocate those resources to outlets with a reach of thousands, or millions? It’s a simple equation to them. There are some inherent flaws in that wide-brush approach taken by many of these companies, but that’s for a future article or discussion.
So, the bulk of traffic is driven by early or exclusive content, which is almost exclusively offered to outlets/channels with a high influence calculation yet needed by smaller/newer outlets to grow their influence. You can see the issue. This is where frustration for smaller companies can set in.
The Harsh Truth
There are countless lesser known sites, channels, and streamers who put out quality content on a daily basis. Some of them have been doing it for long periods of time with little to no growth. So, what’s the answer for them? For many, it means a decision point. They either aim to make a name for themselves through the methods I mentioned above, or they come to terms with being relegated to irrelevance. Speaking from experience, it’s not an easy decision. It can often feel as though you need to cave-in and join the circus just so you can be included in the show. This is especially disheartening for creators who have a positive passion for gaming and the knowledge to back it up.
Over the past several years, I’ve been extremely fortunate to interact with many hundreds of people throughout the industry ranging from popular influencers, to PR reps, site directors, and major executives. I’ll be more blunt than I typically care to be at this point: I can tell you, definitively, that the percentage of creators who truly understand the many aspects of the gaming industry, and the business behind it, is the vast minority. Many are more focused on personal branding than they are with understanding technology or business, while simply maintaining a cursory level of knowledge on the topic they associate themselves with.
Now before I continue further, I want to be very clear. There are popular sites and channels that put out excellent content on a regular basis. Noclip and Digital Foundry come to mind immediately. There are also individual creators who have grown from small roots, yet stayed true to their ideals without the need to drive controversy. I’ll point to Jeremy Penter, better known as ACG, as a great example. The picture I’m painting is not meant to portray it as being impossible for smaller outlets to gain large recognition, but merely against the odds.
Walking the line. For many of the creators or site admins I’ve interacted with, this is how many of us describe targeting growth while staying true to their platform tenets. There is a never-ending battle between publishing content that is meaningful and founded in subject knowledge, and simpler content that is guaranteed to drive traffic. Quite frankly, it can be maddening. And when you compound that with the challenges in SEO and site aggregation, which is your content being shared among social media or gaming aggregate sites, it often feels as if it would be easier delivering the One Ring to Mount Doom.
That said, it is encouraging to see some outlets breaking through barriers. I realize I’ve been rather negative throughout this article, which is not my typical demeanor. So, on a more positive note, it’s incredibly satisfying to see smaller outlets/channels experience growth and recognition given the circumstances I’ve detailed. For me, it’s akin to smaller developers having their game breakthrough the challenges in curation to be recognized and celebrated. It’s a joy to witness.
Circling back to Seasoned Gaming and my experiences in the five years running it, I am often asked why I chose to be monetization free. It’s obviously a valid question, as by doing so I’m not only throwing money away, but limiting opportunities at pockets of traffic generation which can drive growth. As I said at the start, the outlet was created due to a passion for gaming, the influence it has had on my life, and the lifelong friendships that have resulted from it. Seeing so many large sites and channels destroying that heritage on a daily basis doesn’t sit well with me. Gaming deserves better.
Let me step down off of my pedestal for a minute to say this is not meant to be a holier than thou sentiment. I’m very fortunate to be in a position to run an outlet this way. And as I am, I made the decision right at the start that SG would never monetize. After everything I’ve laid out above, what better way was there to ensure content integrity was maintained than to remove the heart of the issue? When you aren’t required to generate clicks, you can produce content you truly love.
This created another issue however. If the site didn’t generate any revenue, then why would anyone want to produce content for it? How would SG entice quality content producers when there’s no money to be made? Again, it’s a fair question and a challenge we’ve faced. However, as I noted earlier, there are a wealth of smaller content creators who are truly great writers and/or video producers. If SG could provide an outlet for them to continue honing their craft while simultaneously gaining exposure, what’s to lose? Add to that total creative freedom and you have a recipe for personal, and professional, growth.
The result has been fascinating. Being completely transparent, though this certainly is not revelatory, Seasoned Gaming is not a “major” site. And given our ideals, we likely never will be. And I am not only completely at ease with that thought, but continue to be fully committed to its founding direction in spite of it.
Despite the obstacles, SG has grown extensively, and just in the past two years since first covering E3 in 2018, traffic has grown over 1,300%. This year we welcomed several new contributors who have produced amazing content and seen further individual successes. We’ve raised thousands of dollars for our gaming charity partners in Extra Life, Special Effect, and Able Gamers. And our community is amazing. Truly. From our site, to social media, and our live shows, you won’t find a more positive and welcoming community with a passion purely for gaming.
Being entirely honest, running SG has been immensely challenging, time consuming, and at times, quite stressful. But it has also been tremendously rewarding, and has resulted in some of my favorite memories over the past few years. I’ve made countless friends and enjoyed amazing conversations. I’ve been in situations I had dreamed of since I was a just a little Sega kid reading GamePro. And I feel the best is yet to come.
So, here’s to five years of an idea that began as a single post on a non-gaming forum. We’ll continue to expand and evolve, and I sincerely thank our community for joining us on the journey. It’s a been a real pleasure.
And if I can add one more piece of commentary, take a moment once in a while to consume content from a lesser known creator. Visit smaller sites that have a passion for topics that you don’t find on the large sites. Support the community from within. Support true, not feigned, positivity in the community. You might be surprised at what you find. And we’ll all be better off for it.