On a Friday afternoon in 2017, Mike Hume, then The Washington Post’s assignment editor for national sports, notified the newsroom that there would be a meeting in an hour for anyone who was interested in covering video games. Despite the short notice, about 40 people showed up to hear his pitch. Hume was happy; he wouldn’t have to talk to an empty room. That, he says, was his first clue that the paper that made its name publishing the Pentagon Papers and investigating Watergate might be big enough for features about video games and esports.
Hume, an ex-ESPN researcher and editor who joined the Post in 2014, had started brainstorming about expanding the Post’s coverage of electronic entertainment following a 2016 conversation with former ESPN colleague Dan Kaufman, who had helped launch ESPN’s esports vertical early that year. Hume discussed the idea with his boss, carved out a freelance budget, and started attending trade shows and soliciting stories about what investors invariably refer to as “the esports space.” That dabbling led to big breakthroughs: In January 2018, an article about the impending launch of the Overwatch League landed on the front page of the paper, which demonstrated both the potential appeal of crossover coverage of video games and the need for a place to put those stories where they wouldn’t have to devote two of their first three paragraphs to explaining what esports is.
Creating that refuge meant meeting with Marty Baron, the Post’s executive editor and a 40-year veteran of the newspaper business. Hume had to convince Baron that the Post’s footprint in the video game world should be bigger, so he expanded the one-sheet he’d drawn up for the newsroom session into a larger outline that laid out the potential audience, the issues facing the industry, and the ways in which WaPo could fill a niche that wasn’t being served by existing outlets. Then he took it to a sit-down with the journalistic legend Liev Schreiber played in Spotlight.
“I had to explain to him what the term ‘pwned’ meant,” Hume says. “And I definitely recall somebody in the room going to Urban Dictionary and reading him the Urban Dictionary definition, which I was convinced was going to be the end of my career at the Post.”
It was, instead, the start of a new phase—for Hume, for the Post and, maybe, for the mainstream coverage of video games. That meeting led to Launcher, a new section from the sports department devoted to video games and esports that premiered on the Post’s website last week. At the fledgling vertical, Hume and his five-person staff, supplemented by freelancers, will attempt to apply the Post’s experience, resources, and credibility to covering the creators, the players, and the games themselves. “I think we can really be the bridge between a mainstream, traditional-news-product audience and gaming culture,” Hume says.
The Post isn’t the first to try linking those disparate (if incrementally converging) populations, but the bridge remains rickety. Some mainstream sites have invested in video game coverage and then abandoned the effort; many more have never really tried. “There’s never been more and better writing about video games, but there’s also, I think, probably never been as little about it in ‘mainstream sites,’” says journalist Chris Suellentrop, who regularly reviewed video games for The New York Times—until the Times discontinued video game criticism.
Video games have long been a big business, and gaming’s ever-escalating narrative and technological sophistication has made the meme-friendly medium—and the sometimes-toxic community that accompanies it—a potent presence in American culture. Yet largely because of what former Times writer Seth Schiesel calls “generational myopia,” the keepers of the culture sections still aren’t convinced that gaming merits a spot on the masthead alongside longer-lived entertainment cornerstones.
In a 2006 Esquire column, Chuck Klosterman wondered why “video game criticism doesn’t exist.” He concluded that good gaming criticism was missing because it didn’t have a home at the typical platforms where critics congregate. The kind of criticism Klosterman envisioned—which would go beyond buying guides and bypass numeric, reductive grades of graphics and controls in favor of examinations of how and why games evoke emotion—is much more common today. But the problem he pinpointed still isn’t solved, and at many legacy outlets, the culture section is still a sort of beef gate for gaming that repels repeated assaults. If Launcher is a leading indicator, though, that gate could be coming down.
“We talk about the ‘gaming world,’” Hume says. “Well, it’s not a separate world. It’s our world.”
In 2019, the intersection between video game culture and every other kind of culture has been inescapably clear. Fortnite frenzy reached new heights when the game’s cleverly orchestrated season-ending event gave way to a 36-hour blackout, which paradoxically made it more visible than ever (and ensured that Lady Gaga had heard of it). A game about a goose became both a comedic phenomenon and a vehicle for catharsis, delivering a pastel stealth experience that doubled as a low-stakes means of exacting revenge on our own insufferable species. Hollywood kept pumping out TV shows and movies adapted from video games or based on gaming culture.
Gaming became the latest subset of the entertainment industry to confront its own overlooked evils and undergo overdue #MeToo, Time’s Up paroxysms. The video game industry served as a locus for flashpoints in larger debates about gambling, working conditions, and unionization. As the NBA grappled with (and walked back) its own response to a team employee who had expressed his support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Activision Blizzard invited widespread condemnation (and a bipartisan letter from Congress) by suspending a Hearthstone player who had voiced similar sentiments. Politicians continued to scapegoat games and gamers after mass shootings, and in a tragic inversion of the typical post-death discovery, a victim of police violence was revealed to have been enjoying an innocent evening of video games with her nephew just before she was killed. The legacy of Gamergate looms over everything, identified in the moment and in retrospect as a metastatic template for malicious online movements.
“I wanted to paint the last thing that #AtatianaJefferson was doing before she was killed by the cops. Her life mattered.” - Artist @4NIKKOLAS pic.twitter.com/kAYIi3QePS— Ava DuVernay (@ava) October 14, 2019
Video games are a powerful party member on our quest to distract ourselves. “It is very hard to argue, as anybody who’s aware of the landscape of entertainment, that video games are not an integral part of entertainment—maybe the most important part of entertainment,” says Brian Crecente, former editor-in-chief of Kotaku, founding editor of Polygon, and video games editor for Rolling Stone and Variety, as well as a current consultant to Launcher. Yet coverage of video games has come and gone depending on the outlet and the era, gradually gaining ground only to be bounced back to an earlier checkpoint. “If you look through the history of video games, mainstream cultural coverage sort of becomes extremely interested in games in small bursts, and then after a few years, loses interest,” Suellentrop says. Crecente calls those bursts “spasms.”
We can trace the hot-and-cold history of the mainstream media’s relationship with video games through the way The New York Times has treated them. The first spasm followed the arcade boom and the subsequent migration of games from arcades to home consoles. In an October 1981 feature for the New York Times Magazine, journalist Aaron Latham profiled a player who was trying to qualify for the inaugural Atari World Championship. In the process, he probed the implications of a new pastime and, potentially, profession.
“The country’s new video-games obsession has given rise to a new game: analyzing why we love the games so much, why they are the passionate pastime of the 80’s and whether their adepts are better off, worse off, or about the same for having devoted so much time and so many quarters to acquiring sore wrists,” Latham wrote. His dispatch from the frontier of a new form of play, which quoted psychologists and a sociologist, noted that the arcades “continue to be dominated by adolescent boys,” but hinted at a broadening of the player base to adult men and women. In October 1982, the Times reported that video game revenue already rivaled or outstripped that of the movie business, citing a projection that home games alone would bring in $3 billion in 1984, roughly equaling the revenue from tickets sold to American moviegoers.
In those early-’80s articles, one can see the seeds of a million modern thinkpieces about gaming’s appeal and societal significance. “All of those ideas, and all the other ones that you read about today that are thought of as new and unusual, are really there from the birth of video games,” Suellentrop says.
Contrary to the Times’ sunny outlook on the near future of games, 1984 would not turn out to be another year of record revenue. The video game crash of 1983 wiped out much of the industry and, along with it, mainstream coverage and criticism. When video games reemerged in the mid-’80s, led by Nintendo and its hugely successful NES, games were marketed as a kid’s activity, and covered like one—or, just as often, not covered at all.
The mid-to-late-’90s brought another spasm: Games entered the third dimension, and their themes and stories also started to seem less two-dimensional. In 1983, Edward Rothstein had written about text games for the Times’ Book Review section. Eleven years later, he was the paper’s chief music critic, but he was also writing a technology column and keeping an eye on developments in video games.
“I had been talking with the editors of the Arts & Leisure section about the potential for video games to become an art form—to become beautiful artifacts in themselves and worth paying attention to not only for their powers to teach or amuse, but for their abilities to inspire wonder and aesthetic appreciation,” Rothstein recalls. The result was his 1994 essay on Myst and other narrative adventure games. Gaming, Rothstein argued, was on the brink of a breakthrough, swiftly leveling up into a digital tapestry that “weaves together image, sound and narrative into a new form of experience.”
J.C. Herz, Charles Herold, and Schiesel later wrote about video games in a Herz-created column called “Game Theory” for the Times’ weekly Circuits section on technology, which debuted in 1998 and lasted until 2005. Schiesel, who was well-attuned to signs of maturation in the medium, had been a business reporter for seven years before becoming a regular Circuits contributor in 2003. When Circuits shorted out, deputy culture editors Jim Schachter and Sam Sifton approached Schiesel, who had recently written the first major mainstream article about World of Warcraft, and told him that whichever of them took over as top culture editor would want him to cover video games full time, a first for the paper. In another sign of increasing acceptance, they asked him to cover gaming not as business or technology, but as mainstream entertainment and culture. “We were looking for fresh content areas that others weren’t pursuing in places like the Times—and that might be interesting to advertisers,” Schachter recalls.
Like Hume years later, Schiesel was granted an audience with a journalistic institution, although in Schiesel’s case, the four-decade newspaper veteran he talked to—standards editor Allan M. Siegal, steward of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage—was trying to talk him into the position, not the other way around. “He said, ‘Seth, we’d like you to approach this job like a foreign correspondent,’” Schiesel remembers. “‘You’re going into the jungle and reporting on this world that our readers don’t understand. And we want you to report back from the jungle.’”
Schiesel agreed, on the condition that he wouldn’t be expected to provide what he calls “point and giggle” coverage, which would play up stereotypes of antisocial gamers or force him to parachute into gaming subcultures and describe the strange sights he saw, à la legions of later writers embarking on Trump Country safaris. Instead, he said, he would chronicle gaming customs and traditions with respect and understanding. For his first few years in the culture section, Schiesel reported on video games and tried to demystify them via “a lot of stories like, ‘Oh yes, old people play video games too,’ and, ‘Yes, women play video games too,’ and, ‘No, they won’t necessarily make your child a homicidal maniac.’”
A few years after Schiesel started reporting on games in the culture section, games coverage experienced another spasm. “There was a cycle that started around 2008 or so when BioShock came out and Portal came out and everybody decided maybe games were really interesting,” Suellentrop says. A wave of innovative indie games like Braid and Flower followed. So did Grand Theft Auto IV.
Around the time of GTA IV’s release in April 2008, Sifton, who had become culture editor, gave Schiesel two tips. The first was that he didn’t have to keep justifying his job in print. Even today, Schiesel says, “You’ll very often see a line like, ‘Oh, the video game industry is bigger than movies,’ which is true, but it’s defensive, right? It’s sort of explaining, ‘Why are we writing about this in the first place?’” We’re awash in articles about video games posting record revenues, outstripping the earnings of the global box office or streaming services, and aiming for even bigger numbers, most of which read like the Times’ take in 1982. Even Launcher led with a video that opened its case for the crucial cultural role of video games by laying out how much money they make, an argument based on popularity rather than inherent artistic value.
Sifton also told Schiesel that he didn’t have to limit himself to reporting games; he could also critique them. Schiesel started with a review of GTA IV, which ran on April 28, 2008. “Sam splashed it all the way across the top of what we call the dress page, which is the cover of the Arts section, and it was really the first time that the New York Times, or perhaps even any big American news outlet, had sort of said, ‘We’re going to run a big game review, just like we would run a big movie review,’” Schiesel says.
Schiesel continued as a critic for the next four years, until leaving voluntarily in 2012. “I was really hoping that we had institutionalized the video game coverage,” he says. Yet when Schiesel departed, the Times chose not to replace him with a full-time critic, opting instead to fill the void with freelance contributions from Suellentrop and Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo. That arrangement persisted for a few years, with only occasional indications that the Times accorded video games subordinate status. Once, Suellentrop and his editor tried to get an upcoming IndieCade added to the calendar of cultural events in New York that ran on the second page of the Arts & Leisure section. Suellentrop says they were told, “There’s no video game section in our cultural calendar, so we can’t include this.”
In early 2015, long after Sifton had switched roles, the Times discontinued Suellentrop’s and Totilo’s reviews. The paper’s video game criticism was a casualty of broader cutbacks that affected freelance budgets across the board as the Times transitioned to a digital-first format. According to a person familiar with the paper’s thinking, the piecemeal nature of the Times’ existing video game coverage made it expendable because it couldn’t have competed on the internet with larger-scale coverage at hobbyist sites, whereas critics of, say, classical music or dance wouldn’t face the same competition for their less fractured audiences. Admittedly, Times readers seemed more up in arms about the demise of the Bridge column, which was 80 years old and ran thrice-weekly, than they did about the disappearance of video game reviews.
Last December, in a concise explainer of the paper’s critical process, Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote, “The critics who write for the New York Times—in staff positions and as regular freelancers—collectively strive to miss as little as possible.” He noted that nearly every week “brings new dance recitals, chamber music concerts, pop albums, museum and gallery exhibitions—am I missing anything?”
Well, one thing, at least. The Times culture desk includes 16 staff critics, but none of them covers video games. Last year, the Times shipped inside a cover advertisement for Red Dead Redemption 2, the much-anticipated sequel to a game Schiesel reviewed in glowing terms in 2010. Yet no one reviewed the new Rockstar title for the Times, although an opinion piece in the Sunday Review, written by Reason’s Peter Suderman, sang its praises—and, true to form, noted that the game made more in its opening weekend than Avengers: Infinity War and lamented that “video games remain something of a second-class cultural medium.”
Current culture editor Gilbert Cruz relayed an inquiry into the paper’s plans for games criticism to Times spokesman Jordan Cohen, who responded, “While we don’t have a critic on staff, the Times continues to offer our readers games coverage as part of our regular report.”
It’s true that the Times continues to cover the video game industry, but the medium’s demotion from the culture section reflects a curious, continuing lack of mainstream coverage, which persists 40 years after Asteroids despite steadily swelling revenue figures, ever-more-realistic visuals, increasingly sophisticated storytelling, and Ellen normalizing Ninja. “I don’t think it’s linear,” Suellentrop says. “It’s gone on long enough that it’s not something that’s just like, ‘Oh, we just have to wait for that moment to come.’ That moment has to be made by someone. For all I know, Launcher will be it. But someone has to demonstrate, ‘This is how you do it.’”
How will Launcher do it? Hume says the site is aiming for an audience that employs “more of a thinking person’s approach to the gaming, rather than just pick up the controller, play some Madden, crush some beers, go to bed.”
The challenge is providing a blend of accessibility and credibility. Kotaku, Polygon, IGN, GameSpot, and other high-profile enthusiast sites cover gaming capably and comprehensively but generally assume some familiarity with and fondness for the medium’s history, terminology, and conventions that could be daunting to a neophyte. Mainstream coverage geared toward lower-information gamers, meanwhile, might go into either too much detail or not enough to satisfy an experienced player. “There is not a huge pool of people who have experience writing about video games in a way that can appeal to both a general audience and the hardcore gamer, and the business person, for that matter, at the same time,” says Schiesel. It’s hard to gain experience writing for a general audience when many of the outlets that cater to that audience aren’t interested.
Jamin Warren learned that the hard way. Warren was an arts and entertainment reporter for The Wall Street Journal from 2006 to 2009, and he had trouble getting game reviews into print. “I remember writing a memo to my editor’s editor explaining why the Journal should care,” Warren says, continuing, “My conversation with him was very brief. He read the memo, looked at me, and said, ‘I just don’t get this video games thing.’ That was that.” Warren once asked the copy desk why the titles of games in his columns weren’t styled the same way as the titles of movies or TV shows. He was told that games were considered technology, not culture. The Journal, which boasts the largest print circulation of any American newspaper, covers the video game industry but still doesn’t do game reviews, although it did find room recently for a Clickhole-esque opinion piece about why the author’s childhood tradition of “fort night” was better than Fortnite.
In 2009, Warren left the Journal and cofounded a crowdfunded print and online literary magazine about video games called Kill Screen. The magazine was well-regarded—its reviews, Time Magazine sniffed, were “so smart and polished that they might help convince doubters that games are worth taking seriously”—but it stopped publishing after 2016. “The big learning was that the intersection between the ‘high-brow’ reader and the gaming website reader was not particularly large,” Warren says. “The criticisms Kill Screen faced from game readers was that we don’t focus enough on the games. The criticism from the high-brow reader was that we were too focused on the games. Pleasing both audiences is really difficult.”
Warren’s advice for Launcher, then, is to cater to the base. “I’ve found that the motivations for bigger outlets focusing on games is eyeballs, but it’s more fruitful to simply speak to the side of your existing audience that already plays games,” Warren says.
Launcher is primarily an online initiative, although some stories with a wider reach may make it into the paper, complete with print-only hand-holding. On the site, Hume says, “Our ideal is that we’re not going to stop and slow everything down to explain this to my mom. There will be some of these stories that we will say there is a larger story to be told to a general audience, and in that effort we will explain a couple of these terms. And then there’s going to be stories where we’re previewing League of Legends Worlds, and we’re talking about people by their gamer handles and not really stopping to explain what the meta is.”
In its first 10 days, Launcher hosted human-interest stories on a rare games collector, a small school that’s specializing in esports, the mother of an OWL player, and how video games help people cope with disabilities, alongside a “making of” feature on the next Call of Duty, a reported piece on the Activision Blizzard backlash, interviews with Andrew Yang and Jon Batiste, tips from esports pros and streamers, an introduction to Apple Arcade, and straight-up reviews. Hume hopes that Launcher will be a big tent, but it’s still a separate one with its own URL and design aesthetic. On the one hand, that cordoned-off coverage signals that games are still the “other,” as far as cultural coverage is concerned. On the other hand, structuring Launcher as a dedicated, discrete entity allowed Hume to assemble a small staff focused solely on video games, which so far consists of two reporters (Gene Park and Elise Favis) and an editor, video editor, and designer.
That’s not nearly enough to cover everything that fits under the broad umbrella of video games. “I would love to be a one-stop shop,” Hume says. “We don’t have the resources.” If even Launcher isn’t big enough to deal with the deluge of interactive entertainment, one can see why a legacy outlet that was slow to dip its toe into gaming may be scared to start now. Climbing a mountain of software and sifting through an inordinate number of possible stories to find the ones worth sharing is the nature of covering video games, which are more amorphous than most other media.
As Suellentrop observes, “Some of them look like sports, some of them look like sort of conventional narratives. Some of them look like nothing we’ve ever seen before. … In some ways, they’re all totally different and distinct. One person can’t really follow all of it. Or keep track of all of it, even if it was their full-time job.” Even “esports” is far too broad a topic for one person to master. “You almost need a Fortnite reporter,” Suellentrop notes, adding, “A dilettante who’s going from game to game is never going to have the understanding of Fortnite that a really devoted player has.” Just because Fortnite and Eve Online can both be controlled via mouse clicks and keyboard commands doesn’t make them much more similar than, say, the NFL and Terrence Malick movies, which can both be watched on screens.
The most obvious reason why mainstream sites should still try to incorporate some soupçon of video games into their cultural coverage is that most of their readers play them. The Entertainment Software Association’s annual reports on the demographics of gamers emphasize the medium’s inclusiveness: In 2019, the ESA says, 65 percent of American adults play video games, the average age of a gamer is 33 years old, 21 percent of gamers are 50 or older, and 46 percent of gamers are female.
Breakdowns by age and gender, though, reveal sizeable differences in how and what people play. Among millennials, the ESA says, 69 percent of male gamers most often play on consoles, while 69 percent of female gamers most often play on smartphones. Male gamers most often play “Action” games; female gamers most often play what the ESA classifies as “Casual” games. Boomers of both genders prefer to play card, puzzle, and virtual board games like Solitaire and Scrabble.
There’s no right way to play, and any ultra-popular pastime is worthy of critical inquiry; 270 million people play Candy Crush, and nine million people play for more than three hours a day. But the people who play mainly Candy Crush may not want to read the same sort of gaming coverage as the people who play primarily Dota 2. As gaming options have proliferated and diverged, the population of people we could classify as “gamers” has splintered, just like the TV-viewing and music-listening audiences. And while a so-called “Casual” game could be a gateway to greater acceptance of other forms of gaming, it’s also possible that playing games designed exclusively for small screens and short sessions on the train or the toilet could reinforce the belief that the medium is still lacking on some spiritual level, incapable of generating an emotional response deeper than a desire to make a microtransaction.
“Movies and books and TV shows, they already get that cred that they’re capable of doing that,” Hume says. “Well, games are, too, and it’s just a matter of whether or not you’ve experienced that in your life up to this point.”
One would think that something so old that the Times was on it in the early ’80s would be basic by now. Anyone under 50 has grown up in a world where video games were at least a blip on the cultural radar. But many media decision makers and consumers aren’t under 50, which may explain why, for instance, Fresh Air, which reaches NPR’s older audience, featured a classical music critic reviewing a documentary about opera singer Maria Callas the same week that Launcher reviewed Disco Elysium. What’s more, many editors, writers, readers, and listeners who are younger than 50 were first exposed to games when they were still simplistic ploys to consume quarters.
“The reality is that a lot of these publications are run by people who maybe didn’t grow up playing video games and still see them as the byproduct of Nintendo, as sort of a toy,” Crecente says. He continues, “It’s only been in the last, I think, five years, maybe, where games have moved past the idea that you’re some person to be looked down upon if you play video games.”
Crecente, 49, says he was “100 percent a geek” when he was growing up a gamer. His 18-year-old son was weaned on games but escaped the same stigma. At his son’s college, which competes in esports, the people who play on the soccer team are also on the FIFA team. “The idea [of] jocks … being proud and enjoying video games to the extent that they’re professional players at it? That’s mind-boggling,” Crecente says. The lions aren’t just lying down with the lambs; they’re the same animal.
Some of those enlightened life forms will grow up to be journalists, if that industry doesn’t collapse in the meantime. So yes, more mainstream coverage is mostly a matter of patience. We’re not yet 10 years past the debate about games as art ignited by Roger Ebert, and some of the most compelling counters to his argument have arrived during this decade. As Warren says, “If you’re 10 years old when Portal or Journey comes out, your possibility space as a young adult player is so much bigger than someone like me who was slogging through mediocre SNES titles as a kid. That matters a lot, because your literacy with games as a medium and expectations as a player (and reader) are much more cultured than a previous generation’s were.”
The best example of an old outlet integrating games—albeit not one that’s U.S. based—may be the Guardian, which features a video games section headed by former Kotaku and IGN UK editor Keza MacDonald (and formerly Keith Stuart). Bit by bit, critics who write about video games have established contributor beachheads at other legacy outlets, including N’Gai Croal at Newsweek (until 2009), Ian Bogost at The Atlantic, and, just this year, Todd Martens at the Los Angeles Times. As the barriers against legacy games coverage fall, the first piece at each publication has to be better than the subsequent baseline.
In 2011, Suellentrop approached an editor at the New Yorker and argued that the magazine should review video games. The editor agreed and got approval from on high. Suellentrop submitted a review of the HD re-release of Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, but the New Yorker passed on the piece for the magazine because, he was told, it was good enough to run in the New Yorker but not good enough to clear the bar of being the New Yorker’s first video game review. It ran on the New Yorker’s website instead. (Simon Parkin writes sporadically about video games for the New Yorker now, but still only online.)
ESPN Esports launched not long after ESPN president John Skipper said esports weren’t sports and ESPN host Colin Cowherd threatened to quit if he ever had to cover esports, which made the new vertical the subject of extreme scrutiny both inside and outside the company. “We couldn’t get it wrong,” Kaufman says, adding, “The moment we got it wrong, we were finished.”
Kaufman recalls that ESPN received roughly a thousand applications for the editor position it posted, which floored company recruiters. But the search was still complicated. “We needed somebody who could come work out of Bristol and be an evangelist internally as well as finding the writers and assigning the right stories.”
Pioneers always have it harder. When ESPN Esports started, Kaufman says, “There was an infrastructure that didn’t really exist publicly. Like you couldn’t go to STATS Inc. and buy a data feed for League of Legends at that point. We had to build all of that stuff.” ESPN Esports overcame those obstacles and is still going strong, but other recent attempts to bring video game coverage into the mainstream haven’t lasted as long.
When Rolling Stone announced its video game site, Glixel, in 2016, Gus Wenner said the site would be a “staple within our set of properties” and would not be a “frivolous one-off that might not exist in two years.” A little more than a year later, its San Francisco office was closed and its staff was laid off. Crecente was hired to run the skeleton site out of New York, but after Penske Media acquired a controlling stake in Rolling Stone in late 2017, Glixel was shut down and Crecente’s coverage was shifted to another Penske property, Variety. This spring, Variety pulled the plug too, laying off Crecente, who says that during his time at Variety, the publication’s newfound appetite for video games devolved from “the full-throated coverage that you would see of movies and TV to being, again, an ancillary, when-it’s-interesting-to-your-general-readership coverage.”
Crecente says he wasn’t given a reason for the change in direction, but the experience wasn’t a first for him. Before he took over a struggling, month-old Kotaku in 2004, Crecente was a newspaper police reporter who rarely got the go-ahead to write about games. After Kotaku took off, the publisher at the Rocky Mountain News, where he was still working, asked him why he wasn’t doing more video game coverage for the paper. The answer was obvious: He hadn’t been asked to. Now he was. The publisher granted Crecente space in the features section to write about games.
A little more than a year later, with the paper’s finances suffering, the publisher told Crecente he was closing his section and asked him to go back to being a police reporter. “They saw that there was an interest in video games, and so they were willing to invest in it until it came to, ‘OK, we have to decide what we’re going to cut,’” Crecente says. “And I promise you first on that list was video game coverage.” Crecente left to work at Kotaku full time.
Some of this instability is simply a byproduct of digital media’s disruption of newspapers and, in turn, Facebook’s and Google’s strangling of digital media. The Rocky Mountain News shut down in 2009. Like Rolling Stone, Yahoo went through an acquisition in 2017 that contributed to the closing of Yahoo Esports after a little more than a year. Many outlets are looking to consolidate and survive, not experiment.
“If the Cambrian explosion of games that happened with the rise of digital distribution and Steam and the indie movement and the democratization of development tools and all those things that have happened over the past decade … had happened not at the same time that the print media was just in absolute freefall, I think the story might’ve been different,” Suellentrop says. Launcher, at least, lives at a reportedly profitable paper that’s recently reinvented itself after its 2013 acquisition by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also acquired video game streaming platform Twitch in 2014 (as Launcher will repeatedly need to disclose).
Even though there’s no shortage of good games coverage at several specialized sites, there’s something to be said for the old guard getting into games. “When I was at the Wall Street Journal, I was able to have more interesting conversations with senior creatives because I had the Journal name behind me,” Warren says. “So sites like Launcher should generate more interesting stories, simply because they will get better and longer access with the people who make games.”
Even if the quality of Launcher’s coverage doesn’t set it apart from the best gaming-specific sites, outlets like WaPo can educate readers who are drawn by the allure of legacy brands. “They bring with them an audience that often will never go to a Kotaku or a Polygon or an IGN or GameSpot, which is an audience that needs to be reading about these things,” Crecente says.
They also serve as agenda-setters that could provoke copycat coverage. “Other media do take their cues, at times, from the Times and from the Post,” Schiesel says. “When the Times was covering video games extensively, you could sort of feel that other media were following along a bit.”
We may be at the beginning of a new, esports-inspired spasm, and the larger the audience for video game criticism, the more Klosterman-style critics will come out of the woodwork and keep covering games—unlike, say, Suellentrop, who now serves as a senior editor for Politico. Suellentrop still plays, at least, but he often encounters adults who’ve drifted away from the world of games, which he attributes not just to the time commitment but to a conscious or subconscious response to gaming’s persistent status in some circles as a “vaguely embarrassing” activity. “The thing we’re waiting for is the day that to be a culturally literate person, you need to know that X game has come out,” Suellentrop says.
That day is coming closer, but for now, gamers can savor their still slightly disreputable hobby despite its scant cultural cachet. And maybe there’s a benefit to being overlooked. As British journalist and novelist John Lanchester wrote in 2010, video games “are entitled to a space in the culture section but shouldn’t mind too much that, on the whole, they aren’t given it. Respectability is a terrible thing for any art form. … Many literate adults regard gaming as beneath their notice. Good. Long may that remain the case.” As long as someone is still snubbing video games, there’s someone to keep proving wrong.