‘A lot of these people are Elon’: Confessions of an esports publicist on the industry’s unique challenges

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When it comes to managing public relations in esports, one thing is for sure: it’s never boring. 

For years after the major game developers spun up their competitive gaming leagues in the mid-teens, all esports news seemed to be good news. Esports companies were building an entirely new class of celebrity and superfan — and they were rewarded with millions of dollars in investments and lucrative multi-year brand partnerships. 

But the last two years have not been so kind to the esports industry. Investors have grown skeptical of esports organizations’ ability to generate a profit; esports executives and influencers alike have mired themselves in scandals; and marketers have increasingly questioned the space’s brand safety, leading some advertisers to pull away.

In both the good times and the bad, esports publicists are tasked with the monumental job of shaping their company’s media image. For the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we exchange anonymity for candor, Digiday spoke to an expert publicist who has managed PR for several prominent esports organizations and companies to explore the industry’s unique struggles.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

Why is good PR important for an esports organization?

I had a level of expertise that many esports orgs and esports players had not had before when it came to PR, and particularly when it came to the evolution of brand partnerships. A lot of these brands were like, “wait a second, we’re going to pay you $10 million.” And they got to chuckling, because Mark Zuckerberg would show up in a hoodie and that was charming — like, “wow, he’s really young, this kid really knows all the tricks.” But when an esports exec did that, there didn’t seem to be any heft or gravitas there.

But they saw the influence that these people had, particularly in the pandemic, and so they started to dive in with hugely astronomical brand partnership deals. And I think esports were starting to realize, “OK, we’re dealing with big-time professional people” — because they would then ask, “where’s your PR team? We would like PR about this.”

How does esports executives’ lack of PR training come out?

Esports really began as name calling, and there is that underlying fatigue, that prominent core of the esports industry, that is based on toxic behavior and trash talking. You may get flamed out on Twitter, and there’ll be 12 different podcasts about XYZ that you can sort of ignore, because you’ve been ignoring that forever. 

Traditional PR tactics don’t work. None of these guys — unfortunately, no women — want to be managed, because they’ve never been managed. And that doesn’t work in this industry. Other industries, yes, but this industry, absolutely not. A lot of these people are Elon; you can’t control him, I can’t control him.

It can be extremely frustrating to navigate, and you can feel like you have one hand tied behind your back. We created a strategy that was like, “okay, well this is what [esports executive] is going to do. He wants to talk directly to fans, and he doesn’t care about press at all.”

What misconceptions do esports executives hold about the press?

When I started, it was a real battle with executives at esports orgs, because they were like, “so when is The New York Times going to send us the article for review, so we can update it?” I told them it doesn’t work that way, and they were like, “well, then we won’t participate.” I can’t even tell you how many times executives could not believe that we could not control what the article said post-interview. 

Unfortunately, in the smaller esports journalism community, many would give them the opportunity to read the article ahead of time, to change the quotes. To be honest, also, a lot of these esports orgs didn’t care. Their fans were not reading major mainstream outlets. Their fans are not reading The New York Times, their fans are not reading Digiday — sorry. So a massive learning curve for me was that they weren’t beholden to those big folks, they were beholden to their fans. So trying to book an exclusive is inordinately hard.

When I started to realize that, rather than leaning away from it, I totally leaned into it. This is not their world, so it is my job to assess opportunities and share with them the benefits and the risks. I changed my approach and position to be like, “this is something that’s really important because this will affect your money,” and that’s what they responded to.

Can you elaborate on some of the problems with esports journalism?

I think what certain esports journalists have done, that has kind of poisoned the well, if you will, is giving some orgs a little bit too much leeway when it comes to reviewing stories and changing headlines. I think there are fans who have decided I’m going to write for XYZ outlet, and they’re still learning how to be journalists. 

And there’s also the toxicity. Some of these people call themselves a journalist, and then go across social media and Twitter and just harangue people, which doesn’t feel independent or unbiased at all. When I don’t work with people, but then they call me out, why would I bring them something? I think many of these folks are young and have not experienced the real-world editorial process.

How do you approach crisis comms in esports?

The internet is brutal within 24 to 48 hours, but the long tail, I’ve found, is on the consumer. And so that’s why you have to be really proactive with some of this stuff. And, as you’ve seen, it’s not the traditional, “I wholly apologize for how I did that,” because a lot of that is not authentic. I learned that applying your standard one-on-one crisis communications playbook to this industry leaves out so many different nuances and necessary parts of the whole that you can’t just do that. 

Other times, it was a challenge, but the challenge was typically because some of these folks weren’t on an island — we’re beholden to a lot of other people. Esports is very interesting. The NFL doesn’t own football, but Riot [Games] owns the game. Epic Games owns Fortnite. If you want to play in that space, you have to play ball with multinational publicly traded corporations that are beholden not only to hundreds of thousands of employees, but stockholders, too.

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