Why independent esports media is on the rise in 2023

When Tom Matthiesen’s employer, Inven Global, laid off most of its staff in July 2022, the longtime esports writer wasn’t sure that his style of in-depth esports journalism would have a place at any of the remaining endemic publications in the space.

“I could see that their coverage was diluted with a bunch of other stuff,” he said. 

So Matthiesen decided to strike out on his own, launching his independent esports journalism site, Em Dash Esports, in September 2022. As the League of Legends World Championship progressed over the following month, Matthiesen’s efforts were rewarded by growing readership. His traffic more than doubled between the first and last weeks of the World Championship, rising from a four-digit figure to a five-digit figure by the end of the event, according to Matthiesen, who declined to share specific numbers. At the moment, Em Dash is still in the brand- and readership-building phase, and Matthiesen doesn’t plan to monetize the site in the immediate future.

“I can see why people get addicted to this, because the numbers go up, and it’s such a drug,” Matthiesen said. “Like, holy shit, 10,000 people visited my site today. What the fuck?”

Endemic esports journalism has gradually collapsed over the past two years. In addition to Inven Global, publications such as ESPN Esports, Upcomer and the Washington Post’s Launcher vertical have folded in recent memory. Operations such as Venn and G4 brought in millions of dollars in funding before failing spectacularly in 2022. The Esports Observer shuttered its Twitter account and rebranded as the esports vertical of Sports Business Journal in December 2022; even smaller endemic sites like Jaxon are starting to drop like flies.

In the wake of these closures, Matthiesen is not the only esports journalist to find success by going independent. Jacob Wolf’s company, Overcome, made its fourth full-time hire on Feb. 6; Dominic Sacco’s project, Esports News UK, drew record traffic in January; and Cody Luongo’s newsletter Sharpr announced a partnership with +More Media on Feb. 1, among many other examples.

While the exodus of journalists to independent platforms such as Substack is not limited to the esports space, the phenomenon is particularly pronounced in esports journalism due to the lack of full-time jobs available in the industry — and the opportunity for writers to carve out yet-uncovered niches such as Esports News U.K.’s regional coverage or Sharpr’s esports betting focus.

“I saw an opportunity for myself, because I found that the people that were covering esports gambling were the gambling press, and I felt that the esports press wasn’t conceptualizing or understanding the betting industry side of it — and vice versa with the gambling side,” Luongo said.

Indeed, as more esports journalists strike out on their own, it’s becoming increasingly clear that readers looking for the hard-hitting stuff can also go directly to independent media operations and newsletters, rather than the bigger players such as Dot Esports or Dexerto.

“I talked to a lot of people that own these websites, and they had a chance to hire me,” said James Fudge, who launched his own publication, The Esports Advocate, in January. “And they decided not to, through the last year — so now I am their competition, and I’m going to see what I can do.”

It’s not that the larger publications are unable to turn out high-quality esports journalism. Both Dot and Dexerto, two of the only endemic esports publications to claim profitability, have published their fair share of industry-shaking deep dives in the past. But they’ve learned that the audience for hard-hitting truth-to-power esports journalism simply isn’t large enough to support an entire company. Dot and Dexerto have adapted by pivoting to other areas: news aggregation and relentless content churn for the former, celebrity-news-style influencer coverage for the latter.

Amid this, the readership of both sites has consistently risen. Between December 2021 and December 2022, Dot’s traffic increased by nearly one million total unique visitors, and Dexerto’s by nearly 1.5 million, according to data shared with Digiday by Comscore.

The audience is aging, and they don’t want to know the ‘what’ anymore — they want to know how and why.
Jacob Wolf

The collapse of endemic esports publications in 2022 left many industry veterans worried about the apparent lack of an audience for in-depth reporting on the space. But the growing traffic of independent esports publications in 2023 shows that the audience is there for this type of content. At the moment, this audience is only large enough to support individuals, not entire media operations.

“I think the audience is aging, and they don’t want to know the ‘what’ anymore — they want to know how and why,” Wolf said.

With this growing audience comes new revenue opportunities for the smaller independent esports journalism operations. Most, such as Wolf’s Jacob Wolf Report, rely on subscriptions at the moment to bring in consistent revenue — but Esports News UK just opened up new ad inventory, and going independent has created opportunities for writers such as Wolf and Fudge to do consulting work and author the occasional white paper. The independent players are still figuring out monetization, but the signs are encouraging.

“I’m not here to make loads of money,” Sacco said. “I’m here to serve the UK esports community.”

Indeed, as the esports journalism industry has contracted over the past year, many writers have left it for greener pastures such as marketing or PR. Those who have stuck it out haven’t necessarily done so for the paycheck.

“We are a business, but we are not purely in it for money,” said Claire Farnworth, a co-founder of the independent gaming media site Gamer Guides. “And because we’re independent, we don’t have shareholders breathing down our necks to be profitable, or to cut the losses.”

https://digiday.com/?p=489849

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