The Volunteer Business, Part One
Our new series of features looks at the world of eSports through the eyes of those who go unsung: the volunteers. Part one features an interview with Lawrence 'Malystryx' Phillips.
Malystryx carried by one of his students.
This series of features was born out of the awareness that eSports is composed of young, financially dependant people who are most often untrained and unqualified, who see the work as their passion, and who do it as their hobby. It’s common for websites looking for new recruits to suggest that at a later stage, the budding volunteer might earn material rewards and even become a kind of employee. For most people this will never be true. Most people will be defined by their enduring drive to volunteer.
That’s what’s going through my head when I log on for my interview with Lawrence Phillips, better known as Malystryx. Once a news writer like me, and later full time editor in chief for SK Gaming, he was one of the few editors of his time to support himself on eSports alone. He has since obtained two degrees, fathered children, and taught English in China. On occasion, he gives advice to new guys like me. This is what he has to say about the eSports business.
“I did it because I loved it.”
In 2004 WCG was an event you took seriously. Reuniting the major disciplines of the time -- Halo, Starcraft, Unreal Tournament, Warcraft 3 -- it had the clout and the scope that today’s MLG only wishes it had. Also the first of two WCG events that Grubby would win in his laureled career, it provided the material for Malystryx to begin his love affair with eSports.
“My interest started in Warcraft 3 when my clanmates told me to watch WCG2004 with Grubby vs Zacard,” says Malystryx. “I was just amazed.” Electrified by the scene, he joined SK Gaming in 2005 and worked under Michal “Carmac” Blicharz before the latter left to join ESL. He spent four years climbing the ranks. Eventually he became Editor-in-Chief.
I ask him what he expected when he first started out. “I didn’t expect anything, I did it because I loved it, which I think is a great base for any hobby." He recalls his excitement at being given a mousepad or being made mod of the IRC channel. Meagre rewards but far better than the zero you start with. Then he tells me about a ClanBase EuroCup event he organized in 2005. “I was volunteering there when my boss couldn't make this offline event and I was asked to attend.”
Dealing with the likes of Grubby and ToD might seems like several steps up from writing news, but Malystryx’s experience was less than glamorous. “The way players treat volunteers is sometimes so disgraceful,” he says. “It’s worse in Asian tournaments where lots of students will volunteer to take care of players, and some progamers just treat them like dirt. I think it’s a case of some players at times forgetting basic manners simply because in Esports so much focus is placed on the players that some become extremely self-centred.” No surprise there. Anyone who follows sports will be familiar with the effect that combined fame and skill can have on a player. Just look at Balotelli and his Ferrari woes. The exceedingly young players eSports promotes are just the next easy victims of this syndrome. “I think you can compare it to the caste system, players at the top, volunteers at the bottom.” Not the most encouraging picture, but Malystryx has managed to find a better way of interpreting this relationship. “Volunteers need to be thick-skinned to survive. Remember they serve the community, not the players,” he says. “Never give up.”
Still, isn’t there a point where it all becomes too much? I remind him of how he was discouraged by the feedback to a feature he wrote for GosuGamers more than a year ago. “I think that’s different. Volunteers need to find the right workplace, you may not be getting paid in cash or hardware, but you need to find somewhere you’re appreciated. Lots of volunteers will stay somewhere, be overloaded with work for low pay because their boss will promise them some event ‘or maybe if you do well we can talk about salary,’ and they believe it. Don’t beg for scraps, don't let organizations rob you blind. Make sure you get what you deserve.” There’s no denying that for some volunteers the ultimate coin might not turn out to be trips to LAN events but dignity. “As long as you’re happy to work for free, you like the people you're working with, sometimes that’s enough,” says Malystryx. “Not every volunteer is imagining making a living from it.”
Malystryx's elementary school class.
Malystryx certainly did. By 2008 he was working part time for SK Gaming, but with his wife pregnant and the prospects of a family to consider, he took on another part time job with ESL, doing PR for the company’s EPS UK events. In 2009, then Editor-in-Chief Carmac joined ESL, and Malystryx replaced him. Early that year, Malystryx and his wife moved to China so their son could be near his grandparents, a Chinese tradition. While there he planned to take advantage of the reduced cost of living by teaching English at Shandong University and simultaneously keeping up with his eSports duties, but juggling the two proved to be too difficult. “I struggled to balance both Esports and teaching so I just dropped Esports all together. Warcraft3 was dying out and apart from a year at Razer, I kind of took a hiatus from Esports until now.”
I press him for more details of his life in China, but what Malystryx is most interested in is offering advice. I’m glad to have it. “The chance of making a full-time career of Esports is extremely unlikely,” he says, “especially if you’re not willing to move country. That's a fact universally acknowledged. However, if you do volunteer or have a ‘job’ in Esports, make sure you're having fun, it’s something you love, and don't get sidetracked from doing what you really want in Esports. Don't be satisfied ‘just’ being a news writer, or updating match tickers or spend hours proofreading others’ work. Stay focused and stay loyal to people who treat you well. I think that was the thing that helped me the most to get jobs in Esports. The key to success in Esports is maintaining relationships which later may lead to great job opportunities. But the relationships should be based on real friendships.”
It’s tempting to say that Malystryx’s friendships have served him well, but that would mean ignoring the lesson he’s trying to transmit. Volunteers can’t hope to achieve any degree of wealth. With little hope for advancement, but with all the reasons of the heart, they are at once below and above a summer intern. The volunteer’s duty is the most sincere transaction in this business.
Just news writers
“To be honest I think Esports journalism is in a downward spiral, too much attention on speed instead of quality,” says Malystryx. I’m not surprised to hear that. In 2007, he wrote his breakthrough article, “Quality over Quantity,” in which he blasted eSports ‘journalistic’ practices. Websites wanted news to be posted quickly and without contemplation; writers wanted to exploit news more than to produce a good article in service to the community. “The reality is that people do not care if a writer is using Queen’s English or Fabio Capello’s, ‘I want news, I want it fast, does not need to be perfect’ (sic).”
Looking back at the article, Malystryx’s view hasn’t changed much. “It’s also down to the fact that experienced writers or editors left Esports (for example GosuGamers’ Raistlin),” he adds, “and newer members of the community do not have someone to learn from.” When I ask him what we should do to up our ante, he says, “We just need to keep experienced writers or contributors to stay long-term and to share what they've learned with the new generation.” Contributors like Carmac and Razer’s Christopher Mitchell, who Malystryx says have helped him master his craft.
I think back on my own initiation. You think you know something, but when you enter the scene you realize you’ve been trying to seize an egg’s core by looking at its shell. The people who welcome you into their fold have an almost seminal influence. You inherit their practices and learn to embody the ethos put down by generations of volunteers before you. I know what Malystryx is saying. It’s about creating and transmitting a sense of integrity that will remain untarnished through the years and will always serve those who are newly come.
Those practices that Malystryx decried, then, are a decay of that integrity, but he doesn’t think that a proper intergenerational rapport will be the only cure. “I think there should be a higher requirement to be a writer, also for sites to spend longer training or educating new staff into how to do it well. Have bonuses for writers who create good content, and by good content I mean articles that show the writer has put in a lot of effort to make it. If you’re going to volunteer try to make something unique, bring something new to the table. I'd prefer to read two well thought out columns or an excellent illustrated cartoon than read twenty news about line-up changes or rumours.”
But isn’t that precisely why the news scene exists at all? At some primordial stage, people gathered to find and discuss the events of the day, transfers included. Of course, the scene’s scope and sophistication increased, but interest in more trivial content has never waned. I ask Malystryx what the perception has been, historically, of eSports “journalism.”
“People consider themselves journalists when really they are just news writers. Esports journalism does not really exist yet. For it to develop we need for websites to communicate between each other more and celebrate and promote good content. Too much rivalry and self-indulgence goes on at the moment. We're all in this together.”
Easy redemption for such a merciless verdict, but where else can we go? If you can’t afford to pay, you deal only with those who can’t afford to ask. Malystryx seems to think our journalistic culture will develop on its own so long as we’re willing to create an industry standard, but I question that. In the real world journalism is a profession one enters by obtaining the appropriate credentials, after years of schooling and a tremendous financial onus. But a fully trained journalist lives in the real world and must therefore see a return on his investment. Perhaps Malystryx is right to suggest that we look for the solution in ourselves.
It occurs to me to end the interview right now, with this problem looming over our shoulders. It’s a big monkey to deal with, maybe too big, and I have other people to talk to. But I’ve still got one question left. I ask him: what do you know for sure? Here’s the final word.
“Esports is an incredible scene. I'm still amazed by the fact I can play a game and be playing with people from all over the world. If you sit back and think about that, it’s pretty cool. I've had some great experiences with companies like ESL, Razer, Jooang Entertainment and others, who are really trying to provide for our community. I'm sure they will continue to do so, and I'm certain our media scene will improve and expand as long as contributors remember to enjoy Esports. Esports is ridonkulously fun. Celebrate it.”
"Deal with it."
These days Malystryx spends his free time playing Dota 2, his competitive game of choice. (When I suggest CS:GO he claims to be too old to practice multiple games.) With his son no longer needing constant care, he’s also free to work on his upcoming Dota project, a “chilled out site if you’re in the mood for something fun,” to be launched as GoodDaySir.gg. Although Malystryx has been away from eSports for some time, it’s comforting to know that he hasn’t gone too far away, and that this member of the old generation, at least, is still willing to teach us a thing or two.
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