The Volunteer Business, Part Three
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.
Part One of this series featured an interview with veteran eSports journalist Lawrence ‘Malystryx’ Phillips.
In Part Two we spoke to Moritz 'Moose' Zimmermann, founder of joinDOTA.
More than a decade after he first tried it, Patrik Hellstrand still rates StarCraft: Brood War as the best game he’s ever played. We all have a favorite, and if you’re in the eSports scene chances are yours is a competitive title, but Hellstrand couldn’t have anticipated the effect StarCraft would come to have on his fourteen year old self. “I was not that aware of the worldwide competitive aspect,” he tells me. “The StarCraft Mecca, South Korea, was not even on my radar.” Even so, it was StarCraft that got him his first stint as a volunteer writer for Gamingeye, a now defunct Swedish news site where Hellstrand cut his teeth. He soon became familiar with the major community portals, including Team Liquid and a site then called StarCraftGamers.
He didn’t write because there was material incentive. Like most volunteers, he did it out of a compulsion to make his love of StarCraft manifest. “I wasn't a very good player. But I was intrigued by those who were. I was interested in giving people stories to read. I think why was because I wanted people to see the awesomeness in the eSports scene as I saw it.”
Hellstrand’s story is representative of how eSports is done even to this day. He started out as a teenager with no journalistic experience whatsoever. He remembers writing reports for WGTour leagues in class. While other people were doing math, he was dreaming up ways to tell you about the latest clan wars. “And I was a real sucker for reading comments on the news I wrote,” he mentions.
“If I were to go back and read my first hundred or two hundred news articles I would surely find some really craptacious wording,” he says, bringing into focus a very hot topic. Veterans aside, news crews all start with zero experience. We don’t expect English graduates to offer their services, and that’s a cautious attitude, because they don’t. We work with what we get, and most often that means students with enough time on their hands not just to pursue this as a passion, but to sweat over it and improve their technique with daily practice. That’s our method, and love of the game remains the driving principle of it.
In 2004 Hellstrand teamed up with Jonathan “Mazor” Littke and Jim “Bizkit” Pettersson, StarCraftGamers’ founders to host WCG’s Nordic Qualifiers. Just 18 years old, he was holding a two day tournament at Inferno Online, the biggest LAN in the world. It was the first of many offline events he’d be involved in. Soon after he went to work with the two. He also took on management of the Swedish national StarCraft team.
With the years Hellstrand’s view into the eSports landscape expanded greatly. Covering Warcraft 3 and WoW, suddenly it wasn’t just about StarCraft. But while the games may have been different, the feeling was just the same. There was no doubting the excitement of following so many people and teams competing across nations, across continents, in an online game. It was a coming together that formed competitive gaming communities all across the web and sustained the fragile core around which today’s burgeoning scene developed.
Walking the road of eSports
StarCraftGamers changed as well. Following its expansion, it had to be rechristened. In 2005 it became GosuGamers. Hellstrand rose through the ranks. He became Editor in Chief, then head administrator. People fell off, and went to pursue other careers. One of them was Jonathan ‘Mazor’ Littke, “the father of GosuGamers,” in Hellstrand’s words, who went on to become lead programmer on Spotify. By this time, Hellstrand was making a living through eSports. He put together crews, organized tournaments and finances, but he wasn’t doing so well that he was comfortable giving up his university’s stipend. “In Sweden students get financial backup for studying,” Hellstrand is quick to explain.
That’s when I first met the man, as someone several steps up the ladder from me. Soon after, he left GosuGamers to pursue a degree in Information Architecture. Now much wiser, I caught up with him to ask him about the old days. He tells me, “I did not expect any incentives, or any employment whatsoever. Had it been tenf years later, I'm guessing I would have thought differently.”
But what about the people who worked for him? He admits it’s a very delicate topic. “When it comes to what expectations I had on the volunteers of GosuGamers, they were always mirrored by the expectations the volunteer had on themselves,” says Hellstrand. “We tried putting up a minimum of X articles, or X matches added to GosuBet, but in the end that doesn’t matter. You need to be able to see the person behind the nickname, and see what he or she can contribute with.“
A focus on interpersonal relationships then, making it not about factory line production of news but about personal development in a community of people who share the same history. In 2006 GosuGamers became a company, expanding again in 2010. There is only so much you can do running a hobby project, and the crew wanted to take the site further than it could have gone otherwise. But the essential nature of the organization didn’t change, because the new function came in service to what the staff wanted to accomplish, and today the site’s writers and admins can do more because of it.
GosuGamers was the people who belonged there, not its bureaucracy or editorial goals. And while duties come with the job, you can’t be part of the team unless you are recognized as an individual with a desire to contribute to something greater than yourself, as well as fulfill a basic need for self expression. It’s a good vision, one possibly allowed by the fact that the relationship between the institution and its members isn’t regulated through financials ties. With no exchange of impersonal goods, the only way to communicate is through personal contribution. It sounds better than it is, because as a whole we’d prefer less love and more money.
“Taking volunteers for granted is a dangerous thing for any website,” says Hellstrand. If you can’t remunerate, and can’t provide the incentive for your writers to keep writing, your content will dwindle, and eventually your site will fizzle out. I bring this up in relation to ESFI, another volunteer news site that hoped to accomplish much with few resources. Today ESFIworld is all but dead, and unlike NASL’s sudden passing, it went completely under the radar. GosuGamers’ StarCraft 2 section crumbled in 2011, and we were never able to return it to its glory. The site once called StarCraftGamers is now without StarCraft.
“Many organizations in the eSports business are still lacking the financial muscle to give proper incentives for some people who definitely earn it,” Hellstrand is quick to point out. “I think that at this stage being able to send people to offline events is pretty important.”
Even that fact isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. Conditions have improved, but as little as three years ago, companies were sometimes unable to fully cover travel and lodging expenses for their crews, and even when that wasn’t the case, local transportation and meals still came out of the reporter’s pocket. By contrast, ESPN sends reporters to South America to chase a story about Luis Suarez hitting a referee. You might think that bringing up mainstream media isn’t fair. It’s true; there's no comparison.
The root of that difference is often given in a prosaic formula: there just isn’t enough money. It’s a convenient refrain, but is it really the answer to every volunteer problem? Moritz Zimmermann claimed that the solution was to grow the scene as a whole in order to have enough wealth to spread around. Hellstrand agrees but goes further in his analysis:
“Well, there's a truth in what he's saying. With money comes more incentive for writers to do their best. With writers doing their best the organization will see what good amount of content can come out. So obviously it's a factor. But not the whole factor. The matter is also in the development of the scene itself; both in what we have seen, and will come in the future. Five years ago we didn't have as many live-streamed events, nor video-on-demand to each and every match. The audience had to rely on the writers.
“Now it's more or less standard that you only flip on your favourite streaming platform and see what's up. The deep-going interest in the scene does not seem to be there. People want entertainment -- not informative content surrounding the business side of things, or analysis of a game or similar.”
I ask whether he agrees with Malystryx’s statement that eSports journalism doesn’t exist yet. “Oh, it exists,” he replies. “It just depends on how you define journalism. Tony Harcup says journalism ‘is a method of inquiry and literary style that aims to provide a service to the public by the dissemination and analysis of news and other information.’ So it's there, but we can't expect it to be as developed and polished as sports or political journalism since it hasn't been around that long, nor are there means for organization to invest heavily in a five-star editorial staff.”
Both points are true, and indeed they’ve become the fulcrum of many defenses of the news scene’s past and current state. If one thing can tell us anything, is that more money generally means more improvement. Already sites are ramping up the degree to which writers are rewarded. And with eSports becoming larger, mainstream publications are more likely to take an interest, again expanding the market. This is a poor prediction. It means nothing in the here and now, when aspiring eSports writers, like freelance journalists everywhere, must offer up their work for free before they can hope to make a penny from their jobs.
There is one more question, the easiest one. What do you know for sure?
“Esports is a beautiful phenomenon, and it has developed so much over the years. And it will continue to grow, and I'm sure there will be more than just one ten-million-dollar event for esports in the future, and it will build more bridges and have countless caring and passionate people finding themselves and their organizations flower and grow into something true, fair and important.”
With White-Ra (center) and poGDI (right)