With games media at a crossroads, two journalists who cut their teeth in esports are leveraging their organic connections to the gaming community to kickstart a collectively owned media operation.
As the games media space has contracted over the past year, many observers have speculated about the viability of a collectively owned publication staffed by leading games journalists — in other words, a “Defector for gaming.” As of today, Jacob Wolf and Mikhail Klimentov are giving it their best shot.
Both journalists have made a name for themselves within the industry — Wolf through his reporting at ESPN and his production company, Overcome, and Klimentov through his editorial work for the Washington Post’s Launcher gaming vertical and his newsletter, ReaderGrev.
Now, the two journalists are combining their newsletters as they move from Substack to a joint Patreon. Their goal is to gauge readers’ interest in a gaming journalism collective — then, if things go well, to continue to bring more stakeholders into the fold. Wolf is in the process of raising funds for the company, using the team-up to get investors interested.
Wolf and Klimentov’s plan — to build a news business around their individual communities and followings within the gaming sphere — is one that has been successful for some non-gaming media operations in recent years. In addition to Defector, there’s Puck, which recently raised over $10 million on its promise of personality-powered tech journalism, and Semafor, the buzzy global news operation helmed by former New York Times media editor Ben Smith, among other examples.
To explore why Klimentov and Wolf believe their gaming media venture will succeed where others have failed, Digiday spoke to the two journalists for an annotated Q&A.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
On their plan to take advantage of their combined audiences
“I think this audience doesn’t like very corporate-type entities talking to them. They very much like the parasocial connection, the community connection, where you’re talking with them and they’re a part of the conversation. When you’re two dudes that have a Patreon, you’re able to do that, whereas when you’re ESPN, or the Washington Post, or whatever, you can’t do that. It’s not part of the DNA of those publications. To me, this is taking a bunch of the things that work out of the influencer book and applying them to journalism, while maintaining the same level of ethics and quality of content.”
Wolf’s comments reflect his firsthand understanding of the rise of journalists as influencers, a phenomenon that is particularly rampant within the gaming community, whose audience is rabidly focused on individual influencers. While some gamers might rankle at the accusation that their relationship with Wolf is parasocial — as opposed to just social — the gaming community could be a fertile breeding ground for this type of operation.
“This is like a trial balloon for something bigger. We did these two things separately; we had a kind of overlapping vision. What if we brought this together? Would people pay for this? Can we build something here? And if we see that we can, that might send the message that we should bring more people on. The line from two journalists working together under one umbrella to four journalists and an editor and a video producer — you can draw that line pretty easily. But we have to test the case first.”
Wolf and Klimentov are far from the only seasoned gaming and esports writers to have struck out on their own in recent years. Klimentov’s former colleague at Launcher Shannon Liao, for example, operates a scoop-prone Substack newsletter of her own. If Klimentov and Wolf truly want their collaboration to continue to scale up, it might be imperative for them to bring on a more diverse and wide-ranging set of voices to bolster their own perspectives on the industry.
On the reasoning behind the move from Substack to Patreon:
“I don’t think there’s scale for people in the gaming beat on Substack — which is why I’m leaving. I’m communicating that to them and talking to people pretty openly about why I think there’s no scale for getting people on Substack. I’m the second-most-subscribed-to gaming writer on Substack, and even then, there’s just so many things about the platform that hinder people, generally. Patreon is a pretty open ecosystem, where we can plug it into a bunch of other platforms.
Discord has an integration with Patreon, so if you’re a sub on Patreon, we can give you a role signifier and special channel access on Discord. We’ll be doing some smaller monthly activations in Discord, basically hanging out with folks in chat.”
Wolf, who says he runs Substack’s second-most-read gaming newsletter after GameDiscoverCo, may feel that he is bumping his head against the platform’s ceiling. His newsletter, The Jacob Wolf Report, has just shy of 10,000 subscribers, significantly lower than the viewership of his top videos on platforms such as YouTube. One issue is that most gamers are not avid consumers of written editorial content, and certainly not accustomed to paying for it. Since many gamers already subscribe to their favorite creators via Patreon, getting them to add another subscription to their portfolio on the platform could be less of a lift than asking gamers to input their credit card information into Substack for the first time.
On the differences between their coverage areas
“What I’m compelled by in the esports space are the formats and stories that just aren’t being told right now. I haven’t read a compelling profile of a person in esports in two years. And there are no party reporters in esports — like, New York Magazine is not sending somebody to the ‘Valorant’ Champions party the way they’re sending someone to the Drift party. That fascination makes me feel guilty; I think, for Jacob, the goal now is how can I move away from esports, how can I expand into other mediums that I know I’d be good at. And I think that is one of the big overarching differences between our projects here.”
Klimentov could be wise to want to explore new formats and methods of storytelling in esports, because it’s become depressingly clear that the typical gamer does not care for written editorial content, at least not the type of editorial content that esports publications have been cranking out for the last few years. Most gamers are able to get their esports news directly from the source, by following influencers and pro players on social media — so simply reporting on what they say won’t cut it anymore. Klimentov’s newsletter made its name by pairing his occasionally snarky tone and unique voice with his deep editorial knowledge of the esports industry, and leaning into these strengths to bring new readers into the fold is not a bad idea.
“It’s a niche product, what we do — developing and reporting news stories for video games,” said John Warren, a gaming industry consultant who previously served as the former head of media for the publication Fanbyte, which laid off the bulk of its staff in September 2022. “It’s a big market, but people don’t really read about the market. The demand for video games writing is, quite frankly, much higher in the LinkedIn grifter space than in the broad market of video game players.”