Thooorin: "People compare me to Skip Bayless or Stephen A. Smith, and I say, 'Thank you very much.'"

Duncan "Thooorin" Shields possesses more experience than any other journalist in esports. The self-proclaimed Esports Historian began writing esports articles nearly two decades ago, and since has gone on to start his own youtube channel and create video content in multiple formats on a variety of topics within the esports industry.

Thooorin attended IGEC2019 as a panelist to try and pass on what he's learned throughout the years. Thooorin's first panel, "Online Journalism: A View of the Esports Journalism Landscape from the Trenches", was a solo panel in which Thooorin focused on how esports journalism has changed over the years and how rapid technological development has changed esports journalism.

The second panel, a group discussion titled "Esports Journalism: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" was much anticipated. Thooorin appeared as a speaker alongside esports journalist Richard Lewis, Overwatch League color caster Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles, and Inven Global Director of Strategic Content Nick D'Orazio. Content creator and former professional League of Legends player and coach Yoonsup "Locodoco" Choi served the panel as moderator. 

Thooorin sat down with Nick Geracie before his IGEC 2019 panels to lay out his talking points and give an exclusive look into his journey through esports journalism. 


I'm here with Thooorin at IGEC 2019. What are your thoughts on the event so far?

Listen, I'm not gonna spit any bull**** on this. I don't really care about anyone else's talk or panel. No offense, because it's not really for me. It's more for people who are interested in getting into the industry, or people who want to invest in it and know things about it. I'm sure some of the panels were lovely, but I wouldn't get up at 9am for anything, mate. I just rolled in around the time of my first panel.

It's a bit like when I do my events as an analyst. I always say to people that you can't expect anything outside of working hours for those who are working the event. Basically, you have to get yourself primed for those hours so you're ready to do your job, so I've just been chilling out until my talk.

That makes sense, there's probably not a lot for you specifically to learn. You're speaking on two panels, the first of being a solo panel. The second panel is a group panel with Richard Lewis, Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles, Nick D'Orazio, and Yoonsup "Locodoco" Choi serving as moderator. What are you going to be discussing on those panels specifically and how will they differ?

The first one is actually the real reason I came to the conference. Inven Global reached out to me way before I knew any of these cool people were coming. I thought it was just going to be another generic conference, so I came to have a nice trip to California and give the 20 minute talk. Because I've been a journalist for the entirety of my career and never want up to a different position or left the industry, this panel is my view across this twenty year period.

One of the things I'm going to try to do is give people a sense of where the industry was, what type of content worked, and what innovations changed the industry. One of the reasons I've often told writers in esports that it's good to do videos and talks is because it changes how you structure your thoughts. It changes how you set things up, and sometimes you have a realization when putting a few points together that you haven't before.

Another thing I've realized is to tell the story of esports journalism is telling the story of esports itself in a lower resolution. Interestingly enough, it all ends up connecting at some very famous points that will surprise people in the context of global events. For example, the dot-com bubble bursting, the global recession, and digital media dying are all things that in theory have nothing to do with esports.

However, the entire story of esports journalism is woven around those things — where you can work, how much you can make, how you distribute your content — almost all of the changes came due to real world changes. I was quite interested to discover that myself, because I hadn't really had that epiphany before. That's going to be the main focus of my main talk, in addition to details about esports.

I think a lot of people are looking forward to the other panel because of the lineup. It's quite a spicy panel. If you f**k with anyone in esports, don't even bother going to that panel. It will be a bad time for you. I hope that one is just fun, because there's a lot of shared experience in that room. I may not even be the one who's going to speak much, but I'm looking forward to hearing what the others say.

It's a fun little mix of people, but in a public setting. We've had many conversations like that with a group of people like this having a few drinks, but we've never tried it in front of an audience.

It's certainly the most anticipated panel, but speaking more towards your solo panel, esports journalism wasn't even a term in North America five years ago. Despite that, your esports journalism career spans about two decades at this point. Do you think there are things esports journalists today can learn from the past to help direct the future of esports in the right direction?

Absolutely, yeah. That's one of the things I find so interesting about almost any area of technology. You can't look backwards and say 'well that worked for him, so I'll do the same'. That's kind of a fool's errand. You have to always be looking forward and take the lessons of what failed and hopefully try to use that to make your next gamble. Everything's a gamble when you're trying to make something new or bigger than before. You're going to have to take some bold steps.

It's a funny thing when you hear about "safe investments". How can you make a safe investment in an industry in which no one knows what it will be in two years? None of us even know what game we'll be playing in five years! It's frightening to some people, but I find it very exciting. Everything's in flux; anything can happen now.

Investors came into the esports space for future profit, but seem to be getting impatient. However, that should lead to only the most passionate people staying in esports, right?

Yeah, absolutely. For me, when you sell someone on the idea of esports, it's like an early 20th century America world fair where they would advertise living on the moon and flying cars. What they were really selling is the vision of a different life. None of those things came true, especially not in that particular context. However, I'm sure if you tracked development all the way back, those are probably the seeds of what it would be like to live in a metropolis and modern transportation. 

There are a lot of things that came to be more realistic than the original idea at its inception. At the beginning, there are guys who have a dream, but you have to be able to make it a reality eventually. It's not going to be something fantabulous. It's the same thing with esports journalism, really. In the early days, as you said, esports journalism wasn't even a thing. We were basically just nerds who did interviews and wrote articles.

At the time, I was very early to calling myself an esports journalist. People, even pro players, used to laugh and say it was pretentious — "Are you really even a journalist?" and things like that. The point is, they were right. We weren't proper journalists then, but we were trying to become them. Along the way, we developed skillsets and fought the right battles, and we were forged into journalists.

I feel like esports journalism lagged a little bit because it got the least money out of any part of the industry, but I think the future for esports journalism is potentially one of the biggest. Of course there's real world problems with digital media and ad revenue falling. Those are going to be big hurdles to overcome, but things go in cycles. Someone always comes up with an innovation that will solve the problem in some way.

It might be something different, and I don't know where it's going exactly, but I think the journalism side of esports is one that is now blossoming, hopefully.

People tend to get married to the initial idea, but more often than not, things have to change to progress. As a journalist in esports, how important is it to remain flexible when telling these stories?

Absolutely. I would say one of the main keys to succeeding in this industry is willingness to learn new skillsets. There were plenty of people back in the day who would write a column or an article, and some of them were probably better than me back then. The difference is that they stayed in that area and never evolved or updated themselves, or they got discouraged during economic dips in the industry. They would have to work twice as hard to make half as much, so they'd quit.

You have to be willing to stick with it through the tough times and be willing to learn the new things. As part of my persona, I joke about how I've been here since the beginning and there's nothing anyone can show me, but that's not true at all. I like to learn from everyone in the industry.

One thing that actually really helped my content is going and looking at all the content that people used to call clickbait. There's a mechanism there that you can extract and apply it to good content and you'd be marketing it correctly. There were periods in time where a lot of us 'serious' journalists thought we were very professional, but we were thinking of newspaper journalism. The headline inside the newspaper doesn't have to be as crazy.

I used to literally name my interviews things like "Interview with f0rest." I wouldn't have a quote or a snappy title, because initially I was looking down on those people. I thought they were just idiots, but what I didn't realize was that they could still be doing something right even if the content was wack. The marketing method is brilliant.

I come from the Counter-Strike scene, and we're considered elitists compared to other FPS gaming communities, but the people I've probably learned the most in terms of marketing for the last few years is the Call of Duty content creators. Some 18 year old idiot player can do a vlog on youtube and get a million views, and their world championships only get a few hundred thousand views sometimes. They're killing it in terms of marketing!

I wish we had that in CS, we have nothing comparable. The point is that you shouldn't judge someone based on their status, you should look at what they're doing. If what they're doing makes sense, you have to adapt as well or you'll get left behind. No one cares at if you did it all with integrity if you're not there at the end. You have to survive the war before you can tell your story.

Outside of changes in medium, has your approach to storytelling changed over time?

Oh, sure. Probably the biggest way was that I was someone who never judged what I did based on what the rest of esports was doing. I mentioned in the early days people could be a bit derogatory regarding people calling themselves esports journalists. Well, imagine calling yourself an esports historian! People would be like, "What history? We just started playing these games. How pretentious is that?" What they didn't understand was that it was something I aspired to be.

I would watch the NBA or UFC because the sport itself has its own aesthetic visceral quality, but its the narratives around it that hook people in. It's who the fighter is, the rivalry he has with someone he hasn't fought yet, or a rematch of a big fight in the past. That's the hook. What I realized is we have to get there in esports. It's not just about the game itself.

This is why I'm very critical of tournament organizers in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. I'm always telling them that it doesn't matter how many good teams you get and if you have the best game ever happen at your tournament. If the format of the tournament isn't brilliant, it's going to be limiting what the matches can be like.

If the format is really good and teams have multiple chances to play each other and time to prepare between games, you're going to create a much likelier chance of games being amazing even if the teams themselves are average. You set up the arena to show the best play.

In a similar fashion, as you go through this industry, you have to take things that are in one place that look totally disconnected and decipher the essence of that quality. Other industries do it in ways that you wouldn't do in esports, but you can take lessons and apply it to your own work.

Fans who don't like the banter side of what I bring to the table for Counter-Strike events will always say the same things to try and diss me. People compare me to Skip Bayless or Stephen A. Smith, and I say, "Thank you very much." Those guys absolutely kill it when they go on TV.

It doesn't matter that they're not the biggest experts, everyone wants to know what they think. Even if it's wrong, you're going to go to hear something that that stupid Skip Bayless said. You want to get annoyed at him, everyone does. It works.

People either like them or hate them, but they all have an opinion.

Exactly, so I tried to make that part of my career. I couldn't be the Obama of esports. I'm never going to be the most liked guy or the most well-spoken person who does everything the right way, so why even bother? That's a fool's errand. What I try to do instead is get people who like my stuff to watch it, but also get the guy who doesn't like my stuff to have to watch it and tell me why it's crap.

Do you think a lot of esports journalists shy away from being polarizing due to fear of criticism or exile?

That's the tough part. If I have a colleague who is younger, I don't necessarily tell them to do things my way. Sometimes, I'll even tell them to be very careful with making edgy jokes and that kind of stuff. I barely get away with it, and I'm me. If you're just starting out, it's tough when you don't have a reputation or connections as it is.

You're definitely walking a tightrope, but the point is that YOU are on the tightrope. You're the one with the spotlight on you with no net and everyone's waiting to see if you're going to fall or succeed. It's definitely got a burden to it. If you want to just be a day-to-day journalist and you don't want that kind of stress, I hope the industry gets to a place where you can just be a guy in an office somewhere writing something great.

I used to be that guy. Up until about 2013, I wasn't on camera very much. Even when I did video interviews, I wasn't on camera. You would only hear my voice. As a result, I was only known for my work, not for my persona. I realized with where the industry was at that time, my approach was going to limit where I could go and what success I can achieve. Unless the whole industry rises and I go with it, I'm stuck and can't go anywhere. I had to create new aspects and outlets for myself.

Before, I only specialized in written content. I wasn't very good in terms of social and video stuff, but I've put in a lot of effort into it and now most people assume that's my main strength. You know you've succeeded when something like that is just assumed by people as your strength from day one. I had to learn that skill, but I did have 18 years, so I had plenty of time.

You'd be surprised how often I hear, "Oh Thooorin? The Youtuber?"

Of course!

On your channel, known for your ability to go in depth on a topic in a solo video, or facilitate group conversations with other people in the industry. You still write in the form of features, columns, and even open letters to players. How do you decide which way you are going to approach a story both in format and medium?

What you mentioned is probably the most rewarding thing in putting all this work into learning new skillsets. If you're really good at writing and you've never done video, the videos are going to be so bad compared to the writing. The temptation is to just make it an article, so you have to accept being bad at the other things before you can get good at them. The freeing, liberating feeling when you get to some level of competence is great, because now you can decide where an idea goes.

I tend to have a formula. If I'm talking about something serious and I have a lot of points, that's probably an article, or maybe a documentary. If I've got a bunch of ideas that are coherent, but it's a bit vague and I want to freestyle on the topic a bit, that's a video. That's why I call my vlog series "Thooorin's Thoughts". I'm not trying to make it definitive, they're just thoughts in the moment.

You look where the idea fits best and see what you can do with it. I can't go super in-depth about tactical things like some people can, so maybe I'd make an ideas video whereas someone else might write an article. You have to be realistic about the business side of things as well, so the other factor is knowing how much a video is worth or how much time it would take to write an article.

I used to mainly pride myself on long, historical articles around 8,000 words. I can tell you right now: that is almost certainly not worth the amount of time it takes. It's brilliant to do and it feels amazing to get a sick piece out, but 8,000 words is at least five hours. When you break down time invested by payment on articles like that, you might as well work at Taco Bell at that point from a profit standpoint.

Obviously, I want to do those articles, and they may be my best work. But I have to balance it out and do some more easy to do videos, talk shows, etc. You've got to balance your workload, but you also have to balance your income. I hope people realize that the young man's ideal of being a purist still is possible, but there's a reason "starving artist" is a term.

It's not that you have to sell out, but I'd compare it to getting a job on the side while you're a starving artist. Work at a pizza parlor. That's doing the more disposable day-to-day stuff like talk shows. Once the next games happen, no one cares about that talk show anymore. It's only valuable in the moment, but it serves a purpose and it helps fund the other work.

Is there anything journalists can do to introduce and integrate that type of long-form written content so audiences are more receptive to it?

There's a couple of tricks. One of the things I used to love about doing historical articles that in theory, I could write them at anytime. Tomorrow I could just wake up and write about a Counter-Strike team in 2005, but what would the hook be? Even if you're a CS fan now, why would you read about a team in 2005? The hook is finding a reason it is currently relevant. Maybe it's the anniversary of a team winning the championship and you can tell the whole story of it.

The sad reality of this industry is that you might have the best article ever, but you don't want to publish it when the player of subject is in a slump and everyone thinks he's crap. No one is going to read it.

Also, if I want to make something special, I'll hire community artists. They're fans and they do work for relatively cheap, and I commission them like I did for my article on Henrik "Froggen" Hansen, "Control". I had this f*****g brilliant drawing of Froggen and Anivia, and it was custom content. That did cut away at some of the profit, but if you want the big to be heavy hitters, that's a great of doing it. If I saw custom art of a player I was interested in, I would at least click to go see the image.

You're at IGEC 2019 as a panelist to educate and provide insight. If someone can take one thing away from your panels, what would you want that to be?

The basic secret I've come to is very interesting, considering my own life's journey. I started off as a super-nerd. I wasn't really social, and I was a mad purist. I used to hate anyone who was trying to bring money into esports because I thought they were all conmen. It's great to be funny and clever. It's great to be poignant and inspire people. These are all great things and you should try to do them in your work. However, the one thing you have to do if you have success is entertain.

At this moment, esports is closer to the WWE than it is traditional sports. No one's going to go and watch the esports equivalent of watching two terrible baseball teams play a seven hour game at the bottom of the league, but that happens in real life. People pay for that experience of going to the stadium. That doesn't happen in esports because people are paying for the story and surrounding narratives.

That's the key. Do any of those things you want. Be the guy who gets the most hits. Be the most clever guy. Write the most insightful articles. But you better entertain people, because if you can, they'll come along for the rest of the ride. Entertainment is the sugar to make the medicine go down.

I started consuming your content in 2014, and didn't write my first article until a few years later. Nowadays, there are so many journalists trying to do the same thing. What's something you would tell someone who is trying to break into the industry today as an esports journalist

The best piece of advice is the advice no one follows: think of it like a video game. One thing I can never relate to within the modern generation of gamers is ladder anxiety. People are scared to play because they are in their promotion games. If you lose the promotion games, the game is telling you you aren't good enough. Why are you afraid to be shown that you're bad?

If you're someone who has a mindset to improve and get better, you should want to fail, because the failure is what tells you that you did something critical that you should learn from. This applies to esports journalism in the same way. A lot of people have told me that they want to do it, but they wait and go back and forth on what and when is right in terms of writing the article. No! Write an article tomorrow. You'll fail and be terrible, but no one is going to read it anyway.

No one will read the first ten articles, so why not make all of your mistakes now and get your failures out of the way? That way when you finally get a hit on an article, someone can look back and see that you're established and you have improved through progress. That's how you get a gig and get a leg up on others.

In this industry, it's a lot like corporate culture. People want it to be about being the best at your job, but the real things that keep you employed at a job are not sexy at all — be reliable, do your work on time, do the work you say you will do do not promise things you cannot deliver, be agreeable with your colleagues — those are the things that will make or break you in this industry.

You're going to need other people's help. That's the other secret: nobody does it on their own. Everyone needs a support group and people who like their work. You need people in the industry you don't even know yet who are going to give you your next job. You want to show through your work that you are diligent, you are willing to fail, and you are willing to learn from your mistakes.

All of these things are way better than writing the best article ever. It's not pop music. You're not going to make it off of just one hit.

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