Careers in Esports: Cecilia D’Anastasio, Staff Writer for Wired

Journalism is a field that has helped highlight injustices, demanded accountability, and often introduces us to different perspectives on various subjects. It’s a tough profession, but one that can be incredibly rewarding.

With that in mind, we reached out to Cecilia D’Anastasio, a Staff Writer at WIRED, to talk with her about her experiences in journalism and what advice she can give those looking to pursue a similar career.

Cecilia previously worked as a Senior Reporter at Kotaku.

Let’s start off with the simple question, how did you get into games journalism?

I always knew I was going to be a journalist. I didn’t study journalism in college, I actually studied ancient philosophy. But I also always played games, but I didn’t think to put the two together until I started working at Kotaku. I was freelancing before Kotaku at the Nation, and a couple of other places, fact-checking to pay the bills—it’s a great way to pay the bills for aspiring journalists—I was writing from virtual worlds. I was reporting from inside Second Life and online games. I didn’t really think about that as games journalism until other people told me I was doing it.

So it was sort of an accident, but it made a lot of sense. Gaming is a life-long hobby of mine and it’s a really exciting field to be in. I’ve loved it and haven’t looked back. 

My field being esports, some of the biggest stories you broke at Kotaku were esports related— Inside The Culture Of Sexism At Riot Games and Shady Numbers and Bad Business: Inside the Esports Bubble—can you talk about how long pieces like that and one of your more recent pieces, Shady Practices, Raw Deals: Inside the Industry of Managing Video Game Stars, take to produce?

The Riot Games article I was actively reporting for about eight months. That article came out of a tip about sexism at another gaming studio and a tipster said I should maybe check out Riot Games as well. Over the greater part of a year, I was interviewing dozens of current and former Riot Games employees for that article. The editing process took a while, too, legal as well.

Shady Numbers and Bad Business, I’m not a financial reporter. I’ve never taken an economics course or read an economics book. So, my gut vibe that there was something about these greater esports initiatives that weren’t adding up financially was a gut vibe. I did a lot of research and reading and interviewing people who actually knew about economics before I even dared to put into words my assumption.

After that, I actually went to GDC and heard a very brilliant esports industry person give a talk based on the same assumption. There were several months of reporting that out, so it was a longer process because I had to build so much background in an industry. I actually think it was a great way to approach the topic from an outside perspective because I wasn’t laden with a lot of the biases that other people might have had. You just have to do the leg work.

The Shady Practices, Raw Deals article I started working on in January. WIRED is a lot slower than Kotaku; the difference between a blog and a legacy magazine. It’s a luxury to be able to dedicate large periods of time to reporting on investigative articles. It’s a luxury that not a lot of people have.

At Kotaku, that meant working a lot of nights after I got home from work. I’m really grateful that I’m in a position where I can better integrate that with my duties.

You covered a few things there, like getting cleared with legal, what are some of the other important things to remember when doing such extensive and sensitive pieces?

I think the most important thing to remember when reporting articles on sensitive topics, it’s not about you. It’s not about a story that you want to tell. It’s not about having an idea and seeing if other peoples’ lived experiences fit into that idea.

Sources for these stories go out on a limb to tell you about some of the worst experiences of their entire lives. You’re doing them a great disservice by not actually listening to them and where they’re coming from.

Life is messy, which means some articles have messy takeaways. But I feel that readers are interested in those messy takeaways more than we give them credit for.

I think that’s a really important thing to remember, but at the same time, our job is to bring together and analyze several discrete experiences and pieces of information into one human message.

Illustration by Chelsea Beck for Kotaku

Illustration by Chelsea Beck for Kotaku

With the Riot Games reporting, for example, interviewing dozens of current and former employees, I heard a lot of the same stories about their experiences, but a lot of them thought it only happened to them or it was a personal issue. It was the definition of endemic in endemic sexism. I was really grateful to have been given the opportunity to take the zoomed-out approach to what so many people were saying and present to them the reality that this was a widespread experience of sexism.

How do you deal with the backlash that comes after big pieces like that; from both the company you’re reporting on and the communities?

Backlash mostly comes from the company. Backlash actually starts before the article is written, a lot of the time. Backlash can be a lot of things. You can send a request for comment to a company and the company is like, “Oh, hey, can jump on an on-the-background phone call so you can tell me all about this article?” or “I’m going to do an interview with you on background.”

A lot of the time that is the backlash because they are trying to insert their message into your article without any sort of accountability. If it’s not on the record, they could be telling you these things that are really slanted versions of the truth.

After an article comes out, companies will sometimes, in lieu of issuing a correction, they’ll be like, “You didn’t include this perspective that we feel would really represent our truth better.”

Photo by Blizzard Entertainment

Photo by Blizzard Entertainment

For my recent article, Esports Pros Have ‘Dream’ Jobs—but Game Publishers Have All the Power, it makes sense that Activision-Blizzard would say that, “You report that most teams in the Overwatch League don’t make money off of it or break even or lose money, but some teams do make money and you didn’t represent that in the article.” But, like, the way I deal with that is I ask them if they can show me that. There isn’t a lot of accountability for these companies.

I feel like you have to be pushing back on that sort of thing all the time. You have to be pushing back and fact-checking. You also have to be recognizing your biases because sometimes people you don’t think are right, are right.

In terms of backlash from communities, it’s similar. I think it’s good to receive criticism. I aspire to write for a large audience that includes people who aren’t likely to agree with me. That’s just my personal view, but I take feedback from people who don’t agree with me as data and I try to understand where they’re coming from. If it’s in good faith, that’s something I’ll factor into future reporting. If it’s not in good faith, I think it’s important to recognize that it’s uncomfortable for people to see their biases challenged.

In a previous interview I did, I talked about esports reporters not really doing “hit pieces” or pieces critical of esports orgs/companies because of the incredible ease of being blacklisted. How do you deal with this because I know some journalists have been taken off of mailing lists because of some of the pieces they’ve published?

So “hit piece” is never an accurate description for an article. “Hit piece” is a phrase that should be removed from all of our vocabularies because “hit piece” implies there is the intention from a journalist’s perspective to just destroy someone, to take out “a hit” on someone. I just don’t think that is an accurate reflection of the mindset of these journalists. 

If someone described my Riot Games reporting as a “hit piece” it would just be highly inaccurate and a really disgusting way to view accountability reporting. “Hit piece” is just one of the many terms people, especially in the esports community will use, if you say something critical of their fandom.

There is a fear of people getting blacklisted. I think there are concerns about access… and publications that attempt to go against that might receive backlash from both fans and publishers, which might undermine the business model. I think that’s a real bummer because a lot of the time the people who are waging those criticisms are people who really care and really, really love the esport(s) and they’re seen like they don’t.

Personally, I think we have very few, if any, journalists in the esports world: What needs to happen for the scene to really evolve in your opinion to the point where we have people like you and Jason Schreier more exclusively in esports?

I don’t know if that’s a viable reality. There’s not a lot of money in esports reporting, and as I sort of suggested with how much time it took with prior investigative articles to come out, it’s just not viable considering the business models of a lot of esports journalism sites. Some of the smartest people I’ve met are esports journalists, but esports journalism has a major issue with traffic, at least from a written perspective.

Photo by David Zhou and Polygon

Photo by David Zhou and Polygon

People who care about Overwatch League and Smash Bros. may not care about DOTA 2 and League of Legends. Your audience is inherently fragmented and that means, if you’re really lucky, you may get one to three to ten thousand views on an article. Video reporting seems to do a little bit better, but there aren’t traditionally the same journalistic norms applied to a lot of the reporting you might see on YouTube. That’s not a blanket case, there are lots of people trained as journalists doing videos on YouTube.

I would love to see more investigative reporting in esports and I wish there were more resources to go around.

For high school students looking to get into journalism, what would you suggest they do? Should they get a degree in journalism or just get straight into it?

That’s a really good question. I think it’s great to have research skills outside journalism before you get into journalism and to have passions outside of journalism before you get into it. It means you can draw on a diversity of approaches when you’re tackling an article. It also means you have a great way to escape when your job gets really stressful.

I think people wanting to get into journalism now, it’s great to take fact-checking jobs and research jobs for professors and just read a lot of journalism. Think about what you like and what you don’t like and what you want to see out there that you think a lot of people would be interested in.

The other thing I would suggest, I think it’s good to get into journalism, not because you think you’re the smartest person in the world (laughs), but because there are perspectives that you are excited to share and you think would be productive for people to read.

What other skills should they hone?

Like I said, fact-checking is a really great skill to hone. It also helps connect you to other professionals in the industry. I think talking on the phone, just being a good conversationalist is a good skill to hone; talking to strangers outside of bars or people at a party translates pretty well.

So this is kind of a horrible question to ask, but we see a lot of journalism getting vilified, media getting vilified, publications getting shut down, and pay getting cut, so what do you say to students who see that reality we are living in right now?

I hate to say things like, “Only do this if it’s your calling,” because it’s so exclusionary. Especially because it takes so many resources to get into this field to begin with, which is what has traditionally pushed out many of the most important voices.

It’s very sad. I don’t know what else to say. A private equity firm can take a company that you love working at and make it really different and you have no control over that. It breaks your heart. Being in journalism is heartbreaking, but it’s also… it makes you feel extremely fulfilled and satisfied.

It’s a hard question to answer.

The last thing I want to say, in terms of media being vilified, though, I think that there’s a lot of appreciation for journalism today and I don’t think the majority of people are vilifying journalists, and maybe there are some stats that will prove me wrong, but I think there’s a lot of gratitude. 

I know we’ve hit on a lot of heavy subjects here, so I want to lighten it up a bit in the end here. What’s are some of the favorite pieces you’ve worked on as a journalist?

I love working on articles that tackle issues impacting a lot of people, but from an angle that’s surprising. A while ago, a bunch of people were getting their Fortnite accounts hacked into and I went and found the hackers and interviewed them. They were really excited to tell me how they did it (laughs)!

A couple of years ago, Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari, was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Game Developers Conference (GDC), but there was a lot of backlash because he had made some remarks in the past that a lot of people read as sexist. A lot of people were saying that Atari actually had a pretty misogynistic vibe. So I went and interviewed a lot of people, women specifically, who worked at Atari around that time and wrote an article about the ways in which it was, there were sexist undertones to a couple of things, but it actually empowered a lot of women to work in the games industry and make a lot of money doing it.

I really like doing articles like that. I thought this coming into it and left it thinking something totally different.

Is there anything else you wanted to add to this conversation?

I get asked to talk to esports journalism college classes by professors sometimes and I just cannot emphasize enough that it’s good to have a fallback plan. Some of the smartest people I have ever met are in the esports industry. People that could do anything and chose esports because they’re so passionate about it and there’s so much promise in the field.

I think that’s really beautiful and that the promise really does exists, but from a journalism perspective, it’s just very difficult to make a living. Have a fallback.

Finally, what do you love most about being a journalist in the scene?

Games journalism was very commodities focused for a really long time. Here’s our review of Super Mario Sunshine and here’s what we think of the next console generation and which one we’re going to buy. I think that’s great, and I love service coverage and game reviews.

From a reporting perspective, I think we’re in a really exciting time where people are dedicating more reporting resources to the games industry. As somebody who is a big reporting nerd, I look at it as this verdant garden of possibilities. There’s just so much to pursue and look into, both from an accountability perspective and people doing really beautiful things through games.

It feels really exciting every single day.