The Escapist’s implosion shows that creators have the power

Calandra and his colleagues have rightly recognised that it’s the voice that matters

When I’m not immersed in podcasts, I like to spend much of my downtime with videogames, and I try and keep tabs on what’s happening within the gaming industry - both in terms of the products coming out of it and the internal workings of the industry

One of the sites I’ve followed over the years is The Escapist. Like most sites within the games media space, it’s been through some turbulent times over the years, including multiple buyouts, controversies and layoffs - and last week saw a fresh round of turmoil, as the site’s entire video staff unexpectedly departed the company. 

At time of writing, details on the behind-the-scenes events are a little thin on the ground, but it seems that editor-in-chief Nick Calandra was suddenly fired by the Escapist’s parent company Gamurs over disagreements around performance, at which point the rest of the video team - including freelancers and contributors - voluntarily handed in their resignations in support of Calandra. 

Calandra and the departing employees have since formed a new brand, dubbed Second Wind, which will create videos and podcasts, as well as running regular livestreams. The output of the new brand will be based heavily on the regular series that the team was working on under the Escapist.

While Calandra and his colleagues have stated that the remaining writers working on The Escapist are still doing good work, the story has captured attention beyond the gaming world, earning coverage on Forbes and the BBC. Less than a week after the initial announcement, the former staffers’ new venture has almost 160,000 subscribers on YouTube, and over 3,000 subscribers on Patreon generating a monthly income of just over £3,650. While that’s not exactly enough to retire on, it’s an impressive indicator that the audience Calandra and his team have built are willing to show up and support them. 

It also serendipitously coincides with the launch of Aftermath - another gaming news venture set up by a different set of unceremoniously terminated staffers, this time from Kotaku. Both sites are worker-owned and independently funded, aiming to use direct reader subscriptions to circumvent the need for ad revenue and the SEO-chasing, pageview-obsessed mentality which seems to characterise much of games media publishers’ strategies. 

Any new business venture is a gamble - and media businesses doubly so - but if there’s one thing we all should have learned from the creator economy by now, it’s that audiences are not shy about financially supporting the voices that they feel are meeting their needs. This trend has also underlined that in most cases, it’s individual personalities that audiences now feel connections to, rather than the mastheads they work under. 

In games media, the tradition has generally been that when budgets get tight, the highest-paid senior editorial employees get let go, with (significantly cheaper) junior employees promoted upwards to assume their responsibilities. I can’t speculate on Gamurs’ motives in dismissing its top editorial leads, but I’d confidently gamble that the company wasn’t expecting to have a mass exodus on its hands as a result.

Instead, The Escapist’s owners learnt the hard way that especially in an age where social media and cross-channel audiences are the key to sustained success, brands need creators far more than the other way around. After Calandra’s departure, the site’s remaining video creators looked at their options and decided they were better off going it alone - and considering games media’s habit of periodically making redundancies with little warning, it’s hard to blame them.

Calandra’s strategic focus over the last several years has been on building a range of strong voices within the brand through opinion pieces, podcasts and livestreams. This has created a devoted audience, but it’s loyal to the creators themselves, not the wider brand. 

I’ve seen this in a number of other areas, too; the exodus of senior editors from a few years ago resulted in the launch of a number of successful new media channels, including podcasts like Behind The Bastards, multimedia properties like Some More News, and websites like 1900HOTDOG. Rather than getting jobs with a different publication, they chose to strike out on their own, and are better for it.

A huge part of the reason for this trend is that the ability to build and monetise a platform of fans has been unlocked by the ecosystem of tools that have been built to support the creator economy, including podcast platforms, YouTube, Patreon and more. Creatives no longer need the support of an organisation with separate advertising sales, marketing and distribution support teams; instead, they can either perform these roles themselves or sidestep them entirely with the help of alternative strategies

The games media landscape has long been one of the least stable sectors of media, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that this trend has taken root here first - but with editorial brands across the board becoming increasingly squeezed, and layoffs becoming more a fact of life, I would be surprised if more editorial teams didn’t start to follow Second Wind’s example. 

Rather than simply accept the loss of multiple colleagues in one fell swoop, more creative teams will likely choose to use platforms like podcasting to leverage the audiences they’ve already built, and grow their own employee-owned media operations. After all, they’re the ones with the voice - and media owners should remember to listen to it.