In 2021, gaming and esports firm Fanatic Gaming acquired the dormant esports media model Upcomer, with plans to show it into a number one esports information publication. However in March 2022, as Upcomer’s readership continued to develop simply over a yr after its official relaunch beneath Fanatic possession, the corporate laid off the majority of its editorial employees, leaving many observers in esports media questioning what had occurred to the starry-eyed imaginative and prescient.
Although editor-in-chief Sean Morrison had assembled an all-star group of endemic expertise, Fanatic executives repeatedly moved the goalposts to measure their success, requiring Upcomer employees to hit metrics that they felt have been almost unattainable, in line with half a dozen present and former staffers Digiday spoke to for this text.
“Fanatic Gaming at all times seeks to make sure that it’s working the enterprise as effectively and successfully as attainable and that it’s positioned strongly to execute on its progress technique. Sadly, this generally contains making troublesome choices about staffing ranges. Every time they happen, these choices will not be taken calmly and we at all times work to make sure our workers are handled with respect,” stated Fanatic Chief Company Officer Eric Bernofsky in an emailed assertion, offered in a direct electronic mail response after Digiday reached out to Fanatic’s press contact.
Fanatic Gaming didn’t reply to a number of questions for this story or supply anybody to speak to over the telephone. Bernofsky stated in his ready assertion that “privateness and confidentiality causes” saved the corporate from answering questions on particular workers.
All of it got here to a head in March 2022, when it got here time to stability the books of the publicly-traded firm. As an alternative of constructing on the groundwork laid by Morrison and his employees, Enthusiastic executives seemingly determined to intestine the corporate, pivoting to a deal with video content material. The choice made some esports media employees speculate about whether or not a pathway to profitability nonetheless exists for targeted, endemic esports journalism. “Making an attempt to swallow years of losses to construct up a model is nice, in idea, however very not often do boards and executives have the abdomen for it in relation to apply,” stated Jason Chung, an assistant professor of sport administration and govt director of esports on the College of New Haven.
Of Upcomer’s 26 full-time employees, 11 have been laid off on March 10, together with editors, writers, social media managers, podcast employees and Yanier “Niero” Gonzalez, the founding father of Fanatic-owned web site Destructoid, who labored on the firm since June 2017. (Editor’s be aware: Previous to becoming a member of Digiday, the writer of this story wrote freelance articles for each the earlier and present iterations of Upcomer.)
A handful of workers now populate Upcomer, together with a skeleton crew of writers and editors. The majority of Upcomer’s editorial content material is now written by freelancers, and a number of the retained writing employees quietly left the corporate over the previous month. The web site’s video division was largely unscathed by the layoffs, although a few of Upcomer’s video creators now work throughout a number of Fanatic Gaming properties, per a former staffer.
And whereas Upcomer’s video content material had been doing properly on platforms resembling Snapchat, its viewership has suffered within the wake of the layoffs. YouTube viewership of Upcomer’s video content material peaked at about 964,000 in December 2021 however subsided to 255,000 by the top of March 2022, in line with knowledge pulled from video analytics agency Tubular Labs.
Most of the former or present Upcomer staffers Digiday spoke to requested anonymity, both as a result of they have been present staffers and feared reprisals by their employer or had already been laid off and signed a non-disclosure settlement to obtain severance pay.
Some former staffers stated they felt pressured to signal the NDAs shortly, with out consulting a lawyer or advisor. The method was difficult, they stated, as soon as they have been laid off and their entry to their Upcomer electronic mail addresses and Slack accounts have been lower off. These NDAs have been a part of a string of merciless actions Fanatic Gaming took amid the model’s reimagining, these workers stated.
A promising trajectory
On the floor, earlier than the layoffs, the model was doing properly: the publication steadily constructed readership since its launch in March 2021, rounding out its employees with hires resembling European League of Legends insider Brieuc “LEC Wooloo” Seeger. (Seeger remains to be employed with the corporate.) Between March 2021 and March 2022, Upcomer’s readership elevated by 509 p.c, in line with site visitors knowledge offered by media measurement agency Comscore, with a lot of that progress coming within the early months of 2022.
The web site coated esports from a agency journalistic perspective, very like ESPN Esports — which had employed Upcomer’s two high editors — however boasted its justifiable share of irreverent thinkpieces and normal gaming protection.
Publicly, Fanatic appeared to have an urge for food for investing within the model even a day earlier than the layoffs, when the official firm Twitter account retweeted editor-at-large Tyler Erzberger’s put up claiming the location had simply smashed a viewership file by reaching greater than 1.1 million web page views over the span of eight days.
However there have been cracks even within the early days of the relaunched web site in mid-2021, suggesting the model didn’t have the wholehearted help of Fanatic Gaming’s higher administration.
In June 2021, executives laid off a range and inclusion guide that that they had employed solely 4 months prior. The guide’s introductory memo for Upcomer, which trumpeted a heat message of inclusivity, was quietly faraway from the location, solely to be reinstated after employees members protested. There have been no efforts to switch her function, with higher-ups claiming that her duties could be taken over by a brand new govt rent. The function shouldn’t be presently occupied, neither is there a public job posting out there for the place.
There have been different early warning indicators within the relationship between Fanatic Gaming and Upcomer. The 2 firms started as separate entities; the unique Upcomer esports app launched in Los Angeles in 2018, whereas Fanatic has been based mostly in Toronto since its founding in 2014. Though Fanatic acquired the Upcomer model in 2020, former staffers stated it was by no means solely clear how the web site would align with the remainder of Fanatic’s media properties.
What did turn out to be clear was that Upcomer was a pet venture of Fanatic Gaming founder Menashe Kestenbaum, who was serving as the corporate’s president when it acquired and relaunched the model. So in early 2022, when Upcomer employees realized that Kestenbaum could be “stepping down” right into a consultative function on the corporate’s board, they nervous that the information would result in a deprioritization of Upcomer. “Upcomer was his child; we have been beneath his umbrella,” stated one employees member. “As quickly as he was pressured out, that was after they began transferring the goalposts about what number of views we needed to hit.”
On March 31, Kestenbaum publicly acknowledged that he was now not with the corporate, announcing that he was leaving the corporate to start out his personal enterprise capital agency, although he stays a serious shareholder of Fanatic. Based on Kestenbaum’s tweeted announcement video, he realized he was extra comfy creating new companies than serving to bigger firms scale up. He didn’t instantly reply to Digiday’s particular queries for this text.
Within the video, Kestenbaum seemed to be considerably taken off-guard by the necessity to announce his profession shift: “I used to be going to time this up, as properly, with having the announcement for my enterprise capital fund in gaming and tech, which isn’t prepared, sadly,” he stated. “So I’m going to should form of do a mini-reveal, form of damage the shock a bit.”