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How GAMURS shows the esports journalism industry’s struggle to overcome low freelance rates

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How GAMURS shows the esports journalism industry’s struggle to overcome low freelance rates

In the latest round of consolidation to hit esports media, GAMURS Group purchased Upcomer and other Enthusiast Gaming editorial properties last week — then announced a $12 million Series A funding round earlier today.

But the acquisition leaves many wondering how the fine print of those acquisitions and influx in funding will shake out for those new GAMURS employees — namely what that means for their compensation. Upcomer has already cut two full-time staff members in the transition, though GAMURS CEO Riad Chikhani told Digiday that he doesn’t anticipate any further layoffs at any of the acquired properties.

In theory, the profitable Australia-based media network should be a safe haven for an embattled editorial operation such as Upcomer, and the acquisition has brought a feeling of stability for Upcomer’s remaining staff members. But GAMURS has also developed a reputation for subpar pay and reliance on freelance workers — a trend that undergirds the entire esports journalism industry.

To learn more about GAMURS’ pay practices, Digiday spoke to eight current or former full-time or freelance employees of the company, many of whom requested anonymity due to fears of jeopardizing future employment opportunities in the space.

The bigger picture

GAMURS Group was founded by CEO Chikhani in 2014. The crown jewel of its portfolio is Dot Esports, a prominent source of endemic esports news, which GAMURS acquired from the Daily Dot in October 2016; other GAMURS properties include websites such as Pro Game Guides and The Mary Sue.

GAMURS’ low rates have long been a topic of discussion in the whisper network that powers the esports journalism industry, which is no stranger to broader mistreatment of contract workers.

The company usually pays freelance writers $15 for 300-word news posts and up to a non-negotiable $35 for reported features, according to both former staffers and GAMURS’ public job listings, though those rates vary from site to site. Under Enthusiast Gaming ownership, Upcomer freelancers received a base pay rate of $25 per news story, and up to $300 for a reported feature; under GAMURS, they have already received new contracts featuring a tiered pay scale that begins at $10 for “tier one” and goes up to $50 for a “tier five” article.

These rates are in line with the low freelancer payouts elsewhere in the industry. Earlier this year, for example, IGN came under fire for advertising base rates of $20 per article; base rates for news stories at outlets such as GameSpot currently sit at $30, but the website spent many years paying freelancers $15 to aggregate news.

“It’s an unworkable rate; likely no person working at that rate could have made a living from that and paid their rent and [for] food every day,” said Rod Breslau, a longtime esports journalist who was part of the founding teams at ESPN Esports and theScore Esports. “… this is how the bigger industry is — everything’s all fucked up.”

Part of this is economics: the audience for written editorial esports content is not yet large enough to support businesses that pay their staff fairly, which makes achieving scale — and numbers that would win over advertisers — that much more difficult.

Although Dot Esports, for example, boasts an average of at least 15 million visits per month, those numbers are dwarfed by the 100-plus million visits enjoyed by mainstream gaming news sites such as IGN, according to SimilarWeb, a company that analyzes and compares websites’ traffic.

“It is actually kind of hard to run a profitable media business if you pay people ethically,” said John Warren, Fanbyte’s former head of media, when reached for comment prior to the outlet’s recent wave of layoffs. “Google advertising is a wasteland; it controls so much of our fate. We’ve started to see newsrooms closed down that do pay decent rates, and most of that has to do with executive-level mismanagement.”

Last year, Google brought in $218 billion of global ad spend, with a significant chunk going toward YouTube ads. Combined, the “big three” ad platforms — Google, Meta and Apple — accounted for 74% of global digital ad spending in 2021.

Esports journalism, like the broader media industry, has all too often been built around young writers, who aren’t in a position to negotiate higher rates and who have been hired on a contract basis, which allows companies to circumvent offering them health insurance.

This has been the case at Dot Esports, which employs a total of roughly 500 staff across the globe, 70% of whom are contract or freelance, according to Chikhani, though he denied that his company relies on younger or early-career writers.

“The problem with esports is it’s set up to be exploitative of kids. The only people who can afford to work on early esports salaries, like the ones that Dot offers, are kids who are either living at home or have a student loan,” one former staffer said. “Esports thrives on that.”

The low wages have driven some GAMURS writers to find other jobs. Those who remain often have sources of financial support beyond their GAMURS pay, such as disability payments or more gainfully-employed spouses. “If I did not have this secondary income stream,” a former GAMURS staffer said, “I guarantee you I would have to go find something else to do.”

Requests to raise freelance rates at GAMURS titles seemingly fell on deaf ears, according to two editors Digiday spoke to. “The excuses that we’ve gotten from people when I brought this up are basically like, ‘the capital to acquire a website is a different revenue stream,’” said Grace Benfell, a former features editor at the GAMURS publication Gamepur. “And I think that’s bullshit.” 

When reached for comment about the issue, Chikhani told Digiday that GAMURS adjusts its freelance rates on a website-by-website basis, with some higher-performing websites receiving a boost to their rates earlier this year.

“That’s all tied to performance, profitability, growth of the website’s audience and things like that,” Chikhani said. “So we do our best to ensure that the website remains sustainable, in order for us to continue offering the staff the ability to keep writing at scale. One thing that differentiates us from a lot of other publications is the ability for freelancers to actually take on as much work as they would like, in order to control how much they’re able to earn.”

Changes to the face of the industry

Following GAMURS’ acquisition of Upcomer, the website’s current roster of freelance writers was sent a new contract, with a tiered pay scale that begins at $10 for “tier one” and goes up to $50 for a “tier five” article. Beyond that baseline, they’re not clear on the details.

“There’s no explanation of what any of the tiers mean, so that’s our main question right now,” said one Upcomer writer who spoke to Digiday on condition of anonymity. “Depending on how that plays out, I may be looking for another website to freelance for.” 

When asked for more information regarding the tiered payment process, Chikhani said that specific numbers vary from GAMURS website to GAMURS website. “Generally, tiers work quite simply,” he said. “Depending on the type of article that you’re writing, you’ll receive a different sort of rate. If you’re writing a quick-hit news report that might take 10 minutes, you’ll earn X dollars; if you’re writing a longform guide or an evergreen feature article, you’ll get paid a higher amount.”

As the end of the year draws to a close and a potential recession looms, many media outlets, ranging from those in gaming, like Fanbyte, to other niche brands, such as Food52, have shed employees. Even before its acquisition by GAMURS, Upcomer had laid off 11 employees in March, with more leaving the publication over the ensuing months. Ultimately, only one full-time editorial staff member, staff writer Warren Younger, survived the transition to GAMURS, with editor-in-chief Sean Morrison and League of Legends reporter Brieuc “LEC_Wooloo” Seeger announcing their exits shortly after the acquisition.

“I feel like I have an opportunity to grow, whereas with Enthusiast Gaming, it was kind of like, ‘yeah, I’m being paid this money, but how long is it going to last?” Younger said. “I could wake up tomorrow and realize that the company decided to just gut Upcomer completely — but I don’t feel that way with GAMURS.”

The rampant industry layoffs in gaming and esports media have steered prominent esports journalists toward independent journalism or video content platforms, including the very websites that undercut their former employers’ abilities to monetize web traffic.

Among them are well-known esports journalists such as Jacob Wolf and Richard Lewis, who have increasingly turned to YouTube to host podcasts and video interviews. Newer operations such as Full Squad Gaming are built on influencer-style streams and videos from the ground up.

“If you really want to make money as a freelancer, those options have proven to be the best,” Breslau said. “And if you want to do it by just making money off of different publications, it’s really hard.”

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