The veteran esports journalist turned TV desk commentator talks 'Street Fighter' and the state of esports journalism
The veteran esports journalist turned TV desk commentator talks 'Street Fighter' and the state of esports journalism
When Turner's ELeague announced earlier this year that longtime Counter-Strike personality Richard Lewis would be hosting a Street Fighter invitational, many in the fighting games community reacted with skepticism. Street Fighter, and fighting games as a whole, have always had a tense relationship with esports, preferring unpretentious, informal tournaments to the spectacle and excess of esports like Counter-Strike and League of Legends. Bringing in a leading figure from one of esports' largest, flashiest scenes to host a Street Fighter tournament initially seemed misguided at best and downright opportunistic at worst.
But by the time that Victor "Punk" Woodley won the ELeague Street Fighter V invitational and took home $150,000 – the second largest prize in Street Fighter history – the critics had largely been silenced. ELeague managed to pull off the balancing act of being faithful to Street Fighter's grassroots origins, while also creating a handsome television broadcast. Earlier this week, Richard and I talked over the phone about ELeague's (and his) first foray into fighting games, as well as his changing relationship to esports journalism, the field in which he first made his name.
ELeague continues tonight at 10 P.M. EST on TBS with Clash for Cash: The Rematch, a $250,000 showmatch between Astralis and Virtus Pro, two of the world's best Counter-Strike teams.
Richard – first off, congratulations on the successful debut season at Street Fighter ELeague. How different is the vibe of hosting Street Fighter compared to Counter-Strike?
We didn't really know what to expect because we knew that the Street Fighter community and all the talent involved were wary of the word "esports." They felt that there was a potential for a big company to come in, broadcast the game it wants, and use the talent it wants. When they saw my name on there, it was "Oh, they're using a host no one knows! Where's Mike Ross?"
So it was a bit... not hostile, but there was a certain wariness from some sections of the fighting game community. That's why we knew it was important to get it right and to get it authentic. We went out and we scouted talent, and we went through loads of their work to decide. In the end, we probably picked the right guys for the job, and it became clear early on that we struck gold. We had players who came in and really relished the environment we have at ELeague, where there are hotels, shuttles, and meals, but also lots of media work and other high-profile stuff.
I've worked with many who are considered top-tier talent across all of esports, and these guys rank right up there with them. And if you look at a fighting game tournament, you might not necessarily expect that. Usually, it's people in warehouses and hotels and it's just guys sitting in chairs, with no stage or anything like that. But the talent killed it – they were so far ahead of where we thought they would be in terms of being on television.
So to tie that all together and answer your question: I guess it was more loose, and it was more fun because we knew that the Street Fighter community doesn't take itself too seriously. They didn't want to be "esports," whereas with Counter-Strike, we actually do want that – we want to be taken seriously, we want to be treated like a real sport. It was nice to have a bit of a laugh and to do celebrity tournaments, and things like Tasty Steve riding on Shaq's shoulders.
How do you think the reaction of the fighting game community has been? Have you found them to be really receptive to this kind of more polished production?
Everybody immediately loved it. They saw how good it looked. They saw that we were giving the right sort of air time to the talent, and we were letting people shine. I think the celebrity tournament as well showed that we were super serious about putting Street Fighter in the spotlight. We treat Street Fighter with all the same sort of reverence and respect as we did our regular Counter-Strike season.
There was a few things in the beginning they didn't like, though. They thought, for example, the show wasn't flowing as quickly as they were used to. So we made some changes to the show rundown. The people also wanted some changes to the format, so we listened to that. And we tried the find that compromise of what's authentic to the fighting game community with what works on television.
You're never going to be anyone's perfect ideal; there were always going to be things that we had to adjust for television. But, overall, everyone was happy. When we ended the season, the whole crowd – all longstanding fighting games fans from Atlanta – were chanting "Season 2! Season 2! Season 2!"
In regards to scouting talent, what are some of the things you guys were looking for when building the field of competitors?
From the competing perspective, I know one thing that sort of did maybe make the community a little bit worried was that we invited some people that, I guess, they felt they didn't deserve to be there. And it was interesting because there wasn't really a criteria to what the community deemed to be an inappropriate choice.
Some people didn't think Ricky Ortiz should be there. I thought, "That's ridiculous!" She's been an iconic figure in fighting games for as long as I've followed them. She might not be in great form right now, and her character might not be particularly well placed within Street Fighter V, but that's someone who has to be there. Same for Alex Valle – how do you not invite Mr. Street Fighter to something so prestigious and important to the history of the game? People were saying Snake Eyez shouldn't be there, but I think his recent form has shown that he's better than people thought he was.
Because it was the first time we were putting Street Fighter on TV, we wanted to tell the history of the game. We wanted to tell interesting stories. And that meant that we had to invite some people who were a little bit older and perhaps didn't really seem like they had a chance of winning the tournament. But we've got to tell that story. If you care about Street Fighter, you need to know who somebody like Alex Valle is. And if he's not there next season, then at least we told his story. We did a feature on him so that the rich history of the game doesn't get lost.
We didn't want to just go out and invite whoever. If you had a power ranking of the 16 best players, we wouldn't have have just invited them because that doesn't tell the full story of the game. You'd overlook a lot of great television as a result. But it's a serious challenge to find the balance between that and making sure we have the best players at the tournament. Otherwise, it's meaningless. It's spectacle. We had to have the best players in the world there. But we also had to have a group of players with interesting stories. And I think we struck that balance well. By the end of the season, the complaints died off. By the time we got to the end, people weren't complaining anymore.
Do you think that's people in the fighting game community merely warming up to ELeague, or is that indicative of a larger shift in attitude and expectations in that community?
I don't want to speak too much for that community because they'll happily point out that I'm not one of them. And that's a valid comment. But I do follow everything. I go on social media. I pay attention to feedback – perhaps not to emails – but definitely Twitter. For the most part, everyone has said the same thing. I think that they thought it was going to be a painful transition. They thought we'd over-polish it. They thought that fighting games would lose their authenticity, and that they'd lose their edginess and rawness they're known for.
By the end, I think they saw that our intentions were pure. We've shown that "esports" doesn't have to be a dirty word, that Street Fighter and any fighting game can realistically slot into "esports." I think most people certainly would welcome us back.
So when you started hosting this, how familiar were you with Street Fighter?
Very familiar with the sort of older versions. Street Fighter is an iconic game, and I consider myself a gamer first and foremost. (Though, I'll be honest: when I was younger my fighting gaming choice was Mortal Kombat.) But as new esports scenes developed, realistically, I couldn't pay attention to the fighting game community. I paid attention to StarCraft, Counter-Strike, and Call of Duty, and all the other titles I've worked on through the years.
So, for ELeague, I did a crash course, learning about the players and their history. There are probably a few slips in pronunciation on the broadcast, but that could happen to anyone. But I looked at the history – which was hard, by the way. There's no website to go to if you want to learn the history of the fighting game community; there's a history that just isn't recorded anywhere. And so you've got to find someone who was there to tell you about it.
So, my talent on the desk would say, "Ok, here's what you need to know: this thing happened, these two had this rivalry, they played this match." They'd give me tidbits of information, and then tell me to go watch the game online.
My key to approaching a desk is that if you don't know something, don't pretend you know. You're sitting next to two or three experts – what's the point in having them there if you're not going to ask a question? And the audience, they're probably laypeople like me, so there's no harm in asking. It's proof that the host doesn't always have to be someone who knows absolutely everything.
How do you balance the work you're doing now with ELeague with your work as a journalist? Certainly, you come into some privileged information in what you do now. How do you see yourself weighing your obligations to report against what is your main gig?
I think the key thing is what I'm privy to as a result of working with ELeague. It's not even about balancing two roles, but about being professional. I want to be in the room when we have important conversations at ELeague. I want to drive those conversations in a way that I think betters the company and betters esports as an industry. And I can't be in the room if everyone thinks I'm going to go out and write some sort of incredible scoop. Though it's not as if there are any particular dark, smoky rooms where we're having scary meetings or anything. The reality is that a lot of it's mundane.
For example, I might be talking to our commissioner, who could say, "Oh, we just had the team sheet come back for Team X. They're swapping these two players." It isn't right for me to go out on social media and say, “Oh, look, they swapped these two players around!” There, I think there would be a legitimate grievance from a team in that case. They could say a Turner employee can’t keep their mouth shut; it’s not very professional. That’s why I’ve moved away from reporting roster swaps.
That being said, there are some areas where I think Turner is actually grateful that I've got my finger on the pulse. I told them about some of the stuff that was going on with gambling sites, skin sites, and we were very clear about who we wanted to pay attention to in that regard, because there's a huge ethical concern.
The journalism that I do now is consumer-based. It's about people getting scammed or, sometimes, new people coming into the space. Recently, I did a good story about the Overwatch League – maybe Blizzard wasn't too happy about it – but it said what was a fairly open secret among journalists, that there were some heavy hitters coming into the space. I didn't get that as a result of my work with Turner – I had a large group of people talking about it, sources I trust, and I thought that information was in the public interest.
Generally, the focus of my work now is stopping people who are doing dishonest and illegal things, taking advantage of young people who want to believe in things that are maybe too good to be true. I think that work is vitally important. That's why Turner has never raised any objections to it – it serves the greater good within the industry, which Turner now considers itself a part of. So, there were maybe a few concerns at the start, but I think it's been an area we can negotiate. It's all about good faith, common sense, and, as I said, continuing to serve the public in my role as a journalist.
I'm never going to reveal any trade secrets from Turner because they employ me, they put food on the table. But by the same token, if I see a huge, overwhelming amount of evidence that there is, say, a case-opening site or a skin site or a gambling site, or an organization that's scamming people out of actual money, or not paying prize money and salaries that they're contractually mandated to do – yeah, I'm probably going to go public with that information, because esports is a better place with that kind of stuff exposed. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
Right. So what percentage of your workweek is focused on journalism versus the percentage that's ELeague-focused?
The workload at ELeague is enough that there's always something to do. But they don't want to overwork me because the broadcast has to come first, and you've got to have that energy when you come in on Friday. It can be long days, especially when you're doing the Counter-Strike season.
I've always been kind of involved in questions that guide the league. We've got people who know the space and want to make those decisions. They don't have to involve me, but they generally do because of my expertise and breadth and depth of information that I have about esports as a whole.
ELeague is what puts the food on the table. That's the day job, effectively. That's why I don't do as much journalism as I used to. I try to keep the YouTube channel, podcast, and column ticking, and, by the time I do those, there really isn't a lot of time leftover to do hardcore reporting. It sort of bleeds into the weekend or into free time. It has to be an important story to really sort of get me to surrender that.
Is there's something to be said for this hybrid position where, say, you have this full-time position at something like ELeague and also use that as a platform for journalistic work? Is that a viable model for people who want to be in this industry, or is it really just something that you're uniquely positioned to do?
If I was to say there was a model to it – a method to the madness – I'd be lying. When I took the job, I told myself that it was the end of my journalism. There weren't going to be any more serious, hard-hitting pieces. It was going to be a weekly column on the website, maybe an odd video on YouTube to express my opinions and make myself accessible to my fan base.
But that was then. The idea of breaking a story like the PhantomL0rd story or any of the other stories that I've broken since I've been working in ELeague – I didn't think I would be doing that. And that's what's been amazing about Turner, and great for me career-wise. It's sort of that validation. There are a lot of people in the space because I spent so many years telling the secrets and doing that kind of reporting that I have done. And there's a lot of people out there would love to see me fail. They would love to be able to come out and say, "Oh, Richard. He's unemployable," and all of this nonsense. And Turner has ignored that and shown it to be untrue because of the caliber of work we're putting out. I want Turner to be the last job I ever have. And I want to be here, I want to be a lifer at this company.
I care deeply about the overall good of the industry, and I consider myself an authentic esports guy. It matters to me. When I see people doing things that I know are harmful to the industry, I feel compelled to speak out. When you've done like 12 years of this, I've earned the right to call those people out. And it should be people like me to call those people out.
So, with the PhantomL0rd story, and a couple of other reports, I thought, "Actually, this can work." Turner was always very appreciative of the work itself. They were like, "This is good. This is keeping the space sort of free from elements we don't want to be associated with as a company." It also keeps me as a credible voice in the space rather than just "friday nights ELeague" guy, which benefits Turner and they understand that.
It's not really a model I'd recommend for anyone actually. It's not particularly well thought out, it's just that I simply feel compelled to do the journalism. I can't get it out of my system. I thought I could, I said I was walking away from it, but I just can't. There's just too much going on in the industry.
Last question – it's a simple one. We've had Counter-Strike, Overwatch, Street Fighter, all this in ELeague. If you were also in charge of the program decisions, what would you have next – any game you want, past or present.
It's interesting. I'm glad that we recently announced Injustice, and I'm hopefully going to be involved in that. It's this wonderful convergence of comic books and fighting games. I think in terms of an overall broadcast, MOBA games have been very difficult to put out there and that's something we can't really talk about until the distant future. But, yeah, there's lots of games that I like to watch, lots of games that I like to follow.
But it's a tough question for me because Counter-Strike was my first esports love, and that's where we started. So I'm spoiled in that sense. Counter-Strike's just been such a big part of my life, and I'm still amazed to this day that we took that game and we put it on television completely unaltered. That hadn't been done before. When the Championship Gaming Series came around in the mid 2000s, they changed the rules, they changed the look of the game, and removed certain maps from the competitive pool because they didn't look good on television. They changed players' backstories to make them more entertaining. It wasn't authentic at all. But we got to take the real Counter-Strike, put it on television, and not change a thing about it. We let it speak for itself – and everyone loved it. I already got my wish.
This interview has been edited and condensed.