Welcome to a brand new Adam Asks! Our regular feature where I get to make friends online (like normal people do) and bring you our conversations about parenting, gaming and all things dorky. This week I had the opportunity to talk with Ben Silverman of YAHOO! esports. Ben is a veteran in the video game journalism business and all-around awesome guy. I greatly appreciate his time and yours for checking out this addition of Adam Asks. Without further ado, here is Mr. Ben Silverman!
MD – Let’s start by introducing you to our readers. Who is Ben Silverman the gamer, and who is Ben Silverman the dad?
BS – Same dude, I think? I technically became a gamer when my dad bought the family a Pong machine in the 70s. It’s been an intrinsic part of my identity for about as far back as I can remember, so I don’t really see myself as two separate people.
That said, Ben Silverman the gamer is focused and inquisitive. He only goes where the giant red arrow is pointing after exploring every other path and prefers bold, ambitious design over incremental updates. He likes western RPGs and sucks at real-time strategy games. Ben Silverman the gamer sports xtreme sunglasses, fluorescent board shorts, and a six-pack of berry-flavored energy drinks.
Ben Silverman the dad is a little scattered and more spontaneous. He is equally hesitant to follow the giant red arrow, though if his son wants to stick with the herd, he gives in. Ben Silverman the dad has a bad back and is mildly sensitive to wheat.
MD – You are someone who works within the industry of video games, but how do you approach video games at home as a father? Does gaming find itself to be a part of family time at home, or do you try to leave the games at work when it’s time to be ‘Dad’?
BS – My son recently turned 3, so we’ve yet to really get into the prime years of gaming. He’s still too young. But I don’t really overthink it. I play games frequently, and if he happens to notice, I don’t freak out.
I generally avoid playing games when we’re hanging out together, but not because of some parental mandate. As you point out, playing games is my job, and when I’m not “working,” I like to experience different things. We go outside. We play board games (Don’t Break the Ice is a big hit right now). We play with toy trains and read books and draw and build stuff together. I play ukulele and blast Elvis Costello and Parliament-Funkadelic at him and sometimes he digs it and dances with me. I love doing these things.
I also love video games, obviously, but there will be plenty of time for him to obsess over them. I’m in no rush to get him going.
MD – One thing I’ve noticed as my son gets older and I begin to think about what kind of games I’ll eventually introduce him to is how the landscape of games for kids has really changed over the last ten or so years. It seemed like in the PS1 days you could pick up a Cookie Monster counting game, or a Winnie the Pooh platformer, but now it seems that those games are all but gone on our home consoles. How do you view this shift in the gaming market? Do you think there’s a place for kids games on a home console anymore, or has everything permanently migrated to the mobile and handheld space?
BS – You can still find all those crummy branded kids games on mobile, and they’re finally priced correctly. I’m cool dropping a buck or two on a Cookie Monster counting app, because back in the day, that thing would have cost like $20.
I think that shift is natural. Games go where people are playing them. Kids these days (Ben Silverman the dad just laughed out loud after typing that) are more into their parents’ iPhones and iPads than pretty much anything else. Screen time used to mean “living room time” and was typically a morning or after-school activity. Now it means any time in any place; mobile devices, for better or worse, have become essential items in a parental toolbox. And so the software has followed the hardware.
But games aimed at younger gamers seem to be doing just fine on consoles. Lego can’t stop making them. The toys-to-life genre, while certainly not educational, connects their play experiences in a really cool, unique way. That likely won’t sustain itself much longer – the death of Disney Infinity was clearly a sign that toys-to-life might not have much life left — but there will always be a place in the console ecosystem for kids software.
MD – You have a storied background in video game journalism dating back to the late nineties. Some would say that period of time was really the era in which games took off towards mainstream entertainment. Your career took off in the time of Final Fantasy 7, Metal Gear Solid and Ocarina of Time. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like entering the industry in that pivotal moment in gaming history? Was it something you could see happening at the time, or is it only clear now looking back at it how important those years were?
BS – When I first got started in this business (around 1996?), I was mostly a PC gamer. I owned a Genesis and Sega CD, but wasn’t an early adopter of the Playstation or Saturn. I wasn’t really planning to get back into consols. I was content downloading shareware from Happy Puppy and CNET Gamecenter and playing whatever else I could get working on my PC. I wasn’t dialed into the video game industry, like, as an industry, enough to notice that Sony’s entrance was a really big deal.
A few years in, though, and yeah, there was a lot of excitement about the state of the software. I definitely felt a change in 1998. How couldn’t you? MGS, Ocarina, FFVII — all huge — but so was Half-Life, Unreal, Thief, and Baldur’s Gate! Banjo-Kazooie happened that year. No One Can Stop Mr. Domino! We couldn’t! What. A. Year.
So yeah, I think anyone working in video games editorial that year felt like they hit the jackpot. The 1998 E3 (the second in Atlanta) was insane, I think something like twice as many attendees as the previous year. We kicked off the Game Critics Awards that year, too. It was just a really special time.
But for me to tell you now that I somehow had the foresight to know that, 19 years later, 1998 (or thereabouts) would stand out as a truly special time would be inauthentic. I had no idea. I just really enjoyed my career back then, in part because everything felt so new. Maybe other journos and developers felt that way, too.
MD – I see that you actually majored in psychology from Berkeley. That’s quite a different way to begin a career in gaming journalism. I imagine there has to be quite a story about how that all came about?
BS – Like many of my colleagues at the time, I sort of stumbled into this career out of college.
Becoming a game journalist wasn’t part of my life plan until it suddenly became my life plan. Back in those days you couldn’t go to school for this or attend helpful seminars or read a billion “How to Write About Video Games for a Living” posts on Medium. You sort of wandered into it. Or at least I did.
The short version: In the summer before graduating from Cal, I was looking for a job and spotted an ad in a local paper (this is how we used to find work, millennials) for a PC game reviewer. I swear, it said “PC GAME REVIEWER WANTED.” Who would post that in a paper? Duke Ferris, the owner of a just-launched website called Game Revolution, that’s who. Idiot! He must have gotten a hundred responses in an hour.
I was one of them, and I convinced him to give me a shot. So I wrote a review in exchange for a game. I kept doing that for a few months, but then I graduated and needed a real job that paid real money. I mentioned this to Duke, mostly hoping he would let me know if he heard of any testing gigs (at the time, this seemed like the best way to get into the industry).
A day later, his one employee quit, opening the door for me to work as his assistant.
Kismet? Voodoo? Who knows? I leapt at it, and spent the next couple of years working just under the poverty line in a tiny office crammed into the corner of a mortgage company. We built a website together.
There’s more to the story —I eventually became a part owner, the site got pretty big, we drank a lot — but the gist is, I believe, that I am the luckiest person in the world.
MD – You’ve been quite successful in your career, having been editor in chief at Game Revolution, a correspondent on Electric Playground and currently Managing Editor at Yahoo! Esports. But the landscape of video game journalism is changing lately with social media booming. Let’s Play videos are becoming a more popular means of getting impressions of a game and Twitter ‘personalities’ becoming a source for instant news bites. What do you think of this change? Do you see it as an encroachment on your profession, or is this an opportunity for gaming journalism to evolve into something different and possibly better?
BS – I think it sucks, Adam. I mean, that’s the only way to answer the “what the fuck happened to game journalism” question when you are a game journalist, right?
But I don’t see the cult of personality as an affront to “real” game writing. For better or worse, we all flock to charismatic people. It’s been like that forever. If you play your cards right online, you can be super charismatic in like one hour a day (or less!) and earn a fine living (for now).
I think it’s shitty to point to those folks as being “the problem.” Good on them. They’re reaching tons of people and getting free stuff and while I am tempted to tell them to get off my lawn, I would rather be the sort of old dude who invites them in for coffee (and poisons it. Hahaha! Kidding! There is no poison in this coffee, I swear. Drink some. I am not thirsty. No, you take a sip first. No poison.)
I don’t think influencers are ruining game journalism. Youtube and Twitch, while certainly guilty of creating some really irritating faux celebrities, aren’t preventing game journalists from doing their jobs. Rolling Stone just launched a new game site. Vice spun off its own new site as well. Polygon, despite everyone perpetually insisting it is about to die, seems to be thriving.
Yes, it can be grating to find out that some influencer got an advance copy of a game before you, but chances are, your readers aren’t going to bail out on your publication in favor of some dude who scored it early. Some sites are doing well and others are struggling, but I think that has less to do with influencers taking our metaphorical lunch money and more to do with content creation just being a total nightmare right now.
Making money online is very, very hard. When I started out, you could generate great income with just a couple display ads jammed into your HTML. Now, ad blockers have screwed you out of that income, which is a shadow of its former self thanks to terrible rates. You need creative marketing, huge numbers, really smart budgeting and unique, interesting content to produce a successful commercial website. That’s hard, and it’s only gotten harder.
Journalism in general is a mess these days, but I think that’s less a function of personality ruling the web and more a function of changes in how people ingest content. Good journalism takes time; spitting out quick, unfounded news blasts does not. We’ve seen how easy is to game the media via social networks – I would wag my finger at Facebook before PewDiePie.
MD – It seems like just when video games are becoming comfortable as a mainstream entertainment medium, the industry as a whole tries to break out of its shell and offer something that’s totally different. Whether that’s ‘Toys to Life’, Band kits or VR. Is the industry still trying to figure out what it wants to be, or do you think these ancillary experiences are actually part of the mediums identity?
The industry will never figure out what it wants to be because art isn’t about that. Art is about finding new ways to communicate. Art evokes emotion. Art moves us by moving itself forward. Art does not sit still.
Video games offer a fascinating paradox: they are inherently guided by rules, yet constantly try to break them. It’s what I love about the hobby. The moment you think you’ve seen it all, some genius programmer or gifted storyteller blows your mind. It happened to me this year with Inside. I was dumbfounded. I have been playing games for four decades and out of nowhere this little indie game showed me something I have never seen before. That’s great! That’s art. That’s badass.
That happened to me with Rock Band, too. I’ve been a musician since I was 12 and I couldn’t have loved a video game more. My wife and I sat on a couch together harmonizing through the entire The Beatles: Rock Band catalog the night I got the game. We were up until 4 am. She doesn’t self-identify as a gamer. That’s some powerful mojo, man.
Virtual reality, when it’s done well, is completely transformative. Toys-to-life, when it started, was incredible. I remember showing the first Skylanders to my nephew and I mean, that was magic.
The problem isn’t that we like to experiment with ancillary hardware-driven experiences, it’s that we overdo it every time. Guitar Hero and Rock Band were cool before we got like eight music games a year. Toys-to-life was great before we were asked to invest hundreds of dollars in three competing franchises. I feel that happening with VR, too, though I think the money behind that will hopefully break it out of its gaming roots and make it a more viable, long-term tech.
MD – Talk to me about Esports. I’m an old time gamer and I have to be honest, I have a hard time understanding this new avenue. I grew up in the age of couch co-op and passing the controller, so it’s not that I’m adverse to watching people play games while I sit on my ass and eat Doritos, but there seems to be a wall up between me and Esports that fails to get me interested. As someone who knows the ins and outs of Esports, give me your pitch on what I’m missing and why Esports is something important to both the industry as a whole and to me as a gamer.
The first issue: spelling. It’s hard to love something when you’re not sure how to spell it. To avoid mockery, go with “esports,” no capitals, no hyphens.
As far as your disconnect, yeah, I totally get it. Like you, I have spent most of my life playing games for fun, largely by myself, and only occasionally competitively. And even then, it’s Mario Kart or casual Counter-strike v1, not intense professional gaming with cash on the line.
I also think most older gamers view gaming as an evolving hobby. We don’t stick with one game and play it for years on end. We play something, we beat it, we play something else. To many of us, gaming is not about mastering one game, it’s about experiencing many.
Esports, obviously, isn’t about fluency in multiple games. It’s about achieving peak performance in one. And I think the lure is right there in the name. Instead of thinking of esports as a weird subdivision of gaming, think of it as a weird subdivision of sports. An esport like League of Legends or Dota 2 has much more in common with the NBA than The Last Guardian.
So you’re not really missing much as a gamer by failing to get into esports. You are, however, missing some incredible performances, outrageous drama, impressive teams, amazing productions, and inspiring comebacks. Esports, at its best, hits us in the same place as traditional sports: the thrill of high-end competition.
Granted, it can be daunting figuring out the laning intricacies of League of Legends or following a crazy combo in Street Fighter V. It requires a little extra effort – to really enjoy an esport, it helps a great deal if you play it as well – but that’s largely the same for traditional sports. So I can’t really pitch you on why watching competitive gaming is cool. You have to take the step to get into it. But if you’ve ever loved a video game and enjoyed watching someone else play it really, really well, you at least have an idea what it’s all about.
MD – We’ve seen so much change in the landscape of video games over the years. Guys like you and I have grown up right alongside the industry. Where would you like the state of gaming to find itself by the time our kids have grow into adulthood? What does this medium offer in that hypothetical perfect future that we all want for our kids?
BS – Man, that’s a big question. I hope they become more affordable? And maybe less reliant on franchises? I hope games get better, I guess?
By that, I mean I hope they get more meaningful. I want to see diverse, interesting stories. I want genuinely great acting — The Last of Us – to be the norm, not the exception. I want fewer games about space marines shooting shit. We’ve got enough of those to last several lifetimes.
More than anything, I hope Call of Duty 19 looks as good in 15K as it does in HDRFTV 10. I can’t afford a new monitor.
MD – Finally, if you could impart one lesson to parents about how video games can be beneficial to children today, what would it be?
If your kid is passionate about video games – and chances are your kid is – that’s a good thing. Your kid likes something! That’s great! Support ‘em!
Games offer a comfortable way for parents to connect with children. Get involved. Just as you would help them practice jump shots, solve geometry problems or rehearse lines in a musical, quit being a jerk and get in there and play games with them. There is no fundamental difference between a few hours of Monopoly and a few hours co-opping Lego Batman — other than the fact that Lego Batman is, like, fun. 🙂
MD – Thank you so much for your time, Ben. I hope we can chat again soon. All the best to you in the new year!