Apr 1, 2019
The video game website Giant Bomb recently celebrated its tenth birthday so what better time to talk to its creator about the early days of the online games media, the future of games coverage, and getting fired in front of the entire world.
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- [Danny] Hello and welcome to Noclip, the podcast about video games, the people who make them, and the people who play them. On today's episode we talk to a guy who grew up a short drive from the epicenter of the online media revolution. As video game website Giant Bomb recently celebrated its 10th year of operation, we decided to talk to its founder about skipping school, hosting podcasts, and getting fired in front of the entire world. Jeff Gerstmann is a name you either know or don't, depending on whether or not you care about the world of games coverage. Outside of the world of games, Jeff is a husband, son, and a grown-up local kid in Petaluma, a city in Northern California that sits on the outskirts of what many would consider a reasonable commute to San Francisco. There he grew up with his mum and dad who operated a tire shop. A small town kid, with a small town life who loved rap, skateboards, and video games. But inside the world of games Jeff is larger than life. He's part of a dwindling older generation of journalists who were there when the magazines died, and the world of internet reporting exploded. He's lead the charge on finding new ways to talk about games, be it on video, podcast or late light E3 live shows. And crucially, his surname became a rallying cry for media ethics when he fell victim to one of the most lamentable acts of brand self-destruction of the digital age. Much of Jeff's story lives in the gaming zeitgeist. Before I met him, I thought I knew most of it. You see, to me Jeff was a hero. He had figured it all out. Growing up in Ireland, years before Twitch or even YouTube had started, I'd watch him host shows broadcast live from the GameSpot offices in San Francisco. His job was talking about games, and he knew more about games than anyone I'd ever seen trying to do it on television. His job became a north star that I'd spend years following. And when I'd eventually find myself working in the same building those shows were filmed in, sitting at a desk a short walk from his, I slowly began to get a deeper understanding of Jeffrey Michael Gerstmann. Equal parts a quiet, contemplative person and a troublemaker, now responsible for keeping order. I recently sat down with Jeff to talk about the 10 Year Anniversary of his career's second act, the video game website GiantBomb.com. But the story of Giant Bomb and the story of Jeff Gerstmann are intertwined. So to tell you how Giant Bomb was founded we have to go back to a small town in Northern California, to the kid of the folks who ran the tire shop in sunny, quiet, suburban, Petaluma.
- [Jeff] The first video game console I owned, it was the Fairchild Channel F, which was, it kinda came out around the same time, same window as the Atari 2600 but it had a few more educational games so I think that tipped my parents in the favor of getting that thing, it had this terrible plunger controller, there was like a decent bowling game but it just immediately failed. I had relatives who had an Atari 2600 and would kinda covet that thing and eventually they gave it to me when the video game industry kinda crashed. But we got into computers not long after that. I got an Atari 400 and that was really the first proper like hey, this is a somewhat successful platform with stuff coming out that mattered. And so I mostly started on a computer.
- [Danny] What was the impetus for your parents getting it? Were they interested in technology at all or were you crying for it or what was the story there?
- [Jeff] You know, my dad played some video games certainly over the years but I think that was largely because that's what I was interested in. We were going to arcades a lot and on the weekends we would go out, there was an arcade in town called Dodge City and we would go to Dodge City. You know, my mom went once or twice, this was like the height of Pac-Man fever so like I would be there, my dad would be there, we'd be playing games and there would just be this huge line almost out the door of people waiting to play Pac-Man or Ms. Pac-Man. And it was just weird, you know, because it was just another game, like to me it was just like, all right, well yeah, I don't know, Pac-Man's over there and it is what it is and I'm over here playing Galaxian or Vanguard or you know, whatever the heck else, I don't really remember talking to too many people about video games. This was, you know, this woulda been, god, 82 ish, like early to mid 80s really and I was going to elementary school then and just there were like one or two other kids I knew that had computers but most kids didn't and they weren't really into video games per say or if they were they weren't really letting on. So there was one kid I knew that had a TRS-80 and so I'd go over to his place and play Parsec and some other stuff like that. There was a kid near the tire shop that my parents ran that had a VIC-20 and I could go over there and play like Radar Rat Race and some other stuff too.
- [Danny] So, I guess, what did you want to be when you grew up when you were like a middle schooler? Obviously games journalism wasn't a target you could exactly aim for so what were you thinking about your future when you were in like middle school, high school?
- [Jeff] When I was in high school we saw a posting, so LucasArts was relatively local, they were in Marin County and, you know, this woulda been like 1990, 1991, somewhere around there, and they were looking for testers. And I remember applying for it but like I was 15. Like it was, logistically it would've been impossible for me to even do that job 'cause I couldn't even drive a car yet. And it was 20ish miles away. But also like I remember writing, like they wanted a resume, I wrote an essay and it was like, you should give me this job. It was real dumb, I mean, whatever, in retrospect it was like, that is not a way to get a job. Also, ridiculous to assume that that would've even been possible at 15. But yeah, that was the first time I ever really thought about working in video games, I woulda been like 14 or 15.
- [Danny] So how did it actually come to pass then? What was your first gig in the industry and how did you end up getting it?
- [Jeff] So, I started going to trade shows, I met a guy a named Glenn Rubenstein who was a year younger than I was and we went to the same school, we went to the same high school. And Glenn was writing video game reviews for the local Petaluma newspaper and also I think he had a column in the San Francisco Examiner which was a newspaper. And so there would be articles about like, this youthful guy writing game reviews, look at this guy, it was like kind of a story or whatever. So we became friends, then he kinda said like, hey, I'm going to CES, do you wanna come with me? And I was like, yeah, I would love to go see video games.
- [Danny] How old are you?
- [Jeff] This is, I'm 16 at this point, he's 15.
- [Danny] Wow, okay. It's in Vegas, right?
- It's in Vegas also, yes. He's like, hey do you wanna come to Las Vegas. So I pitched it to my parents and just said like, hey, this thing's going on, I'd really like to go do it and they said yes, for whatever reason they said yes. And so me and Glenn set out to go, he had been to one before, he had been to CES I think the previous CES in Chicago might've been his first and so I went with him to that and just like I bought myself like a blazer and put it on and went to this trade show and went around and played video games and tried to play blackjack wearing a blazer because I looked like maybe I was of age. And that's where we met Ryan McDonald. We needed, honestly, I think we just needed more people to help pay for the hotel room or something like that and Ryan was doing something similar, he was writing about video games for a Healdsburg newspaper, which is about 40 miles north of Petaluma, where I'm now, which, for people who don't know, Petaluma is about 40 miles north of San Francisco, so, you know, Healdsburg's getting pretty far out there. And we met Ryan at the local mall, he seemed like an okay guy and we're like, yeah, you wanna come, let's go to Las Vegas. And so I kind of started just going to trade shows, we all met the guys from Game Informer pretty early on, Andy McNamara and Paul and some of the early other reviewers that were there at the time, Elizabeth Olsen and people like that, and we knew some people that were doing PR for video games at the time and stuff like that so we just kinda started meeting people and getting around. So that led to, Glenn ended up, so Glenn actually got me my first couple of jobs afterwards. We started going to the trade shows, we were doing a local public access show that was not about video games, it wasn't about much of anything really, and basically like barely getting by in high school 'cause we were just doing all this other stuff and not wanting to go to school very much. And so he ended up getting in at a magazine, they were starting up a magazine, they were originally gonna call it Blast, they were gonna call it Blast and it was gonna be like this lifestyle magazine funded by the, I guess the CEO of Creative Labs, so the Sound Blaster people were starting, basically funding a magazine. And so I spent a year commuting to Berkeley working for this magazine right after I got out of high school, so that woulda been like 1994. I was 19 commuting to Berkeley, working for a magazine, having no idea what I was doing, and we were covering Doom and we were covering, what are some fun things you could do with your Creative Labs branded sound card and stuff like that, that place lasted a little under a year before it folded. We made it about three issues, I think there was fourth that was almost done, and then I was out of there and had no idea what to do next. I was 19 and jaded and like burned by how that job went and angry at everything.
- [Danny] Yeah, had you dropped out of high school, had you just sorta finished it and then left off or were you thinking about college or were you thinkin', oh shit, do I jump to another journalism gig, what was your head space then?
- [Jeff] I finished high school. Between the public access show we were doing and this video game stuff that was still pretty nascent, you know, it wasn't really a job, it was very easy to look at that stuff and go like, man, I don't wanna go to school, like it's a waste of time. And so there was awhile there that like, I'll get my GED which is like so you can kinda test out of high school. And they tell you that it's equivalent to a high school diploma but then in some ways it's kind of not, I don't know, there was a weird. I had missed so much school and also we, so we were doing the public access show and I filmed a teacher, so a teacher at the high school I was going to, our chemistry teacher got fired and I believe the talk was, and I'm not sure, it was sexual harassment from the sounds of things, like to students. And so the first day that they introduced here's your new chemistry teacher I had the video camera that we used to tape the show so I filmed them introducing this new teacher and all this other stuff and like asked them questions like it was a press conference. And they answered, no one said, hey put that thing down. Like I was very clearly pointing a video camera at them. And then like the next day, that day, the day after, something like that, like the principal called me and said, hey, what are you gonna do with that video tape? And I said, well we're gonna put it on television.
- [Danny] Oh my gosh.
- [Jeff] And he was super not happy about that.
- [Danny] I wonder why.
- [Jeff] Yeah, and so at that point we realized we had something so we called the papers and said, hey we got this tape and they started investigating it and it became a story, it was something that they, I think they were trying to keep very quiet. Later on that teacher would show up at my doorstep looking for a copy of the tape because he was trying to sue the, I don't know, he was trying to get something out of the school district or something over what happened, this was years later after I was out of high school. So that was very strange. So after that between the amount of school we were missing, I had like a guidance counselor basically recommend that I should go on independent study. Which was basically, at the time it was primarily, it woulda been like pregnant teens and people that like were having trouble in school and that sorta stuff and they were like, oh, we're piloting a new program for kids who don't necessarily fit into the standard curriculum and they pitched it like that but basically it felt like they were just trying to get me and Glenn out of there.
- [Danny] Right, journalist at heart it turns out.
- [Jeff] I guess, I don't know. And so that led to me getting much higher grades and stuff because I was able to just kinda like crank through stuff really quickly. I graduated early because I just finished the work. I mean, I graduated like two weeks early, not hugely early. But it was great, it felt like I was getting one over on the school district because I was doing a full semester of science while like reading a book in my patents hot tub or, you know, just like stupid crap like that. I was getting like journalism credit for the stuff we were doing going to trade shows and like video production, they were just throwin' credits at me left and right and so yeah, I graduated early, it was great, I was able to take that and go back to the high school that I had stopped going to and go talk to like the one teacher that I liked, Mr. Moore, he was a math teacher, great guy, I think he taught some of the computer stuff also. And I remember telling him like, hey, I just graduated. And he just looked at me and said, god dammit, Gerstmann, you got 'em. He seemed like dismayed that I had managed to get one over on the system somehow but he couldn't help, but yeah, it was a, that felt pretty good.
- [Danny] Through his life, Jeff's do-it-his-own way attitude has been both a source of great strength and the catalyst for much drama. He attended a local junior college for a semester, but it didn't stick, preferring to do extra-curricular work like attending trade-shows with his friend Ryan McDonald, hanging out with local bands, and as he put it, learning how to drink. Around this time Glenn, who had gotta him the job at the magazine years earlier, started working for a new website in San Francisco's Richmond district. Just a few blocks from the servers of archive.org on the cloudy avenues of Clement Street, lied an office where a staff of 20 was running the website GameSpot. They had hired Glenn to lead the charge on a new console-focused spin-off of the site that they were going to call VideoGameSpot.
- [Jeff] Glenn hired Ryan McDonald not long after that to be like the strategy slash codes editor and then I started freelancing for him because they wanted 100 reviews by launch and they were lookin' to launch like three months, four months from that time. And so I started crankin' out reviews and the way I always heard it was that I was turning reviews around really quickly, really clean copy, and so Vince Broady kinda said like, hey, bring this guy and let's see. And they brought me in as like an editorial assistant which was more or less an intern type role and within two or three months, not even two or three months, within like a month, the launch editor, there was a guy, Joe Hutsko, who would come on, it was one of Vince's friends who had just come on I think to kinda see this console site through to launch and then I think he was gonna go on to do something else somewhere else and I was working late one night and Joe Hutsko walked by and saw me there and he was like, you're still here, what are you doin'? I was like, this work has to get done. And then like the next day I had an offer letter for a full time job at that point.
- [Danny] GameSpot would go through several transformations and acquisitions over the coming years. But as the business side of online media was learning how to walk, emerging technologies were creating exciting new ways for people to talk about games. GameSpot led this charge with one of the first video game podcasts, The Hotspot, and a weekly live show, On The Spot. Suddenly these young game reporters were starting to become more than just bylines. For years readers, the folks writing reviews and new articles, were just names at the bottom of a page. But now, for the first time, they were people with voices and faces. People with unique perspectives, opinions and personalities. And Jeff, with his experience doing public access shows in Petaluma, was at the forefront of this new form of media. The idea of streaming video games on the internet now is so blase and normal but back then I think to a lot of people it felt like magical, like a television channel that's broadcasting about games. From your perspective on your guys's end, did it feel weird to be like doing a live show that people were watching while you were just talking about this relatively niche hobby?
- [Jeff] It felt like a natural extension of the stuff we had been doing. And it felt like, I don't know, it felt fresh and cool and like the tech was weird and sometimes it didn't work the way you wanted it to but at the same time we were wearing makeup, we had built a studio, we had lights, we had a jib, it was Frank Adams lowering a camera into the shot and all this other stuff and so coming from like these lame public access shows I was doing when I was 16 and stuff, like I had a weird leg up on a lot of other people because I was already relatively comfortable being in front of a camera.
- [Danny] GameSpot continued to evolve. It went from indie to being purchased by media house Ziff Davis who then eventually sold it to CNET. By this stage the editor in chief was Greg Kasavin, who you may now recognize as the creative director of Supergiant Games, a studio we're currently running an embedded series on. His two right hand men at the time were Ricardo Torres on previews and Jeff on reviews. But when Greg left to start his career in games production, the role was never properly filled. Instead Ricardo and Jeff sort of ran it together, with increased influence being exerted on them from the powers above. The original founders of GameSpot had come from a editorial background but they were gone and the site was now being managed by people were less seasoned, more traffic orientated, and didn't value the power of editorial independence as much as they should have.
- [Jeff] You know, there was an understanding about like this is kinda how this stuff is supposed to work, it's not always supposed to be an easy relationship if everyone's kind of sticking to their guns and doing their jobs and stuff. I don't know that they always saw the value of that, I think that's something that they corrected quickly, it was just kind of, it was a blip, if you look at GameSpot as a 20 plus year institution there was that brief period of time there where it was like, man, this went a little sideways for a bit and I was just in the right place at the right time, wrong place wrong time, whatever it was.
- [Danny] What happened to Jeff next has been told a thousand times with new pieces added as time has provided new context. I myself spent years trying to fill in the blanks on how it all went down. Talking to friends and colleagues of Jeff who were there that day. It was a Wednesday in November, 2007 and the office was busily preparing for the weekly live-show which aired on Thursday afternoon. Jeff had just another another brush-up with management, this time over a review of Kane and Lynch which had made the sales department uncomfortable as they had sold a large advertising campaign to the game's publisher Eidos. If you visited GameSpot that week, the entire homepage was taken over by messaging about the game alongside a six out of ten review from Jeff. Jeff had had some run ins with top brass before and felt like he'd come close to losing his job a few times but this wasn't one of those times. It seemed like it had been dealt with, and he was already working on his next review. Later that morning his supervisor called him into a meeting and then called HR. He was told he was being terminated immediately, and as California is an at-will employment state, Jeff had no recourse. He was told to clean out his desk and bizarrely he was allowed to walk the halls for the rest of the day. Saying goodbye to his friends and colleagues, who were cursing the names of those in charge. Jeff drove home that day, the same 40 mile commute between San Francisco and Petaluma he had done thousands of times before. But this time it would be different, it would be a number of years before he stepped foot in the building again. There was no live show that week, the Kane and Lynch review had been taken down and then reposted and slowly over the coming days rumors began to circulate about Jeff's termination. Popular webcomic Penny Arcade ran a strip outlining the pressure from Eidos. Staff from the website 1UP, who were located just a block north of GameSpot on San Francisco's 2nd Street, held a protest outside the lobby of the building in support of the remaining staff. In an age before social media it would be a full eight days before the staff would actually speak up. And it happened on the next episode of On The Spot. The show ran with a somber opening. Ryan McDonald flanked by Ricardo Torres and a wincing Alex Navarro explained the situation. The camera pans out to reveal a full set with previewer Brad shoemaker, new hire Kevin VanOrd, community manager Jody Robinson and reporter Brendan Sinclar among a dozen of other staff.
- [Ryan] Obviously we wanted to start today's On the Spot off a little different than we had in the past. The recent events and what happened last week in regards to our longtime friend and colleague, Jeff Gerstmann, being dismissed. It's been really hard on us and the response obviously's been tremendously immense and it's been on both sides. It's nice to see that everybody speaks up and has been kinda pullin' for us. On the other hand it's been hard obviously seein' GameSpot sucks written 100,000 times on forums and stuff so obviously we wanted to address this and talk to you guys today. Jeff was a personal friend to pretty much everybody so it was really, really hard that it happened the way it did. But yeah, we really wanted to say that we love and miss Jeff and give him, honestly, the proper send off that he deserves so that's what today's show's all about. And obviously you can see this is hard for me personally.
- [Danny] For Jeff things were equally as bizarre. Tech Blogs like ValleyWag were running stories about the state of the site which were clearly sourced from somebody inside of GameSpot. The LA Times ran a story about the firing. And Jeff's mother received a phone call from a newspaper in Norway looking for a quote. It was three a.m. when the phone rang.
- [Jeff] You know, some of it was just like, some of the people I talked to were very like looking for more dirt, they were expecting me to get on the phone and be like, oh, well here's where the rest of the bodies are buried. But like, you know, I was shocked. I was not happy about the whole thing but at the same time I feel good about the work I did while I was there and there were so many great people there that kinda got caught in some of this crossfire a little bit. I wasn't like, oh well here's the other nasty things that happened, there wasn't any. There wasn't anything else. So some people were coming to me looking for like some bigger story that I just didn't have to give. And that was strange, it seemed like everyone wanted something from me for a little while and it was a very weird time. And so at that point it was like, 'cause you know, like I was not an editor in chief in title but you know, we were running an editorial team. And so there aren't a lot of jobs out there at that level. It wasn't like I could walk into IGN or 1UP or, you know, I don't even know who else was even out there at that point, it wasn't like I could walk into those places and say, yes, make me your editor in chief. Like, they already have people in those roles, it wasn't really a viable thing. So at that point I was like, well I kinda need to maybe start something new. The weekend after everything went down or it might've been, it was like the Friday after or maybe it was like a full week afterwards, a bunch of people that I used to work with came up here to my place and we just hung out, like kinda impromptu, just have a bunch of drinks, play some Rock Band, and that sorta thing, and Dave Snider came by, Ryan Davis invited Dave over. And Dave was working on his stuff, I think Boompa was still up, they had a car website, you know, they were running Comic Vine, they were building Political Base which was another kind of wiki focused site for political donations in the run up to that election there, this was November, 2007. And so they were starting a new company and looking to build, they were building websites. And I was like, oh, that's cool, awesome, and nothing really came of it for a little bit. So I went and did a show on Revision3, so I drove into San Francisco, did that show, and then on the way back from or as I was finishing up that show I got a call from Dave and he said, hey, you should come by the office in Sausalito and just come by. I was like, all right, cool. And so on my way back from there I stopped at the office in Sausalito and looked at Comic Vine, the other stuff they were doing, and we sat in a room and ate sandwiches and I more or less committed to them right there. It was kind of like an, oh, we'll think about it and they were very much like, hey, why don't you just take a month and get your head together, like take an actual break 'cause this is so crazy and then let us know what you wanna do. And so we kinda started building a website not too long after that.
- [Danny] Over the coming weeks several of Jeff's friends would leave GameSpot. Some were burned out from games coverage, this latest spell just being the straw that broke the camel's back. But others were leaving to work with Jeff. Fellow Sonoma County local Ryan Davis was the first. The two of them set up a blog, and started to a run a podcast which they hurriedly titled, Arrow Pointing Down.
- [Jeff] So, every single person at the company that we were, that I was now a part of were people that had worked at that old company. And so we did not wanna give the appearance of people getting poached out of there and like I don't know if there was an actual non compete with some of the people in the building or anything that would've prevented them from doing this stuff but all of it had to be kind of like quiet and so it couldn't be something as simple as like, hey we want to hire you over here. It had to be like, well, if you were, if you were no longer working and you needed a place to work we do have some opening. You know, it was very much that sort of thing. But I knew pretty immediately looking at it and going, okay, we wanna team of about this size and I knew that Alex would not be available, Alex Navarro, I knew that he was not looking to do this sort of work at that time. He was, you know, I think already thinking about Harmonix, he ended up doing public relations for Harmonix for a brief period of time. Like I pretty much had a whiteboard, I knew in my head that I, at that point it was like okay, this is me, it's Ryan, it's Brad, it's Vinny. Which is not how you're supposed to hire people. You know, some people are like, well what are the positions that we're looking to fill and all this other stuff and, but like knowing like what we looking to build and we needed to be a tight team, who were the people that are gonna be impactful in those roles, like okay, Brad has a lot of experience in previews, he is a person that I know, like he knows a ton of people around the game industry. Like, I've worked reviews and so on the review side of things we didn't talk to companies all that often. Brad had that in his role so he left, he left and he had other things that he was maybe thinking about doing, it wasn't like a, it was not a clandestine like, he left specifically to, it was like, okay, he's out and we're gonna figure this out. And then we needed someone to do do video and we had been working with Vinny for awhile and Vinny was fantastic and it was like, okay, Vinny's really funny, this seems like a good fit for him and so we kinda went about it that way. It felt like night and day a lot of ways, but very similar in others. We were able to sit down for the first time, for me the first time ever, like I never thought I would have the opportunity to build something like this, you know. I was always like very respectful or very envious of like Vince Broady as like the editorial lead of the founder of GameSpot and so I was like, man, he took a chance and built this thing and built it from the ground up and look at it, it's this huge, this monument, it's lasted so long. And I never thought I would have an opportunity like that in my career, it just never seemed like it was in the cards. And so being forced into it was exciting. Because it let me sit down and be like, okay, what do we actually want to do? What do we think is actually the best way to cover games with a small team in this day and age? And when we started in 96 on VideoGameSpot, like the videos had to be very low frame rate and very short because no one could download 'em and, you know, it was like we were doing minute long video clips of gameplay and that was revolutionary at the time. You know, you had to install the Real Video Player and all this, you know, all this other stuff. And here we were on the cusp of like, actually we can kind of, we can kinda livestream, you know, the services to do it easily weren't in place, you still had to host it yourself and that got very expensive and all that and YouTube wasn't really there in the way that they are now, YouTube existed but it was, I don't think you could put up videos that were longer than five or 10 minutes at the time and it just was not a viable place for that at the time. And so we had to kinda sit down and say, well with the technology we have available what can we do? And we wanted to be a podcast, the Hotspot was one of the most fun things I had doing in my entire time at GameSpot and we knew right out of the gate that we wanted to have a podcast be kind of one of the main things. And then from there it was like, okay, well, do we wanna write news? Not really, none of us are really news writers per say. And it was like, well, we need to able to capture video of games and put it on the internet. And we need to be able to talk alongside it or something like that, whether we're cutting it together or doing it on the fly. And so Mike Tatum, who was the head of biz dev for the company just went out to the Apple Store and came back with the biggest ass Mac Pro he could've gotten at the time and set it the room with me and Ryan and we looked at it and we were like, neither of us know how to use any of this shit. And we messed around with it long enough to figure out eventually we could capture some footage. We were like, okay, we figured out, first the game we captured footage of was Hot Shots Golf for the Playstation 3. And we were like, okay, we captured the footage, now what do we with it? And we hadn't answered that question yet 'cause there was no website to put it on or anything like that. So those early silly days of just like putting that stuff together. We didn't really know exactly what we wanted to do, it was just a matter, it was very freeing in way to be able to sit down and be like, okay, here are the things that we liked doing before, let's try to keep doing that. And then the rest is up in the air. For a long time there we weren't even necessarily sold on the idea of just covering video games. It was always meant to be bigger than that. We were gonna cover music, we were gonna cover movies, you know, all this other stuff. But at the end of the day old habits die hard, it was very easy for us to cover video games compared to like, calling music PR people out of the blue and being like, hey, we wanna interview this artist that's coming to town, can you set, you know, it was just, we stuck with what we knew and kinda just mainly covered video games and flavors of Gatorade. Really it was the original mandate for GameSpot was we wanna create a site that we ourselves would use. And I approached it that way and said like, well, what kind of game coverage do I actually care about? And a lot of the preview related stuff at the time was just not, it was a lot of like carved up little parts of a game. Like, we're gonna give you assets on these three new guns and this two new trees and it was like, here's the rims and tires of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Outlets used to compete for the exclusive rights to run stuff like that. It was a very different time so we knew we were never gonna matter to publishers the same way the big sites did and that was fine, we wanted to kinda do our own thing and so that led to it being a little more guerrilla. You talked earlier about long footage of games being something of a novelty or a weird impossibility back then but for us it kinda just became a necessity because of the number of people we had and the lack of time we could devote to actual editing. It was like, just stuff kinda came in long out of the gate. And so we first launched as just a WordPress blog and we went to our first E3 in 08 with just a WordPress blog. We could run videos on it but it was pretty bare bones. It was mostly a placeholder, it was like, here's the name of the site, you can comment on these stories, and we were just kind of writing news and reviews and putting up videos here and there. And it was all pretty straightforward stuff, it was like that and the podcast. And then we rolled out the full site not long after that E3, it was like July of that year I think and then that was like, okay, now here's this full wiki, here's all this other stuff. Better user features, full message boards, all this other stuff. And so we went at it that way for awhile and then the premium membership stuff came later.
- [Danny] It wasn't just old staff who were leaving GameSpot for Jeff's new project, users were flocking too. Once the full site was launched tens of thousands of profiles were created, a large portion of which were disenfranchised GameSpot fans who wanted to support Jeff and the staff who had left. I was one of them and I remember that time well. The passion and excitement of those days was one of the most powerful moments I've had as part of an online community. And the folks at Whiskey Media used this passion to help fund the site. Giant Bomb had taken the ad-free subscription model that GameSpot had pioneered, and added much more. For $5 a month you not only supported some of your favorite creators, but got access to bonus videos and features. New users signed up in their droves.
- [Jeff] The launch of the site proper exceeded our expectations in a way that like wiki submissions were taking a week or more to approve because so many people were signing up and contributing and all this other stuff, it was just, we were staying up all night working on just the community stuff, moderation stuff. And then the premium membership stuff did well out of the gate. We went back and forth on a few ideas about what are we offering here and all that sort of stuff but yeah, it did really well that first day. Advertising was never really a thing for us, we had one in house ad person eventually for a brief period of time but like, you know, advertising's all about eyeballs and we were never gonna be the biggest website in the world, it was we were about, okay, well we want people who really care about this stuff and so, you know, in advertising you're trying to make a case for just like, oh no, this is a smaller audience but they're smarter and they spend more money and you know, at some point you have to go out and educate brands and say like, here's why you wanna advertise here instead of there or spend your money with us because our people are smarter or this and that and at the end of the day advertisers just want eyeballs so like you can go in and pitch that story all you want, it's just not how the advertising model typically works. So we had a few things where like, you know, we had some sponsored achievements on the site and there was a livestream, I was actually against it, but they did a livestream for, NTSF:SUV:SD, I think was the ordering of that, an Adult Swim show. Actually, I thought it was pretty funny. They did a livestream like live watch along with it. And so we were doing a few things like that that were innovative at the time I guess and so you would have people who understood like, hey, the internet is changing, it's not necessarily about just raw eyeballs. We wanna find people who are more engaged with a thing and you know, this was kinda like the nascent form of like the influencer type stuff about like figuring out who are these people we can get that have sway with their audiences and so on and so forth. But, us being an editorial operation, we could never really go fully into that world. So the stuff that I would be comfortable doing in those spaces kinda, we ended up shooting down a lot of stuff, probably more stuff than we signed because it was like, no, I don't think we can do that. So the advertising stuff was never really gonna be for us and for those reasons, it's just, you know, the advertising market just wasn't really compatible with our size and our scope but also kind of our mentality and where we were at with stuff so we wanted to try and find something different. And again, that was another Dave Snider, Dave was kind of the main first proponent about like, no, people will pay for good stuff on the internet, I know it. And I think I was a little more like, I don't know, man, people like to pirate stuff. But he's like, no, this will, he won me over pretty fast and we went through with it, we went on with it.
- [Danny] Giant Bomb has been running for a decade and in that time the site has evolved to keep up with the changing desires of its audience. But there are a few shows that have lasted the test of time. Their weekly podcast The Giant Bombcast has had over 570 episodes and is one of the most popular video game podcasts in the world. And their Quick Looks series predated the creation of Let's Plays, still exists today. I asked Jeff to tell me about some of his favorites are. He notes their live E3 internet show, and eventually making the podcast profitable as some of his proudest achievements. As shows have come and gone, so too have staff. Just like GameSpot created a platform for Jeff to make a name for himself. Giant Bomb has become an incubator of talent all to itself. As the sort of captain of the ship as well, what does it feel like to be responsible for kind of what Giant Bomb has become in terms of its, as an incubator for talent, right. You've had people come through the doors and leave out the other side to go on to wonderful careers as well. Do you take a pride in that, especially considering, you know, how you seem to have a reverence for the people who gave you opportunities in your early career.
- [Jeff] It's cool, I don't always think about it. Like, I don't know, like I look at it and go like, did I do anything for anyone, I don't know, I'm just here, I don't know, I just do my thing. And I don't know that I always, I used to take it really personally back in the GameSpot days when anyone would leave. I would always think like, man, why would you, why would you go do something else, we're doing great, we're doing all this other stuff, and now I look at it in retrospect and go like, maybe it was people like me in the senior roles for as long as we were that led to people below us wanting to get out for more opportunities, and go like, man, yeah, okay. But yeah, I used to take it really personally 'cause I just, you know, it was great to just, there were times where, you know, man, this is the best team I've ever worked with, this is great. Oh, three people are leaving over the course of six months, what's goin on? And the people that left in the run up to me leaving, at the time I was really bummed out, in retrospect I was like, oh, yeah okay, I get it. And things change and people change and they want something else out of their careers and they wanna take on new challenges and all that sorta stuff and I think that's great. At the same time, like I miss the people that have moved on. Like, there was a time there that there were, we were starting to have conversations, it's like, no, we need to move Danny O'Dwyer over to Giant Bomb, like we have, this should happen. And then he went out and found fame and fortune on his own without us and I was like, well, shit. Let that one slip away, I guess.
- [Danny] There will always be a part of me in my professional sort of hindsight that will, I remember when you mentioned that to me at a certain point, I can't remember, was it when I had already handed in my notice or I think it was probably a little bit before maybe, where like, that is like the ultimate dream come true. But now I have a new dream come true which is that I get to just pop into the office and review European sports games twice a year or whatever.
- [Jeff] Right, yeah, I mean, I have a code for FIFA that I don't know what to do with so. Might be callin' you for that one. So, it's stuff like that, like it's great seeing people out there doing their thing, and the thing I've tried to be better at this time around that I was terrible at back in the GameSpot days is try to keep in touch with people on a regular basis. Like it can be so easy just to put your head down and be like, I'm surrounded by these people, these are the people I see everyday, these are the only people I talk to because I don't have time for anything else. Discord has actually been really useful at that, honestly. Like hey, let's keep in touch with friends and try to maintain these friendships and stuff like that. So yeah, it's great being in regular contact with people like Patrick and Austin Walker and stuff like that.
- [Danny] Giant Bomb lived under the Whiskey Media banner for four years, but the media startup was struggling to grow at a rate required by the landscape of the bay area investors and so the decision was made to fold the company to sell of its assets to suitable suitors. What happened next seemed impossible to anybody watching from the stands.
- [Jeff] The process of us selling the company was strange, for a lot of the reasons you would expect. But you know, I think the thing that happened, every start up that sells or fails or anything always like to say, aw, we were just too early. We had the best ideas, too early. But you know, in some cases if we were a year later or something like that and YouTube had been more viable for longer form videos, like who knows what woulda happened. You know, we made the best choices we could along the way but at the end of the day, you know, they had launched a lot of other sites and wanted it to be this big network and when that kinda, I think that wasn't happening at the rate that they needed it to happen so it became a case of just like, okay, maybe it's time to move on and move onto a different business and do a different thing and so we were at that point lucky enough to be something that was sellable, you know. Like you think about the number of start ups now, especially the number of content companies that launched and just went under. And with Giant Bomb with the premium memberships and that sort of stuff we were in a pretty good position there to where we were doing something that people I think were just starting to get a sense of just like, hey, maybe this direct to consumer like subscription type stuff is something we should care about. And so it was something that people were starting to wake up to and be like hey, maybe we want some kind of back pocket plan in case this advertising thing doesn't always work the way it works now. So Mike Tatum, the head of biz dev for Whiskey, asked me one day, he said, hey, would you be open to maybe selling the company to CBS? And I just laughed. And I was like yes, of course, absolutely, go have those conversations, that's the craziest thing anyone's ever said to me, absolutely, yeah, of course. That's the thing, it was a very different time, a very different company, all that other stuff. Like the stuff that happened to me was this blip on this timeline of this multi decade operation that has had good people at the helm of it for almost all of its time, you know. And most of the people that were there when I was there last time and involved in some of that unpleasantness were long gone. So at this point it was like, hey, do you wanna go talk to John Davison about, you know, maybe comin' over there, and Simon Whitcombe. Yeah, they've been around this space for years, it's totally different people, like yeah, of course. And there were other people that were interested, the company that ended up buying tested was like lightly interested but not in a way that sounded all that exciting to me. And so yeah, I had lunch with John and Simon and in, this would've been, it was around the holidays, I don't remember the exact year anymore, it all runs together, man. But it was the holidays, it was like right after Christmas, we went into Christmas break knowing that it was likely that the company was gonna be sold early the following year. And that the GameSpot team was interested, was kind of like what I went into the holidays knowing. And so I met with them and we just kinda talked it out and, you know, like they had a good head on their shoulders and we were, you know, fairly attractive I guess in the sense that we had our own revenue, it wasn't like we were coming in and like, okay, you gotta bolt us to a sales team, you gotta bolt us to this 'cause otherwise we're gonna be losing money overnight. We were coming in doing pretty well in the grand scheme of things. So yeah, I wasn't in all the negations and meetings and all the back and forth for that sorta stuff but, yeah, it was an exciting weird time because we knew it was happening but we couldn't say it was happening. And rumors started getting out there a little bit, it was a very strange time, you know. It was so hectic. My dad went into the hospital as we were packing up the office to get everything out, and we were entering this quiet period where we wouldn't even have an office and we couldn't even say why, which was so unlike everything we had done with our community and all this other stuff. It was like, here's the thing where we are forced to not talk about this deal or act like anything is weird but we also are not in an office, it's hard to generate content when you're not in the studio. And there was just so much going on around that time, it was really, it was bizarre. I came out of it feeling like we did pretty good. For someone who came into that situation with little more than his good name I feel like I came out of it better. Personally better, better at my job, better at more types of things, better at running a, a little bit more respect for what it takes to run a business but also knowing when to sacrifice the business needs for editorial interest, you know, that sorta stuff. I was able to grasp more pieces of the puzzle, I guess. And so yeah, we came back in and it was fun because I had set up Giancarlo Varanini, I set him up real good where I saw him at an event the week before the deal was getting announced and I think my exact words were, hey I'll see you next week. And we left this Microsoft event or whatever we were at and.
- [Danny] Did he know, did he twig it or?
- [Jeff] He didn't know at the time but he pieced it together and then he was like, oh my god, you were saying what you were saying, yeah. 'Cause, you know, we still talk to a lot of those people that were over there.
- [Danny] So strange, I think I told you, we were in the bizarre situation where the UK, I was at GameSpot UK and the UK sales team had leaked the deal to us, I think maybe six weeks before it was announced.
- We all knew and we couldn't tell the American office about it.
- [Jeff] That's GameSpot UK for you, man. One year they tried to give FIFA an 11.
- [Danny]Did they actually?
- [Jeff] Actually, yes. They turned in a FIFA review that was trying to give it an 11 out of 10. And we had to be like, no, you absolutely cannot under any circumstances do that.
- [Danny] For most of Jeff's life his career and hobby have been impossible tangled. And so for much of his life his identity has been too. For years his Xbox Gamertag was GameSpotting. He only changed it when he set up his new site, to GiantBombing. But since selling to CBS he's tried to create more distance between these two worlds. Jeff isn't the most social person you'll work with. He commutes to and from Petaluma every day, a 40 mile drive during bay area rush hour. Perhaps it's why he doesn't socialize much after work. Or maybe it's a convenient excuse to not have to. At his desk, he sits with headphones on, usually working on something. When he talks to you he speaks openly and honestly. When he doesn't want to talk, he doesn't. He's always struck me as a person who's gears are always turning, thinking about the work. Half enjoying it, half burdened by the weight of it all. He's tried to get better at delegating responsibility but in many ways Giant Bomb is his child and he feels like he needs to be in the room when decisions about it are being made.
- [Jeff] For me that's the struggle. Like my personal struggle is like the time management aspect of it and like keeping everything going. Because before I had other things going on in my life you could throw as much waking time as you could at a thing and also we owned the company. It was a sick cycle where in the back of your head you could always say like, well I need to work until three a.m. because this could be the video that puts us over the edge and turns this thing into an even bigger thing. And so it was very easy to justify to yourself incredibly unhealthy work habits that didn't make the site better, that didn't lead to necessarily more content or anything like that, it was just it was very easy to spend every waking moment thinking about it. And now I don't and at first that made me feel guilty, yeah, that's the weird struggle of just like, it's all just kind of a weird head trip. And the worrying goes from like, am I spending enough time with my family, am I spending enough time with my job, this seems like stuff that everyone else figured out a long time ago but I'm coming to it over the last few years and going like, man, this is an interesting new challenge. But it's been great, I wouldn't, if it wasn't for my wife I don't think I would, I'm not even sure if I would still be doing this, honestly. I probably would've completely burned out or something by now without her to kinda have my back and all that sorta stuff. Yeah, she's been great. She's the best thing that ever happened to me, totally.
- [Danny] Trying to create a distance between life and work you're passionate about can often be a struggle. But it was impossible for the staff of Giant Bomb to do so in the summer of 2013. This July will mark the 6th year since the tragic passing of their friend and colleague Ryan Davis and in recent months it's been on Jeff's mind a lot more. Last year the site launched a 24 hour livestream that plays videos from throughout the 10 year archive of Giant Bomb and users often vote for videos that Ryan is featured in. So Jeff is confronted with the memory of their friendship a lot more these days.
- [Jeff] You know, going back to those videos and stuff, the relationship that Ryan and I had was very complicated and changed a lot over the years because, you know, we were close friends, we were in a band, we were inseparable, I got him hired, we became coworkers, I became his boss. And so the relationship changed along the way too. So yeah, I don't know, when I think about Ryan I think about the days before were working together, primarily. Those are my Ryan memories, usually. The videos, the stuff we did along the way, yeah, we did some really cool shit and I like a lot of it just fine, but me personally, I think about the stuff prior to, when Ryan was answering phones for AT and T internet at three in the morning when people couldn't get into their email, that's the Ryan I think of. The Ryan that was living with three other guys in this tiny ass place and we'd just go hang out and he wasn't 21 yet so I was indispensable. Like that sort of stuff, that's the stuff I think about when I think about Ryan.
- [Danny] When I asked Jeff about the future of Giant Bomb he's excited, but cautious. Years of working on the internet has taught him to be careful about over-promising before stuff is built. Perhaps his experiences have also taught him not to plan too far ahead. As the site enters its 11th year its been changing its programming to try and bring in new viewers. Giant Bomb has been successful, it pays its own way at CBS, but it's still a website owned by a large media organization, so often the future is planned quarter by quarter, year by year. Perhaps the most surprising thing in coming to know Jeff, is how excited he still is about games. His Twitter profile reads "I've been writing about "video games my entire life. "It would be insane to stop now." So you wouldn't blame him for being burned out on video games after 30 plus years of talking about them. But if nothing else, the thing that strikes me about Jeff Gerstmann is that these days when you can be so cynical about video games he's still a true believer in the power of the medium, whether it be players of Pac-Man or Fortnite.
- [Jeff] I think games are only gonna continue to get more popular. If you look at what we're seeing with something like Fortnite right now. Like, it's having a moment that, that Minecraft had before it. It's huge, it's bigger than a Five Nights at Freddy's, it's crazy. But like I'm just trying to think about like, you know, games that have penetrated the mainstream in a huge way. What we're seeing with Fortnite right now feels almost unprecedented. It's Pac-Man esque. You know, like Minecraft was huge, but not in a, like kids loved Minecraft, kids love Roblox, but Fortnite is cut such a wide swathe across society to where it's like all these popular mainstream sports figures are now doing Fortnite dances in actual sports and it's never been like that before. So in some ways like, gaming has kind of never been cooler or less cool depending on your perspective. Because it's literally everywhere. You know, everyone is carrying around a device in their pocket that is capable of feats that like it would've been insane, no console 10 years ago could've done anything like this. Granted, the controls are still bad. The technology is pushed so far forward and it's so pervasive and in so many different places and in so many different styles. You look at like Pokemon Go and the idea of location based gaming, you know, people getting out there and moving around to catch Pokemon, like all that stuff is amazing and it's crazy. But like where we're going on that front, I think if the technology bears out and data caps don't kill the dream and all this other stuff, we're gonna reach a point where anyone can play top level video games on the device they carry around with them every single day. And in some cases they are, I mean, Fortnite's on phones for whatever that's worth. So I think that this isn't gonna go away, this is gaming's kind of big push into the mainstream kind of once and for all. And I think that games coverage, that's a more complicated thing. If you look at YouTube right now with demonetizing videos and everyone trying to stream and everyone trying to have a side hustle streaming or something like that. Kids growing up like commentating games as they're playing 'em because they just watch people on YouTube and they think that's how you're supposed to play games. That's it, that's where we're going, or that's where we are already. And so I think over the next five years it'll be tumultuous because I think you'll see the bottom drop out of ads in a way that makes the Twitch streaming and YouTube and like the kinda hobbyist turned pro streamer, I think that that's gonna have to even out. I think it's only gonna get harder and I think that will keep a lot of people out eventually, or it'll lead to a growth in just the hobbyist streaming and people will have different expectations. They'll just be like, I'm streaming 'cause I like it, I'm not gonna sit here and think I'm gonna make a bunch of money. The same way I made public access when I was 16, it's like, oh, we're on television. Like I'm not making any money off of it the way real people on TV do but I just wanna do it 'cause it's fun.
- [Danny] Thank you so much for listening to this episode of the Noclip Podcast. Sorry it took so long to get this one out, it was quite a long story and it's also kind of an impossible story to tell in its entirety so I had to pick my battles and figure out a narrative that kind of worked. I hope you enjoyed it and I hope it was nice piece to celebrate a website that means a lot to me and I'm sure a lot to you as well. Now for the housekeeping, if you wanna follow us on Twitter we are @Noclipvideo, I am @dannyodwyer, we have r/noclip if you're interested in getting on board and talking on Reddit and of course if you're a Patron keep up to date on all the Patreon posts. Podcasts are available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, and loads of other places anywhere podcasts are sold basically. We also have a YouTube channel where you can watch the podcast. That's Youtube.com/Noclippodcast. If you didn't know, we also make documentaries about video games, those are available for free with no advertising at Youtube.com/noclipvideo. Patrons get this show early for 5$ a month, if you're interested in supporting our work please head over to Patreon.com/noclip. And that's the podcast for another episode. We are actually at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco right now recording bunches of interviews which will be going up on the channel in the next couple of weeks. But we'll be back with another podcast in the not too distant future so make sure you hit that subscribe. We've never actually asked people to rate it, so if you're listening now and you're still listening at the end of this podcast, hey, why not rate us? Thank you so much for listening, we'll see you next time.