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Giant Bomb Still Changing Video Games Media 10 Years Later

August 08,2018 07:20

Giant Bomb turned 10 years old last month, and the website is still proving how the games media can be both fun, and funny; celebrating the outrageously dumb, and the outrageously great, filtered through the easy chemistry of old friends sitting in the ...

What’s your favorite Giant Bomb moment?
The bellicose “Mario Party” livestreams? The miraculous Persona 4 endurance run? The time Brad Shoemaker went knives out for “Destiny” to the shock and horror of his colleagues in the middle of one of those interminable Game of the Year deliberations? Maybe when the late, great Ryan Davis found the deepest reservoir of his showman instincts to down an unscrupulous jar of breast milk presented to him in the middle of the 2013 PAX panel? Or when Jeff Gerstmann threatened to ice other game critics with an airsoft gun over a muffled Ice Cube song? Or one of those winsome late-summer Bombcasts, when the release schedule is dry, and the crew finds themselves layering digression after digression – unpacking the gonzo “Fast & Furious” timeline, or the Insane Clown Posse filmography, or Jeff’s legendary stories about his former dwelling out in the boonies – until the “gaming” portion of this gaming show is tertiary at best? Giant Bomb turned 10 years old last month, and the website is still proving how the games media can be both fun, and funny; celebrating the outrageously dumb, and the outrageously great, filtered through the easy chemistry of old friends sitting in the same room. Somehow they’re still doing it better than the rest of us, one Quick Look at a time.

You probably know the story. Jeff Gerstmann, then the director of GameSpot, was terminated from his position in late 2007 after delivering a (deservedly) harsh appraisal of “Kane & Lynch: Dead Men.” The game’s publisher Eidos Interactive was running banner ads on the site and threatened to cancel the deal in retaliation. GameSpot’s governing board capitulated to the pressure, and Gerstmann was called into a darkened conference room to be served papers. It was an unprecedented breach of the firewall between the editorial and sales teams – one of the first major controversies of the young, insular coterie of the games media –  and one that had seismic effects on the fragile solvency of audience faith. GameSpot took years to recover its reputation, but in the immediate meantime, Gerstmann was out of a job and overwhelmed. “After the firing, I had no idea what I was going to do next,” he told Variety, over the phone, from his San Francisco office. “I was like, ‘I’m going to sit on the couch, and have a couple of drinks, and see what happens next.'”
The position that Gerstmann had – the chief administrator of a global games publication – does not open very frequently. It would’ve been difficult to slide over to IGN and expect to pilfer the same salary, and the same authority, that he earned with his tenure at Gamespot. So this put him in an awkward spot. In those days the standard route for a burned games writer was by exploring the other side of the business – as a producer, or PR liaison, the same place where people like Shane Bettenhausen and Jeff Green landed when 1Up went belly-up. Honestly, that probably would’ve been Gerstmann’s fate if he didn’t have the presence of mind to understand the influence he was wielding. “I was uncertain for about three days. When the phones started ringing when the L.A. Times called me, and some Norwegian newspaper called my mom, that was the point where I realized that I could figure something out [in the media,]” remembers Gerstmann. “It wasn’t long after that when I sat down with Dave [Snider, the web designer who built Giant Bomb.]”
Remember, this was in 2007. In the prehistoric era of Twitter, the pre-HD era of YouTube, and long before the 1099 revolutions of Patreon and GoFundMe. Today, Gerstmann’s authority can be proved analytically by his Klout score, but back then, he was mostly operating on a hunch; the educated guess that people enjoyed his personality enough to power a brand new project. He poached a trio of his former co-workers – Brad Shoemaker, Ryan Davis, and Vinny Caravella – and recorded the first episode of the Giant Bombcast on March 11, 2008. Four months later, with the backing of Whiskey Media’s startup money, Giant Bomb’s full editorial frontend was unveiled, and the team immediately redefined what it meant to be a video game website.
CREDIT: Mike Lunsford
It’s almost funny to consider how audacious Giant Bomb’s posture was in its early days. It was a world where the idea of uploading an entire playthrough of a new game was considered dodgy at best, and potentially blacklist-worthy at worst. Obviously, things have changed greatly in the intervening years – there are people streaming Madden 19 right now, a full week before its release date – but Gerstmann and company did not have that assurance when they started hammering out their identity. Giant Bomb settled into a template called a “Quick Look” – a half-hour of raw, largely unedited footage of a game, with the pithy, unscripted commentary of the staff – which was uploaded directly onto the site’s video player. It was an unprecedented technique in the era of the finely manicured sizzle reel, and according to Caravella, they never bothered to ask for permission.
“We definitely were playing it video by video. The timing was such that we landed right when video game coverage was becoming democratized. YouTube and Justin.tv gameplay channels were getting established and we happened to be in the right place at the right time. A lot of our early, unedited gameplay video came from a place of me being the only video producer we had. I just didn’t have time to cut everything if we wanted to get videos up at a regular pace,” he said, in an email interview with Variety. “Some publishers at the time weren’t thrilled about it, but I think many saw that the public was able to do exactly what we were doing and it was a losing battle for them to clamp down.”
Of course, none of that would’ve worked if the human beings behind Giant Bomb weren’t so relatable. The dynamic of the initial roster – Ryan, Jeff, Vinny, Brad – was ironclad. Those friendships were forged in the grind of a newsroom, which made it remarkably easy for any passerby to slip in and feel like they’re part of the joke. Together, they created their own private canon – through energy drink taste tests and lucha-masked taxidermy – and welcomed the rest of us into their universe through the 180-minute podcast they recorded every week. This was a radical act; there was rarely any kinship between the community and the name on the byline in the prehistoric games media. That’s difficult to remember now, in a world where Ninja routinely rubs shoulders with Drake and Chance the Rapper, but Giant Bomb was one of the first institutions to realize that video games were meant to be consumed with your friends and that there was money to be made and a cult to be formed if you could transmute that truth into a brand.

“It sounds so simple now, but I had conversations with people explaining that you could get ‘Gears of War’ gameplay footage anywhere but you can only get Jeff Gerstmann talking about ‘Gears of War’ gameplay footage on Giant Bomb, and that makes us unique,” continued Caravella. “Now, most everything is personality based, but it really wasn’t back then. I think that really connected with a large part of the audience that could see a lot of themselves in the Giant Bomb staff and relate to how we felt about certain games. Or at the very least they could take some enjoyment out of disagreeing with us.”
Shortly after launch, Giant Bomb started selling premium memberships packaged with content that’s gated off from the vanilla site. Giant Bomb was never a publication that put much value in a banner ad, and it’s easy to read their luxury suite as a prototypical version of the crowdfunding revolution that dawned a few years later. They hedged that their skewed perspectives, and the genuine bond they formed with their fans, would be enough to power a product that people would be willing to purchase. Once again, they were right.
The provincial shifts that followed after Giant Bomb’s ascendence were immediately apparent. IGN and GameSpot, the two traditional bulwarks of the mainstream games press, ditched their alien, slash-and-burn blanket coverage for a far more YouTube-friendly strategy. (Today, IGN even has its own show on Disney XD.) Those publications needed to create their own take on the five-people-talking-in-a-living-room genre; they needed to create their own Jeff Gerstmanns. In 2015 Greg Miller, a longtime IGN talking head, ditched his editorial post to build Kinda Funny out of a Patreon platform and a YouTube channel – in a move that mirrored Giant Bomb’s founding ethos to the T. “I was talking to Jeff back when we were just toying with the idea of Kinda Funny,” said Miller, when I interviewed him a few years back. “He was like, ‘Yeah you guys got the right idea.’ It was what we needed to hear, that we were building and doing something that he saw himself in … The more you learn and study YouTube you realize that that’s what Giant Bomb was doing from the beginning.”
A more recent example might be Waypoint, VICE’s games vertical. The staff consists of both Austin Walker and Patrick Klepek – two Giant Bomb alums – and while the site’s editorial priorities skew more political, they’ve clearly taken lessons from their former employer. At the very least, they understand that the foundational DNA of a good games site is a killer podcast. It’s been an especially interesting road for Klepek, who himself spent years as an old-fashioned beat reporter for places like 1Up and MTV. When he came over to Giant Bomb in 2011, he was immediately forced to transform into someone people might want to watch on camera.
“I was pretty bad at it for a long time, and it took me a while to find my place,” Klepek tells Variety, over email. “But I also recognized video was the future, and Giant Bomb was a place to do more than dip my toes; it was going into the deep end. If I want to do this for years to come, I need to go where the audience is going, so learning how to be a reporter with a personality that could contribute on podcasts and video seemed like fruitful ground.”
Today, Klepek is a consummate games media professional; a natural in front of a microphone or a Twitch stream, while still finding time to crack out one of his trademark off-kilter profiles when he gets the chance. He credits that balance to his Giant Bomb baptism. It might’ve been a trial-by-fire, but when you spend a couple years in that community, you emerge with a unique understanding of how to be an entertainer.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without Giant Bomb, [it’s] where I came under the spotlight. I absolutely credit Giant Bomb with giving me the tools to navigate our current, confusing media landscape,” continues Klepek. “I’ve probably blurred the lines between reporter, commentator, and personality in the years since, especially at the more politically-minded Waypoint, but the foundation for this part of my career was laid while at Giant Bomb.”

After 10 years, Klepek is one of many people who put their Giant Bomb heritage to good use. Drew Scanlon was an intern brought in to fold T-shirts. When he left the site in 2017, he had the momentum to start a travel docuseries called Cloth Map, which is currently pulling over $10,000 on Patreon. (Danny O’Dwyer, a GameSpot employee who appeared on a number of Giant Bomb shows, did something similar with Noclip.) The website has long morphed out of its roots as a shoutbox for Gerstmann and his colleagues, and into a more diverse, less insular platform where young people get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make an impression in the industry and do with that influence as they will. Most recently, the site brought on producer Abby Russell and editor Ben Pack, both of which were just adolescents when Gerstmann was first fired by Gamespot. This is something that Caravella takes a lot of satisfaction in. For the first time ever, he’s handing off Giant Bomb to the next generation.
“Gaming culture has changed so much over the last decade and there are so many new voices that need a chance to be heard. I have always felt very lucky to have been there since the beginning of our industry, but it’s also fascinating to me now to get the perspectives of people that weren’t there,” he said. “We all worked so hard to make Giant Bomb and keep it going. There were times I thought it would all spin apart if not for all of us just holding hands a bit tighter. To have it now be a platform for new people makes me extremely proud.”
The media is still a very treacherous place. That was true in 2008, and it’s even more true in 2018. When asked if they expected Giant Bomb to be the last job they ever work, both Caravella and Gerstmann carefully demurred. It’s smart. Nothing is ever guaranteed in this business, especially now, when the priorities and contours of the games media seem to shift on a nightly basis. So consider that a guarantee of sorts; Giant Bomb will never grow complacent. They understand better than anyone else how important it is to stay ahead of the curve. After all, it’s taken them this far.
“We’re still in the minute of it, so it’s hard to have a perspective on the things we’ve done so far,” said Gerstmann. “It’s been nice having a 10 year anniversary, and a bunch of people have said a lot of nice things, but every day I still wake up and think, ‘I’ve gotta put stuff on this website because if I don’t, who will?'”
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