Eurogamer's 20th Birthday: Oli Welsh, Editor in Chief, on the history of the site, the evolution of EGX and the changing nature of video game journalism.
Eurogamer is celebrating its 20th year in existence this year. On the 4th September, it’ll be a clean two decades since the site published its first article and pushed itself into a prominent position within the British, European and global video games industry.
So where did the site - and its event siblings EGX and EGX Rezzed - emerge from? What have been the defining changes to the way the site operates and covers games? And how have changes in the way video games are released and consumed changed the way they’re reported about.
We sat down with Oli Welsh, the site’s current Editor in Chief, to find out.
George Osborn: How long have you been on the Eurogamer beat?
Oli Welsh: I first joined Eurogamer in 2008, a bit over eleven years now. I joined as MMO editor. At the time, World of Warcraft was in its pomp and Eurogamer felt they needed to cover that and it was something I specialised in as a freelancer. Over the following years, I published articles about several expensive flops as every publisher tried to take a run at World of Warcraft and failed. Fortunately though, they [Gamer Network] decided to keep me around.
GO: Can you talk me through how Eurogamer started?
OW: Rupert and Nick Loman were brothers in their mid to late teens. They were keen Quake 2 players and were running Quake 2 LAN events in Brighton and I think London.
They started a site for these events and it took on a life of its own. They started looking into web publishing, advertising and tech, and got involved in that. They set up a business and what they spotted was that although there were many pretty well established sites around in 1999, all the English language ones were US Based. Whereas in the UK, we had a healthy scene of home grown print magazines and not much in the online scene.
So that was the thinking behind the site and behind the name, which located it in Europe. And I remember visiting it back in those early days because it was one of the first places I could get reliable European release dates for games. Back in those days, they had very different release dates to Japan and the US and was one of the first unique selling points of the site was that I could find out definitively when I would be able to buy games released in the UK.
That’s how it started out. It was PC focused at first because it came out of their enthusiasm for Quake. I once played the top esport player at the time, Fatality, at Quake, not that it was called esports at the time, but over time the site grew to cover all forms of gaming.
GO: Initially, the Lomans were running events and shifted towards web publishing. But by 2008, they shifted back in the other direction and started the first EGX. Can you tell us a bit about that?
OW: Basically, Rupert never lost his love for doing events and there was a gap in the market. There hadn’t been an ECTS in London for a few years. There wasn’t a big international calibre event in the UK and Rupert saw a gap in the market to fill it.
Initially, it was called Eurogamer Expo because the site was a big brand and well respected in the UK industry. This helped get the event off the launch pad and establish its reputation.
After a few years, the branding changed because the event became famous in its own right and with quite a different audience who didn’t necessarily know Eurogamer and the brands were getting confused. So people were saying they were going to Eurogamer without any knowledge that there was a website attached, which is why it was rebranded as EGX.
It was helpful in those early years, but the site and the event can now happily co-exist without each other. But we get a lot of benefit from having them tied together and helping each other get off the ground.
GO: And in terms of Rezzed, my understanding is that it starts out in 2012 as a Rock, Paper, Shotgun venture?
OW: It started out as an RPS thing, but it never had their branding. It was closely aligned with Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which is now owned by Gamer Network but was a partner site at the time, and we wanted an event that captured RPS’s spirit with its PC and community focus. Rezzed is broader than that now, but it was inspired by the RPS brand and wanting to do something similar to that.
GO: You touched a bit on the evolution on the site. What would you say were the most notable changes to Eurogamer since you’ve been working there?
OW: Dropping review scores is a big one. It was something that we had wanted to do for a long time, to be honest, for a number of reasons.
One, it became increasingly frustrating fitting our judgement of games into numerical categories. I think it’s something that a lot of critics feel, but in games it is particularly problematic because games are so broad and they’re such sophisticated artefacts and change over time. You’ve got the artistic and technical accomplishment of the game to consider, and when you boiled it down to a number you tended to push towards one side or the other.
So the shift gave us a lot of freedom to do something that was more loose and expressed in a natural language that moved away from the Metacritic system. I’ve got nothing against Metacritic, I know the guys who run the site and their intentions are good, but I think the industry’s focus on metacritic scores became unhealthy – especially the way that some publishers used them in their relationships with developers. We were quite happy to move away from that ecosystem.
But I think the really significant changes – apart from the growth of the site – have been gradual and have been about the changes that games themselves have undergone. The biggest changes for us journalists has been the shift in emphasis from covering a game before it comes out to after it.
When I started, it was still, I think, a version of the model that had worked so well with print publishing that was all about building hype towards launch day. It was about this series of previews that would build hype towards the game launch and we’d work closely with publishers on those. Then the climax of that would be the review and you move onto something else.
These days, it’s completely different. Previews are still important, but they happen in live streams and we frequently find out information at about the same time as our audience does.
A recent example was ‘Apex: Legends’. We were flown out to see it, but the game came out two days later at the same time as our embargo lifted.
So the emphasis has become about reporting alongside the audience, reporting what the community inside the games are up to and what they’re concerned about.We also produce game guides these days, which is an enormous source of traffic for us.
While we enjoy being part of the pre-release campaign for games and reporting on them when we come out, the focus is now on what we can do when the game is in people’s hands and how we can help them get more out of them. That’s been, in terms of the way we things do, completely upended in the last eleven years.
And I think it’s a healthy change. I like the back and forth with the community, that you’re covering games with people. It also makes us less dependent on publishers and developers.
Sure, we need to be more creative and use our journalistic skills to more have our voices heard at the time literally everyone else is playing it. Everyone has access to social media and the ease of publishing makes it easy for everyone to be heard. But I relish the challenge and bringing the difference we can with the professionalism of our coverage.
GO:In terms of another big shift over the past decade has to be the rise of self-publishing. It’s not to say that it wasn’t a thing before, but the opening up of digital distribution, tools like Unity and Unreal has made it easier to release games. How has that changed the way you work?
OW:When I first came to Eurogamer, we tried to review every game. There’s no way we can do that now (laughs).
It’s difficult. Your responsibility shifts slightly from criticism to curation. It’s about choosing what you cover. Obviously, the top Triple A stuff will always be important. But you have to be very selective and what you select for your site becomes a statement about it and who your audience is.
You have to not think too much about traffic while you’re doing it. We do think about traffic a lot and that’s why we’re all over those big games and cover them extensively when they do come out.
With the rest of our time, we don’t have that much. So we need to make sure that we’re highlighting stuff that really matters to us, that we’re really interested in and tell interesting stories that our readers will want to follow. But it’s a real challenge because the volume of stuff out there is huge.
We didn’t review Undertale. I can tell you of a bunch of other major releases from the last few years that we missed at launch because you can’t catch every game. So you have to hold your hands up and try to catch up.
Again though, I regard it as a healthy challenge for us as journalists, critics and creators to try to stay ahead of us.
GO: We’ve also seen the development of the influencer through social media platforms. Obviously, it’s having a huge impact on the way people discover games and the way the community functions. So how has Eurogamer both adapted to the changes and charted its own course?
OW: Well we have our own Youtube channel but I wouldn’t call those guys influencers; they’d hate me if I did. We want to be part of that ecosystem, have our content out there and helping games be discovered in that way.
It pushes you towards doing stuff that the influencers can’t and won’t do. Hard news journalism has become more prominent to us because the sector doesn’t cover it very well. It’s mostly quite closely aligned with the brands they cover and sponsored content.
Eurogamer has always been founded on independence and it’s a core part of our identity. Of course, we work closely with the industry and a core part of our business comes through direct advertising. But we’ve always kept a very strict division between commercial and editorial to ensure that editorial can do the job it does well. The influencer world is different and we need to take advantage of that.
It definitely does have an impact on reviews. It’s an area where we struggle to have as much impact as we used to and I think at the moment we’re in the process of trying to figure out what place reviews have.
They’ve had a number of existential crises over the past ten years and influencers is one of them. But it’s also about how games are developed and released. It’s also about how prominent online play has become, where you need to be playing with others after release to be able to get the most out of it.
All of these have presented massive challenges to reviews and I think they’re helpful to our readers. But influencers have definitely had an impact on them and I think we’re in the process of figuring out how they fit in.
But like I say, that rise of influencers has come alongside that general shift for covering games post release. And certainly I’ve seen no decrease in appetite in the need for strong independent games journalism as a result of that.
Eurogamer will be celebrating its 20th birthday officially in the first week of September.
While Oli was tightlipped about their plans, there will be a panel at EGX Rezzed to help kick off the 20th birthday (as well as a 30 years of indie panel curated by us).
If you’d like to see both panels at Rezzed, you can get your ticket here.