Eulogy for Grantland

grantland-logo@2xOn October 30, 2015, ESPN made the (stupid) decision to shut down Grantland, the sports and pop culture website started by Bill Simmons and populated with a host of incredible writers. ESPN claimed it was a financial decision, but a quick look at the tense history between ESPN and Bill Simmons makes it seem like a petty revenge move. A quick search reveals plenty has already been written about Grantland’s demise, it’s impact at ESPN, where the staffers will do next, etc. So why am I, co-founder and publisher of Theory of Gaming, a video game website writing a piece on them? Because I loved Grantland, and without it Theory of Gaming wouldn’t exist.

Where we find inspiration

We hear it all the time: “You never know when/where inspiration will strike.” It’s an old idiom that everybody seems to know, yet nobody knows where it came from. Why it continues to permeate throughout our culture, is that it’s true – some of my favorite ideas have arrived in the middle of the night or when out at a bar with friends – places and times when in which ideas had no business occurring, and yet …

After a couple years of reading Grantland’s thoughtful and entertaining longform articles, while also endlessly complaining about the short useless nature of most video game coverage, it occurred to me that what I really wanted was Grantland-style video game writing. And while there were a handful of sites that came close, nothing I found really hit the sweet spot I was seeking. That’s when the idea first popped into my head – if I can’t find it, why don’t I write it? Just like that the Theory of Gaming seed had been planted and I began a quest to find a partner to undertake this venture with. Enter Josh Snyder, co-founder and managing editor for Theory of Gaming, who over beers and plates of nachos got the rough pitch and added more ideas to the pile. By the end of the session, we arrived at a skeleton of what would be Theory of Gaming. Nearly three years later, we’re still at it, trying to produce long-form thoughtful content on video games, and it all started with Grantland.

Validation that the format could succeed

Attention spans appear to be shrinking, as more and more things vie for our time. We’re tied to mobile phones with relatively small screens and we consume content on the go. All of these items lead to what I call the “hot take” approach to content, in which publishers have made strategic decisions to lure readers in by giving them content which can be consumed in short bursts. But that also leaves a void – people no longer get the full story, or in-depth explanations for why things are.

In an industry that produces something that we love (video games), that approach feels to us like a disservice to developers and publishers – how can we reasonably expect developers to deliver the best possible products if all reviewers provide is 500 words on their game accompanied with an arbitrary score? Developers who pour immense amounts of hours into their games deserve better – they deserve honest feedback and explanations for why we feel the way we do. Once they have the feedback and the details, then they can make an honest assessment of how to proceed moving forward. That’s not to say our opinions are the “right” or the “only” ones – in fact, since we’re not developers, we’re likely wrong more than we’re right, but there’s value in that too since perception often equates to reality. By offering opinions without the reasoning for how they arose, developers have no way of knowing what in their games connected with the player, or what missed the mark that they were sure would succeed.

The question was, would a site dedicated to long-form articles survive in a “hot take” world? Again, looking at Grantland’s success gave me confidence that it could more than survive – that it could succeed. So off we went.

More than the written word

Grantland inspired Theory of Gaming in other ways too. After listening to Grantland podcasts like Jalen & Jacoby, and the Grantland NFL Podcast with Robert Mays and Bill Barnwell, we started our own podcast (yeah, we need to get back to recording them). Hell, I even borrowed the Grantland NFL Podcast’s intro because I liked it so much:

“Welcome to the [Grantland NFL/Theory of Gaming] podcast, I’m [Robert Mays/Nick Olsen] and joining me, as always, is [Bill Barnwell/Josh Snyder]. [Bill/Josh], how are you doing today?”

Grantland built a vast media repository of content spanning media types (articles, podcasts, videos) across sports (NFL, MLB, NBA, professional wrestling) and pop culture (television, movies, music) and did it in their own way, with smart, thoughtful and entertaining analysis and commentary. It became a one-stop shop for me almost every single day of the week. Which is exactly what Theory of Gaming hopes to be for video game developers one day. It’s why we have reviews on new games and old, essays, debates and podcasts (yeah, yeah, we’ll get back to the them soon). And it’s why we are continuously looking for ways to expand into new areas, with new contributors.

We’re not there yet, but that’s ok, because we have proof that such a thing is possible since Grantalnd managed to do it successfully.

Staying the course

But Grantland is gone – killed by ESPN before it’s time, and taking with it a model of success that’s driven Theory of Gaming. But what’s more important is what Grantland showed us is possible. There’s more than a place for long-form content; if done well, it can help to drive a dedicated following. The response to Grantland’s shuttering has not been a positive one. That response is largely derived from Grantland fans who saw it for what it was; the rational, thoughtful counterbalance to the inane ramblings of talking heads like Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless. A quick snapshot of just a few of the retch-inducing comments spewed by these brand emissaries in recent history:

  • Defending his own rumor that Kevin Durant would leave the Thunder (which Durant denied), Stephen A. took to the TV and threatened Durant: “You do NOT want to make an enemy out of me.”
  • Discussing the appalling Ray Rice domestic violence situation, Stephen A. shared his idiotic thoughts that victims of domestic violence are sometimes to blame: “…  let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions, because if I come, or somebody else come, whether it’s law enforcement officials, your brother or the fellas that you know, if we come after somebody has put their hands on you, it doesn’t negate the fact that they already put their hands on you. So let’s try to make sure that we can do our part in making sure that that doesn’t happen.”
  • Skip famously called Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel “an alcoholic and a liar” and declared that Kobe Bryant’s rape case gave the athlete “sizzle.”

ESPN supposedly pays Stephen A. more than $3 million/year to spew this garbage; combined with Skip’s salary and they’re pushing $4 million/year or more. Those are some expensive brand ambassadors who aren’t very good at painting ESPN in a good light.

Side note: Grantland founder Bill Simmons reportedly demanded a $6 million/year salary; ESPN declined. Simmons was also not without his own controversies.

Compare comments like those with writing of Holly Anderson, Chris B. Brown, Zach Lowe and the rest, and it’s pretty clear why ESPN received the pushback it did when it swept Grantland under the rug.

Grantland is gone and that sucks. But lessons and inspirations I took from Grantaland are still there – and Theory of Gaming will continue to apply those as we stay the course and strive to deliver high quality, thoughtful content for the video game industry. Maybe one day we’ll be the one-stop-shop for video game developers, but whether we get to that point or not, this site owes a huge ‘thank you” to Grantland for the inspiration and validation it provided to us from afar.

Thank You, Grantland; you’re gone but not forgotten.

Nick Olsen
co-founder and publisher
Theory of Gaming