It seems weird to be writing something about a website, much less one that is still very much active and not currently embroiled in controversy. They cover news, which means their news is really just when they gain or lose editors, and that is largely circulated only among their fans and the industry itself. There should, really, be no reason a 10-year retrospective is even necessary.
But this is Giant Bomb. It has been a full decade since this tiny, weird, plucky organization launched, and it’s also been a full decade since they started shaping the landscape of games journalism as we know it today. They created the modern blueprint for smashing together critical thought and personality-driven entertainment. They are, in short and for better and worse, why we have places like Waypoint, professional Twitch and YouTube streamers, and little indie hovels like this place right here.
That was an inevitable development, of course, but it can’t be ignored that the pace at which it came about was at least partially kick-started by those early years of Giant Bomb. And they came about by a tremendously reckless and volatile and obscene decision from the higher ups at GameSpot wherein Jeff Gerstmann was fired from his position as Editorial Director on November 28, 2007. It was, at the time, shrouded in rumor as the industry reeled. Could it actually be because of a single Kane & Lynch review?
Once Giant Bomb was acquired by CBS Interactive in 2012, however, Gerstmann revealed it was all true: his termination was indeed due to pressure from publishers via the marketing department due to low review scores. And as dumb of a decision that was, it ended up being kind of necessary. It kicked the integrity of the then-still burgeoning games journalism into the limelight and no other outlet’s management would be able to get away with this again. The unfortunate part was that it had to happen to the one person in the story that did his job right.
The fortunate part, though, is that this enabled Gerstmann to take his experience and cachet and use it to work with a small but ambitious media company called Whiskey Media. He managed to bring with him a surprisingly large yet unavoidably insufficient contingent from GameSpot in Brad Shoemaker, Vinny Caravella, and Ryan Davis, and together, they founded Giant Bomb. Their idea? Video games have to move past the days of Fun Factor scores and recycled B-roll footage.
And they were alarmingly right. I suppose everyone knew it, though, as despite the video game industry growing year after year, the perspective on games journalism itself was pretty rough. You write about video games? Ha, okay. Have fun using the safety scissors in class today, kid. Everyone across the board was stuck in a rut of talking about polygon count, regurgitating press releases, and, at best, recording voiceover for B-roll delivered via VHS tapes.
Gerstmann saw something, though. He saw that video was the future, and that would be what Giant Bomb would work towards. At a time when the ubiquity of YouTube was still not completely solidified and streaming wasn’t as easy as just downloading a couple apps and connecting your Twitch account, they were the ones giving it a go. They knew if you made the content, the audience would come. The days of cutting videos down to three minutes or less to guarantee views were largely done.
They did the Persona 4 Endurance Run before Let’s Plays were a thing, proving people were willing to watch them play video games for hours at a time. They were recording three- to four-hour podcasts back when everyone was still trying to fit the audio medium into a broadcast television half-hour format. They were themselves when corporations were warning the likes of GameSpot and IGN to develop a news anchor sheen and tuck away their personality.
It was all so revolutionary at the time that no one quite knew what to make of it. They condensed news to headlines and then proceeded to talk for 90 minutes about how it fits into the context of the medium’s history, but does that make them a news outlet? They produced things called Quick Looks that went on for 45 minutes at a time, but no one knew if they were reviews or what. It didn’t seem they really knew what they were either; their best approximation was “it’s a website about video games,” and even that was only partially accurate.
And perhaps because of the experience of being born from Gerstmann’s unethical termination, this was also a website unafraid about being honest. Giant Bomb made their first big splash with a video about Tony Hawk: Ride, a poorly conceived peripheral game that was more torture device than skateboarding delivery vehicle. It was brutal and hilarious and entertainment, but above all, it was honest. It wasn’t going to sugar coat the experience just to avoid conflict with publishers, a persistent fear of someone like Activision blacklisting them for their opinions.
It proved so many thing at once. An audience wants to know who they’re watching or reading or listening to, and by being exactly themselves, they showed that was true. They also weren’t going to be shills, a vital lesson for the generation of games journalists to follow (including myself) and a treat following the pervasive drama of Gerstmann’s termination. And they proved Tony Hawk: Ride was a bad game.
It can’t be understated how influential it was that they put their personalities in the forefront. They did for games journalists in the upcoming video coverage era what the likes of Josh Horowitz did for Hollywood coverage (which ended up being a pretty rough end state since now all anyone does is play games with celebrities at junkets instead of asking important or in-depth questions, but that’s another topic altogether). You identified yourself with Gerstmann’s action-oriented tastes or Vinny’s adventure game addiction or Brad’s strategy-tinged blood. It provided a shorthand for opinions at a time when people were realizing time to read 900-word reviews was at an all-time low.
But most importantly, it gave a whole slew of hosts—current and upcoming alike—permission to not be uptight teleprompter readers. (Granted, it also opened the floodgates for reactionary YouTubers that just yell at horror games and rage out at multiplayer matches, but hey, good with the bad, I guess.) It opened up the idea of Internet celebridom to a whole new section of the world’s population. Who among us didn’t watch and laugh along to their incredibly low-rent but unbelievably vital and booze-soaked E3 live-streams in what appeared to be LA-based murder shacks.
No more cranking out 300-word news articles for trailers that came out in deluges three times a year. No more delaying coverage for days at a time to cultivate angles on pieces that didn’t need angles. Get a camera, get an Internet connection, and get going. They have the knowledge (especially with Gerstmann’s encyclopedic brain) and they had the wit. Why not provide live commentary? It was a fair question, and Giant Bomb was the answer.
In more recent years, they also proved they weren’t immune to change, either, after being the progenitor to it. The death of Davis, still the best host the industry has ever seen or probably will see, was critical: it took the heart of the site after five years of cultivating a singular vision. (In a way, it also took the heart of the industry at large; it was a tragedy that touched far more people than anyone could have expected.) And they had to adapt.
And they way they adapted to this by bringing in new voices with new perspectives taught us that this was an industry played on an endless wave of adaptation, not in generations of seismic shifts. Patrick Klepek brought back the core of investigating and breaking stories, even if meant publishing on Google Docs. Dan Ryckert showed that video features could work within a framework that cultivated audience engagement. (Also that Ryckert, like, exists, I guess.)
But neither were they immune to criticism. After questions of their representation arose (the onboarding of Ryckert and video producer Jason Oestreicher continued an incredible stretch of straight white male hires), they brought on Austin Walker, who delivered with him an academic level of critical thought. He proved that analysis could be culturally and socially relevant while being engaging. And with the departure of longstanding producer Drew Scanlon, they managed to find Abby Russell, Ben Pack, and Jan Ochoa, further diversifying the views they brought to the table.
This represents the vital crux of what Giant Bomb represents: keeping up with the world. They were born from and continue to be the need to provide insight and coverage in whatever way people will consume it (including Mixlr, Periscope, etc.), but never at the cost of quality. To this day, no one matches Gerstmann in his on-air interviewing skills. Look at this year’s E3 segment with Phil Spencer. Try to find someone else able to tell Microsoft’s executive vice president of gaming that Sea of Thieves is boring and turn it into a productive conversation.
There was something Caravella said some years ago that has stuck in my head all this time. In a stream (I don’t recall which one), he said that even after finding a tremendous amount of success, it still feels like them against the world. It’s not just the four of them in a basement with a ratty old couch anymore, but it never stopped feeling like a battle.
And that’s the thing I’ve taken away from this 10-year odyssey. It’s always a fight. This website that features theatrical wrestling happening over video game wrestling, that has garnered stupefying popularity in a podcast about discovering the most popular anime in existence, that created…whatever this is will never stop trying, and neither should you. A decade of taking in that lesson has hopefully changed me for the better—made me a better journalist as much as it has made me a better person—and that’s thanks to Giant Bomb.