Roland Li is a reporter for the San Francisco Business Times covering real estate and economic development.
Li is also the author of “Good Luck Have Fun: The Rise of eSports,” released earlier this month from Skyhorse Publishing. This is the most comprehensive history of the growth of the competitive gaming industry, including interviews with over 50 players, team owners, tournament organizers and commentators.
Li’s work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, New York Observer, and Interview magazine. He worked full time for Real Estate Weekly and the International Business Times.
He was born in Beijing in 1988. After briefly being pre-med, he studied journalism and history at New York University and spent eight years in New York before moving to the West Coast in 2015. He has been gaming since “Warcraft: Orcs & Humans” was released in 1994.
Li spoke by email with Talking Biz News about the reporting and writing of his book. What follows is an edited transcript.
How did you get interested in writing about this topic?
I played many video games growing up in the 1990s, but my awareness of competitive gaming really took off during my last semester of college in 2010. Blizzard Entertainment’s StarCraft II was released, and it led to a huge spike in YouTube and online viewership, and tournaments all around the world.
I wrote a feature on the subject at the end of 2011, and I’ve been following the industry since. The growth has been massive, and tournaments are now routinely selling out venues like the Staples Center and Madison Square Garden.
How much coverage do you see in traditional business journalism about the electronic sports industry?
Mainstream press coverage has grown substantially in the past few years, especially with Amazon.com buying the streaming site Twitch for around $1 billion. The angle has shifted from the sector being a novelty to a real economic powerhouse, with millions of fans and billions in revenue.
The New York Times wrote a series in 2014, including a front page story. The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and Reuters have all covered the business extensively. ESPN also just launched a dedicated vertical.
Why did you think there was a book to be written about this topic?
I think it’s a rich topic with a lot of interesting personalities and some huge challenges such as lack of labor standards, match-fixing and gender diversity struggles. There’s an enormous amount of money flowing as businessmen and celebrities buy teams and companies, and it’s largely unregulated. There wasn’t a definitive book on the history of the industry, so I wanted to fill that void.
There’s also a gap between hardcore fans in their 20s and 30s and the parents of those fans, who don’t really understand what’s happening. I’m hopeful that the book is accessible to total newcomers, as well as appealing to people who follow it closely.
This being your first book, how did you sell the topic and yourself as a writer to the publisher?
I was extremely fortunate because my editor, Maxim Brown at Skyhorse Publishing, was already interested in doing a book on the subject and was looking for a writer. He approached me after I wrote about video game betting for Polygon in late 2014. He recently said that he appreciated that I approached the subject with a serious business angle, rather than just focusing on how bizarre watching other people play video games seems.
I think my background as a gamer, combined with my experience as a journalist for about six years was a good mix. After we connected, I drafted a proposal that was a roadmap for the book: Focus on the chronological growth of the top four games (Counter-Strike, StarCraft II, League of Legends and DOTA 2), the origins of Twitch, and also touch on economic and cultural issues.
How open were people in the industry to talking with you for this book?
There were dozens of people who I approached who either ignored my requests or ended up flaking. But the people who did talk to me were very forthcoming. There was a common thread of people following their passion, sometimes sacrificing education and relationships, because they cared more about the games than anything else.
The industry is also powered by many communities, and often it was the bonds between teammates or colleagues that motivated people to keep at it, even if they were barely making a living. At the same time, competition could be a darker motivator, leading to team owners poaching players or teams disbanding. There are some ugly moments in the narrative, but also some beautiful ones.
How did you balance working on the book with your full-time job?
It was definitely tough. I tried to write and set up interviews on most weekends and weekday nights. Last year was also my first full year both living in the Bay Area and working at San Francisco Business Times, and I definitely didn’t socialize much. Trying to make up for it now! But ultimately this was a subject that I’m passionate about so I think it was definitely worth it.
What was the hardest thing about reporting this book?
It was pretty challenging finding actual contact information for a lot of the sources. Most of them don’t have public emails. So I relied on LinkedIn and also asking people I had already talked with to introduce me to others.
My day-to-day beat is completely different (real estate) so I essentially had to build a source network from scratch. There were many people I wish I had been able to talk to, but I ultimately connected with over 50 people.
Were there companies and executives who didn’t cooperate? How did you write about them?
Unfortunately the major three game developers – Riot Games, Blizzard Entertainment and Valve Software – all either ignored me or declined to talk. I was able to talk to some former employees, David Ting from Blizzard and Nick Allen from Riot, which helped immensely with their insight.
There were also conferences and speeches that I pulled information and from, as well as previous interviews with other publications. I hope there are books in the future where they actually participate.
How do you think writing this book helped you in your journalism career?
I think it gave me a lot of experience in long-form writing, which is something I love reading but don’t get to pursue as much as I’d like, since my work focuses mostly on daily scoops. The longest pieces that I had written before this were only around 5,000 words.
The book was over 70,000 words, so I had to think a lot more about structure and flow. There were dozens of rewrites and tweaks, which was challenging but satisfying. I hope to do another one in the coming years, but I’ll have to think of another compelling idea.
What are your favorite games to play?
I mostly play DOTA 2 (aka Defense of the Ancients), which is a five-versus-five team game. It requires a lot of coordination and communication to be successful, which can lead to a lot of negativity and blame among teammates when things go poorly. This is true for your randomly paired average players and pro teams that constantly are shuffling rosters if they don’t win. It can be pretty ugly, but the drama is also compelling.
And the game itself is like basketball, in that every single match is different and you can pick from a huge mix of characters (the fantasy equivalent of a power forward, point guard or center, and then some). Valve, the game’s developer, has a big tournament every year in Seattle called the International that is crowdfunded by selling in-game items. Last year the prize was $18 million ($6.6 million for first place), and this year it’s on track to break $20 million. It’s incredible.