Independent Video Game Critic Jim Sterling investigated the surge of advertorials involving gambling websites and apps and found that the companies who pay for websites to write advertorials not only didn’t require disclosure but encouraged clients to mask the fact that the article is an advertorial.
Sterling received emails from game site managers who received offers from ICS-Digital and Media-Top to promote online casinos on their websites in the form of advertorials. It turns out Sterling was receiving emails with the same offers from the same two companies even though his website is funded by viewers and the contact page clearly states that he doesn’t allow sponsored content.
Sterling decided to negotiate a deal with Media-Top for a sponsored article just to see what the process was like. Basically, Media-Top pays you to put a link to their client’s online casino in your article. Media-Top doesn’t care if the articles aren’t about online casinos. In fact, they told Sterling to write about a topic he likes and just shoehorn the link into the article by weaving the topic of online casinos into it. Not only did the topic of disclosure never come up, but Media-Top encouraged Sterling to put other external links unrelated to online casinos to “mask” the link so that it isn’t obvious.
Media-Top told Sterling that they’ve made over 5,000 deals in the past two years.
While the negotiation only came from Media-Top, the process eerily matches advertorials on a number of websites. They awkwardly weave in the topic of online gambling into the article, have multiple links, and don’t disclose that they’ve been paid for.
Media-Top was ready to offer money to Sterling to write an article containing the link to the online casino but Sterling couldn’t bring himself to do it, not even to write one calling out the company. That’s because the $100 he would have been paid just wasn’t worth it. Sterling later donated $100 to the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling and another hundred to the ACLU.
For Sterling, this is just business as usual. Here’s everything else you need to know about Sterling and his work:
1. Sterling Investigated Suspicious Behaviors of Big Video Game Companies Like Square Enix
Sterling’s Jimquisition series regularly calls out the anti-consumer practices of video game publishers. After publishing a video criticizing the microtransactions and “Augment Your Pre-Order” program of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Sterling was messaged by a developer at Eidos Montreal with a number of allegations. While anonymity prevents Sterling from presenting the allegations as confirmed fact, he did pour over the developer’s credentials to verify he worked for the company and the allegations lined up with what other developers told Sterling.
The inclusion of microtransactions in Mankind Divided’s single player was a last minute decision sprung on the developers by publisher Square Enix. The multiplayer mode, Breach, was tacked onto the game out of fear from Square Enix that players would get bored of the single player mode.
The marketing department for the game spent 50,000 CAD on DXTV, a video series promoting the game with only four episodes and with the most viewed one having 67,742 views. The game had a budget of 70 million CAD and needed to sell 3 million copies to break even. VGCharts estimated that Mankind Divided sold a total of 0.93 million for both PS4 and XBONE and Steamspy estimated that it has 642,995 owners on game distribution service Steam.
They also paid their interns at Eidos Montreal some of the lowest wages in the city, there was no internal beta within corporate, the game constantly tracks player movements in the game and stores them in a server for analysis, and one programmer claimed that Square Enix’s upper management “doesn’t give a fuck about games.”
2. Sterling Has Been Attacked by Game Developers
The most notorious developer to attack Sterling is Digital Homicide, with the first incident occurring in 2014. Not only did the developer mock Sterling for a YouTube video of him playing one of their games, but they also issued a DMCA-style copyright takedown in a bid to censor the video. The developer filed a libel lawsuit in March 2016 asking for $10 million in damages from Sterling. The case was raised to $15 million before being dismissed with prejudice last February. You can hear all about Sterling’s dealings with the developer in his nearly 40 minute video above.
Earlier in March, Sterling was accused of trademark violation by indie developer STICLI Games over a video critical of their game, Airport Master. However, the report they filed had no evidence of a registry number or status for its trademark and the accusations of trademark violation were proven to be spurious. The report was eventually rejected by YouTube itself.
Digital Homicide and STICLI Games are just two of the developers hitting Sterling’s videos with copyright takedowns and harassment. All of the takedowns have either never been taken to court or have been blocked by YouTube’s copyright protection program. All the affected videos have been put back on Sterling’s channel.
3. In Addition to Muckraking, Sterling Creates Reviews, Editorials, Podcasts, and More
Sterling’s wheelhouse is his Jimquisition series, where he takes a topical event involving the video game industry and provides his views on it. Episodes not only call out questionable video game industry practices but also discuss video game success stories and clever design. No matter what Sterling does, he always brings his unique brand of humor as he brandishes a giant pink dildo bat and obsesses over the 1980’s toy series Boglins.
He also writes game reviews on his website. A fair number of them have have drawn ire from fans. His review for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which he gave a seven out of 10, had people send death threats and attempt to hijack his site and Twitter account.
By far his biggest project to date is JimSAW, a parody of the Saw franchise that featured a cameo by popular voice actor D.C. Douglas.
Sterling also hosts Podquisition, a weekly podcast discussing video game news. Fellow independent video game journalist Laura Kate Dale and musician Gavin “Miracle of Sound” Dunne join Sterling as regular guests. Fans of the Jimquisition feel right at home on Podquisition as his guests share the same sense of irreverent humor. Sterling also hosts a podcast called The Spin-Off Doctors where he examines and often eviscerates movies based off of video games with fellow critic Conrad Zimmerman. Sterling hosts yet another podcast titled Jim Won’t Give Ian His VR where comedian and podcaster Ian Boldsworth tries to goad Sterling into giving him his virtual reality headset.
In addition to all that, he has a number of spin-off shows. Jimpressions is a series of “Let’s Plays” mostly focusing on terrible games that pass through the substandard quality control of Steam. The Best of Steam Greenlight series highlights awful trailers of games trying to get on Steam through the Steam Greenlight program while the Greenlight Good Stuff series looks at promising games trying to get on Steam.
4. Sterling Was Abused as a Child
For his review of The Beginner’s Guide, Sterling chose not to spoil the game but to talk about his upbringing and career and how it resonates with the themes of the game. He spent his childhood in Erith, Greenwich, United Kingdom in poverty, sleeping on the floors of family friends. His stepfather was an abusive alcoholic and a member of the Outcast biker gang who called himself The Preacher.
If you spoke during the airing of the National Lottery, it would be your fault he lost that week. You were ‘jinxing’ him by producing the slightest audible noise.
By the time Sterling was a teenager, he was incapable of socializing properly and terrified to speak out of turn. He decided to seek medical attention after spending a party with friends trapped in his mind and convinced that everyone there hated him. He still has social anxiety, but it’s not as severe as it once was.
Sterling writes that his upbringing may be part of the reason he focuses so much on negative comments on his reviews. Pointing out and making fun of negative feedback for all to see gives him validation from the people who do respect his work. He also recognizes that doing so can do a disservice to positive feedback and he tries not to indulge in it too much.
A big part of what I do, I do just for me. Because I want it. Because I need it. Because it gives me the agency, and identity, the ability to feel proud of myself when once I was incapable of it.
He now lives in Brandon, Mississippi with his wife and stepson.
5. Sterling Went Independent After Growing Sick of Traditional Games Journalism
In November of 2014, Sterling launched his Patreon page so that all the content on his website can be funded directly by fans. This includes the Jimquisition, his podcasts, game reviews, and other articles. Some of his content is still supported by ads through an affiliation with Maker Studios, which includes Jimpressions and Best of Steam Greenlight. He also sells T-shirts and other merchandise through distributor Shark Robot.
Sterling has been reviewing games for roughly 11 years. Sterling previously worked for Destructoid and The Escapist, hosting his reviews and the Jimquisition on both sites. As he writes on his Patreon page, he decided to go independent after growing weary of the video game journalism industry and its reliance on ad-supported models.
I don’t want to be under the shadow of corporate entities, and I don’t want to feel my criticism of the games industry exists by their good grace. I want to be able to make videos and write reviews on my own terms now, and to directly serve you, the audience. And I don’t want to do it while hawking some bloody corn snack products.
At the time of writing, Sterling has over 5,400 patrons contributing over $12,300 a month. He was featured as a creator of the week on Patreon’s blog. On his YouTube channel, he has over 494,900 subscribers and over 177,200,000 views. His Twitter account has over 161,000 followers with another nearly 34,000 following him on Facebook.