James Stephanie Sterling’s career is due in part to the Xbox Kinect.
In an interview with Heavy, Sterling said that in 2010 while still working for gaming news site Destructoid they was sent to cover Microsoft’s E3 Press Conference where they would announce the Kinect. Sterling said that they made him and other journalists wait in line for hours with no water available. When they got there, they put white vests on them and had Cirque du Soleil dance around them. They then projected light onto the vests for some sort of video package. It also turned out that MTV had an exclusive on the whole event.
Sterling angrily left early for a water fountain. The story the next day was “Jim Sterling stormed out of the Kinect show in disgust,” which they said was only half true. After going back to the seedy motel Destructoid was operating out of, Sterling was asked to give their thoughts on the presentation for the publication’s video coverage.
“I’d already taken to wearing aviators to alleviate camera shyness, and by the time I yanked the microphone out of our interviewer’s hands and blasted Microsoft, I was halfway toward cutting a wrestling promo,” Sterling told Heavy. “The whole thing was such a blast in retrospect that I decided to try doing it some more.”
This moment led Sterling to establish the Jimquisition, a weekly video series where Sterling shares thoughts about topical issues regarding the video game industry. Every week after that they have taken the industry to task, investigating some of the biggest names in gaming. Now after going independent, Sterling’s fan-funded brand is 575,000 subscribers strong.
Here’s everything you need to know:
Update: Sterling came out as “non-binary pansexual gendertrash” on August 25, 2020, so this article has been updated with the correct pronouns.
1. Sterling Investigated Disturbing & Suspicious Behaviors of Big Video Game Companies Like Rockstar Games & Square Enix
Sterling talked to a number of former Rockstar Games employees who detailed allegations about how the higher-ups of the company used fear and anger to keep its employees in line and exhibited unprofessional behavior in general. The sources are presented anonymously but Sterling verified the identities of those who provided information.
The sources told Sterling that Rockstar Games got its critically acclaimed and incredibly profitable games made by “beating developers into submission” as one source put it. The development of Max Payne 3, for instance, at least according to one worker, was oppressive not because of the long work hours but because of the brutal conditions the higher-ups put them under as they shouted and screamed at them.
Many of the allegations surround former Vice President of Product Development Jeronimo Barrera. One source compared Barrera to Darth Vader in the way that he instilled fear in the employees.
“He’d kick the crap out of the studio to keep them productive and say, ‘by the way, the Housers [Dan and Sam Houser, the founders of Rockstar Games] are coming in a month, this needs to work,'” said the source.
Another source said that Barrera had personal vendettas against people all the time and had anger issues. Saying the wrong thing to him could allegedly get you fired on the spot. Some of his outbursts were for petty and bizarre reasons, according to one source.
A story that bugs me to this day is that he had an angry fit about a harmless motivational poster someone on my team had hanging because it ‘discouraged weekend working.’ It was a monkey on some vines saying something like ‘can’t wait for the weekend.’
He sent someone to demand it be taken down and the most senior person on our team was so afraid he’d blacklist us, that we had to make peace with him by going to dinner with the guy.
At that dinner, he brought up a discussion about losing virginity and tried to get us to share like we were drunk college buddies.
It was just flat out weird, and I felt like one of those sweating nervous cartoon characters that want to run away.
Maybe that gave him an impression of me that got me even more on his bad side.
Barrera was allegedly frequently inappropriate around other workers as he discussed and encouraged sex and drugs a lot, according to a source.
The account with the source lines up with what former Rockstar Designer Colin Bundschu told Kotaku about Barrera. He told the publication that he was told by coworkers and managers to be mindful of what he said to Barrera because he had a reputation of screaming at people. Bundschu told Kotaku that Barrera had groped him during a party at a nightclub in 2014. Barrera categorically denied all allegations of misconduct raised by Bundschu through his attorney, Robert Tracy.
According to sources, the executives at Rockstar are allegedly averse to criticism. One source told Sterling that a coworker was fired for taking the initiative and trying to fix the combat gameplay of the company’s games. The Housers were allegedly offended that the employee wanted to fix the combat as they wanted their games to resemble cinematic experiences rather than video games.
“He was a good dev, an asset to the team,” said the former employee. “There’s very much a corrupt culture there, they’re firing people for trying to do their job.”
Sources also said that Rockstar executives would host parties at casinos and strip clubs, and that if you wanted a chance to move up in the company you would have to attend these parties. Barrera was allegedly a big perpetrator of the party culture at Rockstar. He along with other executives would set up outings and keep the circle small. If anyone outside of the clique was invited to the party, he would become furious. His group would make fun of and mock others within the circle. Barrera would even get into brawls during some of the parties.
Barrera left Rockstar in 2018 after two decades with the company, according to Kotaku. However, according to one source, he was actually fired by the Houser’s because the #MeToo movement, a movement to end sexual violence and harassment, had gained widespread attention and so they wanted to avoid the bad look Barrera’s actions would bring to the company.
It was announced Jeronimo had quit Rockstar to explore more avenues, which is code for ‘he got shitcanned.’
The #MeToo movement changed things. The Housers were aware the culture had changed and their stripclubs and casinos [were a bad look].
Upper management would talk about the tits of female employees. These people are running the company. Jesus f****** Christ. I’m p***** off. Jeronimo was fired because Rockstar tried to course correct.
Sterling reached out to Rockstar Games for a comment on the allegations. They told him that they were going to produce an official statement, but no such statement had appeared at the time of writing.
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, which now appears to be deleted, was funded by viewers and the contact page clearly stated that the site 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 they like 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 themselves to do it, not even to write one calling out the company. That’s because the $100 they 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.
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, they did check the developer’s credentials to verify he worked for the company and the allegations lined up with what other developers told them.
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 them 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 2017, 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.
Sterling, among many other people, was critical of Richard La Runia’s Super Seducer, a game that advertised itself as a way to learn seduction secrets to pick up women according to the game’s page on Steam. Sterling was especially critical about how La Ruina issued a fraudulent DMCA takedown against a video made by YouTuber IAmPattyJack. In a cutscene in Super Seducer 2, La Ruina is shown going over a list of people who criticized Super Seducer, including Sterling, IAmPattyJack and more, and then saying “die, you fuckers” before launching missiles at them.
3. In Addition to Muckraking, Sterling Creates Editorials, Podcasts & More
Sterling’s wheelhouse is his Jimquisition series. 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, they always bring his unique brand of humor as they brandish a giant pink dildo bat and obsess over the 1980s toy series Boglins.
Sterling used to write game reviews on their website. A fair number of them have drawn ire from fans. Their review for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which they gave a seven out of 10, had people send death threats and attempt to hijack the site and Twitter account.
As of October 11, 2017, they have decided to stop writing reviews after growing tired of the formula, the arguments from people, and taking time away from doing video content.
By far Sterling’s 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 they examine and often eviscerate movies based on 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 them their virtual reality headset.
Sterling has a video game based on them coming called Jim Sterling’s Licensed Game Experience. The game will be released for mobile devices and stars Dale. In the interview with Heavy, Sterling said that the developers working on it were taking too long. “No hard feelings from me, but it reached a point where I couldn’t justify waiting on them anymore for what the game was going to be,” they said. However, Sterling’s Art Director Justin McDaniel also happens to be a budding game designer and delighted Sterling with some pitches.
In addition to all that, Sterling 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. All of his shows related to Steam Greenlight have been canceled with the cancellation of the Steam Greenlight program. Sterling launched another spin-off show on September 21, 2017, called Commentocracy, where they, dressed as an 18th Century aristocrat known as Duke Amiel Du H’ardcore, dramatically reads real comments from self-proclaimed hardcore gamers sharing their “elite gaming wisdom” such as “real PC RPGs are for nerds” and “all casuals should be forced back in time.” There is another spin-off show releasing soon called The Loose Boys where conversations between Sterling and their friend Jonathan are animated by McDaniel.
McDaniel, whom Sterling met by chance at a local Target, was hired full time and was essential for the Jimquisition’s rebranding and its brand new art assets. Sterling writes that their dictatorship angle for the show they had since their days at The Escapist worked with his larger-than-life and egotistical persona and sense of humor. However, they write that not only has their sense of humor grown out of the dictatorship style but the changing political landscape in recent years made them comparable to Nazis, which didn’t match Sterling’s political beliefs and raised concerns for Sterling that they were alienating his audience. They considered trying a more religious angle or even a Road Warrior-style gimmick before deciding on a “pervert’s circus” as they called it. It matched the more eccentric tone of the show nowadays, allowed Sterling to keep some of the existing branding, and explained the appearance of characters like The Cornflack Homunculus and Jimsaw. One of the most drastic changes for Sterling was the theme tune change. They were thinking of replacing “Born Depressed” by Drill Queen before considering all the other changes but they never felt confident enough to do it. But that changed after they heard “Stress” by Jim’s Big Ego (no relation), which they instantly fell in love with and thought it would be perfect for the new direction.
4. Sterling Was Abused as a Child
For their review of The Beginner’s Guide, Sterling chose not to spoil the game but to talk about their upbringing and career and how it resonates with the themes of the game. Sterling spent their childhood in Erith, Greenwich, United Kingdom, in poverty, sleeping on the floors of family friends. Their 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,” Sterling said. “You were ‘jinxing’ him by producing the slightest audible noise.
By the time Sterling was a teenager, they were incapable of socializing properly and terrified to speak out of turn. They decided to seek medical attention after spending a party with friends trapped in their mind and convinced that everyone there hated them. They still have social anxiety, but it’s not as severe as it once was.
Sterling writes that their upbringing may be part of the reason they focus so much on negative comments on reviews. Pointing out and making fun of negative feedback for all to see gives them validation from the people who do respect his work. They also recognize that doing so can do a disservice to positive feedback and they try not to indulge in it too much.
“A big part of what I do, I do just for me,” Sterling said. “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.
Sterling now lives in Brandon, Mississippi with their wife and stepson.
5. Sterling Went Independent After Growing Sick of Traditional Games Journalism
In November of 2014, Sterling launched their Patreon page so that all the content on their website can be funded directly by fans. This includes the Jimquisition, podcasts, game reviews, and other articles. Some of their content is still supported by ads through an affiliation with Maker Studios, which includes Jimpressions and Best of Steam Greenlight. They also sell T-shirts and other merchandise through distributor Shark Robot.
Sterling has been in games journalism since 2006. Sterling previously worked for Destructoid and The Escapist, hosting his reviews and the Jimquisition on both sites. As they write on their Patreon page, they 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 6,700 patrons contributing over $12,600 a month. They were featured as a creator of the week on Patreon’s blog. On their YouTube channel, they have over 807,000 subscribers and over 377,300,000 views. Sterling’s Twitter account has over 219,000 followers with over 37,500 following them on Facebook.