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 them 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 over 800,000 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 (they/them).
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 the way Rockstar Games got its critically acclaimed and incredibly profitable games made is 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. He also 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. Bundschu 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 in the entertainment industries, 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 fucking Christ. I’m pissed off. Jeronimo was fired because Rockstar tried to course correct.
Sterling reached out to Rockstar Games for a comment on the allegations. They told Sterling 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 Sterling’s website 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 blogs to put a link to their client’s online casino in their article. The idea is that simply putting the link to the online casino in multiple blogs would boost the SEO of the casino which would make it rank higher in search engines and thus be more likely to be seen by users. 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.
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 that the developer 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 only over 60,000 views. The game had a budget of 70 million CAD and needed to sell 3 million copies to break even.
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
In 2021, a notorious PlayStation developer by the name of Gilson B. Pontes attempted to take down Sterling’s channel via fraudulent copyright strikes in response to Sterling posting a video that was critical of one of their games. YouTube reinstated all of the videos Sterling made reviewing Pontes’ games after Pontes attempted to issue three different copyright strikes over three consecutive days. During the situation, Sterling reached out to YouTube who told them that it was “unclear” if Pontes was issuing fake claims. Sterling then threatened both YouTube and Pontes legal action and setting a precedent if the videos weren’t up by the end of the day.
Sterling issued a statement thanking their fans for the support.
I am not sure what spurred YouTube to reverse course, but it was pressure without a doubt that did it. Could have been me or the support my platform has received. Either way, one thing is clear – my channel was going to be killed today because one oversensitive little boy got upset at criticism, and the only reason it’s still here is because I had perks others did not.
I had the incredible privilege of resources and the right people at my back. I had lawyers to throw at them, and a history of dealing with this kind of thing. Many others who don’t have that, or the platform to apply pressure, are wiped out.
Sterling later pointed out how Pontes himself is guilty of copyright infringement as his games used assets stolen from other games. Pontes later attempted to claim Sterling’s videos again but YouTube blocked his attempts.
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 in February 2017. You can hear all about Sterling’s dealings with the developer in their 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 their 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 their unique brand of humor as they 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 how they took time away from doing video content.
One of Sterling’s biggest projects 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. Dunne has since left the podcast on good terms with fellow critic Conrad Zimmerman replacing him. Sterling also hosts a podcast called The Spin-Off Doctors where they examine and often eviscerate movies based on video games with Zimmerman. They have another podcast with Zimmerman and their friend Jonathan called Boston’s Favorite Son in which they come up with nonsensical ways of making Jonathan famous.
Sterling was planning a video game called Jim Sterling’s Licensed Game Experience, but the project appears to have been iced. 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.
In addition to all that, Sterling has a number of spin-off shows. Jimpressions is a series of first impression videos on the latest games. 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 their 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.”
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 their 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 their 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, 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. They have since rebranded again with a simpler pink and purple aesthetic.
Sterling is credited with coining the phrase “chungus” which blew up as the popular “big chungus” meme in recent years.
Sterling also has a prominent career in indie pro wrestling. After receiving a copyright strike on a video for using a few seconds of footage from WWE, they were inspired to create the wrestling persona of Sterdust (a parody of Cody Rhodes’ Stardust persona) to make fun of the situation. They have since retired the persona and replaced it with Commander Sterling, a villainous, cheating, comic-book style heel. They’ve performed for Pro Wrestling EGO, Ryse Wrestling and the PolyAm Cult Party.
According to them, they are the first openly queer title holder in Mississippi, the first openly queer title holder in Alabama and the first non-cisgender holder of a Pittsburg promotion’s top title.
“They say my titles were acquired dubiously, that the accomplishments were scored through cheating and rigging and paying people to beat my opponents up. I say this is wrestling. It’s all about the Ws, darling,” Sterling said.
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 they resonate with the themes of the game. Sterling spent their childhood in the UK in poverty, sleeping on the floors of family friends. Their stepfather was an abusive alcoholic and a member of a 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 their 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.
In August 2020, Sterling came out as “non-binary pansexual gendertrash.” After being on hormone replacement therapy for a couple of months, they then came out again on The Jimquisition in January 2021 as transfeminine nonbinary as well as pansexual and “proudly queer.” They also now go by James Stephanie Sterling, though they do their business under the name Jim Sterling (and are fine with being called Jim according to their Patreon page). While they have lost a significant amount of subscribers since coming out on YouTube, the happiness they feel now that they’ve come out more than makes up for it.
In their Game of the Year Awards 2020 video, where they gave the game Ikenfell with an award primarily for its LGBT+ representation, Sterling explained that a lack of representation of trans and nonbinary people in the media “held back my ability to be happy for the entirety of my life so far.”
“Growing up in a country that had only just started to begrudgingly and cynically admit bisexuals existed, I had no idea a spectrum of identity was even possible and made myself miserable trying to live up to unfair and unobtainable expectations. It took seeing and talking to and learning from people like me to find out who I was. Games like Ikenfell are more important than ever, especially as entire countries like the UK have been taken over by a transphobic cult bent on erasing first trans people and then everyone else on the spectrum.”
In 2020, Sterling was also diagnosed with ADHD. They appeared on Dale’s YouTube video series, “Access-Ability,” and detailed the influence ADHD has on playing video games and possible ways games can accommodate people with ADHD.
5. Sterling Went Independent After Growing Sick of Traditional Games Journalism
In November of 2014, Sterling launched their Patreon page so that fans can directly fund their content. This includes the Jimquisition, Jimpressions, other video content and podcasts. They also make money through a merchandise store, the Jimporium.
Sterling has been in games journalism since 2006. Sterling previously worked for Destructoid and The Escapist, who hosted their reviews and the Jimquisition. As they write on their Patreon page, they decided to go independent after growing weary of the corporate ownership of video game journalism and its reliance on ad-supported models and sponsored content. They finally decided to leave traditional games media behind when Defy Media, the former parent company of The Escapist, refused to publish Sterling’s review of Assassin’s Creed Unity because they didn’t want to risk losing sponsorship opportunities with the game’s publisher Ubisoft as Sterling explained on the Jimquisition. Defy Media also didn’t want Sterling to talk about microtransactions in game reviews because they wanted game reviews and discussion of game monetization to be separate.
“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,” Sterling said. “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 7,600 patrons contributing over $14,800 a month. They were featured as a creator of the week on Patreon’s blog. On their YouTube channel, they have over 868,000 subscribers and over 517,000,000 views.
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