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Workers At The Gamurs Group Of Video Game Websites Describe It As ‘Hell’

Current and former staff say recent changes at the network have it in 'a race to the bottom'

The Gamurs Group, otherwise known simply as Gamurs, is a network of websites catering almost exclusively to, well, it's in the name. It's home to loads of publications: Dot Esports, Destructoid, Twinfinite, Attack of the Fanboy, WGTC and Siliconera, just to name a few. It's also been described by people who have recently worked there as "hell".

I recently spoke with ten current and former workers from multiple sites across The Gamurs Group, from contractors to staff writers to editors-in-chief to management. These discussions painted a picture of a company that was--relative to video games media, at least--once a normal place to work but, over the last year, has radically changed its editorial strategies, resulting in staff burning out, being let go, or quitting.

I reached out several times for comment for this story, both to CEO Riad Chikhani via Twitter and to Gamurs’ sole contact email address. Neither The Gamurs Group or its CEO responded.

The Gamurs Group was co-founded in 2014 by its current CEO, Sydney-based Riad Chikhani, with an early focus on running websites covering the esports scene. Gamurs pursued an acquisitions-based strategy, in 2016 purchasing and merging a number of publications associated with games like Counter-Strike and Call of Duty, as well as buying esports news site Dot Esports. Through 2020 and 2021, Gamurs bought some more sites, including one of their few non-gaming publications, The Mary Sue. In early 2022 Gamurs went out and bought more websites, including guides publisher Prima Games and Twinfinite.

Despite the pandemic and a worsening forecast for online media, by the middle of 2022 everything at Gamurs appeared to be going well. The company, with its growing portfolio of sites, claimed to be making money: In a glowing feature article in the Australian Financial Review in October 2022, titled "How esports made this 27-year-old a multimillionaire", CEO Chikhani says that through a combination of ad sales, corporate partnerships and over $10 million in outside investment, Gamurs had "grown revenue by 180 per cent", and that its annual earnings had "hit a few million dollars".

People who worked at Gamurs-owned sites at the time told me they were relatively happy with their output and their jobs.

"I enjoyed it", one former writer, employed at a recent acquisition, remembered of the time. (Aftermath has granted them, and most others quoted in this piece, anonymity.) "Gamurs had good people working there in the trenches. When times were good they were great. Managers were understanding about balancing work and life. They wanted the work done but they didn't want you sitting idly at a desk if you'd done your bit. The lower you were in the food chain, the more common sense there was. The managing editors especially were great people. There were of course issues with wages and salaries being below average for journalism, though they were fine for entertainment and gaming journalism overall."

"At first the job was good", a former editor told me. "I was given time to adjust to the role and to prepare for how to improve the quality of the vertical I was in charge of". 

Nearly everyone I spoke to, whether they were recent hires or had been with the network for years, had been happy with their jobs through the end of 2022.

Then, as one writer told me, "the atmosphere changed tremendously". In September 2022, Gamurs again went on a buying spree, snapping up a number of sites from rival network Enthusiast Gaming, including The Escapist, Destructoid and Siliconera. There were now over a dozen sites in Gamurs' portfolio, and nearly all of them were vying for the same audience.

Only a few months after these purchases, moving into 2023, staff say the network ran into a number of crises. The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank in March was followed very soon after by a round of layoffs at the network. In June, Gamurs advertised for an "AI Editor" who would, as Futurism reported at the time, "use AIs like ChatGPT to output up to an astounding — if not outright impossible — 200 to 250 articles of questionable quality per week". (The job listing was swiftly pulled following backlash.) Then came a succession of changes to Google's search algorithm that workers say fundamentally altered the nature of their jobs.

The changes took place throughout 2023, and were implemented by Google to try to hone the type of content appearing in people's search results. Staff said these changes negatively impacted the Gamurs network’s traffic, and that changes were made to their jobs and performance goals that quickly became unsustainable. One issue that several writers repeatedly cited was a post quota that was assigned at a site level, whereby editors would be told an outlet needed to publish a certain number of stories per month, week or day, with those averages then passed down to individuals on the writing team.

...we're going to get beaten by AI sites because they can shovel shit faster than we can.

A former editor at a site in the Gamurs Group

A former editor said, "As a vertical lead I was expected to edit 10-15 stories a day, write 10 stories a week, source 10 news stories a day, and also manage training and sorting through CVs to hire new writers. I felt a lot of pressure to do all of that and improve traffic and keep the vertical's overall output above 1,200 stories a month."

"From what I hear of other sites on the network it was similar”, they said. “Our staff writers had to do 85 articles a month, so just over four every work day, and they had traffic goals too, so they were basically encouraged to write about stuff they knew would do well and ignore important stuff like updating older guides, which wouldn't count toward their overall goals."

Another former writer said their quota was "four articles a day". This was "expected across the network for full-time employees, as far I was aware. I know there are bigger quotas at other networks and sites, but I do not care. A quota system never works. It is mandatory crunch that creates a sink or swim environment. Journalists should not have to work in such an environment."

These content quotas, coupled with directions that editors tailor more content towards search engine results in order to drive ad revenue, not only proved unpopular with staff but also had what workers felt was a clear impact on the network's output. "On a daily basis, the expectation was to work out whatever the most popular, searchable game was, and then wring every little detail out of it for a litany of guides", a former writer at a recent Gamurs acquisition told me. "It didn’t matter how obvious or mundane the subject — if people were searching it, staff had to write about it." 

"Prior to our acquisition, there was a balance between guides, news stories, and feature pieces", they added. "Under the Gamurs banner, I would say that 95% of articles that went out were guides of this nature. Time and time again, I would see pitches for fun opinion pieces get shot down by the SEO team, with the explanation that 'we won’t rank well for that'".

"It's hell", a former writer said of that time. "Everyone is stressed out. Coworkers are randomly getting cut for 'performance issues' week-to-week across all sites. The articles are all mindless. The only thing that matters is Google and what Google readers want. Creating a balance between work and life? Impossible. Corporate is breathing down everyone's necks to make sure every single writer is doing four articles a day. Gamurs is now a race to the bottom where every site is at risk of becoming an SEO content farm. The days of actually reporting are over. The acquired sites are losing all semblance of meaning and brand."

A former editor at the network, who was laid off in late 2023, said, "After all the Google algorithm updates hit the network for the entire year, the strategy shifted to output over quality. We were bollocked one meeting for output dropping, and when we said we were told to focus on quality, [we] got told that shouldn't come at the expense of output. The next day Baldur's Gate 3 launched and the UK shift was chewed out for not being prepared enough. This was despite the Gaming editor trying to bring up the importance of the game multiple times."

"We went from having long-term plans to reacting to trending games, pivoting people off of guide projects before they'd had any chance to see real returns”, they said. “One writer got taken off and put back on the same game about three times during the course of a week or two because corporate couldn't decide what to focus on."

The Gamurs Group currently lists 17 publications that it owns on its website, including Dot Esports, Gamerjournalist, AOTF, WGTC, Operation Sports & PC Invasion

While Chikhani claimed on Twitter last month that there had been no layoffs at the company since March 2023 outside of "the ordinary course of business", a number of people who spoke to Aftermath for this story had lost their jobs since then in a manner they believed were a part of layoffs. In most cases this happened with little warning, and some--as they had been on contracts, and were thus not considered full-time employees--with no severance or other assistance.

"I received a call from the managing editor one morning as I started my shift, and was advised that my contract was being terminated", one former writer let go earlier this year said. "That day would be my last shift, and I was removed from all team channels upon clocking out". They added that "at no point did I fall short of [my post] quota."

A former editor said that last year "I was called into a meeting when I logged on in the morning and laid off on the spot, no notice. I could tell it was coming due to how low traffic had been, but I thought they'd give me till after Christmas at least". 

One former writer, having been moved to a site whose focus they had no experience covering, said of their departure that "I only got 24 hours notice. When I say that I mean that I was working like any other day in the morning and 10 minutes later I had my access removed, and wouldn't be paid starting the day after".

"There tends to be a slew of layoffs every month or so", a writer still working at the network told me. "You get EiCs and staff getting laid off, people that work in SEO, etc. And it all seems to happen at random. Even if a site is performing well, there can be cuts. Also, barely anyone is full-time, which means they're relying on contractors for all of the work, and two to three full-time employees taking the brunt of everything else. It's bad and people are getting burnt out".

Other writers quit due to the increasing pressures of meeting quotas and a growing dissatisfaction with the nature of their work. "I ultimately left because I was trying to solve my burn-out issue", a writer who resigned last year said. "I had a meeting with my boss where I explained I was burning out, and I wanted to negotiate a solution. A coworker I had confided to about wanting to take severance and leave had told my boss I wanted to take severance and leave. At this meeting I was told by my boss I wasn't hitting quota and if I burnt out, then there wasn't anything they could do for me. Four articles per day was the expectation and that's that. My boss negotiated four weeks' severance for me and I was basically told 'you either take this now, or you keep struggling, and we have a performance improvement plan conversation, and you might leave without severance at all'".

The dramatic nature of the network's shift, and the effect it has had on both former and current workers, is not unique to The Gamurs Group, nor even to the wider video game press. It's a situation that’s becoming increasingly common in all corporate media, as owners and management scramble to squeeze every last cent out of an ad market that's drying up. Writers around the world are underpaid, overworked, and forced to contend with ever-moving goalposts.

While much of the turmoil at Gamurs had previously played out behind closed doors, things came to a very public head last year when one of the network's bigger sites, The Escapist, experienced a "mass exodus" when its editor-in-chief Nick Calandra was controversially fired. Most of the site's staff promptly followed him out the door, launching the independent media company Second Wind.

"Gamurs was exciting when [The Escapist] got acquired because it was a team of people who had all worked in media before, instead of out-of-touch executives at Enthusiast Gaming that had no experience running a media outlet", Calandra told me. "For a while at Gamurs it was good. We got investment, people got hired full-time finally, we had OKish benefits, and there was near constant communication as we got things going.

"But [then Gamurs] started to realize how hard and expensive it is to run an outlet like The Escapist. We had built a super-talented team, created original content, focused on our voice and community, and media corporations these days don't want any of that. They just want cheap labor to fluff their numbers for advertisers, and so eventually that goodwill and excitement ran out on both sides as Gamurs got more and more involved with how we were doing things, management started corporatizing us more and more and wanted more and more output from us that we just couldn't keep up with."

"The last meeting I had with the CEO was essentially him telling us to go from 3.5 million views a month on YouTube to 10 million by the end of 2023…with no plan to get there. So once I started having those meetings on the regular, I knew where things were going for the most part." 

Calandra said it was disputes with ownership that ultimately led to his firing. "I was fired for not being willing to exploit my team, mainly Yahtzee and Frost, for a ridiculous amount of work that would have impacted the quality of what they were already putting out and burning them out as creators."

Death may be painful, but working at Gamurs Group may possibly be worse. I wouldn't recommend them to my worst enemy.

An Indeed review of the company left by a former employee

While the network's other publications did not see a similar mass exodus, not all of the sites are regularly posting new content. A current editor-in-chief of one of the network's sites said that some of Gamurs' lesser-known brands go days or even weeks without new content, while other features from smaller outlets, especially popular guides, are often "cannibalized" by larger, more popular sites like Dot Esports.

Writers and editors I spoke with did not have an optimistic view of the future, whether that be for their own current or former sites, The Gamurs Group or even games media at large. "If C-suite keep pushing us toward output goals, we're going to get beaten by AI sites because they can shovel shit faster than we can", a former editor said. "Until they realise the only things that will save us are guides--which we update and keep accurate--and original reporting, we're doomed."

"The people I worked with there were very set on their SEO-driven strategy", a former staffer told me. "They were convinced that it was the only way for publishers, particularly gaming publishers, to survive in the current age. Their attitude is all about scale, which makes sense given the company was VC-backed, and ultimately I think the main plan is to eventually IPO. I always felt like they were speedrunning towards their own irrelevance".

"I'm leaving media, that is for sure [laughs]", a former writer said. "I can't see a future for me there, there's no way for me to grow in that field, I don't have enough will for that, though I admire those who stay."

"It's hard in particular for media in video games since both fields are being hit hard by the economic conjecture”, they continued. “I get that SEO is key to be profitable, but journalism shouldn't be only about that. It's the result of short-term decisions and I think it will worsen as it becomes harder for outlets to survive, as owners make panicked decisions to keep afloat."

"The future of games media is, by and large, irreconcilable", another former editor said. "Independent outlets don’t have the resources to keep up against those under corporate ownership, and once they make that jump, said corporations fumble the bag nearly every time. There are outliers, but they are just that: outliers. Exceptions to the norm, providing at least a temporary glimmer of hope.

"This is not unique to games media. Journalism as a whole has been reduced to a plaything for C-suite blowhards who have no understanding of what made it work in the first place. They scoop these brands up, clumsily attempt to mould it into a form that will best boost their bottom line, then throw it aside when it doesn’t work the way they think it should.

"Meanwhile, they tout the brilliance of AI as the future of the industry, in effect telling on themselves by admitting that they never cared about the human element. Brand loyalty is built slowly and carefully by familiar names whose opinions can be trusted, not by a machine spitting out some nonsense algorithm."

A writer still employed at one of Gamurs' sites said, "No one can make a living, and these sites are getting run into the ground. Something needs to change, even if I don't believe it will any time soon. People aren't getting paid enough, and not everyone can branch off and make their own sites.

"And my thoughts on games media at large? I've had several college students ask me about how to get into the industry, all very passionate about games journalism and media criticism, and I just tell them not to. Go look elsewhere. They're not going to be able to make a living, and they're better off trying to find a job in a sector that can actually provide for them. It's bleak."

Inside Baseball is a week of stories about the lesser-known parts of game development, the ins and outs of games journalism, and a peek behind the curtain at Aftermath. It's part of our first subscription drive, which you can learn more about here. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing!

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