GameTrailers, Easy Allies, and the Patreon Gamble

Easy Allies was never sustainable.

It was obvious from the jump. Nine members of the former GameTrailers video team (Brandon Jones, Kyle Bosman, Brad Ellis, Ben Moore, Daniel Bloodworth, Michael Damiani, Isla Hinck, Don Casanova and Michael Huber) caught a wave of nostalgia in 2016 based entirely around a small but dedicated fanbase that were willing to spend a lot of money to stick it to their former corporate overlords in Defy Media, and used it to keep doing the work they had been doing at GameTrailers but fully funded and decided by the fans.

It’s a model that’s becoming increasingly prevalent as media outlets get shuttered by capital, forcing the people who worked for them to take the much more precarious route of raising funds directly from their audience through Patreon. It seems obvious: if your work has a large audience but capital has no financial incentives to support your work, draw money from your audience directly. Giant Bomb and Kinda Funny pioneered it in the gaming video space, Defector has become the model for Patreon-funded journalism, inspiring Aftermath, 404 Media, and Second Wind in recent months. We can see traces of it in the equally unsustainable rise of All Elite Wrestling, whose early years were largely buoyed by hyper-fans over-investing into the promotion in the hopes that “the competition” would spur WWE to produce better wrestling shows themselves, falsely believing in the myth perpetuated by Vince McMahon to explain why his television shows stagnated in quality once he led a massive buyout of his competition and then laid off the vast majority of their workers. When WWE became watchable under the creative reins of new boss Triple H, AEW experienced a sharp decline in ratings and ticket sales, not helped by poor creative decisions and the perception of backstage drama within the company that destroyed the reputation of AEW as a place within which pro-wrestlers could express the creative freedom that they could not under the WWE’s corporate machine.

Easy Allies did this pivot-to-crowdfunding early and loud. They raised a ton of money from the get-go (roughly $31,000 per month on the notoriously somewhat-reliable Graphtreon metrics, which quickly settled around the $38,000 per month range through 2016) from around 3000 backers, including myself, who all gave an average of $8 per month in order to get the GameTrailers team back on their feet.

These might not sound like it, but they’re crazy numbers for a Patreon campaign. Most large Patreon creators hide their revenue now so as not to incite the kind of speculation and financial doomerism that would become rampant among the Easy Allies fanbase in later years, which was a very smart decision by Patreon that unfortunately clouds a lot of metrics, but big Patreon creators on the size of Easy Allies with transparent metrics generally pull in a much larger number of fans at a much lower investment-- usually in the tens of thousands of supporters backing at an average of $4-5, the average entry level donation reward amount. A lot of people support lower, most support a tier or two higher, but you get a healthy base in the high thousands of people who support your work at low tiers supplemented by a core of more dedicated backers who pay $20-50 a month to get a shoutout at the end of your video and the illusion of access to the creators. It’s a well-oiled machine, at this point.

Easy Allies, however, had a small group of people donating a substantial sum of money every month to get onto their content-- they had sponsor slots for every podcast episode going for the hundreds of dollars, exclusive game Book Clubs, and personalised D&D sessions for high-tier backers. They weren’t selling the illusion of access-- they were selling access. Their core fans in those higher tiers responded by becoming increasingly devoted to the ironic-turned-cultishly-sincere mantra of ‘Love and Respect’, which was always doomed to backfire whenever the creators-- because they’re people with lives, not talking heads to parrot whatever opinion ‘the community’ expects– inevitably disappoint you.

Their spikes in revenue coincided not with organic growth as their videos and streams got picked up by the algorithm and promoted to more people, but yearly donation drives for incentives like getting a lease on an apartment in Los Angeles they could turn into a studio once they achieved $50,000 a month, a figure that had been floated since Easy Allies’ inception as the point at which the company would truly become what they intended for it to be.

A lot of the narratives around Easy Allies as a company among the fanbase on its two main poles of Reddit and ResetEra (they’re that kind of fanbase), as Easy Allies have faltered from their highs of the pre-studio days, suggest that the studio was the first and fatal breaking point: The Studio was an unattainable goal that merely buying the lease on an apartment and converting it into a working space would never actually be able to meet; to both EZA and their fans, ‘The Studio’ represented the point at which they would become a legitimate gaming outlet in the style of the Old Days of Games Media, and when it presented no noticeable increase and a remarkable decrease in the entertainment value of their content, the fate of the company was sealed.

The thing is-- the way they had been doing things was never successful.

GameTrailers was always built on other peoples’ content. Like many websites in the early days of streaming video, it was a site for hosting unauthorised reuploads of video content in an era where that content was inaccessible due to the rights-holders being unwilling or unable to recognise the value of making things like, well, game trailers freely available to the public that gradually became more legitimate once media companies started to take notice of the potential of it. Viacom bought the company in 2005, GameTrailers starts to pivot to being the gaming wing of Spike TV, and with it came the expectations of creating magazine shows and journalistic coverage to the standards and specifications of television broadcasts. There were experiments-- they were among the first to get into the podcasting sphere, but by and large the content you would see on GameTrailers would be the content you saw on, like, G4TV. Panel shows, reviews and countdowns, and the occasional deep dive like the gaming rumour-debunking Pop Fiction.

The idea of ‘Gaming Television’ underwent a kind of speculator boom in the early 2000s that died a death in the 2010s as it became clear that gaming would not be the saviour of declining television ratings, YouTube required a wholly different content strategy from traditional media, and games streaming was too heavily colonised by the Big Tech Companies for anyone else to make money off of it. Couple that with the GamerGate scandal being a very loud and damaging blow to the reputation of the games industry and its audience, and the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe shifting the public perception of mainstream nerd culture towards movies, cartoons, and television, and all of a sudden you had a lot of old media money that was looking to get out of the business of covering video games. Viacom sold GameTrailers to Defy Media in 2014, and a shift in the company's direction immediately followed.

Defy Media got YouTube, or at the very least they understood very soulless view of YouTube that made investors money. They were, at the time, the guys who owned Smosh and The Escapist, and attempted to move the website’s gaming coverage in a more personality-led direction. This is where most of the future Easy Allies crew came in-- hosting retools of their podcasts and sitting in front of cameras for Jimquisition-esque gaming recaps like The Final Bosman, or just kinda riffing on the news like Isla Hinck and Elyse Willems’ Mandatory Update.

It was immediately and utterly unsuccessful.

GameTrailers no longer exists outside of an IGN-owned trailer-reupload channel coasting on the name, but at the time they still tried to host their own website with their own proprietary media player that garnered (allegedly) the bulk of their views. On YouTube, where views are public, GT’s centrepiece of The Final Bosman has episode views of anywhere from 4,000 to 30,000 views per episode like-- now. Like, with seven years of these videos being out, some of them still sit at 4.1k views. These are fine numbers for a rookie creator on a new show, but absolutely devastating for a company that was, just a couple years earlier, hosting the Video Game Awards and acting as the home of absolutely top tier talent in the scene like the Angry Video Game Nerd.

Episodes became increasingly dire for most of their shows, as GameTrailers visibly moved to smaller and smaller offices within their building, forcing very visible scenery changes for many of their shows. Mandatory Update went from scripted comedy news headlines to a talk show after the studio they used became permanently unavailable, and then shrank again when Elyse Willems was laid off. They pivoted to group streaming, lucked into getting meme famous after Michael Huber’s reaction to the Shenmue 3 announcement went viral, and then promptly got fired right as it looked like they had righted the ship and carved out a nice little niche for themselves as a small outlet that still had some name value among a generation of older fans who felt put off by the idea that newer coverage from younger influencers on platforms like Twitch and YouTube wasn’t for them.

Easy Allies was, among other things, supposed to be a shot in the arm for the GameTrailers team, an attempt to finally do this personality-led games coverage properly, and it failed.

They revisited funhouse mirror versions of all their unsuccessful GameTrailers properties almost instantly and with little forethought over whether they would be successful in a media ecosystem that had only gotten more crowded in the past two years since GameTrailers had tried to pivot to personality-driven content. Tabletop Adventures, a D&D show cashing in on the Critical Role boom that was entertaining but couldn’t stand out among dozens of better shows sprouting up with professional actors and production values, became Tabletop Escapades. Huber Hype, a show in which host Michael Huber excitedly ranted about what movies he wanted to watch over occasional B-Roll and trailer footage, became the dour Huber Syndrome. Mandatory Update went through a name change and a third format change to Easy Update, and mostly seemed to be barely-edited vlogs or impromptu interviews with Isla Hinck’s friends in the industry. There were two podcasts or a while, then three, and then finally two again. They did old-school Old Media style games reviews with Brandon Jones voice-overs, and the reviewers writing them gave almost every game a four out of five. Streaming went from its position as a side-hustle of the GameTrailers days to their main source of content, with solo daily solo streams, weekly group streams, and large stream events at various times of year to draw more money out of their core audience. Reaction content of events like E3 became a key source of income and their largest yearly draw as they attempted desperately to recapture that fleeting moment of meme popularity by overreacting to announcements at every major Nintendo Direct.

See the problem? It was a channel of reactions, where the media they covered was meant to carry the content. It was personality-driven content without personality, and a Twitch channel aimed at an audience who felt that the Twitch-era of gaming was leaving them behind.

There were exceptions. Kyle Bosman, in lieu of reviving Final Bosman, opted instead to create a short-form papercraft animation series called Box Peak, which drew decent numbers but ultimately proved too time consuming to be a reliable draw for Easy Allies going forwards. Don Casanova, ostensibly not an on-screen talent for the company, produced a personality-led bargain-hunting series called Don's Discount Gaming, but it likewise fell by the wayside for more important projects.

By and large, though, they tried to parrot a style of games coverage that was considered passé by 2015 and dead and buried by 2018, and became the prime example of an outlet with no clique and no constituency struggling to survive by drawing increasing amounts of revenue out of a declining audience. Once the initial wave of optimism fizzled and the donations stopped coming in, they were left with not enough money for nine full-time employees and shows began to get cancelled to free up time for more important things. Some were replaced with ideas like the high-concept game show Mysterious Monsters, but by and large, that time and effort went into more streams, more anonymous reviews, and more reactions.

They just could not rip themselves away from reacting to other people’s content.

Despite the fact that it was a poisoned chalice that only led to short-term gains, despite the fact that they never converted any casual viewers of their E3 coverage or their anonymous reviews into viewers of Huber Syndrome or Easy Update or any of the shows that succeeded them, they stuck to their guns. People were paying them to keep being the GameTrailers team, so they delivered reaction content until the wheels fell off.

Kyle Bosman was the first to leave, admitting in an exit interview with newer and hipper independent games outlet MinnMax that he felt creatively stifled by the environment of reacting to other people’s content and never feeling that being in Easy Allies pushed him into being a creator. He has a solo Patreon now, having worked in the indie game sphere for a brief spell, producing a weekly show in the Final Bosman model called Delayed Input, covering games industry news.

Brandon Jones and Ben Moore, key voices among the Easy Allies team, left thereafter. Brandon Jones released his first novel Whirly World, a mystery about the ghosts trapped inside a theme park, in 2023. Ben Moore has completely disappeared from the gaming sphere since leaving Easy Allies, always seemingly finding himself at odds with being a public figure.

Easy Allies partnered with RoosterTeeth, a juggernaut of the GameTrailers era, shortly after RoosterTeeth itself began to collapse under a shower of scandals as their podcasting/reaction business imploded utterly following allegations of abuse and institutional bullying and their own original animated content faced drastic declines in perceived quality after the tragic death of its principle visionary in Monty Oum and the poor creative decisions of his unworthy successors. The key result of this partnership is, apparently, that Easy Allies keeps putting advertisements for BetterHelp in every episode of their podcast, a 'counseling' website that has come under increasing scrutiny for its absolute lack of regard for the health or wellbeing of any patients who use it, and that Easy Allies got to return to what appears to have always been their comfort zone-- on the RoosterTeeth website, their videos were once again uploaded on a proprietary player on a specialised gaming website with no visible metrics.

It’s now December 2023, and Easy Allies recently announced they’re downsizing, switching fully to looking for other jobs and recording Easy Allies content as and when they feel like they can fit it into the rest of their workloads.

It comes hot on the heels of a community drama that arose after the company’s confused response to the backlash when they tried to have Dustin Furman of Last Stand Media onto their Frame Trap podcast.

I don’t watch Last Stand Media’s stuff, and I don’t have any real opinions of it except thinking that it was funny that the owner Colin Moriarty used to have the no steppy snake as his Twitter avatar, so I can’t really comment on the drama or the reaction to it beyond saying that they alienated some of their core by siding against Last Stand Media, some of their audience when they reversed course on that stance by welcoming Last Stand Media back onto their podcast, and pissed off a fun third kind of fan by flipping back and forth between the two stances and showing that they ultimately had no idea what they were doing and just trying to put out the fire before they lost any more money.

When you’re a business relying on a large investment from a small amount of dedicated fans, these kinds of community schisms hurt. Around the time Easy Allies hired their first community manager in 2022, six years into the company’s history, they finally opted to make the company’s finances private. That being said, we know this scandal hurt their financials-- Daniel Bloodworth, now the elder statesman of the company, cites the number of people leaving the Patreon in his apology video over the debacle as a sign that they had made ‘the wrong call.’

The host of Frame Trap, Brad Ellis, announced at the same time that the company announced their plans to downsize that he is leaving the company for another opportunity, and most fans believe that notoriously petty Colin Moriarty has hired him mostly out of spite.

It’s a sad end for the Easy Allies experiment, but it is an end. If not to the channel itself, it signals the end of their aspirations of becoming the dominant force in games media that they always thought they could be.

As more and more newer journalistic Patreons soar past them, barely even deigning to cite their influence as anything but a cautionary tale on “how to do a Patreon wrong”, it really seems like they’ve left no lasting impact on the culture they looked, for a brief moment, like they could totally upend.

If there’s a lesson to the Easy Allies story, it’s that crowdfunding isn’t a saviour for the problems that journalism faces as an industry right now. It can be a short-term lifeline, it can be a long-term gamble, but it will not provide you the same security or safety that institutional support could.

It rewards those with an in-built audience, and damns creators trying to build theirs. By making the audience stakeholders in your success, you create parasocial bonds that can snap and fray in an instant, taking a huge portion of your revenue with it.

It’s hard not to be worried for the lives and livelihoods of the creators who can’t, or won’t, adapt to the demands of their audience.