Former Workers Allege YouTube Channel GameXplain Was Exploitative Workplace

VICE Games spoke to four former GameXplain contributors, who described being severely overworked and underpaid.
January 14, 2021, 5:20pm
An image from a GameXplain YouTube video
Artwork courtesy of GameXplain

Steve Bowling sat at his desk crying. Bowling had recently spent 48 hours without sleep or a shower. Every moment over that 48-hour period had been spent playing the highly anticipated Final Fantasy 7 Remake. Bowling at the time contributed to the popular news and analysis channel GameXplain, and they had two days to publish a video for the game's review embargo set by publisher Square Enix. While Bowling played, his wife brought him meals and took care of their four children. While his wife slept, Bowling continued to play.

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How Long to Beat suggests finishing Final Fantasy 7 Remake takes at least 33 hours. So when credits rolled on Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Bowling struggled to keep his composure. 

"I remember thinking to myself," he said, "'OK, you just need to stay awake until you finish this review.'"

One of the most reliable places for Nintendo-related news and analysis is the popular YouTube channel GameXplain, which currently has 1.25 million subscribers. A new rumor? GameXplain has a video about it. A new trailer? GameXplain has an archive of it and a roundtable discussion about what they saw. Few channels are faster than GameXplain, but so far, the channel has yet to publicly acknowledge or discuss recent comments made by three former GameXplain contributors alleging a workplace dominated by crunch and low pay. All of them recently spoke with VICE Games about their time as part of GameXplain.

Insight into the behind-the-scenes workings of GameXplain came on a recent podcast hosted by three former GameXplain contributors: Bowling, Ash Paulsen, and Derrick Bitner. They were discussing Final Fantasy 7 Remake, which brought up bad memories for Bowling. 

The comments were picked up by fans and shared to the channel's subreddit. Posts about the allegations were then deleted and the subreddit made private by a GameXplain staff account called "GameXplain." The account was removed as a moderator, and discussion about the allegations were allowed to continue. This only fueled speculation on the issue, alongside the GameXplain YouTube channel uploading videos without addressing the controversy.

"I feel like shit," said Paulsen, who spoke with VICE Games this week, when asked about their grievances becoming so public. "I hate this."

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Bowling told VICE Games that he managed to write a script for his review of Final Fantasy 7 Remake, but it was a jumble of nonsense that he called his "worst work." Another member of GameXplain helped turn it into something coherent. While that happened, Bowling sat at the bottom of a cold shower. The water poured over his face, as he attempted to stay awake.

After leaving the shower, Bowling sat down at his computer, took the words his colleague had edited, and started putting together a video review of Final Fantasy 7 Remake. When the review went live shortly thereafter, in theory the culmination of Bowling's intense time and effort, Square Enix flagged the video footage over confusion about whether it required an influencer disclosure. The video was taken down, and would not appear for another two days. He'd rushed those 48 hours for nothing.

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"I broke down into tears at my desk," said Bowling, "just bawling my eyes out because I had put so much energy into this and destroyed myself for it and I could have had two more days."

Embargoes, agreements required to gain early access to a game, are full of restrictions. If you're lucky, you have a week to play a game before release, but often, it's a few days. In this case, VICE Games received code for Final Fantasy 7 Remake more than a week ahead of the embargo, but it's also common for access to be staggered, based on publisher preference. Outlets, including VICE Games, often rush to hit an embargo because it's a moment when the internet's eyes are collectively trained. It usually results in guaranteed traffic, which is hard to count on in an Internet driven by mysterious corporate algorithms. Combined with a desire for people (and publications) to look relevant to their audience, it's not surprising people might put themselves in harm's way for a review.

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(VICE Games provides writers with additional time to take off when they work extra hours on a review, and taking that time off is enforced by editors.)

It was in this intense moment that Bowling's wife finally turned to him and asked: "You're getting $500 dollars for this. Was this worth $500 dollars to you?" The answer was obvious.

"If Steve was treated like a person instead of a machine and paid fairly for the amount of work he was expected to put out, I would have fully supported him staying on at GX," said Bowling's wife on reddit recently, in response to a critical fan. "As far as him being workphobic? He also maintains (and has since before [GameXplain]) a corporate 9-5 career... while also helping to raise four children. Trust me, he’s extremely hard working."

"I was very much still in the mindset that André was my friend and that by stepping up to the plate and putting myself through this," he said, "I was showing my friend how much I cared about the success of the channel."

"I broke down into tears at my desk, just bawling my eyes out because I had put so much energy into this and destroyed myself for it.”

"André," is André Segers, longtime owner and manager of GameXplain. Segers didn't tell Bowling he was required to finish a review of Final Fantasy 7 Remake in 48 hours. He didn't tell Bowling to play without sleep. But he didn't stop Bowling from doing all of that, either. 

VICE Games has spoken to four former GameXplain contributors, who collectively painted a picture of a boss who frequently failed to pay on time or adequately, demanded workers to be on call at a moment's notice at all times of the day, and put such enormous mental and physical stress on their workers that several found themselves breaking down as a result.

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In a statement to VICE Games, Segers did not address specific questions we asked about the allegations made, but instead responded more broadly to the various criticisms. 

“I was quite upset to hear their experiences because I consider them true friends and I hate that they felt subjected in any way to unfair compensation or unrealistic deadlines, often a result of adhering to tight embargo deadlines beyond our control,” said Segers. “It was never my intention as I respect these former colleagues immensely, professionally and personally. I am not a perfect person, and there are enormous challenges in managing a channel, but I promise that I am absolutely committed to ensuring open communications, a positive work/life balance and fair, timely compensation for my team as we move forward and navigate the pressures of the gaming industry."

Segers recently released this same statement on Twitter.

The way these allegations came out was, really, an accident. It was a tangent in a podcast about the games of the year. It wasn't a formal statement given a lot of thought and care. It was pent up emotions spilling into the open, and the result has been expectedly messy. It's why all the former GameXplain contributors I spoke to expressed reservations about talking, but once it was already out there, they felt more comfortable trying to set the record straight.

"I don't want this to be... [pause] I don't want this to hurt GameXplain in the long run—or him," said Paulsen.  "I want [Segers] to learn from it and I want the new staff to be treated better and more fairly, of course. But I'm not relishing this, and I want to put it all behind us."

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At one point, Paulsen had fallen on difficult personal times and asked to become a full-time contributor for extra money. This stretch lasted eight months and proved to be a disaster.

"Even just those eight months amounted to one of the worst mental health crises of my life," said Paulsen. "I mean, I already suffer from depression and anxiety, which has nothing to do with GameXplain. But those eight months, I was in hell because I was in this constant push and pull between feeling guilty that I wasn't doing enough work, even though I was doing a ton of work."

Two different former contributors said they went unpaid for nine months, only receiving payment for their work after specifically asking for it and feeling severely underpaid. Neither received back pay for the nine months of work after negotiating to finally get regularly paid, and everyone VICE Games spoke to said it was regularly difficult to ensure timely payment.

"Once you ask to be paid enough times," said Paulsen, "it starts getting really, really awkward because you almost feel like you're begging just to be paid on time."

“I was in hell because I was in this constant push and pull between feeling guilty that I wasn't doing enough work, even though I was doing a ton of work."

Former contributor Jon Cartwright, one of two who went unpaid for nearly a year, told VICE Games he eventually made roughly $25,000 per year to write and publish videos all day.

"Most days I would start work at 9am with a video request from [Segers] just as he was going to bed," said Cartwright, who was based in the UK but often worked hours friendly to the US. "These requests sometimes didn't stop until midnight or the early hours of the morning. If a Nintendo Direct aired I would sometimes find myself working up to 18 hours to cover its contents. The workload was agonising and it made me dread Nintendo Directs."

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Multiple contributors described Nintendo Directs, videos where the company often makes a bunch of unexpected announcements in a rapidfire fashion, as particularly brutal stretches of work.

“The numbers I've seen floating around online just don't add up and I have always paid my independent contractors the rates we agreed on in advance,” said Segers in a statement. “Crunch is a real issue in our intense industry and I'm 100% committed to fair, timely compensation."

It's unclear how much GameXplain makes per month, because such information isn't made public. The analytics website Social Blade estimates that GameXplain brings in between $2,200 and $34,700 per month in ad revenue, or between $46,000 and $415,800 per year. Two contributors familiar with the channel's finances told VICE Games that $25,000 was considered a "bad month." 

Pre-taxes, that would come out to roughly $300,000 per year. Segers would not comment on how much the channel makes.

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‘Cyberpunk 2077’ was recently criticized for only giving reviewers a few days to play and write about an extremely long game. The studio has since apologized.

$300,000 might seem like a lot of money, but again, that's before taxes, and paying staff, even cheaply, adds up quickly. Making videos, however simple they might seem, is a time consuming process. GameXplain's staff has experienced a lot of turnover, but there are at least three regular contributors besides Segers, in addition to support staff, like a graphic artist.

The YouTube algorithm rewards the constant uploading of new videos, so it's not shocking a channel like GameXplain would look to expand as it became more popular. Who wouldn't want to work for a place they look up to, even if the pay wasn't that great? 

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Bowling, for example, was paid $550 per month, regardless of how much work they did. There were no set hours, and work typically spilled into late into the night and weekends. 50 hours? 100 hours? 150 hours? It all equated to $550 per month. Others, like former contributor Derrick Bitner, made significantly more, at one point making roughly the equivalent of $60,000 per year. Paulsen, who purposely requested to be a freelancer for GameXplain so they could make money elsewhere, would make around $1,250 per month.

The atmosphere was one where, at any moment, you could be pulled into work. Messages, phone calls, and emails would show up at all hours. Bitner would avoid going out to dinner, worried he’d miss a piece of news. Bowling, for example, was working a full-time job while contributing to GameXplain on the side, and Segers would ask him to schedule lunch breaks so that he'd drive home and make a video for GameXplain during it.

"I am ashamed to say I did [that]," said Bowling.

It was often difficult for people to escape the GameXplain vortex, too. Bitner, for example, handled the channel's streams for Twitch and YouTube. When he expressed interest in building a personal brand streaming on his own channels, Segers made a confusing argument against the idea. He said that if Bitner was producing his own content for himself, it would prevent Segers from bringing him on as a full-time employee of GameXplain. He dangled the prospect more stable pay as a full-time employee in front of Bitner, warning him that he were producing his own content, he'd be treated as a freelancer.

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(Curiously, the extra money that Bitner brought in from the streams all by himself was not paid monthly when it was collected from YouTube, but instead was an end of year bonus.) 

A full-time offer was eventually made to Bitner in the middle of a crisis, as he and his wife were expecting a child and trying to buy a house at the same time. It was a stressful time. But the contract came with caveats: no increase in pay from his previous income, no health benefits, overtime compensation would come in the form of vacation days and not increased pay, GameXplain would have control over public appearances, and more. It seemed very onerous and without much upside. He turned it down.

And yet, simultaneously, Segers was speaking to loan officers on behalf of Bitner and his wife, explaining he was holding down a good (if freelance) job and to let them get a house loan. There was another time, Bitner noted, that Segers fully paid for an unexpected health bill.

"I can't see us ever really talking again," said Bitner. "But I will always be appreciative of everything he's done for me.

It's unclear what, if any, changes have been made in reaction to these allegations, but several new contributors that VICE Games spoke to said they've had positive experiences.

Recent GameXplain contributor Joey Farris specifically said he was tasked with reviewing Assassin's Creed Valhalla and realized he couldn't meet the embargo unless he "went without sleep," and was told to ignore the embargo and "not burn myself out." Tris Valbuena, another new contributor, said the job has had "some stressful moments," but "if I didn't enjoy this job, or felt I wasn't being treated fairly at all, quite frankly I wouldn't be here." The final recent addition, Chris Carpenter, echoed the same feelings, while adding they were “not much for getting involved in any online drama.”

GameXplain is not a traditional publication. It's a YouTube channel that started as a hobby, and over time, it became a success, and success meant it became a business. The problems at GameXplain are not its alone—it's the story of modern content creation. 

"It was very cutthroat, very competitive," said Paulsen. "If you're not first, you're last—that kind of thing. And it was very clear that content was always king, not us, not our well-being, not our pay."

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).