How Games Website Giant Bomb Bounced Back from the Death of Its Founding Editor
"I'm amazed every day that Giant Bomb still exists..." The site's current staff recall the tough times after Ryan Davis's death.
In July of 2013, Giant Bomb, the world's best video game website in this writer's opinion, seemed like it was doomed. Ryan Davis, the site's founding editor and an everlasting presence in the world of video game journalism, died suddenly in his sleep at the age of 34, leaving behind a devastated staff and a broken community.
"Many of you know that Ryan was recently married. In the face of this awfulness, many of us will at least always remember him as we last saw him: outrageously, uproariously happy, looking forward to his next adventure with the biggest grin his face could hold," wrote product manager Matthew Rorie in the obituary published to the site. "The consolation we can feel from that is minuscule compared to the hole that Ryan's absence will leave in our lives. That's not a hole that is possible to fill; it's just something that we'll just have to get used to walking around with, and that will not happen for a long, long time."
Giant Bomb is not like other video game websites. It was founded in 2008 by ex-Gamespot employees Jeff Gerstmann, Davis, Brad Shoemaker, and Vinny Caravella, after Gerstmann was controversially fired during a rupture between his review scores and Gamespot's marketing staff. In the years since the site's mastered a very distinct brand of personality-driven journalism. Giant Bomb was perhaps the first professional publication to narrate hours of a game at a time, bucking the traditional pre-release preview cycle long before the rise of PewDiePie and Twitch. Their marathon-length "Bombcast" became legendary, a consistent dose of both spot-on commentary and random asides. The serialized special features, endurance runs of Persona 4 and the Metal Gear series, are comfort food for late night lonely souls in front of computer monitors everywhere. At Giant Bomb's best it doesn't feel like a website. It's just you and your friends. Enjoying the joke, playing some video games.
Davis's death didn't just put a gap in Giant Bomb's editorial, it fundamentally changed the identity of the website. He was our host, our conduit; the giggling oddball force behind the site's delectably skewed point of view. He was loud, profane, and very, very happy. Personally I'd been listening to Davis talk about video games for my entire adult life. Suddenly I wasn't anymore.
"I remember where I was exactly: I was riding a bus from Ontario to New York, and the news just devastated me, I was gutted," says Austin Walker, senior news editor at Giant Bomb, who was hired earlier this year. "I felt very weird about it. I didn't know Ryan, so why should I feel this personal loss? I've seen celebrities die before, and felt a twinge of sadness, but with Ryan Davis it was just a gut punch. When I got off the bus in New York I was crashing with some friends and I tried to convey why I was so messed up, and how strange it was that someone I had never met could affect me like this. It's not like I lost my favorite uncle."
Austin's story is similar to thousands of Giant Bomb readers and listeners. It speaks to the power of internet publishing and Davis's own warm-hearted ethos that his death could shake lives all over the world. This wasn't a news story, it wasn't a curiosity; it was our buddy. It's hard to think of a website that's fostered a more intimate connection between staff and community.
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"It was a crazy time for us internally," says Gerstmann, Giant Bomb's editor-in-chief. "There's no blueprint for that, like, 'When do you come back to work?' Most other publications, even ones that I've been with, you'd never think about how a death would affect a readership. You wouldn't even assume that they'd know the bylines."
It seems weird to say, but mechanically speaking, Davis's death couldn't have come at a worse time. Senior news editor at the time, Patrick Klepek, who's no longer with the company, was relocating to Chicago. Senior editor Alex Navarro had just moved to New York, with longtime video producer Caravella joining him less than a year later. This left Giant Bomb, a site that's always relied on impeccable rapport, spread very thin.
"We had talked about siloing off content into different offices that had different personalities so we could put stuff up at the same time without necessarily competing. When I moved back to New York it was an opportunity to test that idea out," says Caravella, one of the core personalities of Giant Bomb. "Of course, when Ryan passed it was a shock for all of us. For that year... I don't want to say we went on autopilot, but we'd been doing this for so long that we took comfort in doing the podcasts, and quick looks, and all the stuff we knew. It was a sense of normalcy for us. It's almost like comfort food."
That desire for normalcy is echoed by Gerstmann. He and Davis had known each other since they were teenagers. They hung out together, played in bands together, long before they worked together.
"I wanted to get back to work," says Gerstmann. "I was the sort of thing where if I just sat there I would actually go insane. So I needed to keep things moving."
"We built something here that I'm proud of. There are moments after 20 years of death threats and forum wars where you lose sight, but I really enjoy doing what we do." Jeff Gerstmann
The year and change after Ryan Davis's death was marked by a lot of emptiness. Between all the moves, the mourning, and the new gap in editorial, there just wasn't much content going up on the site. It was sad, but you could never blame them. Classic Giant Bomb—Ryan, Vinny, Jeff, and Brad—simply could not exist anymore. For both the people on the inside and the outside, that requires an adjustment.
"I'm amazed every day that Giant Bomb still exists," says Caravella. "For us it feels like we just started. There's been so many hurdles, so much 'weirdness' for the lack of a better term. We're always talking about how we were able to make it through that period of time. When Ryan passed away a lot of us were wondering if this was the natural end of things, that our hand was being forced. I remember talking to Jeff at the end of that year, exhausted, like, 'I can't believe we made it.' That initial combination of people, Ryan, Jeff, Brad... there was just something there. Now we've got Dan [Ryckert], Jason [Oestreicher], Austin, and Alex who are all great guys. But that initial core group was special."
Gerstmann has mentioned on his Tumblr that there were certain moments where he did consider quitting the site he built. But he always managed to find the light at the end of the tunnel.
"We built something here that I'm proud of, I like the people we've got, I like the community," says Gerstmann. "There are moments after 20 years of death threats and forum wars where you lose sight, but I really enjoy doing what we do."
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By all accounts Giant Bomb is in a very good place right now. The hiring of Dan Ryckert and Austin Walker has brought an energy that the site needed after a year of unimaginable transition. Ryckert's enthusiasm is relentless. Walker's criticism is erudite and thoughtful. Together they're ensuring that Giant Bomb has a future.
"Hiring for us is almost like casting call," says Gerstmann. "We have to ask for headshots and what your on-camera work is like. We need someone to sit in with us and mesh together in a podcast. It's a tremendous challenge. We want someone who brings something new while also making sure that they're not out on an island and not fitting in. It's crazy how hard it is to hire for this thing."
Whether he deserves it or not, Ryckert will always be tied to the post-Ryan version of Giant Bomb. He was the site's first major hire after Davis's passing, inheriting his Senior Editor title. A brand new voice in creative, in the podcast, in what Giant Bomb is.
"I'm nostalgic, I miss Ryan dearly, and they were great times... But I wouldn't want to go back. I look to the future by building on the past." —Vinny Caravella
"I wish I could've known Ryan better," says Ryckert. "Whenever I spoke with him he was just the nicest, funniest guy in the world, I never considered myself a replacement and it was never presented to me as such. I'm just the new guy. I'm pretty public about my issues with anxiety so doing these panels and being in front of camera is certainly nerve-racking, but I've really enjoyed getting my personality out there. I love pro wrestling, and I've always loved the idea of these big personalities, but I never could be a wrestler because I'm tiny and weak. When I first came to Giant Bomb I could finally be that. It was a release for me."
Walker is a longtime fan of Giant Bomb, and now he's a member of the team. He's responsible for creating the same exalted relationship between community and personality that he fell in love with all those years ago.
"I do have surreal moments where I'm leaving the office and saying, 'Have a good weekend Vinny' to a guy I used to watch everyday," he says. "I was very aware that I had to draw a specific line between presenting myself honestly and passionately and not trying too hard to fit in, or appearing to be trying too hard to fit in. Walking that line is important."
Giant Bomb will never be the site it was, but they've still moved on. They've patched the holes, they're making jokes, they're still recording that podcast every Tuesday. Ryan's death will always hang over the site. It's something you can never permanently escape, but time keeps moving.
"It's just life to me. I've seen companies go down the drain because they chase nostalgia, they're trying to recapture something stuck in a time and place," says Caravella. "I'm nostalgic, I miss Ryan dearly, and they were great times. But it's informed everything I've done since. Everything Ryan was able to pass on to me I hold onto very closely. I was so lucky to be around him, but I wouldn't want to go back. I look to the future by building on the past."
Giant Bomb mourned, they cried, they suffered, and they figured out if this was something they still wanted to do. It was. So they must live.
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