Anytime this underdog of a startup hub rings the sales bell, it gets discussed. When that sale keeps the company in Durham and keeps the management and the culture intact, it should be analyzed with an eye for replication.
The Escapist, the online gaming magazine run out of Durham by co-founder Alexander Macris, was acquired this month by Alloy Digital, who’s sites attract more than 90 million consumers each month with channels in fashion, music, and women’s lifestyle issues, among others. Alloy also operates the brand new Smosh Games property, which has garnered over 40 million views in the seven weeks since it debuted.
An exit like that deserves at least a few drinks, so I called Alexander and, keeping it local, we talked about the sale at Tyler’s, a bar near his HQ.
It’s extremely rare for a media property to succeed and evolve the way The Escapist has and, make no mistake, this has been a long time coming. Macris started his Themis Media group in 2001 and launched The Escapist in 2005. Since then, it has become one of the largest independent game sites on the market, and has done so by going against the grain of the standard title-review-and-purchase philosophy of every other gaming site out there. Instead, the goal was to be, as Macris put it to me a long time ago, “the Rolling Stone for video games.”
Ironic that his demo, young males 12-34, probably doesn’t get the reference.
The Escapist embraced not just gaming, but gaming culture. This is hard, mainly because it’s an undertaking that inevitably results in nobody quite understanding exactly what you are. The narrow definition of online media, which is all about unique visitors and ads, has little wiggle room for headier concepts like ‘vibe’ or ‘culture.’
Entire empires have been built on cat pictures stamped with big white lettering. Figure out a way to compete with that.
So even while The Escapist suffered through critical acclaim but public “meh” in the early days, Macris continued to broaden his approach. In 2009, The Escapist helped put together the Triangle Game Conference, which quickly became the East Coast Game Conference, attracting talent from all over the country. Around the same time, they got into video, and in that they found the mass appeal that had been eluding them, with about 3 million monthly viewers.
Then this year, they debuted The Escapist Expo, an entire weekend dedicated to the gaming culture Macris was trying so hard to document. People got it, with 5,600 attendees in its inaugural run.
Alloy Digital got it too. “When we explained The Escapist Expo,” said Macris, “We didn’t have to justify why we were doing a live event. They understood that it was just another touch point in the lifestyle of the audience we’re trying to reach.”
And that’s the primary reason why The Escapist ended up with Alloy. According to Macris, who will remain in control as Senior VP and General Manager, The Escapist will continue to operate independently and will stay put.
That’s good for them, good for Alloy, and good for Durham.