The long, hard road to full-time freelancing

By Michael Martin

Photo courtesy Michael Martin.

Photo courtesy Michael Martin.

I’m on a plane to Las Vegas to cover Evolution 2015, the world’s biggest fighting game tournament, as I write this. This is my reality now. I’m doing what I love as a career now. The first day of the biggest change in my life is going to an event I’ve wanted to attend for over a decade.

On July 15, I promoted myself to a position I never dreamed possible. I walked out of the door at the job I held for seven years for the last time, leaving the security of a state job at a local community college. The pay was lousy and the boss was worse. I hated almost everything about it and I couldn’t take it anymore. At the age of 38, a choice presented itself and I took it for the sake of my mental well-being.

I’m Michael Martin and I write about video games and pop culture for a variety of websites. Everyone in the industry has a unique career trajectory. Mine is no less unique. I’m hoping what I’m going to tell you will enlighten and inspire you. It is a raw look at my life and how I came to be in a scary but exciting position.

It makes sense to talk a little about how I got to this point. I’m a recovering alcoholic with over four years of sobriety. I was a selfish and self-serving piece of shit, making terrible decisions for most of my adult life. Dealing with people, places, and things wasn’t my strong suit. In March of 2010, the Washington State Patrol and the Thurston County District Court altered my life trajectory and set me on a better and safer path.

A couple of years into my recovery, I got back into writing regularly. Video games have always been in my life so I wrote about them, starting with a little blog. At some point, I started up a full-blown website because I hated the URL structure of a certain free host/blog site. I wanted to be the next

Two years into running the site, my life changed. I let the website go, and all the amazing people who worked so hard on it with me. I was going back to school to get a Bachelor degree because I wanted a new job. With a baby and school incoming, I bounced around enthusiast sites as a volunteer. I was fortunate enough to attend my first PAX Prime through one of these positions. I knew I was getting to a point where I didn’t want to work for free since I was putting in a lot of hours out of my time. In one particular moment in the summer of 2013, right before I started attending Arizona State University Online, I figured out what I would do with the rest of my life. On a beautiful sunny day at Lake Tahoe, where we vacationed that year, my not-quite-1-year-old son was playing on the beach in front of me. I was listening to a popular PlayStation podcast and that’s when it hit me. I decided I wanted to work in video games media full-time.

What caused this momentous occasion for me? I discovered that two hosts of a popular PlayStation podcast went to school and worked hard as freelancers to get to their current positions. Their advice for getting into the industry was to just do it. Write or record videos if you need to but just do it. In that moment, I took them off the Internet celebrity pedestal and they became mortals like the rest of us. I realized if I worked hard, I could achieve my dreams too.

But the road had many bumps. I needed to find a way into paid writing. Today, many resources are available for people who want to score paid writing work. Nathan Meunier and his book Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Write opened the doors of freelancing for me. It explained everything from pitching a story to working a convention. It also coincided with an event put on by Good Games Writing called Pitch Jam, where participants submit practice pitches for critique I was determined to learn how to pitch so in 2013, I took part in Pitch Jam and got feedback from well-respected freelancers. I received specific feedback from two different judges. One thought my pitch was decent but picked the problems with it apart. The other judge’s opinion was more positive, giving me some hope I could pitch a good story. It was a great lesson in how to pitch a tight story concept with a great angle over a generic story idea. Over the next few months, I cobbled together ideas for stories to pitch various gaming outlets.

Here’s one thing I learned in the first pitch I ever sent out: Be smart about how you work. For example, don’t put together a complete story first. I had a brilliant, sure-fire story, and I chased down interviews with two different subjects. One of those interviews had about 15-20 questions. I had all of this content that I thought was fantastic and ended up using a fraction of it. The story was also a time sensitive piece. I put in all the work, hounded the subjects for weeks, and I pitched the story to an outlet. I waited one week, followed up the second week, and again on the third, letting them know I intended on pitching it elsewhere. By then, I’d lost out on my timeframe. Nobody wanted an MMO anniversary story past the anniversary. Now I had to rework this thing.

I felt awful I hadn’t gotten the story published. What a waste of everyone’s time. I reworked the pitch so it wasn’t dependent on the time sensitive anniversary hook and made it more about the nostalgia of the game. I landed it at a well-respected gaming site friendly to newer writers. After a few edits, I got my first $20 in games writing (Hey, I said I didn’t want to write for free anymore and that’s a start).

Akihabara in Tokyo. Photo courtesy Michael Martin.

Akihabara in Tokyo. Photo courtesy Michael Martin.

When people ask me for advice on getting into freelance writing, one piece of advice I give is to make friends. If you make a contact that becomes a friend, you’ve given yourself an opportunity.

For example, a year after the games media epiphany in Lake Tahoe, my family and I went on vacation to San Francisco. I registered to be in the audience for a live taping at Up at Noon at IGN, but they changed the filming day. So what’s the first thing I did? Went on Facebook and whined about it. The next thing I know, I get a message from someone I befriended on Facebook who works at IGN and saw the post, and they offered a tour as a consolation. During the tour, I met so many people I knew by name and by their work at IGN. Let’s face it, I wanted to work there, and still do, but I was light years away (or so I thought).

Throughout the tour, I shook hands and introduced myself. During the final stretch of the tour, as we approached the elevators, I brought up the subject of wanting to write in games media. I mentioned I applied for a news freelancer position twice and hadn’t heard back. My intent was to see if I could talk to editors to get advice about increasing my chance at landing a news gig.

“I’ll put in a word for you,” this staffer said.

I half-walked, half-skipped the mile and a half from IGN to the ferry dock with the biggest shit-eating grin on my face.

About two months later, I got an email from an IGN address. I didn’t even need to open it. I knew what it contained, and I cried tears of joy for close to 15 minutes. It’s not that I didn’t believe he’d put the word in but a blog I wrote about the experience sealed the deal for him. He said it was written well and was honest and that’s why he spoke up for me. I was never good at being honest and his comments stick with me to this day. Honesty had gotten me farther in life than I realized. By September, right after PAX Prime 2014, I started writing news at IGN.

I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

Courtesy Michael Martin. 

Courtesy Michael Martin. 

Seeing my first published article on IGN made me so proud. However, I realized doing work on a hobby site, without any formal training or tutelage from a legitimate journalist or editor, put me way behind the curve at IGN. Within a month, I found I was struggling. My work wasn’t meeting the standards of the News Lead at the time and because we worked different schedules, communicating with him about my struggles proved to be challenging. The situation built up until I psyched myself out.

One day, I sat looking at an available story for over 20 minutes, debating whether I should even try writing the story. I was a mental mess and news writing wasn’t even my full-time job. I came close to quitting but I wanted to try one last thing. Something I’d learned in the last few years was to ask for help. I went to one of my freelancer friends and asked her to take me through her writing process from the beginning to the end. We walked through the story and got it done. Relief washed over me and my confidence came back. I can’t express to you how deep and dark the hole I was in but over time, my news writing improved alongside my confidence.

Since I weathered that storm, I’ve landed many features at numerous outlets, including IGN, Paste Magazine, Pixelkin, GamesRadar+, and Red Bull eSports. I set short term writing goals for myself, setting my sights on specific articles I wanted to try and write. The turning point for my freelance career came with my biggest video game love, Street Fighter.

I saw a tweet from an editor at Red Bull eSports, asking for people with knowledge of eSports and Street Fighter. By now, I had already built up a reputation as a fighting games aficionado in the virtual IGN newsroom. Fighting games have been a part of my life for over 20 years since the days of Street Fighter II. I emailed the editor, telling him that he would find few people as knowledgeable about* Street Fighter* and the tournament scene as me. It seemed like the perfect gig and I wanted it.

Red Bull eSports brought me on for Street Fighter coverage. I now write recaps and features of major events, by watching the live streams from home, and I write weekly player and personality profiles. It is the definition of a dream gig for a guy like me. But between this and other writing opportunities, a full-time job, full-time school, and young children at home, I felt overwhelmed.

This past May, I graduated from ASU, removing a great deal of stress from my plate. I flew down for my graduation because it was one of the biggest personal accomplishments of my life. I didn’t believe I’d automatically land a job with my degree, but I hoped it would at least lead to the interview stage.

Jobs didn’t come knocking at my door and I lamented not getting as much freelance work as I wanted because of my full-time job. I crunched numbers in serious consideration of switching to full-time freelancing. Between Red Bull eSports, IGN, and other work I could land, full-time freelancing coalesced into reality.

By this time, I was completely unhappy at work. Full-time freelancing continued to call to me as work got worse. One day, the final straw broke. My boss disrespected me for the last time. I texted my girlfriend to let her know I was going for it. She said “okay” and we chose a date for my last day at work.

Her calm with the whole deal surprised me. I suppose part of it was she wouldn’t have to hear me bitch about work anymore. Prior to making this decision, we were at odds about the goals I had. She didn’t support many of the changes I wanted to make in my life, like going back to school or changing jobs because she didn’t believe I could make money writing about video games. It hurt, but I soldiered on because I believed in myself and what I wanted to do. I found support in other ways, like in an online freelance group. When the opportunity presented itself, I had to take it. Over time, she grew to support me, and it made the decision a lot easier to make.

Here I am today, on my first official day as a full-time freelancer, heading to Las Vegas. I’m humbled and grateful I get to do this for a living. When people ask me for advice, the main thing I tell them is to make friends. The other thing I tell them is to just do it. It’s scary to make the changes I’ve made at the age of 38. I have a family, with two kids, I went to school, graduated, and quit my day job to write for a living. I’m still new to an industry that people almost half my age are working in full-time but my passion and determination has shown through the entire time. People tell me as much.

This may not work out like I intended but one doesn’t know if they don’t try. I put in work every day. I’m still amazed this is the life I have now. I’ll do it as long as I can, and am humbled and grateful to be on this journey.

Michael Martin is a Seattle-based full-time freelancer writer who has far too many pop culture mash-up shirts than he’d care to admit. He writes news and features for IGN and is the Street Fighter correspondent for Red Bull eSports. Follow him on Twitter @BizarroMike.