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Revenge of the Nerd

Steve Harris owns a huge house, drives a Lamborghini, and sold his magazines for millions. Who says nothing ever came of being good at video games?

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By Dennis Rodkin

Everybody went to high school with Steve Harris. Remember? Skinny kid. Long, greasy hair. And a perpetually manic look in his eyes that was hard to read. It might have meant he was a hopeless geek plopped down by some cosmic clerical error among the cool people. Or it might have signaled that he was a real-live genius forced to wait out his sentence at a school for the average.

Whatever happened to that scrawny goof anyway? Not much, really, except that he was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records twice by age 15; started a publishing company in Lombard that by the time he was 27 was making $34 million a year; and last May, at the ripe old age of 29, sold his company--which included seven of his eight magazines--for an undisclosed sum that netted him several million dollars.

You probably should have been nicer to him in high school.

"Steve's living the dream of every nerd," says a former employee. "As a kid, he was awkward and probably didn't socialize much, but now he's a multimillionaire who drives a Lamborghini and has a beautiful girlfriend with major breasts and a huge house and three healthy kids and a great reputation in his industry. What nerd wouldn't want all that when he grows up?" Harris got all that--plus the time and money to fly down to his hometown anytime he wants to watch his beloved Kansas City Chiefs play football--by finding a niche that he could scratch better than anybody.

Eight years ago, as a 21-year-old newlywed with a job producing video games for Atari in Lombard, Harris staked his $2,500 savings account on the idea that rabid video-game enthusiasts like him needed their own magazine. He called it Electronic Gaming Monthly, or EGM, and called his fledgling publishing company Sendai because it sounded Japanese enough to impress tech heads. EGM begat another magazine, which begat another, then another. By last year Harris, then 28 years old, sat atop a Lombard-based publishing empire that distributed 25 million copies of its 20 monthlies, annuals, and one-shots in 90 countries and captured the minds and joysticks of an estimated 2.5 million technology-crazed kids. Now, since selling the company to a larger publisher, the New York firm Ziff-Davis, in May, Harris is laying the groundwork for his second empire, which he says will focus on sports, licensing, and on-line entertainment the way the first one did on games.

As ugly duckling stories go, Harris's is one written by and for the 1990s. Like much-richer Bill Gates and many other cyber swans, Harris saw his opportunity a blink ahead of the rest of the world and has ridden the wave deftly ever since. The magazines he started cover arcade games and handheld Game Boys; action-adventure TV, movies, and new media; and the Internet. They're all delivery systems for entertainment in the new wired world and, not coincidentally, things that fascinate Harris.

"You can't look at what Steve did as some kind of predetermined thing, where he said, "I'm going to do this to make this much money,"' says Jon Lane, the Ziff-Davis executive assigned to Lombard as group publisher of the magazines the firm bought from Harris last spring. "He's the typical enthusiast who does what he loves and it grows. He understood the game marketplace very well because he was the total enthusiast who had his finger on what people like him wanted to know."

He wanted objective reviews of games--not breathless hype--step-by-step guides to game strategy, inside gossip about games in development, and details, details, details about everything that goes into the games, from the technology to the characters. He ladled all that in, packaged it with hyperactive graphics that mimicked the games themselves, and had a monster hit.

What sets Harris apart from all the video junkies who talk big ideas but never get rich off them, Lane says, is that "he's fearless in business. It's a big risk to start an enthusiasts' magazine. You're putting yourself on the line--your personality and your money. But Steve believed that the information that people like him wanted was lacking, and he had to get it out to them."

In other words, yes, he was in the right place at the right time, but there's a critical third leg to Harris's story: he was the right guy. He was able to take the big risk because he didn't have very much to lose, and inside him stewed a potent blend of perfectionism and workaholism that fueled marathon workdays, constant do-overs, and a steely eyes-on-the-prize focus. Here's the guy who racked up world-record scores for the video games Congo Bongo and Popeye and who once played the game Joust for 63 hours nonstop. Whether it's stamina or stubbornness that makes somebody stay with a game that long, it's a trait that comes in handy when starting a business in uncharted territory.

Harris has been playing video games since he was ten years old; he long ago mastered the simple habit of watching the score counter spin out of the corner of one eye while keeping his real gaze fixed on the game. So while the money piled up, he registered it but stayed tuned to the magazine game he was playing. When I met Harris two years ago, his company had just passed the $30 million-a-year mark and he had it pointed toward $50 million for 1995. I could almost see the counter spinning in the bottom left corner of his glasses when he promised Sendai would hit $100 million a year by the end of the decade. Instead, with the sale of the company, the score's now up to a bunch of corporate types from New York.

Game over. The magazine game, it turns out, isn't exactly like a video game--you can't break through to the next level just by racking up a high score. As Harris explains it, he'd taken his magazines as high as he could and needed to hand them off if they were going to hit the top. "The really easy way to see it is that I gave birth to these children and raised them, and now they're going off to college," he says. "Ziff-Davis has a little better of everything than we have. They can put the magazines on more newsstands because of their contacts with distributors. They have the ability to do big subscription mailings that we didn't have the resources to do. They can take these magazines and help them grow beyond what they are--it's really like sending the kids off to college. It's bittersweet."

Bitter because those kids are the apples of your eye, the ones you raised and watched grow. Sweet because the house is finally empty and you can have some peace and quiet again. Harris, who makes it plain he prefers doing the work to managing the workers, stopped playing the game in part because so many distractions had been thrown in that sucked the fun right out of it. Being a CEO isn't as exhilarating to him as dreaming up cover photos. So he tossed the old game aside and got himself a starter model.

"I don't get 300 E-mails a day anymore from the staff," Harris said a month after the sale. "That's the good side." In an interview, Harris is friendly and candid--but not too--and he sits as still as possible in his chair the whole time. When he's searching for words, he fills the pause with a whining sound that makes him sound pained to have to talk to you. He seems most comfortable when his public relations woman jumps in to answer a question for him and keeps on talking, giving him a break from the scrutiny.

He wears a scary ugly shirt that looks like it was stolen from the wardrobe of a Brady movie, a cellular phone on his belt, and a square gold pinkie ring. He has dark eyes and a pale complexion that combine with the day's stubble to make him look like he's come to the interview straight from trying to beat his old Joust endurance benchmark. Even though he's a millionaire and a father of three, Harris still looks like a game rat--though a less shaggy one since cutting his waist-length hair to collar-length while the company was up for sale (the better to court the guys in suits, Sendai employees suspect).

His magazines work because they feel just like the games--an anarchic rush of gruesome creatures, explosive color, and women with impossibly cantilevered breasts. They're so busy they almost twitch in your hands. Each one covers its niche-within-the-niche. P.S.X. is only about games you can use on the Sony PlayStation. Cyber Sports gets away from all the sci-fi and action games to focus on games like NBA Jam, Tokyo Highway Battle, and Adidas Power Soccer. Later additions to the stable--Cinescape and Internet Underground--veer off the games line but are natural expansions. Cinescape tracks the kind of movies, TV, and other media candy that gamers are likely to go for: action, adventure, and science fiction. (Cinescape was not included in the sale to Ziff-Davis.)

The big two in the Sendai stable are the oldest: Electronic Gaming Monthly and its spawn EGM2. They cover the general-game category, including anything played at an arcade, on a kid's PlayStation in his bedroom, or on a PC screen at the office. What's the difference between EGM and EGM2? Their time of the month. Readers of EGM were so rabid for more news on their favorite obsession that in 1994 Harris hatched EGM2, which arrives on newsstands two weeks after EGM. Essentially, he made the magazine a twice-monthly without changing the name.

One of EGM's trademarks is its review section, where each new game gets scrutinized by not one or two but four staff reviewers. "That's been a real favorite," says Joe Funk, Sendai's editorial director. "If you're into strategy, you'll want to know what our strategy guy liked and didn't like. If you're an action guy, that's the reviewer you'll read first." EGM's pages are crammed with screen grabs from games, lots of little blocks of type instead of long narrative articles, and colors, logos, and any other little doodads somebody thought to spill onto the page. The articles are mostly reviews and playing tips about the games. For the casual reader who isn't neck-deep in electronic games, the writing and ads in EGM and Sendai's other magazines can seem as if they'd been beamed down from some weird planet--sort of like if Ross Perot did an infomercial in an arcade.

In a recent issue of EGM2, readers got six pages of strategy and character bios for the Sega game Guardian Heroes. It's crammed with the kind of obsessively detailed stuff that most people don't even know about the cars they drive. Such as: "When playing as Han, hack through to Stage 8, where only he can obtain a more powerful sword" and "The Graviton Thunder spell's size is adjustable" and "The Royal Robot cannot dash forward." In the same issue they learned that in the game Worms, the Cluster Bomb is a great way to take out a huge crowd of the mutant worms guarding a chunk of postnuclear terrain, while in the arcade game War Gods, the nearly naked female character called Vallah "not only [has] Projectile Axes, but she can chop you down up close too. In addition, she has a variety of Containments, charges and range attacks."

The same month, in a 12-page strategy guide for playing Resident Evil, P.S.X. ran a series of 360 screen grabs taking players through face-offs with zombies, snakes, giant bees, giant spiders, and giant crabgrass to rendezvous with the surprisingly average-chested Jill.

Each game, like a sci-fi novel, is a little self-contained world with its own rules, history, and ways to tweak them both. Sendai's writers are the native tour guides, its magazines the frantic, opinionated bumpy ride they take you on through their beloved land.

Advertising comes from the makers of the many, many, many electronic games on the market (as well as from other Sendai magazines and Harris's year-old Web site called Nuke). New games debut about as often as new attackers appear on the screen during a game of Skeleton Warriors. The built-in trouble with video games is, once you've mastered one, it's no fun anymore. Time to move on to a new game.

That's been Harris's way with magazines too: hit start, score high, play another game. He often compares starting a magazine to giving birth. And after he's birthed a magazine, he gladly hands it over to a nanny, a handpicked staff he can trust to raise the kid the way daddy wants it done.

When the first issue of Internet Underground, the youngest of the Sendai spawn, appeared in late 1995, "we got a very effusive three-page memo from Steve saying what he liked about it," remembers Kat Flynn, who edited the magazine until leaving for Microsoft in June. "After that we never heard anything good, bad, or indifferent about it from him about the editorial content. He decides what goes on the cover, but otherwise he may never have looked inside the magazine after that first issue."

Somewhere along the way Harris discovered he had birthed and handed off so many progeny that he had a huge brood of magazines and employees to oversee. Four years ago, he had 30 employees; two years ago, he had 74; by the time he sold Sendai, he had 120. That kind of growth is hard to manage--even when your goal is to be a manager, and Harris's wasn't. He'd deputized some of his buddies to handle management, but even so, he was the top guy. Everybody wanted something.

Early on, when he'd had a handful or a couple of dozen employees, Harris could do we're-all-in-this-together stuff with the staff, like throw a watermelon off the roof to mark the debut of each new magazine or take the whole company to the premiere of a Star Trek movie. But as the numbers rose, that kind of thing got harder to pull off, and employees say Harris retreated from view a bit.

"As he got overwhelmed with little details, he needed some padding," one former employee says. "People were constantly coming at him with questions and memos, and he didn't want to get distracted so he became kind of untouchable. It was probably good for him, because he got a lot more work done. But it was sad for the people who worked for him, because in growing the company had lost some of its identity. It wasn't a small company anymore--it was getting bigger and bigger, and the dynamic was changing into what you see at a regular corporation."

Not that Sendai ever bordered on feeling like IBM. You'd have to scour the Sendai offices on the top two floors of a blocky office building near the Yorktown Shopping Center to find anybody wearing a white shirt and tie. Arcade games, Game Boys, and video monitors are everywhere waiting to be test-driven, and the offices and cubicles are papered with posters and other hype from a million video games, sci-fi movies, and sports events. Underneath a Technicolor layer of toys, stick-ons, coffee cups, headsets, bendable action figures, and junk, the permanent stuff--the nondescript desks, tables, and cubicle walls--is beige and clean, as if on loan from somebody's parents. Hardly anyone on the staff has had a 30th birthday yet, and some look as if their 20th is still on the horizon. The staff is overwhelmingly male, adding to the impression that you're not in a corporate headquarters but a frat house for really smart guys.

Sit down with the editors of Internet Underground, and the flashbacks to college are overpowering. The public relations woman sits in a beanbag chair, one editor sits cross-legged on a Pier 1 rug, and another fondles a football as if he's got to master his passing grip soon or the coach will cut him. The clock says 1:30 PM, but all of a sudden it's way past midnight during finals week, and the giddy inside jokes, the self-referential quasi-historical trivia, and the whining over long-gone insults are firing around the room.

How did the staff of five come together with a vision of what the magazine should be in the first few months? "We talked a lot about how all the other Internet magazines sucked and we didn't want to be like them," Flynn says.

How does Internet Underground not suck? "We actually call the people doing Web sites, not just describe the sites--that's too easy," says Alex Gordon, the managing editor.

How can you tell when an issue of Internet Underground is successful? "When it feels like a fun Simpsons episode," says news editor Rob Bernstein.

Flynn starts to read a lengthy passage from the first issue, and a reverential hush falls over the room. After a while she stops reading, looks up, and says, "That's the way we write. Somebody else just says a site is "wacky.' We say how bad and out of control it is."

Internet Underground is stuffed with sections like "Web pages we're glad we can't find," "Weird on the Web," and in-depth interviews with Web masters like the guy in California who dedicates his site to debunking popular myths about Disney (Walt's not frozen but cremated, there's no record of one of the three little pigs molesting a park visitor, etc). It reads like a Web surfer's pacifier for those few hours a day--the time spent riding the el to work, for instance--when dedicated Webbers have no keyboard at hand.

Internet Underground is for people who are way too into the Internet, the way EGM is for people who are neck-deep in games. Sendai doesn't publish lukewarm magazines for grazing, but bibles for rabid enthusiasts. The best way to talk to them at their level: stock the staff with them.

Joe Funk, the company's editorial director, did most of the hiring in the two years before the sale to Ziff-Davis. The key, he says, "isn't getting people with years of experience in journalism who are our parents' age. We have to get people who are in our niche. That's how Jann Wenner built Rolling Stone. I want people who are doing video games or the Internet whether they work here or not." When he runs an ad in the Tribune for an editorial job, he says, it's not uncommon for applicants (they usually number in the hundreds) to include with their resume and writing samples a list of the games they play best.

For gamers, working at Sendai is like going to heaven, and getting a paycheck besides. Ted Chapman went to work there in 1993 as an editor at Computer Gaming Review and stayed until shortly after the sale, when Ziff-Davis closed his publication because it was a direct competitor with a Ziff magazine. As he recalls, "I gave my former employer about 15 minutes' notice. Sendai hired me to do something I'd been trained in college to do, which is write, but they were actually paying me to do something I love, which is games. I got to play the latest and greatest stuff before anyone else on the planet got to play them. I had a raging hard-on every day over that."

Once they're in, it's sink or swim. "Because the company has grown so fast, there's not a lot of time for hand-holding," Flynn says. "You're given a job and you're supposed to go do it. Nobody has time to watch over you." Funk says he tells staffers to measure their time at Sendai in dog years because of the perpetual state of overload that comes from working for a seat-of-the-pants operation that has popped all its seams many times over. Says Sarah Ellerman, associate editor of Internet Underground, "Working here demands self-discipline, because nobody keeps track of your hours or anything. I feel so autonomous that I'm probably spoiled for other workplaces."

Making it up as you go along is the dirty little secret of just about every office, but at Sendai it's a corporate habit with roots in the very beginning of the whole high-speed adventure. Harris started publishing with no experience at all and wound up with an empire. A dozen years ago, he was a high school dropout from Kansas City, Missouri, with no home besides a room to sleep in at the back of an Ottumwa, Iowa, video arcade he was managing, and no future. "My net worth was basically whatever my mom had sent me that month," he says now.

Returning to Kansas City in 1985, he started organizing national video game tournaments and publishing a shoestring newsletter about them. Three years later, when he got married, he moved to Lombard and took the job with Atari. His old newsletter morphed into the first issue of EGM.

About that time, Harvey Wasserman, who runs ADS Publisher Services, a Chicago magazine distributing company, got an inkling that the world needed a video game magazine. He mentioned his idea to a friend in the electronic game industry who had once seen Harris's newsletter and connected Harris with Wasserman. Wasserman made a rare deal with the toy store chain Kay-Bee to get a $100,000 advance for Harris in exchange for 60,000 copies of the second issue of EGM. Instead of the customary deal in which the retailer only pays for copies that it sells, Kay-Bee paid for all the copies flat-out because its executives saw a game boom on the horizon and wanted to get in early.

From there, Harris poured it on, working virtually around-the-clock for weeks on end perfecting this thing he'd dreamed up. His marriage eventually broke up as a result of the hours he kept, Harris says now, but he couldn't stop. "He was just driven, had a real fire in there," Funk says. After EGM's explosive popularity, successive magazines built progressively out from the core interest, electronic games, but never beyond Harris's own set of interests.

MVP Media, Harris's new venture, is mostly about sports, starting with projects like fantasy football and hockey guides (think rotisserie-league baseball, where players collect stats on athletes and assemble their own fictional teams) and expanding from there, Harris says. What he's done, essentially, is press the restart button bringing up onto his screen a new and uncluttered version of the old game; the baggage has all gone to Ziff.

"I look at this as sort of the way I took my interest in video games and made a business out of it. Now my interest in sports may develop in a similar way," Harris says. Isn't his shift from electronic games to professional sports typical of guys as they grow up? "I don't know if consciously I would accept that it is a sign of me aging, but there's probably an element of truth to it," he says.

The real difference, he says, is that he's moved from a market with very narrow appeal to a far broader one. That makes it harder to dominate but more lucrative if you can. "There's a broader demographic that is willing to pick up a magazine about the Chicago Bulls than about the latest PlayStation video," he says. By jumping from the little pond where he was king to wider, deeper waters, he'll have to sink or swim all over again.

On the surface, he shows no fear of the bigger stakes in his new game, makes no promises about replicating the lucrative track record of Sendai, only vows that "we'll do unique things in the category and take it a small step at a time," the usual vague vow of somebody who's starting from scratch. His pile of scratch just happens to be enormous. One rumor had him making $20 million on the sale, but neither he nor Ziff-Davis will divulge any financial details of the deal.

Pressed on his financial status, Harris will only say, "I'm doing OK. I could be doing worse," which is a massive understatement from a man who at one point owned a red Dodge Viper, a red Mitsubishi 3000 GT, a red Acura SX, and a red Lamborghini Countash, a $200,000 car. His house in Saint Charles, he says, "is a lot bigger than it needs to be, but it makes Rebecca [his girlfriend and the mother of two of his kids] happy. I spend most of my time in three rooms of it, and I spend a lot of time in the garage because I smoke a cigar now and then."

Ted Chapman says, "Everybody in the company knows Steve makes a goodly sum, but the only time you can tell he makes a lot of money is when he gets into his car in the parking lot."

Still the game rat who can watch the score counter but focus on the game, Harris makes the money sound like so many points for wiping out hostile invaders. "I like cars, and when I was fortunate enough to I bought nice cars, but I have never felt that if my car disappeared tomorrow my life would end," he says. "I was sleeping in the back of an arcade 12 years ago. There wasn't a lot there--I learned to do with very, very little."

He was sleeping in an arcade for the same reason he's now sleeping in luxurious digs in Saint Charles: that's where his love of games took him. When he dropped out of high school, Harris quickly rose to the top of the arcade rat pack by being so damn good at any game he tried. The Ottumwa arcade where he ended up, Twin Galaxies, wasn't just any video arcade--it was, he recalls, the glowing center of the arcade planet, a place where top scorers had to be. As the manager and a world-record holder, he was pretty much an arcade god. And pretty much without a life, he gradually realized. Moving back to Kansas City, getting married, and taking a real job in Lombard was another way of pressing restart.

OK, so success hasn't spoiled Steve Harris. What will it do to his progeny? Now that he's sent them off to Ziff-Davis University, what's their first lesson? "We bought these magazines to build on what they have done, not to change them," Jon Lane said a few minutes after casually revealing that he's already sorting through ways to make at least one big change.

Because Sendai's fanatical readers have always thought of Harris and the rest of the names in the magazines' mastheads as fellow gameheads, they expect to call up and ask urgent questions like How do you kill Cano in Mortal Kombat? To keep down the call volume, Sendai has kept its phone number an unlisted, guarded secret. When the PR office sends out congratulatory letters to prize winners, somebody always has to double-check that the letters are printed on stationery with no phone number.

When the interview with Lane wandered onto this terrain, Lane laughed about the oddity of a company that has 2.5 million readers but no phone number where they can call for reader service. Then he said, "We may set up a phone line so we can have it in the book and handle the high volume. We'll want to capture their name and address and try to get them to subscribe, but we'll have to enhance their experience while they're on the phone with something special for calling."

Welcome to the new game, boys. Now you're both the players and the played.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Randy Tunnell.

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