Opinion: Why Digital Homicide's case against Jim Sterling doesn't stand a chance0 Comments
October 31st, 2014 — it was more than just Halloween; it was also the day on which indie developer Digital Homicide released their zombie first-person shooter, Slaughtering Grounds.
One day later, game journalist and critic James Stanton — better known by his online moniker Jim Sterling — released a ten-minute long “first impressions” video. The video itself was par for the course by YouTube “let’s play” standards. Sterling’s voice-over expressed confusion caused by the game’s mechanics and criticized the low-budget game’s graphics, controls, and music.
Following this, Digital Homicide published a “review of the review” on their YouTube channel (now archived on Sterling’s channel, here) in which they accused Sterling of not playing the game correctly and repeatedly called him “a f---ing idiot.” This initial video exchange has escalated into a continuous back-and-forth over nearly a year and a half, which has finally culminated in James Romine — co-founder of Digital Homicide — filing a lawsuit against Sterling.
In this absolutely unprecedented case, plaintiff James Romine is suing Jim Sterling for $10,761,000. You can read the filed complaint here. Personally, I don’t think that Romine and Digital Homicide have a leg to stand on. I’m no legal expert (and, in fairness, neither is the author of the filed complaint), but I think I can see the writing on the wall.
Digital Homicide had a very poor reaction to what was initially just a negative review. Directors, authors, and other artists have no protection from criticism, even when it comes from a pundit with a large platform (in this case, Sterling’s channel had about 72,000 subscribers at the time the Slaughtering Grounds video was published). If Digital Homicide hadn’t posted a video response to Jim Sterling, he and his fans most likely would have forgotten about Digital Homicide’s existence until they released their next title.
As a business owner, Romine could have reached out to Jim Sterling, listened to his criticisms, and used it to patch Slaughtering Grounds, or to create more cohesive games in the future. As a creator, he could have just ignored it entirely. Instead, he voluntarily thrust himself into the public eye by making the video response on YouTube. This video portrays his entire company in a negative light, exhibiting unprofessional speech, editing, and grammar. Later, they realized this mistake and deleted the offending content from YouTube, which now constitutes as destruction of evidence if Sterling decides to file a counter-suit. Digital Homicide's reaction video was the catalyst for all of the subsequent events.
Additionally, the lawsuit doesn’t go after Sterling’s YouTube account, but instead references a blog post on his personal website, TheJimquisition.com. The complaint states that the post is libelous. Libel, by definition, is something that is untrue, defamatory, published maliciously, and presented as truth. Sterling’s allegations against Digital Homicide, such as claiming that they were publishing games under a myriad of new aliases, were proven true. Digital Homicide can’t claim that these statements are libel because they aren’t false. If Romine had spoken to a lawyer, they may have advised him as such.
This brings us to the final nail in the coffin for the Romine’s lawsuit — he filed the case pro se. In the legal world, a lawyer representing a plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit would normally do so on contingency, which is to say that they would agree on a percentage of the total payout that would go to the lawyer upon winning the lawsuit. In this case, Romine has stated that he is unable to find any lawyers to take the case on contingency and has instead asked for help crowdfunding his lawsuit. With a case that is going to set a precedent for online criticism, and with a ten-million dollar settlement amount, lawyers should be clamoring to take the case for the publicity and payout alike.
Instead, Digital Homicide can’t seem to find anyone willing to devote time and energy to the case without a retainer. Because of their inability to attain legal counsel, they have submitted a complaint full of errors, trumped-up charges, and misrepresented numbers.
The only count that might actually be worth looking at is the first count of libel listed in the suit, because Sterling did initially speculate that some of Digital Homicide's art was stolen from DeviantArt. Digital Homicide has receipts to show that it was actually purchased on ShutterStock instead. However, Sterling has since amended this on his blog, and writes that his previous assertion was incorrect. It will still be up to a judge to decide if this was a malicious false claim, but Sterling did also provide a disclaimer on the piece, stating that the entire article was not full of "verified fact," but that it was made up of his theories about Digital Homicide based on his recent research. Even if a judge does claim this as libel, it is unlikely to result in a hefty fine, since it has since been amended.
Digital Homicide has absolutely no chance at winning this $10 million lawsuit. They have painted themselves as innocent victims of an internet bully, but the truth is that they have created name-calling videos which have garnered negative attention from the community. They’ve also exaggerated the claims against the defendant, and have even failed to obtain legal counsel to help them write a consistent and factual complaint. Therefore, Digital Homicide’s lawsuit, which could have changed the entire nature of game criticism and reviewing, will end up getting brushed aside for more viable cases.