I type this from my balcony, looking out across the Nevada Skyline, the darkness broke up by the climbing lights of planes and the neon glow of the Las Vegas Strip. Earlier I woke up to my computer telling me my friend, John “Totalbiscuit” Bain, had died. It shot out of the screen, trending on social media, exploding on my Skype and Discord, lurking in my inbox…This was no cruel joke or false report. I had to rub the sleep from my eyes and accept I had woke up to a new reality, one without someone I not only admired but had the fortune to know. And now I stare out and see the lights and I’m supposed to say it is a sign life goes on. It does, but at what miserable cost? Whiskey and tears now. No words can capture the loss, which you know if you’d ever spent just a single day in his orbit. I look at Skype. He is still logged in. The last words I typed were “thanks brother.” Thank God it was something I meant.
John Bain… It is hard for me to believe he was mortal. Despite being a good few years younger than me he had already done so much more. A YouTuber with a following of millions, a critic that had been an instrumental part of the shift away from traditional games media, a hugely popular commentator across multiple games and in possession of a law degree, John’s the kind of person you hear about and it makes you sick to your stomach. It’s hard not be envious, to ask the immortal question uttered by life’s also-rans; “why THEM and not me.” Then you meet them and you understand why, enthusiasm and energy crackling out from them like ball lightning sent to Earth to fuck with you. John truly was like no-one else I’d ever met during my journey through esports.
It’s already a matter of public record that we didn’t get along initially… Anyone who knows anything about how actual relationships work would understand why. Two Northerners from working class backgrounds with big opinions? Two people willing to fight to defend our positions as being correct, in fact, expecting to have to fight because that’s the world we knew. It’s worth mentioning no-one ever really talks about what it’s like for someone from a rough, poor background, the kind where you’re expected to physically defend yourself against everyone who disagrees with you, suddenly finding themselves in a world of online media where the people who attack you endlessly tell you that’s you’re being overly aggressive if you reply to their tweets. The rules are different and yet the stakes are the same. When John and I butted heads he would always joke about how we’d be more comfortable having a “punch up in a car-park and then going to get a drink afterwards and laugh about it.” I never wanted to hit the guy but he nailed the attitude at least. That was the world I knew.
I was amazed a successful YouTuber also knew that world and came from the same sort of neighbourhood I did. My father served time in the prison just down the road from where John grew up. Perhaps then it wasn’t surprising we started out so wary of each other, so eager to snipe and poke at the parts we knew would hurt. Before I’d even really ever consumed his content I had concluded he was just another gimmicky YouTuber, a collection of feigned affectations designed to get attention, another phony conning the masses. I repeatedly referred to a now infamous old forum post that made John look pretentious, even though in life he was anything but. It was petty bullshit that I would give anything to go back and erase, to be in a position to extend our friendship beyond its all too short run.
John always gave as good as he got of course. I loved him for that. When people hurled abuse his way he was always comfortable giving it back to them. That was refreshing in a world where we are constantly told if you have a following you must ignore the most vile abuse and be the “bigger person.” John already was the bigger person, that’s why he was the person with a body of work and not some basement dwelling loser trolling e-celebrities on anonymous social media accounts. Anyone who treated John with just a modicum of respect would find him warm and generous, anyone who wanted a war of words would be cut down to his size by his unbelievably sharp tongue. And just because you’d been a victim of the latter didn’t mean you would never be a beneficiary of the former. I’m proof of that. John was always willing to walk back past conflicts and make up with people if they could just be reasonable. Enemies came with the territory but make no mistake he preferred you all as friends. And what people never seemed to understand about John, it wasn’t that he couldn’t take criticism about his work, which is an often touted myth… It was that he took immense pride in his work, defined who he was by his work and he wanted you to like it as much as he put into it. I know he absorbed every piece of criticism and was driven half-mad by his desire to find the impossible equilibrium of pleasing everyone without compromising himself. Every piece he put out was an extension of who he was and what he believed. If you attacked it by extension you attacked him and he would always rear up to defend it. What else would you expect?
You probably know all this already because, like me, you’re a fan of his work. What you probably don’t know is who John was away from the microphone and his Twitter account. I imagine the coming days will be flooded with stories from industry types all along similar lines… John was a huge star who was down to Earth and accessible, an antidote to current YouTubers who always seem to be divorced from reality. When I was coming up he took me to one side and told me about the pitfalls of social media, how to handle the spotlight, how to learn from mistakes he had made. He signal boosted my reporting, even when I was writing for a publication he flat out told me he thought was reprehensible. He never held back from telling people who didn’t know who I was just how great my work was and he was among the first to congratulate me when I made it to national American television, citing it as an example of another Northern lad who made it. Whenever we were stressed we’d ping each other on Skype to blow off steam. His time must have been stretched across so much, especially during his illness, and yet he never forgot me.
It doesn’t end there though. During his time in esports I know he not only actively lobbied to get players and on-air broadcast talent paid, he was always transparent about his rates, adjusting his own payments to ensure people he respected got what he felt they were due. He did shows like Unfiltered in his downtime, unpaid appearances that opened the show to tens of thousands of new viewers. He was available to media at all levels and would regularly tweet and promote people whose work he liked without even telling them sometimes. I’ve had fans of my work tell me they discovered me through John, that wily bastard talking me up when I wasn’t in earshot. This is just who he was. If he thought you were wrong, he’d tell you, If he thought you could be better he’d voluntarily give you the kind of feedback people pay good money for and If he thought you were great, he’d use his platform to make other people know it. It was never a “competition” to him; his success was yours too. There’s a reason why he was so beloved in the industry despite him being one of the most outspoken critics of everyone and everything.
John was ethics first and that’s the crucial part of his legacy I hope people never forget. I became who I was because I had seen John risk so much to speak his truth, to call out the things he thought were unethical and harmful. This during a time where social media mobs were really becoming a thing, where people’s employment and relationships could be destroyed for solely saying anything vaguely non-mainstream. And there he was calling out bullshit everywhere. Big brands, big developers, big influencers (in a time before that disgusting term had taken hold)… Every time a backlash came in you anticipated the token mealy-mouthed apology. Instead, the next day John railed at the people demanding that apology and then called out some more bullshit. The courage it takes to speak out not just on one issue or cause célèbre, but to do it routinely as a matter of course. To never shy away from speaking up about things even when it’s far easier to put some middle-of-the-roads “it might be bad if that’s true but I’m sure there’s good reasons” type garbage most YouTubers pride themselves on. He probably did more for consumers in the gaming space than any other critic in the age of digital media. I really hope more are encouraged to pick up the torch now that we have lost that voice.
Already I have seen some people try and denigrate his memory and his accomplishments. Such are the times we live in where less than an hour of the news becoming public, the desperate attention-seekers take to the public space to give their tepid takes. This isn’t the place or the time to be combative. That comes later. All I’ll say is this, not even the people who loved John the most would try and peddle the myth he was perfect. Yet already I have seen reprehensible lies told, utter fiction spat out by frauds who call themselves journalists and developers who make a living sticking it to the people John spoke up on behalf of. Fuck these disgusting ghouls. John never stood for harassment or anything other than inclusion for all gamers and they’ll never be able to prove otherwise, which is why they tell you to “Google it” rather than show you. John was a pioneer who had inadvertently contributed to making these people increasingly irrelevant. John stood up to these liars repeatedly, exposed them for what they are and people loved him for it. It’s no wonder they’re breathing a sigh of relief at his passing. Oh and for what it’s worth no-one is saying “don’t speak ill of the dead.” John certainly didn’t believe in that bullshit. Just at least base it on reality and not things you wish happened so you can have one final lunge at someone who was better than you. In not being able to wait longer than an hour before you attempt to rewrite history with provable lies John exposed you all one last time in death. How utterly embarrassing for you all.
Final thoughts before I go and try to metabolise my grief. I have never felt comfortable about describing the process of cancer as a “fight.” On the one hand, if it helps someone stricken with it rally and find determination, then it is only a good thing. Yet there is a terrible implication for those who pass away, ones that I don’t even want to type out in such close proximity to my friend’s name. If people must talk about the horror of trying to survive cancer in terms of “winners” and “losers” then I would say only this; I never looked into the eyes of a loved one ravaged by this illness and saw someone who was ready to “give in” and didn’t give it their all despite extreme pain. Sometimes what you call “winning” is making it to your daughter’s birthday, or a week past a doctor’s prognosis, or even getting out before the pain gets too much and the drugs turn you into someone you aren’t. I know cancer. Trust me when I say the people who never make it to remission or beyond never quit a day in their lives. If you knew John and you knew his stubbornness and zest for life you know he didn’t “lose.” He made it this far, working all the way, because of who he is and always was, a winner.
With that in mind there is one thing John did kick the ever loving shit out of, something I wish we could all fight against as deftly as he did, and that is mediocrity. He turned a hobby into a career, a passion into a craft and his pure enthusiasm for his subject was the gateway drug for many a hardcore gamer and esports enthusiast alike. The sense of loss is profound but I consider myself lucky to have been able to witness it all at such close proximity. In an awful alternate timeline we never spoke at all. Know that the Cynical Brit was a secret optimist; he was a fearsome enemy and a loving friend. He was a unique voice that somehow spoke for us all, so be sure to cherish that body of work he leaves behind. Rest well you magnificent bastard. I’ll see you next time.