While setting up a new San Francisco bureau, the CEO known worldwide to video game aficionados as Niero got some good news: "We just got sponsored by the new Halo game," he wrote to The Miami Herald. "I'm tap dancing in my unlikely business boots."
The massively popular Xbox game only sponsored his video game website for a few days, but an ad like that means a lot to the staff of the young Miami company.
"It kind of validates what we do," said Yanier Gonzalez, founder of Destructoid.com. But his readers know him as Niero -- his nickname.
It's not easy for media companies to grow when Internet advertising spending is on the decline, but somehow in its mix of video game news and quirky humor, the blog he began in 2006 has grown to eight staffers on full-time salaries and 15 contributing writers. Plus it's adding a West Coast office -- all while many of his competitors are facing a "game over" screen.
Gonzalez, 31, started the Destructoid blog as a outlet for his passion for video games -- and to weasel his way into the video game conference E3, which is only open to the press. He did it with the help of a high school friend, now chief technology officer, Anthony Lackner.
To promote the site, Gonzalez built a robot mask from scratch and gave birth to the alter-ego Mr. Destructoid, taking photos with strangers at conventions. As the helmet went through several design upgrades, Mr. Destructoid would ride subways in Tokyo and high-five drivers on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach.
"For me, it's always been about trying to make people laugh and provide entertainment," Gonzalez said. "The costume was definitely key to having people notice us."
And people did. What started as a hobby blog for the graphic designer has grown into a destination for hard-core video-game junkies wanting a fix of breaking news, commentary, podcasts and video -- and of course a place for players to vent and share cheat codes. Gonzalez said his staff pumps out between 40 to 60 new pieces of content a day.
In 2007, the Mr. Destructoid character was featured in the Xbox Live Arcade game Bomberman Live, and this month it was announced the character will be in the upcoming Xbox Live game Raskulls.
But even with exposure like that, Gonzalez said he is just breaking even every month.
NOT AN EASY GAME
"It's tough to make money running a website," said Barry Parr, a former media analyst with Forrester Research and publisher of the community news site Coastsider.com.
"The economics are a mess. That's the challenge. But when the economics get figured out, it's going to be too late to get into the business.''
Internet advertising revenue in 2009 declined 5.3 percent from 2008, according to the most recent data from the Interactive Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Even the normally untouchable video game industry is seeing dismal times. January's sales of games, consoles and accessories saw a 13 percent dip from last year, according to NPD Group.
With 1.8 million unique hits a month, Destructoid isn't big enough to get the respect to talk directly with advertisers. It hired Gorilla Nation to sell its ads -- and Destructoid is a line item on a list of video game sites that advertisers see.
"We're basically trying to build a network of sites that has a significant reach. When you get to the 5 million uniques and the 100 million pages views mark, it's so much easier to get an ad agency to be included," Gonzalez said.
He's on a mission to create separate sites for things like movies and gadgets -- hitting the interests of his prized 18- to 35-year-old audience. The media company, which operates under the name Modern Method, has already added the site Japanator.com to cover Japanese entertainment, and Tomopop.com, which covers the collectible toy culture.
When Gonzalez started, there were already many successful video game websites,like IGN, GameSpot, Kotaku and Joystiq.
"Having everything we do be opposite of those guys just helps us stand out. We're a lot more informal. We take more risks than GameSpot," Gonzalez said. "We prioritize more humor and entertainment value."
But several competitors have seen some tough times recently.
GameSpot.com laid off several staff members in 2008, many of whom went on to start GiantBomb.com. At the start of 2009, the site 1Up.com was acquired by UGO Entertainment, a division of Hearst Corp. In January of this year, CrispyGamer.com showed promise after acquiring another video game site, but management fired its writers, and the CEO reportedly resigned in protest.
Issues of Electronic Gaming Magazine, which got its start in 1989 and was once owned by 1Up.com, have been suspended since 2009 -- sending many of its writers knocking on the doors at Destructoid.
"It was kind of surreal that those guys go out of business, and they are sending me their résumés," Gonzalez said. "It's like, what? I grew up reading you guys."
Gonzalez grew up in Hialeah after his family left Cuba when he was 5 years old. He ran his own video game club in second grade, often cutting out articles from EGM, and he swore someday he's get paid to play video games.
Now he's paying rent on a second office in California where four staffers will live, hoping that it will get the site more respect with West Coast connections.
"I was trying to do it all from Miami, but the cost of travel was getting out of control," Gonzalez said.
He's not running around as Mr. Destructoid much these days -- nor is he writing. His days are about deciding if the site should upgrade to auto-reloading technology, which would mean that his page view numbers would go down, hurting ad revenue.
It's about figuring out how to make more money off the videos his team members are producing. Or how to use social media to get more traffic to the site.
That is, when he's not playing the latest hot game.
"I feel lucky every morning when I get up,'' he said. "I'm like wow, I still get to do this."
ABOUT YANIER 'NIERO' GONZALEZ:
Title: Destructoid CEO, founder
Education: Miami Springs Senior High, Silver Knight winner 1997
Before Destructoid: Intern at El Nuevo Herald art department, creative director at World Media
Personal: Age 31, single. Lives in home office with three employees
Background: Born in Cuba, raised Miami-Dade County
How he got the name Niero: It's a childhood nickname after friends teased about his sloppy signature that looked like 'Niero'
All-time favorite game: Mega Man 2 on NES
Favorite recent game: Mass Effect 2
Favorite console system: Super Nintendo. "PS2 is a close second. I'm a retro gamer at heart."
Looking forward to playing: Final Fantasy XIII, coming out in March