Now I'm not saying that the well known games journos of the world don't deserve to be where they are. On the contrary; some of them do amazing work. But how did the get where they are? It's usually a variation on "Well, [established name] gave me a shot, and here I am. This is a problem. (The other problem is writers and video producers getting paid a liveable wage, but I can only rattle one pot at a time.) The problem is, what can I as an individual, or us as a community, do to change this? Obviously I don't want a world where everyone is a well known game critic, but there has to be some sort of happy medium so that people who work hard enough can at least get the attention of the correct people. Do you agree? How can we fix this? I hope that this all makes sense, I should be asleep by now, so it might be a bit jumbled.
I hope this doesn't end up discouraging you more -- my intent is the opposite, I promise -- but I am 100% positive that you do not need to "know" anybody in order to break into the video game industry.
I know this because I didn't know anybody when I broke into the industry myself, not too long ago.
My name is Britton Peele. These days I most often write for GameSpot doing reviews, but I have also written for Joystiq, GamesRadar, The Escapist and a few other places, and am now an editor for The Dallas Morning News. And when I broke through, it sounds like I was in a very similar situation to the one you're in now.
I was writing video game reviews for my college newspaper at Texas Tech. Previously I had written kid-friendly reviews for a website run by a friend's dad (I don't think anybody but myself actually read them). As graduation was getting closer, I started learning more and more about freelancing, buying a few books on the topic ("Renegade Writer" was, I think, the title of one that had good advice at the time).
I tried to get something published for a long time, pitching what I thought was an awesome feature to The Escapist, Killscreen, GamesRadar, GameSpot, IGN ... everywhere I could think of. No dice. A couple of times I got a friendly, "This isn't what we're looking for," but usually I was met with silence.
But I kept trying, because that's what you've gotta do. No matter what you write about (even if it's fiction), the key is to not give up, no matter how bad it might seem. No, that doesn't mean everybody on the planet will eventually get published if they just try long enough, but the fact is that almost all successful writers in all mediums have had to push through a lot of failure to get where they are.
Eventually, an editor at GamesRadar (who, as far as I know, is no longer in the industry) took notice of my attempts and gave me a couple pieces of advice, one of the biggest being: Pitch with an outlet in mind. Previously I was just shooting my pitches everywhere, not thinking enough about whether or not it was a fit for the publication.
That week, the 3DS was announced, but not shown. I thought, "I can write something about that." So I took a better look at GamesRadar. Many of their freelancers at the time wrote lists.
So I pitched "10 games we want for 3DS." It was accepted. I turned it around in about a day. That was my first published piece as a freelance writer.
From there I did some more features from GamesRadar and eventually started reviewing games for them -- and by "games," I mostly mean expansion packs to The Sims 3. I wasn't glamorous work, but I was doing something I loved and getting paid (albeit not much) for it.
During that time, I was also pestering Justin Calvert at GameSpot, who I contacted every few months for probably 2-3 years before finally being told, "Actually, yes, I could use another freelancer right now." I was ecstatic.
And that was all before I had met a single person in the video game industry.
Years later, yeah, I've hung out with people. The first time I ever met fellow game journalists/critics was at QuakeCon, which is a show that's local to me here in Dallas. It was my first freelance assignment for The Dallas Morning News, and the first time I ever met any established writers in the flesh.
Does meeting/knowing people help with getting work? Sure. I won't deny that at all. If you can make it to somewhere like PAX or E3 and occasionally rub shoulders with people you look up to, definitely go for it. But the idea that you have to know people in order to break in is a myth. If it was true, I wouldn't be where I am now.