The Way Its Meant To Be Reviewed – Analyzing NVIDIA’s Choice to Blacklist Reviewers Who Stray Away from the Narrative

If you’re reading this article, you’ve likely already heard the reports that NVIDIA has decided to blacklist or ‘ban’ the prominent tech review YouTube channel, Hardware Unboxed from receiving the company’s Founder’s Edition graphics cards for review. The story broke out on Twitter in a post (listed below) from the Hardware Unboxed official Twitter account.

Originally, when I read these allegations I was surprised, and even a bit confused as this didn’t sound like a rational decision from NVIDIA. So, I waited before reacting as I wanted to hear more information. That additional information came from possibly of one the most unlikely sources. On Friday, during his weekly livestream known as the ‘WAN Show’ Linus Sebastian of Linus Tech Tips read, and reacted to a leaked email correspondence addressed to Steve Walton from Hardware Unboxed from NVIDIA’s Global Director of PR for GeForce, Bryan Del Rizzo.

The email, which was transcribed by user FlatAds on Reddit, features a variety of very telling quotes from NVIDIA’s GeForce Marketing Director, which I find quite ridiculous for a person in his position to be saying to a member of the tech press, especially one with the influence and credibility as Steve Walton. Let me explain as I go over some of them below:

“We’ve reached a critical juncture in the adoption of ray tracing and it has gained industry-wide support from top titles, developers, game engines, APIs, consoles and GPUs

As you know Nvidia is all in for ray tracing. RT is important and core to the future of gaming, but it’s also one part of our focused R&D efforts on revolutionizing video games and creating a better experience for gamers.”

First, let me just start off by saying that all of this goes without saying, especially when talking to a person who works in the industry as a reviewer and analyst. But, he brings it up because it sets the tone for what he’s going to say next.

“This philosophy is also reflected in developing technologies such as DLSS, reflex and broadcast that offer immense value to customers who are purchasing a GPU. They don’t get free GPUs, they work hard for their money, and they keep their GPUs for multiple years.”

Did you catch that? Yes, the Global Head of PR for GeForce just implied that reviewers, unlike consumers who spend their hard earned money on graphics cards (this part is true, of course) get free graphics cards. This of course, completely ignores the work that reviewers like Steve Walton and others (myself included) put into those reviews, which allows companies like NVIDIA to get their products in front of consumers, and have them independently tested and their claims verified. It is offensive to suggest that Steve or ANY reviewer is in this for free hardware. The hours of work that goes into a review could easily pay for the hardware several times over again in many cases. We do this for our audience, for gamers, and because we love it. It is that simple. The fact that Mr. Del Rizzo would even suggest this, to me, says a lot about how he views the reviewers he works with.

Moving on to the next part.

“Despite all this progress, your GPU reviews and recommendations have continued to focus singularly on rasterization performance and you have largely discounted all of the other technologies we offer gamers.

It is very clear from your community commentary that you do not see things the same way that we, gamers, and the rest of the industry do. Our founder’s editions boards and other Nvidia products are being allocated to media outlets that recognize the changing landscape of gaming and the features that are important to gamers and anyone buying a GPU today. Be it for gaming, content creation, or studio and streaming.”

See, at this point, Bryan is attempting to paint Steve as someone who is intentionally doing a disservice to gamers, and the industry as whole by not focusing enough of the technologies which NVIDIA has been investing in. That alone would be insulting, but it is even more so when you realize that is it built on a premise that is patently false. Yes, it is no secret that Steve and every other reviewer believes that rasterization performance is still the most important factor in judging a graphics card, along with other standard metrics such as efficiency and overall value. Still, the notion that Hardware Unboxed does not cover technologies that NVIDIA has developed, is simply not true and even NVIDIA does not believe that:

Taking a look at the screenshot taken from NVIDIA’s website, on their DLSS marketing page, you can see that the company was so pleased with Hardware Unboxed’s coverage of its DLSS 2.0 technology that it featured a quote from one of their reports as one of the main bullet points on their marketing material.

Taking a look at the original article, we can see the full quote reads as follows:

DLSS 2.0 is extremely impressive, far exceeding our expectations for this sort of upscaling technology. When targeting a native 4K resolution, DLSS 2.0 delivers image quality equivalent to the native presentation. Despite DLSS rendering at an actual resolution below 4K, the final results are as good as or in some circumstances better than the native 4K image.

Tim Schiesser, Hardware Unboxed, Techspot

So, obviously, NVIDIA does not seriously believe Hardware Unboxed is ignoring their exclusive features such as DLSS. Even more recently, in his review for AMD’s RX 6800 XT, Steve had this to say in his conclusion:

The advantages of the GeForce GPU may be more mature ray tracing support and DLSS 2.0, both of which aren’t major selling points in our opinion unless you play a specific selection of games. DLSS 2.0 is amazing, it’s just not in enough games. 

Steve Walton, Hardware Unboxed, Techspot

You might read that as Steve downplaying the importance of these features, but he’s remained consistent since their inception that he believes they are great features which are not widely adopted enough to be major factors in a purchasing decision. In total, there have been only 24 titles released since 2018 which feature support for DXR Ray Tracing, and that includes titles like Battlefield V and Shadow of the Tomb Raider which most would agree have rather poor implementations of the feature to begin with. I’m not arguing that the technology is bad, its just still in its infancy, and it is not a major selling point, in my opinion based on the number of titles which support it, the implementations of many of said titles and the performance impact of the effects. Sure, some games such as Control do stand out as notable exceptions and excellent applications of the technology, but there are very few examples of games like this.

DLSS on the other hand, is quite amazing in its current iteration and titles such as Control, Death Stranding and the recently released Cyberpunk 2077 benefit greatly from this performance enhancing feature with very little cost to overall visual quality, if any at all. But again, there are only a handful of titles which support this feature to begin with right now.

Which brings us to the final part of the email:

“Hardware Unboxed should continue to work with our add-in card partners to secure GPUs to review. Of course you will still have access to obtain pre-release drivers and press materials, that won’t change. We are open to revisiting this in the future should your editorial direction change.”

While initially, this may seem as though NVIDIA is leaving the door open for Hardware Unboxed to continue to review their products, it is not that simple. By losing access to to Founder’s Edition cards, HUB will no longer be able to provide its audience with day one launch reviews for NVIDIA’s cards because as you may have noticed, the review embargo dates for partner designs often follows the Founder’s Edition models by at least a couple of days. No matter how you look at it, this will impact Hardware Unboxed’s viewership negatively.

However, the most egregious part of this entire correspondence is the final statement. “We are open to revisiting this in the future should your editorial direction change” That is without a doubt beyond the line any company should take with independent media. It outright spells it out in plain English that Hardware Unboxed must fall in line with NVIDIA’s narrative, or be passed over altogether. Change your opinion.. or else.

Conclusion

Back when the RTX 2000 series launched, I remember talking about it with colleagues in the industry. I remember explaining my thoughts on the shift in branding and focus for NVIDIA and what I thought was one of the main driving forces behind it. See, while I have no doubt that Ray Tracing is indeed the future of gaming, I always believed that it was only a matter of when, not if.

However, I also know that NVIDIA like any company, will always have their own motives behind pushing new technologies when they do. Back then, I explained that for NVIDIA, RTX was a way of hedging their bets against AMD. Eventually, they would catch up in rasterization performance and when they did, NVIDIA would want something to ensure they still have the lead in gaming. Now that it has come to fruition and AMD is finally competitive once again in the high-end graphics space, NVIDIA needs to ensure they maintain the mindshare of having chart topping performance and right now they can only do that decisively with hardware accelerated ray tracing.

Make no mistake, this is not just about Hardware Unboxed, they’re unfortunately the sacrificial lamb in NVIDIA’s message to all reviewers: get in line or get left behind. This is likely only the beginning of NVIDIA’s efforts to maintain control of the narrative in the newly competitive graphics market, and I personally fear for what is coming next.

Hardware Unboxed is a fantastic outlet with a pair of talented reviewers who have amassed a loyal following in the community. I have no doubt they will make it through this, however, I’m sure it will be just that much tougher now. They’ll need all the support they can get going forward. If you care about an independent tech media, I highly suggest you consider donating to them on Patreon or picking up some of their official merch. Of course, if you can’t do that, just watching and sharing their content will also help.

With that, I’ll leave you with just one final thought on the subject: In the movie Steve Jobs, during an argument Steve Wozniak says to Jobs, “your products are better than you” I think this is a rather appropriate quote given the situation.

EDIT: As reported by Hardware Unboxed on Twitter, NVIDIA has reached out to them and retraced their initial email and unbanned them from receiving Founder’s Edition boards.

Additionally, the company reached out again asking that HUB share the email with its fans, and they did. That email reads as follows:

Hi Steve –
Thanks for your note. I just wanted to say again how sorry I am for my original email.
I overstepped my bounds and it’s as simple as that.
I love seeing all the ways reviewers test and report on our products and I value your contributions.
Suggesting that I would withhold samples because I didn’t agree with your commentary is simply inexcusable and crossed the line.
I failed myself, my colleagues, and the amazing community of reviewers I consider my friends.
You all work so hard in service of the gaming industry we love – you deserved better from me.
I hope you will forgive my mistake and give me the opportunity to be of serviced to you in the future.
It would be great if you can share this with your fans so they know how I feel.
Thanks,
BDR

Bryan Del Rizzo, Global Marketing Director, GeForce at NVIDIA

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