ESPN pisses off some, delights many, by bringing pro video gaming to primetime
Video games are big money -- an $111 billion business according to Gartner -- and not just through the sales of games, consoles, and in-game purchases. There are whole cottage industries around the gaming industry that include merchandise, gamer-related content, and eSports.
If you’ve never heard of eSports, the professional competition circuit of the gaming world, you aren’t alone. But as the events, prize money, and celebrity-making opportunity of eSports continue to grow, it’s likely eSports will become more mainstream.
And a televised competition last night may well have been the tipping point for the professional video game industry.
With its broadcast of the final match of Heroes of the Dorm -- a competition of college student teams playing the still-in-beta Blizzard game Heroes of the Storm -- ESPN brought eSports to primetime, announcers included. While many professional gaming events have purses well in excess of $1 million and have sold out the Staples Center in LA, the winners of last night's competition received scholarships for the rest of their college careers.
But despite the big prizes, last night's airing showed that eSports is definitely not-ready-for-primetime yet.
ESPN is always searching for its next outside-the-mainstream hit. The network has been making huge pushes in its coverage -- online and through televised broadcasts -- of college lacrosse and international cricket, among other sports, in search of the next World Series of Poker, Scripps National Spelling Bee, or EUFA Champions League -- all three of which attract huge audiences.
Last night's tournament wasn't a first for ESPN: Last year, it aired an event sponsored by Valve called The International, in which players competed for $11 million playing the game Dota 2. But for the International, the sports media giant only showed a short documentary of the event after it had aired the tournament on its live streaming service ESPN3.
But last night's Heroes of the Dorm tourney in primetime, which was held at LA's Shrine Auditorium, was televised in full on ESPN2. And the Interwebs and talking heads have been abuzz since.
While many people on Twitter have shown excitement at watching an eSports event on the "Worldwide Leader," many have shown their exasperation at flipping through their favorite sports channels to find...wait for it...NERDS on their beloved ESPN. (In my opinion, watching the goofy announcers and collegiate gamers is actually quite a respite from the usual buffoonery that graces the network at times.)
But the reactions went beyond social media. Earlier, ESPN's version of a shock jock, Colin Cowherd, went on his show today and proclaimed that he will quit his job if he ever has to cover video games. At times, Cowherd also went into the anti-nerd well, saying, "Someone lock the door at Mom's house, and don't let them out."
But not all the high profile reactions were as negative. Legendary UCLA basketball star Bill Walton, for one, tweeted out his amusement. Meanwhile, Dennis Fong, a former pro gamer and current CEO of gaming platform Raptr, told Pando, "I think seeing pro run broadcasts is nothing new in gaming," referring to the interactive broadcasts of eSports event like those on Twitch. "It was cool to see it on ESPN2...It's a huge point of validation," Fong added. "Although, I don't think eSports fans care whether or not it shows up on primetime TV."
Everyone had an opinion, but win-lose-or-draw a lot more people know about eSports today than they did yesterday. That makes it a win for the pro gamer circuit, but especially for the gaming companies -- basically, it served as a long commercial for Blizzard's yet-to-be-released game. It could also be the next outside of the box entertainment source ESPN has been fishing for lately.
Oh and in case you were wondering, the team from UC Berkeley won last night's event and the scholarships.
[illustration by Hallie Bateman]