Video Games

Appleton: ESPN president draws unnecessary line at pro gaming

Poker, hot dog eating contests and spelling bees are all real sports, but professional video game playing is not.

That seems to be the logic behind ESPN President John Skipper's recent comments during a live interview on the main stage of Recode.net's media convention in New York.

Skipper joined the likes of former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson and Time Inc. CEO Joe Ripp as keynote speakers at the event, which looked at the growing relationship between technology and the media.

When asked about online shopping giant Amazon's recent $970 million deal to purchase video game streaming website Twitch, Skipper offered a harsh critique of the new electronic sports movement.

"It's not a sport -- it's a competition," Skipper said. "Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition. Mostly, I'm interested in doing real sports."

Really?

ESPN has long since crossed the sports vs. competition threshold. It is absolutely ludicrous to think that Scrabble championships and classic car auctions meet some sort of sports criteria that pro gaming does not.

Further eroding Skipper's stance: His own network has already covered two e-sport competitions this year. ESPN2 aired footage from the "Call of Duty: Ghosts" championship in its X Games coverage in June, and ESPN3 streamed the "Dota 2" championship online in July. Maybe this is a case of the head not knowing what the hands are doing?

Skipper's off-the-cuff remark could just be the musings of yet another media dinosaur struggling to understand a scary new world, but -- if it does end up being company policy -- ESPN would be missing out on a massive business opportunity.

The Twitch acquisition proves that professional gaming is a billion-dollar industry.

The "Dota 2" prize pool for 2014 eclipsed the $10 million mark, and its championship weekend packed Seattle's Key Arena -- which even the departed Seattle Supersonics basketball team had difficulty doing. Over 20 million viewers tuned in through Twitch to watch the event live. Viewer numbers would absolutely explode if ESPN threw its weight behind the trend.

There is absolutely no doubt that e-sports are big business, so why act like you have already shut the door on them?

If execs worry that video game coverage would eat into coverage of the traditional sports -- don't. The genre is ripe for a digital network, and viewers would eat up professional video game events and news streamed online with ESPN's polish and production value. Microsoft and Sony would battle to the death to buy the exclusive rights for their consoles.

In the end, Skipper may have very little to do with ESPN showing e-sports or not. The network is part of the Disney empire. Disney has pillaged billions out of the world's budding nerd population over the past decade with an onslaught of Marvel Comics and Star Wars movies, television shows, video games and merchandise.

If Disney smells more geek money -- and it will -- then ESPN may be forced to comply.

  Comments