Video Games

Video Games: ESPN’s e-sports reversal helps network, does little for growing industry – for now

The 2015 “League of Legends” World Championship not only packed the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Berlin, but also drew more than 334 million unique viewers during the month-long competition.
The 2015 “League of Legends” World Championship not only packed the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Berlin, but also drew more than 334 million unique viewers during the month-long competition. Riot Games

Most people still don’t believe that playing “Super Smash Bros.” is a sport, but that didn’t stop ESPN from lumbering into the e-sports fray with turned out pockets.

A little over year ago, I wrote a column about the ESPN President John Skipper’s dismissal of professional gaming. He told a crowd full of media and technology insiders in September 2014 that e-sports are competitions – like checkers – and that he is more interested in actual sports.

I said that his silly comments ultimately didn’t matter. The e-sports industry is growing exponentially in popularity, and ESPN parent company Disney would eventually force the network into doing what Disney does best – sapping nerds of their money.

Maybe this was the reasoning, maybe not, but ESPN’s website dove into professional video gaming this week.

An introductory post outlined the coverage we can expect: online articles, fantasy e-sports analysis and video coverage. The post also mentioned ESPN’s “long history of delivering live programming, coverage and content to e-sports fans,” which is of course a load of self-serving garbage. Streaming a few championship matches and giving a 30-second ESPN2 TV plug to a gaming event once a year is a drop in the bucket.

Services like Twitch and Azubu have a long history of delivering coverage. They’ve spent years – made millions – broadcasting every league game and giving non-professionals a platform to entertain viewers. They broadcast league games from various titles in dozens of languages pretty much 24 hours a day – complete with play-by-play and post-game analysis by former pros and experts.

It’s probably too late for ESPN to become the one-stop shop for online e-sports coverage. The game publishers themselves have sunk millions into creating organized, aesthetically pleasing platforms to present their products. Their millions of fans – myself included – already know where to go to watch games, analysis and news coverage. The “League of Legends” client alerts players about professional matches as they’re playing the game. ESPN won’t beat that.

However, ESPN does have a few things to offer the industry.

It can provide exposure to audiences e-sports has trouble reaching – mainly the older men who watch the traditional sports but still associate gaming with basement-dwelling nerds.

It can also bring more high-quality journalism to an area that desperately needs media coverage. The network commissioned seasoned business reporter Darren Rovell – himself a character in the “NBA 2K” video game franchise – to write a great overview of the industry. His story mentions the rampant drug use currently cutting through the industry, which I wrote about seven months ago but has yet to get the national coverage it deserves.

I am not sure how much ESPN will profit if it doesn’t take the full plunge and start televising matches. It is doing battle with some pretty heavy hitters with established audiences on the online front. Amazon, which owns Twitch, certainly won’t let its billion-dollar baby be bested by a cable network. Activision, publishers of “Call of Duty” and “World of Warcraft,” recently bought Major League Gaming, a league with more than a decade of history and self coverage. It won’t give up, either.

However, the full embrace of the massive cable network – not just its website – could really make some waves.

I’ve been talking about ESPN’s decision with my colleagues, and sports columnist Marek Warszawski had some good insight.

He likened the move to when ESPN embraced poker a few years ago. Poker tournaments and leagues had been around – and even televised – for years before ESPN gave it a major platform. It was pretty big before the push, but it became huge.

That could happen here. World finals in e-sports are already selling out basketball arenas, but ESPN could bring sellout crowds to weekly league matches. The leagues get millions of online viewers, but a simulcast on live television could bring that number up to tens of millions.

I really hope the network embraces e-sports fully. The “Dota 2” International finals typically take place in August. None of the major sports are in playoffs, so why shouldn’t the “Dota 2” final results lead off a “SportsCenter” episode? The winning team took home more than $6.6 million. Even the fourth place team made more than $1.5 million. That’s a lot more interesting than preseason football.

However, if ESPN is only willing to devote some online resources to e-sports, it really won’t mean much for either party. Fans of pro-gaming will continue to get their content from established sources, and ESPN will keep losing cable subscribers.