ESPN’s Foray Into eSports

ESPN has firmly consolidated it’s position as the dedicated sports coverage outlet.  However, with its reliance on traditional cable and large contracts with several sports for broadcasting rights,  ESPN has hit several rough spots.  Rough enough to cause large layoffs.

In an attempt to find areas of growth, ESPN has turned to esports for juicy advertiser targets.  ESPN now runs a full section for esports on its website.  It has even streamed (to ESPN3, its much less relevant platform) several tournaments, mostly MOBAs.ESPN Logo

I, personally, am a big fan of the major traditional sports.  Football (pro and college), basketball, golf, etc.  After following ESPN’s attempt to enter the market and provide coverage, I have seen some real roadblocks that will really hamstring its ability to be a “go to” source of gaming or esports related news.

Lets take a look at what factors will play into ESPNs foray into esports coverage.

Is a Traditional, Mainstream Source the Best For Esports Coverage?

This is really the threshold question – will people flock to ESPN to find the latest news related to esports?  Currently, the only games truly covered are League of Legends, DOTA 2, and Hearthstone.  There has been some sprinkling of Starcraft, Counterstrike, and fighting games in the coverage, but not dedicated sections.

While those games have gigantic fan bases, I feel like Hearthstone is a bit of the odd man out.  Hearthstone has a lot of players, and is doing well financially for Blizzard, but it has yet to really hit its esports sweet spot.  However, as the scene develops, it will surely give a wide variety of content.ESPN Magazine Esports Issue

Back to the main question, will people start frequenting ESPN as a source of esports related news?  Currently, the esports tab on the landing page is hidden in the dropdown menu (not surprisingly).  This makes stumbling upon it highly unlikely.  Further, the real-time updates on the sidebar occasionally include a bit about esports, but this extremely rare.

That means you need to be seeking out ESPN for the coverage.  A key factor here is legitimacy.  For example, Team Liquid is a go-to resource for Starcraft II.  They keep up to date, include SC2 pros in their content, have access, and of course, their own team.  I go there nearly everyday.

ESPN on the other hand, does have some relevant writers, such as Rod Breslau aka Slasher.  However, they don’t have much else to hang their hat on.  They have had some coverage articles and have slick appearance, but they don’t have the same level of engagement, or really any unique “draw” other than being ESPN.  For some fans, that might even be a turnoff.

ESPN needs to add some value, and prove that it isn’t really just a big news outlet seeking to cash in on the rise of esports.

What is ESPN Looking For?

According to research firm Newzoo, the esports industry reached $278 million in 2015 revenue, with growth projected to $765 million by 2018.  Those are some big numbers.

Further, the primary demographic in esports is young males, at least at this juncture.  This is a group advertisers want to target as possible spenders.

LoL Final

More generally, Newzoo also estimates that around 88 million people are active esports enthusists, with the addition of 117 million casual fans that may drop by or watch a stream at a less intense level.

The numbers could continue to grow in the future, as MOBAs and other newer spectator driven, Twitch friendly games make large strides.  With those numbers come sponsors, which of course could make a healthy revenue stream for a company looking for expansion – ESPN.

What They Want to Avoid

As mentioned, the gaming crowd has specific tastes that do not necessarily mesh with the traditional sports journalism model.  This means tapping into the memes and fitting into the “culture.”

Reading through a college football article, I found a prime example of really failing to connect on this level.  Granted, these were the college football writers, but could still use some polish, maybe even from some of those newly hired “gaming” writers?

The article in question centers around which player on each Top 25 college football team is the designated “gamer” in the locker room.  The premise is admittedly dumb, but its the off-season for college football, and post-draft everyone is desperate for any kind of content.

Reading through some of the blurbs, each done by the team’s respective beat writer, a couple stuck out, for good and bad reasons.

First one involved University of Southern California (aka USC):

“16. USC Trojans

DB Yoofi Quansah

Quansah hasn’t seen much time on the field for the Trojans, but he’s the only computer science and engineering major on the roster. The program’s alumni snapshot provides a pretty good picture of where these alumni end up, and game designer is certainly not out of the realm of possibility. — Jennings”

Alright, a couple things make this portion cringeworthy:

  1. Using a player solely based on his major
  2. Said major is computer science, so obviously “nerd gamer” right?
  3. Jump to “game designer” despite no evidence to suggest that’s the case
  4. No mention of actual gaming experience whatsoever

Granted, Jennings (whoever that is) probably knows little to nothing about video games.  But come on, at least run it by someone who does, or at least put a little effort into finding someone, ANYONE on the team that maybe has an Xbox.

“17. Iowa Hawkeyes

TE Henry Krieger Coble

Krieger Coble grew up just a short train ride from the “Video Game Capital of the World.” So, although we’re not totally sure about his gaming habits here, the fact he caught 35 balls on 35 targets last season leads us to believe he won’t be dropping or losing quarters anytime soon. With his work ethic, we trust he could master Frogger in no time. — Moyer”

I don’t think I really need to explain why this blurb is terrible.  Many of the points above apply here.

It wasn’t all bad, as the Jennings PAC12 writer from above does make some amends with his Oregon entry:

“20. Oregon Ducks

LB Jimmie Swain

A lot of players might say they’re gamers and cite their love for popular games such as Madden or FIFA. But in a recent interview when Swain was asked which video game character he’d be if he could be any, he chose Geralt of Rivia from “The Witcher 3.” — Jennings

Here is perhaps the best nugget from the entire article.  While the article focuses on Madden and FIFA (due to their rampant popularity among athletes), we get a deeper dive here.

Jimmie Swain is a linebacker at Oregon, and does get actual playing time.  And by that I mean on the field as well as the couch because he just had a shout out to Witcher 3, a huge sprawling RPG based on a Polish novel series.  This is the deeper level of appreciation for the industry, and the more interesting piece, to articles like this one.

Baker Mayfield Playing Games

Conclusion

ESPN has decided to try to jump headfirst into the world of esports, and try to beat other big name news outlets to a huge untapped market.  They’ve dedicated some space on their main webpage, and even streamed some larger MOBA events.

Will this work out for the Disney-owned enterprise?  Some of the articles have been solid, with an understanding of the culture and norms of the industry, while others, like those cited above, show that no real effort was made to understand the audience they want to please.

I’d like to see some mainstream acceptance of some esports – its always dismissed by many as “just kids games.”  After spending any time around esports you quickly realize that isn’t the case, but having ESPN coverage does provide a general legitimacy in the eyes of the public.  The only question is, can ESPN build legitimacy with esports first.

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2 thoughts on “ESPN’s Foray Into eSports

  1. I was interested to find out an established sports channel was dedicating resources to esports. I remember being surprised reading an interview with someone who competes in quake tournaments for money as I did not realise this could be pursued as a career. What do the news stories report on? Do they treat successful game players the same as traditional sports stars? What do the streamed channels show? The players playing the game? Or what the players see on the game?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! The college football blurbs were pretty hilarious.

    ESPN has Dan Szymborski writing all their Hearthstone content now. If you know anything about analytics in baseball, Dan is a bit of a celebrity in that realm, as he is the creator of the ZiPS projection system for baseball stats. While he is certainly is capable of doing something really analytical/complex for HS, his role in covering HS seems to be general, covering tournaments and the like. And I guess that makes sense, since you don’t want to drive people away with overly complicated HS content on ESPN.

    Liked by 1 person

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