The Cavalry's Here: ESPN and the Rise of Esports

Jul 27, 2018 -- 1:31pm

This year marks the 20th anniversary for many notable moments in world history: 1998 collectively saw the Good Friday Agreement signed between the UK, Ireland, and Northern Ireland, Bill Clinton assured us he did NOT have sexual relations with that woman (he did), Undertaker threw Mick Foley off the top of the Hell in a Cell, and my Chirstmas morning was made even more magical with Santa gifting me a Nintendo 64 and it’s classic launch title Super Mario 64. Two decades later, Northern Ireland continues to struggle with devolved government, the Clinton family is more linked to matters of emails (no pun intended), and both Mark Callaway and Mick Foley have long been removed from the main spotlight of the squared circle. I, however, remain as enamored with video games as that Christmas morning, just in a different light. Gone for the most part are lonely nights sitting alone in a basement completing quests and adventures, replaced with evenings in a living room ranking up and joining friends to form teams and compete on the virtual battlefield.

It should come as no surprise that I am not alone in this enjoyment. A LOT of people have picked up a controller or a keyboard and mouse at some point in their lives; specifically in America, the Entertainment Software Association found in 2015 that 155 million Americans (or around 47% of the population) regularly plays video games. What does surprise, and perplex, most people not familiar with the topic is the subject of esports, competitive video games where the prizes are anything but a joke. Just last year, the game Dota 2 held its seventh version of “The International”, with the total purse adding up to over 24 million dollars. As a whole, Dota 2 tournaments have awarded over 143 million dollars in prize money since its release in 2013.

The subject of course goes much farther back than that, however. For almost as long as there have been video games, there have been competitions to label the best players, dating as far back as the early 70s to a contest at Stanford University for the game Spacewar. One such early competition I learned about at a younger age was the lore behind Atari’s Swordquest Challenge, and despite the contest never reaching its completion due to the Video Game Crash of 1983, the idea of winning actual treasures for what amounts to strategically moving a joystick and pressing a button blew my mind.

In the last 10 years the industry has seemingly grown exponentially, with payouts constantly increasing and broadcast partners looking to get in on the action as well. Just a few weeks ago, ESPN brokered a deal with the hero-shooter Overwatch to cover their Grand Finals this weekend, with Friday’s opener the first time the network has ever carried competitive gaming in its prime-time slot, as well as the next competitive season for the Overwatch League. OWL already had notable interest from big names, as NFL owners Robert Kraft and Stan Kroenke, Mets COO Jeff Wilpon, and retired NBA star Shaquille O’Neal all have at least partial investment stakes in some of the teams. But the TV deal brought in an increased audience that investors and game developers hope will finally show that mainstream acceptance for the competitive genre, which has been building up for some time, has finally arrived in full.

Whether or not this actually happens, however, will depend on a number of factors of course, and perhaps the biggest barometer of how ready people are to watch esports in prime-time will be what the numbers are for tonight’s competition once they become available. While again, it will be ESPN’s parent company Disney’s first time carrying esports in primetime, it is by no means the first time they have ventured into this genre; it carried a Heroes of the Storm tournament on ESPN2 in 2015. Amazon is in as well, with their purchase of the gaming channel Twitch going for almost one billion dollars back in 2014 (prior to this point, by the way, Twitch had been the only way to watch Overwatch League games, with first week numbers rivaling that for most NHL broadcasts). And if the combined numbers this weekend can rival or top those from week 1, it will be viewed as a win.

The biggest question mark on the future of esports in the eye of the public, however, was identified a few years ago. In an article written back in early 2016, ESPN writer Darren Rovell looked at many of the pros and cons of the industry, and among all of his points, perhaps the most poignant one I noticed was how the world of esports is largely still in its “Wild West” phase. He wrote that this is manifested in several scrupulous practices by team owners and coaches, along with the fact that the competition for such young pros can be so daunting, that is forces out many of the best before they’re old enough to buy an alcoholic drink. And therein is what makes the development of the Overwatch League and others like it interesting to watch; the establishment of a regulatory body over an esport will in many ways seem neutering, but could ultimately be what the industry needs to show it can compete with the Big 4 in America.

Esports has had no problem in Europe and Asia, where in places such as the Mecca of the beast, South Korea, crowds of 40,000-plus turn up. But in the States, there may always be a tendency to be skeptical of the notion that people like Carpe and Profit (look them up today, as they’ll be mentioned a lot this evening) can garner a following in this country like those such as Lebron and Brady can. But remember this when shrugging your shoulders: everyone’s got to start somewhere, and when in under a year, OWL has brought in sponsorship deals such as Hewlett-Packard, Toyota, T-Mobile and Intel, it would appear at least some higher-ups are in it for the long haul.

What could ultimately be the deciding factor, in my opinion, is the fact that in modern society, specifically with younger generations, video games are a sort of universal language that we all understand. Despite the older crowd’s groans that the advent of gaming takes children away from outdoor activity and contributes to obesity (or most ridiculously, makes us all want to go out and commit random acts of violence), those that play remember the way our first game ACTUALLY made us feel. I like to think the way I reacted when I first flung Bowser into the last bomb on the final level of Super Mario World will be the same way either the Philadelphia Fusion or London Spitfire players feel this weekend when they win the title, with their fans and followers included. And if the Overwatch League can capture and harness that feeling to a large enough audience in this country, then I believe the era of the Major League Gamer will have finally arrived and other games will follow suit.

It’s a tall order, and the odds and history may seem stacked against the idea, but if a former TV show host can be elected to the Presidency, certainly a collage of undersized games can usher in a new sporting revolution in this country.

Shields up, friends, this should be interesting.

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