What is Sport
Yesterday I managed to get into a conversation that I never really intended to, but I thought it might make for interesting blog fodder. Over the weekend ESPN 2 hosted the Heroes of the Storm “Heroes of the Dorm” collegiate competition, with college teams competing for scholarship money. Now this is not the first time ESPN 2 has shown “eSports” because the 2014 International DOTA 2 Championships were shown on the channel as well. Both times now there has been a backlash from traditional sports fans calling the showing of video games on their precious sports channel all manner of expletives. That said in both cases ESPN 2 got seemingly plenty of viewers because in both cases they brought in an audience that would not have normally watched that channel. I personally have had trouble getting into either traditional sports or eSports, so as a result I am somewhat of a neutral observer to this phenomena. However after both events twitter has been set ablaze with back and forth between sports fans and gamers.
I made a few sideways comments yesterday and one of the spin off threads was about the definition of what exactly a sport was. One definition suggestion was presented as “I always took sport to feature/focus on physical exertion/athleticism”. The actual dictionary definition looks similar “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.” The problem is I feel like the competitive gaming scene also fits this definition. “Physical exertion” is such a generic term and the reflexes and fine motor skills required to play competitively in League of Legends, StarCraft 2 or DOTA 2 surely would qualify as such I would think. “Sport” to me really has no meaning attached to it, because I do not hold it up to some higher standard than what the dictionary defines it as. There is no nostalgia towards sports, and they don’t serve any greater purpose in my mind other than to entertain people.
eSports Needs Name Change
One of the problems brought up yesterday was the fact that “eSports” in itself is a name that you can’t quite take seriously. To tack the “e” onto Sport immediately tells you it is something that is trying to be but not quite achieving the same quality as the “real” Sports. This to me sets up a false dichotomy between the two that really doesn’t exist. For me at least they are both just “sports” because as a neutral observer, I see absolutely no difference between the two. In both cases people are paid to play a game for the entertainment of others. In both cases they are spectator driven events, and in both cases they draw huge crowds of people. While they have not quite reached the level of the Super Bowl (114 million) or the World Cup (188 milion) as far as viewership, they are definitely juggernauts in their own right.
Last year the League of Legends World Championship had 32 million viewers, and “The International”DOTA 2 championship over 20 million viewers. This tells me this is a phenomena that is not going to go away, and will only continue to get bigger. I feel like the name somehow cheapens the experience by showing that it is trying to be something else. Sports itself is rife with all manner of problems and embedded social issues. Over the last several years we have been seeing these same issues playing out in the “eSports” arena as leagues attempt to emulate their traditional sports counter parts. I question if it is time to just sever the ties with the “Sports” concept entirely and go off and create something new. As it was pointed out yesterday, “eSports” shares some serious ties to the professional Poker or Pool circuits, so maybe all of these should just resurrect under the banner of “High Stakes Gaming” or something similar.
ESPN Needs eSports
I feel like at this point these two attempts for ESPN 2 to show competitive gaming are more a bid for continued relevance more than anything. ESPN is the juggernaut of traditional sports but I feel like there is an entire generation of people not being served by it. The network of channels does a great job at covering their core demographic, but I would guess that demographic is slipping in total viewership. If they did not see the need to branch out, they would keep doing the same thing they are doing. 32 Million and 20 Million are not small numbers, and the ESPN management understands this. I would be surprised if ANY game they show currently gets those kind of numbers, because we are living in this era when television viewership as a whole is on the decline. I think the calculus in the executives head is that there is a need to try and hook the generation that is simply not watching their programming, and when they look to what it is being replaced by… they see Youtube.com and Twitch.tv.
The problem is I think this is ultimately going to work backwards. I don’t see “eSports” hooking new viewers on traditional sports like ESPN might be hoping. What I do see is that for all of the bluster and banter… that more than likely some people stayed and watched the Heroes of the Storm tournament instead of flipping the channel. Those people are going to look into that game, and when it launches probably play it. I think the net positive is in the favor of gaming, and not necessarily sports. ESPN is very much the kingpin of the outdated cable television model, and I don’t really see “eSports” somehow changing that. I personally get frustrated every time I look at my cable bill and realize that I am essentially paying an “ESPN Tax” to help subsidize a channel I will never actually watch. Maybe just maybe if they do end up playing more competitive gaming coverage, especially something along the lines of EVO… I might actually watch it. In the mean time I will continued to be confounded as two side argue over doing essentially the exact same thing in my eyes.