Up to 27 million people play League of Legends every single day. It's the most popular eSport in the world, and its premier competition, the LoL World Championships, is about to arrive in London. Wembley Arena hosts the quarterfinals of the global tournament across four days, starting on October 15th. After London, the Championships move onto Brussels, with the grand finals held in Berlin on October 31st.
In 2014, 27 million people watched the LoL World Championship Finals, held at Seoul's World Cup Stadium, and VICE was there in the flesh, filming our eSports documentary. Basically, League of Legends is massive. In contrast, BBC Three, a British terrestrial TV channel that was supposed to become an iPlayer-only affair this autumn, is not. It's watched by around 11 million people per week, while its target audience reach, to viewers aged between 16 and 34, has fallen since 2011. It's a channel on the slide, not fulfilling its remit, and therefore in line for the axe.
So it makes perfect sense, obviously, that the BBC should today (October 8th) announce that Three (plus BBC Sports, whatever that means in the context) will broadcast coverage of the LoL World Championships, live from Wembley, with Radio 1 presenter Dev Griffin acting as host. He's an avid gamer, says the BBC's press release. That may be, but, between you and me, when he fronted a Radio 1 documentary on mobile gaming that I wrote a few years ago, he couldn't have sounded more disinterested if he was asleep. Perhaps the material was at fault, though. Anyway, the games press has responded to this news in a generally positive fashion, covering the story without injecting too much cynicism into the mix.
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But then, I'm a tremendous cynic. A prick, if you must. So allow me another minute of your time here.
For one thing, the BBC's Media Centre post on the LoL coverage is incredibly vague. BBC Three is explicitly mentioned, likewise BBC Sport, but no transmission times are listed. Does this mean that the LoL action will reach TV sets exclusively through the red button, in the way a lot of the BBC's Glastonbury coverage does? Or will it be streamed directly to iPlayer? It's not clear, at all. It feels like a rushed agreement put out to the public as soon as possible to firm up BBC Three's demographic relevance – the vast majority of LoL players are aged between 13 and 30 – without any concrete plans for how the transmissions are going to work. "All the action" is promised – but how you're going to see it isn't explained. Watch this space, I suppose – by which I mean the next wishy-washy statement from a public broadcaster perhaps in panic mode.
And then there's the matter of whether or not eSports even needs traditional broadcasters to boost its profile. Arguably, it doesn't, as professional Halo player Alex Buck told me back in February, although he acknowledged the impact more "mainstream" coverage could provide the ever-growing scene. And to many, television means mainstream, and vice-versa.
The BBC's hardly pioneering in taking eSports to what may or may not be a television audience, though – ESPN broadcast Heroes of the Storm competition play in April, TBS is going to show Counter-Strike, and there are several channels in the Far East dedicated to eSports, such as Korea's Ongamenet and MBC Game. What the BBC is pitching as an exciting new collaboration for the corporation has been happening overseas for ages. And just what does coverage "in a BBC Three way" mean? Have you seen what the channel's passing off as comedy programming lately? Jesus wept.
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But now, allow me to park the pessimism. It's done enough. And there's the chance that the BBC doing eSports is a good move – perhaps it will open up the sport, this rapidly expanding industry within an industry, full of colourful characters and rabid supporters, to a whole new audience. It probably won't. The millions that watch already from the UK will stick to their favoured online streaming services and their gobshite shoutcasters, sneering the way of the Beeb for daring to go up against Twitch and the like. But if it does, good. And sometime VICE Gaming contributor Julia Hardy is involved, interviewing competitors, and I know she knows her eSports eggs, as evidenced by her (somewhat controversial) words over here.
And, ultimately, none of this matters a damn to me because I'm not going to watch any of it. Nope. Not a minute. I just don't care about LoL, sorry. Not my game at all. Now, put Rocket League on the BBC, and that's another matter entirely.
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