One of the more esoteric arguments one can have involves what actually counts as a sport. Is a sport anything that involves competition? Does something require a modicum of physical skill and mental acuity to count as a sport? Certainly there are things like football, or soccer, or basketball, or baseball, which are so obviously sports that it's insulting to call them anything different.
Then there are sports like table tennis, shot put, archery, curling, or racewalking, which despite nobody caring about them are sports because they have a place in the Olympics. And then there's stuff like bowling, spelling bees, chess, pool, poker, log rolling, and competitive Scrabble, all of which are "sports" mainly by virtue of them having at some point aired on ESPN2, otherwise known as "the Deuce," a repository for whatever bad, sport-oriented ideas its parent network ESPN decides to shit out.
On Sunday night, ESPN2 managed to outdeuce itself, airing the final round of the Heroes of the Dorm tournament, in which college students competed against one another in the still-in-beta multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game Heroes of the Storm. (The winner would have his college tuition paid for by Blizzard, the game's manufacturer.) Heroes of the Dorm captured a measly 0.1 rating (meaning about 120,000 people watched), with much of its potential audience instead tuning into either Game of Thrones or the NBA playoffs. This was a weird move on ESPN's part, and a total coup for Blizzard, who kinda-sorta got away with murder on this one.
This isn't the first time ESPN has tried to convince people to watch other people play video games. Perhaps you recall Madden Nation, a show involving the country's top Madden players going around on a bus playing each other at pretend football. A joint venture between Madden publisher EA Sports and ESPN, the show lasted four seasons and featured humans with names like "Sherm Sticky," "Young Nephew," and "Rico Hollywood" yelling at each other while playing football on a screen. Someone named K Good took it upon themselves to put the show on YouTube. You can watch a sample episode here, though I'm not sure why you would.
It's not that ESPN shouldn't be airing gaming-related content. To the contrary, the channel most emphatically should be if they want to service a very real and very growing audience. In fact, last year the network aired a Dota 2 tournament, much to the chagrin of the real sports heads that make up a large swath of its viewership. While it's doubtful that eSports would ever become as popular in the States as they are in, say, South Korea (where there are two dedicated TV networks airing StarCraft II competitions), the audience for eSports certainly exists.
According to data published by the tech firm Super Data Research, 31.4 million Americans have watched or participated in eSports, with the League of Legends Season 3 World Championships racking up a total of 32 million viewers worldwide. Meanwhile, the livestreaming service Twitch features a robust audience of people who tune in to watch people other people play video games. According to the site's directory, at this very moment over 100,000 people are tuned in to Counter Strike and League of Legends each, and about 70,000 are watching Dota 2. These games have huge, built-in audiences who both play the game and are willing to watch people play it at the highest level. At this point, it's just a matter of figuring out how to make eSports accessible to an audience that isn't already familiar with the intricacies of the game(s). Much like golf or, like, hockey, if you don't know what's going on while watching competitive StarCraft or League of Legends, the experience can be about as exciting as watching C-SPAN. Which is to say, really fucking boring.
Related: Watch our documentary on the wide world of South Korean eSports.
Certainly, there's nothing wrong with airing shows with a limited audience. But it's hard not to question ESPN's judgment when airing Heroes of the Dorm, when it brings little to the table other than the Blizzard pedigree.
If you look at the Twitch numbers, you'll see that Heroes of the Storm has about 6,000 active viewers. This a fraction of LoL's numbers, which is a problem for Blizzard, for whom Heroes of the Storm is a pretty big deal. Featuring characters from Blizzard's three flagships StarCraft, Diablo, and Warcraft, Heroes of the Storm is a MOBA game much like League of Legends.
Unlike LoL, however, whose intricacies and relatively skilled user base have created a fairly high barrier to entry for players, HotS focuses more on the player having, y'know, fun rather than trying to run them into the ground with complicated bullshit. It's a game meant for filthy casuals, the exact type of people who might stumble upon an ESPN2 broadcast, get hooked in, and decide to give the game a shot once it makes its full launch on the June 2.
Top image from Wiki Commons.
Drew Millard is on Twitter.