eSports fans often say that it is just like sports, but you might not have much luck explaining that to a sports bar.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive fans recently discovered this fact in Buffalo Wild Wings locations across the United States. The tournament they were watching was sponsored by the sports bar chain, but when some of them showed up at Buffalo Wild Wings locations to watch it, they were refused and ridiculed.
Up until recently, this was never an issue. eSports tournaments, which can get more viewers than the World Series or NBA Finals, are streamed online, most commonly via the live video game broadcasting platform Twitch. Events like Dota 2's The International can sell out the Key Arena in Seattle (which seats 10,000), but people who can't attend in person can still watch the livestream, just like everyone who can't watch the Super Bowl can still catch it on TV.
Recently, eSports took a dramatic step towards the mainstream with ELEAGUE, a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament that is airing live on the basic cable TV channel TBS, in addition to Twitch. In fact, hardcore Counter-Strike fans prefer watching the TBS broadcast. Matches during the week get full coverage on TBS and Twitch, but as an ELEAGUE spokesperson told me, the "main angles" of the Friday group finals are shown on TBS, while Twitch gets an "alternative feed."
Basically, while the games air on both TBS and Twitch, TBS is still getting some exclusive content. After all, if TBS is paying for the tournament, it needs to give people a reason to watch it on TBS, where it can put ads in front of them.
One of those ads is for Buffalo Wild Wings, a sports bar chain in the United States, which is also one of the major companies sponsoring ELEAGUE.
It's brilliant marketing. Buffalo Wild Wings gets in front of a new, millennial audience that might not necessarily watch sports or broadcast TV of any kind, and invites them to watch ELEAGUE at one of its franchises with a cold craft beer and a basket of BLAZIN'® Wings.
The problem is that viewers who take Buffalo Wild Wings up on that offer can sometime clash with sports bar culture when they actually get there.
"Wings. Beer. Sports." That's literally the Buffalo Wild Wings slogan, and that sounds like a good time to me too. But many Counter-Strike fans found that Buffalo Wild Wings managers and employees have never heard of eSports, and either refused or ridiculed the Counter-Strike fans for asking to put it on.
Many Counter-Strike fans who had a bad experience at Buffalo Wild Wings shared it on the Counter-Strike subreddit. Take for example this group of friends, who had trouble even after calling ahead to ask if they'd be able to watch ELEAGUE at their local Buffalo Wild Wings. They were told they would be, but ELEAGUE wasn't on when they got there, so they asked one of the employees to put it on. The employee explained that he would have to ask his manager.
"Eventually the manager came over to our table and asked exactly what ELEAGUE was," Reddit user gor_dawn wrote. "We told her it was a competitive gaming competition and that we were told that it was going to be shown at the restaurant. She was very reluctant but she eventually turned two TVs to ELEAGUE. The TVs she turned on however were out of our line of sight and we had to turn our heads to see them. We were able to convince her later to move it to a TV we could see. Side note: I found it kind of funny that she was also very confused why the Buffalo Wild Wings logo was on the bottom of the screen."
Again, it was on the bottom of the screen because Buffalo Wild Wings is sponsoring ELEAGUE. Gor_dawn continues:
"Later on a couple of customers and servers were interested about it, and wanted to know exactly what it was about. We were happy to explain, but when we were called nerds by one of the waitresses, it was a little bit annoying. Even though it was kind of a fiasco, at least we were able to see the match at Buffalo Wild Wings. But I don't think I'll be going back for future ELEAGUE matches."
Ouch. I'm not a big eSports fan, but I would definitely feel very self-conscious going out to watch Counter-Strike at a sports bar, and being called a nerd probably wouldn't make me want to try that again.
And at least this group got to watch the game! Other people on the Counter-Strike subreddit said they were simply refused when they asked to watch ELEAGUE. This is such a topic of discussion on the Counter-Strike subreddit, one user has composed a lengthy guide on how to watch ELEAGUE at a Buffalo Wild Wings without incident.
I called a dozen Buffalo Wild Wings locations around the country, and only one location in Arizona even knew what I was talking about when I asked if I'd be able to watch ELEAGUE there next weekend (the manager knew because a group watched it there last night). When I asked a manager at a Buffalo Wild Wings location in Manhattan if I could watch ELEAGUE there next weekend, she flat out said no. The place sounded very busy and she seemed annoyed that I would even ask.
With the exception of the Manhattan location, everyone I talked to at Buffalo Wild Wings was confused, but nice. The most common answer was that, if I got there in time to claim a TV and it wasn't too busy, a Buffalo Wild Wings employee would be happy to put on whatever I wanted.
A manager at a Bay Area Buffalo Wild Wings explained that on Saturday night, for example, there would be a UFC fight, a Giants game, and a soccer game, which Buffalo Wild Wings is currently advertising on its website. Since those are all popular sporting events, the manager told me, I probably wouldn't be able to watch ELEAGUE there that night. The manager knew those events were popular, he told me, because Buffalo Wild Wings corporate sends out emails to managers telling them what big sporting events are on TV that their customers might want to watch.
As the Reddit guide explains, even if people convince a Buffalo Wild Wings employee to put ELEAGUE on one of the TVs, getting them to turn on the sound is a much taller order.
"[Buffalo Wild Wings] has a HUGE AV tower that controls all of the TVs, sound, etc," Reddit user Hegro wrote. "They can put the sound on the patio only. If you are having trouble getting it on inside, ask about the patio. If they say they can not do this then they are lying."
As a Buffalo Wild Wings employee at a Chicago location explained it to me, they only put the sound on for big Chicago games, which makes sense: put the sound on for the game that most people want to watch.
What doesn't make sense is why so many locations had no idea what ELEAGUE was, and why a few were downright hostile about it, because several managers told me that Buffalo Wild Wings corporate did send out an email informing them about ELEAGUE.
One possible explanation is the difference between corporate-owned Buffalo Wild Wings locations and franchise locations, which simply license the right to operate Buffalo Wild Wings but aren't managed by the company directly. From what I gathered, franchises still get the corporate emails about what games are on TV on any given night, but perhaps are free to ignore them.
The other explanation is that some managers are nice, and others are assholes.
"At Buffalo Wild Wings, we celebrate all sports and welcome fans of eSports to watch and enjoy ELEAGUE at our restaurants," a Buffalo Wild Wings spokesperson told me in an email. "As with any rollout across our more than 1,100 company-owned and franchise managed restaurants, we're constantly working with and educating our team to ensure a seamless and enjoyable in-restaurant experience for our Guests. We're committed to working with our restaurants to ensure that ELEAGUE is available for eSports fans everywhere."
There's a lot of hope and speculation about how big the eSports business can get. Research firm Newzoo predicts that it will grow into a $463 million business this year. What's certain is that it's still growing, and if not becoming mainstream, than at least coming into direct contact with it at sports bars, the domain of traditional sports.
ELEAGUE's sponsorships have inadvertently turned Buffalo Wild Wings into the battleground for the mainstream acceptance of eSports. Not surprisingly, this is stirring up familiar rivalries between jocks and nerds.
Update: This article has been updated with comment from Buffalo Wild Wings.