Video game competitions, or “eSports,” have become increasingly popular in the last few years, and it looks like ESPN is starting to realize that. That’s clear from the announcement that they’re hiring an eSports editor, and not just a solitary figure but someone to ” oversee the daily production of all eSports content [and] work directly with writers (including many of ESPN’s biggest names) and partners to assign and edit content in a fast-paced daily environment.” This is part of Bristol’s further reversal on the subject of eSports, and as Forbes contributor Paul Tassi writes, it may be an indication they’re trying to become “the ESPN of eSports”:
ESPN has been reluctant to embrace eSports coverage outside of a few sporadic occasions, and as such, a ton of other outlets have tried to rise up and fill the void. Places like TheScore and The Daily Dot have manufactured divisions to focus on eSports full time. Fansites like TeamLiquid, SoloMid and GosuGamers cover the scene nonstop. Some have said it outright, while others merely hint at it, but in some form or another, most are trying to be “the ESPN of eSports.”
As it turns out, ESPN suddenly seems to be coming to the realization that they could be the ESPN of eSports, if only they’d give it a try.
This isn’t to say existing coverage of eSports across these other outlets isn’t great. It is (most of the time), but the issue here is that no matter how hard they try, none of these places will ever even come close to having access to ESPN-level resources. ESPN is an absolute behemoth, and if they were to even slice off a sliver of their operating budget and devote it toward building a functional, talented eSports division, it would instantly rival all its competition. They’d have the ability to snap up the best reporters and commentators in the business, and produce high quality content with more access than many places would be able to get.
This eSports editor job is suddenly the most prestigious position in the scene, and hell, if I wasn’t so happy writing for Forbes, I’d even consider applying. It’s that amazing of an opportunity. If ESPN really takes this idea and runs with it, they could have unparalleled, must-read eSports coverage up and running by Christmas.
As Tassi notes, ESPN does have a checkered history with eSports coverage, and that will affect how seriously they’re taken by eSports writers, editors and fans. In particular, ESPN president John Skipper was dismissive of e-sports as recently as last September, reacting to Amazon’s billion-dollar purchase of Twitch (which broadcasts streams of people playing video games, both in formal eSports tournaments and in informal home gaming sessions) by calling eSports “not a sport” and saying he generally wasn’t interested in them:
It’s not a sport — it’s a competition. Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition,” said Skipper in remarks Thursday at the Code/Media Series: New York conference. “Mostly, I’m interested in doing real sports.”
However, ESPN does appear to be changing its tune. They made history by broadcasting a “Heroes Of The Dorm” (a Heroes of the Storm competition between colleges) event on ESPN2 in April, and while that drew criticism from some Twitter users and even some-then ESPN employees like Colin Cowherd and didn’t receive good ratings, it suggested they were open to the sport. Tassi points out that televising eSports may not be the most logical move anyway, given that most of these competitions are largely watched via streams, but ESPN could certainly do a lot of print coverage of big eSports events (or stream them through WatchESPN, as they do with many other less high-profile sports), and their announcement of assembling a team of eSports writers suggests they’re serious. They’re a late entrant into the game, but they’re one with a big name and a lot of resources (even in an era of budget cuts), and that may help them win over fans unhappy with how they’ve previously treated eSports.
As per if ESPN should invest in this? Well, forget the debate about if this is a sport or not. Remember that they’re the ENTERTAINMENT And Sports Programming Network, and that “there is no ideology at ESPN beyond the bottom line” (despite what Sarah Palin may think). If people want to watch it or read about it, and if it can be even vaguely related to sports, ESPN will likely cover it. That doesn’t mean eSports is going to take over Bristol, and it doesn’t mean that ESPN’s automatically going to beat the existing players in eSports coverage. However, investing in coverage of this growing area seems to have potential bottom-line merit, and that’s the main thing that matters for ESPN.