ESPN made history Sunday night by airing a video game tournament on ESPN2, but it never would have happened seven months ago.
The Worldwide Leader put Heroes of the Dorm, a collegiate Heroes of the Storm competition, on its secondary network in a move that contradicted comments made by ESPN president John Skipper last September.
When asked about Amazon’s purchase of video game streaming site Twitch for nearly $1 billion, he was dismissive.
“It’s not a sport — it’s a competition. Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition,” Skipper said last fall at the Code/Media Series: New York conference. “Mostly, I’m interested in doing real sports.”
Regardless of where you side in the debate, it’s now an industry showing exponential growth. Twitch reported an average of 100 million viewers per month in January, compared to the 1.3 million people who streamed Super Bowl XLIX. Tournaments now garner major corporate sponsorships and dole out millions of dollars in prize money.
Thirty-two million people watched the League of Legends championship in October 2013, more than the series finale numbers for The Sopranos, 24 and Breaking Bad combined. The tournament’s ratings also beat the combined viewership numbers for the 2014 World Series and NBA Finals.
Despite this staggering success, not everybody at ESPN is on board. During a rant on his show Monday, Colin Cowherd said he would quit if he ever had to cover it. Cowherd may not like it, but those in charge of programming in Bristol are clearly taking notice of the trend.
eSports have exploded on college campuses, and Sunday’s nationally televised showdown between UC Berkeley and Arizona State was a sign that Skipper may have changed his mind. The move was surprising, but in hindsight, it was inevitable.
Video game competitions are big business, and while they’ll be met with cynicism from sports fans and radio hosts alike, there’s no denying the opportunities they now present to networks like ESPN.
Skipper’s company is embracing what it once dismissed, and it was only a matter of time.
[Feature photo courtesy The Sixth Axis]