Competitive gaming, or "eSports," took another step towards national recognition Sunday night when ESPN elected to show the finals of "Heroes of the Dorm" on ESPN2. This put competitive gaming in direct competition with the NBA Playoffs, NHL, MLS and Sunday Night Baseball. Predictably there were a lot of people who were upset a sports network would show video games, even if the finals featured Arizona State and Cal.
Here's the secret: eSports doesn't need you to care about it. This is a thing that will continue to grow, with your validation or not.
There was a large subset of people who watched from afar or out of curiosity without throwing nasty pejoratives at nerd culture in general, but there was a huge group (largely traditional sports media types) who were taken aback by the concept of eSports in general. They tweeted their South Park jokes and act faux-offended that the sanctity of ESPN2 would be sullied by people playing a video game.
Was there NOTHING scheduled to air on ESPN2? No way a video game tournament was option No. 1, right?— Tyler Batiste (@TyBatiste) April 27, 2015
Turned on ESPN2 for 60 seconds just to experience it. Video games on TV is ridiculously stupid. And who is Arizona University?— Jimmy Durkin (@Jimmy_Durkin) April 27, 2015
As we all know ESPN2 exists for very serious sporting events, like the Scripps National Spelling Bee or competitive eating.
Unlike spelling or gorging, eSports doesn't need the non-fans to pay attention or care. At this very moment a total of 203,895 people are spending their Monday watching live streams of games that fall under the umbrella of "eSports" over on Twitch.tv, a service that shows broadcasts of video games live. There is no major event taking place, they just want to watch people play. ESPN2 showing "Heroes of the Dorm" could have been a flash-in-the-pan, one-night Internet phenomenon like Sharknado, or this is simply a wider audience seeing the tip of a very deep iceberg.
Heroes of the Storm is a relatively small fish in the genre of games that play to the eSports crowd: A game that hasn't hit release, or even public beta yet. Developer Blizzard Entertainment is hoping that on release it will challenge the two titans, League of Legends and Dota 2. Both games in the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) genre. Instead of catering to professional eSports competitors, they're carving out a niche by making it a college sport, and last night proved it can work.
As someone who learned to love eSports with an open mind it was fun to see. While Heroes of the Storm isn't my personal go-to MOBA, it still requires timing, technique, teamwork, practice and remaining calm under pressure. Ultimately it was Cal-Berkeley that took home the prize, with each team member earning four years of paid tuition courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.
Even Bill Walton took notice.
Heroes of the Dorm - I have never been so proud. Go Pac12, no truck stops here. Just reporting the facts— Bill Walton (@BillWalton) April 27, 2015
Not every video game is an eSport, despite popular assumption. Games that ascend to recognition on a competitive level are balanced, compelling and have to be deep enough to be played and mastered for years. There are only a handful of games that satisfy this criteria.
This is not the death of kids getting outside and playing baseball, it's the evolution of competitive chess. That's what people need to realize.
For everything that the ESPN2 broadcast did right last night, there was a lot they did wrong. Here are three things eSports needs to fix if games want to be accepted further:
- SHOW THE DANG MINIMAP
Football, basketball, hockey and baseball all have inherent understanding of how the field is shaped and where players are. eSports aren't like this. Maps are varied, there are obstacles and particularly in the MOBA genre players are roaming too much. By focusing in on team fights and critical moments the nuance of map control and the larger strategic game are lost. This has to be fixed in the future.
- Announcers need to calm the heck down
eSports announcers are known for their over-the-top commentary and hyperbolic language, but at times the "Heroes of the Dorm" broadcast fell into pandering to non-traditional viewers. I'm speaking specifically to moments like this:
Q:. how's your core this morning A: IT'S GOING DOWN https://t.co/nCGmaZPh1P— SPENCER HALL (@edsbs) April 27, 2015
- Keep doing things between matches to explain the basic concept of the game
This is something the broadcast did fairly well last night. MOBAs in general are incredibly complex with hundreds of moving pieces and scores of things to pay attention to at once. At some point there needs to be a step back to say "Here's what the teams are trying to do, and here's how a match is won." It will be redundant to those who understand, but this is about capturing a new audience.
This could have been all part of a larger test. In August it will be Dota 2's turn with "The International," where over $10 million in prize money will likely be awarded to the top professional team. "Heroes of the Dorm" is a blip on the radar compared with "The International," and ESPN will likely take notice of the attention their broadcast on Sunday night received. Right now airing eSports is erratic, and all of them feel like one-off events. eSports will remain a fringe curiosity on a national level until we see regular weekly broadcasts like they have in China, Japan and Korea.
Until then I have one suggestion to people categorically dismissing and denigrating eSports: Stop acting like stodgy 1960's parents complaining that Jimi Hendrix "Isn't music." There's a good chance history won't side with your close-minded way of thinking.
Verge Video archive: Dota 2's $10 million tournament (2014)