It looks like eSports are growing up, slowly but surely.
Professional competitive gaming as an idea has been around for just over a decade. Major League Gaming has been running national championships since 2004, with early tournaments focused around games like Halo, Call of Duty, Gears of War, and Super Smash Bros. The Evolution Championship Series began all the way back in 1996, but it wasn't until 2009 that the event reached 1,000 participants. South Korea has been the breeding ground of the major gaming event, with millions of fans watching professional Starcraft players compete since 2002.
Our current eSports scene is the result of game publishers and operators getting more involved in the tournaments focused around their games. Many of these changes have happened within the last five years. Riot Games, operator of League of Legends, has been running its World Championships since 2011. Competitive rival Valve, who developed Dota 2, has run its own The International tournaments within the same time frame. Activision stepped to help the Call of Duty competitive scene with an official eSports network and the Call of Duty Championships since 2013. Blizzard jumped in with the Starcraft II World Championship Series the same year. These companies realize that nurturing these competitive communities is worthwhile, especially when it comes ot the financial bottom line.
Getting Everything Organized
Hard rules are beginning to form. One problem that's plagued the scene is a lack of concrete organizational rules when it comes to teams. Valve recently weighed into the matter with the announcement of its new Dota 2 Major Championships. The annual tournament series will have four championship events: three run by Valve partners and the final being the Dota 2 International. The biggest change is limited trade periods for participating teams. That means if you see a player on one team during the Winter tournament, you can expect to see that same player on the same team at the International.
"As fans of the game, we love watching teams compete in high stakes tournaments, but we also recognize that there is room for improvement on a more structural level," said Valve in its announcement post. "While the lack of roster stability and major focal points during the year had its advantages, it has eventually come at the cost of fan engagement and competitive stability for the players. Teams that participate in these events will be required to adhere to limited roster trade periods during the year."
It's a step that hopes to make the eSports scene a bit more rigid and a bit more like professional sports organizations like the NBA, NFL, NHL, or FIFA (but hopefully less corrupt!). As the eSport scene ages, it begins to resemble its older siblings. We in the community take eSports seriously, but changes like the ones above allow the scene to reach out into a wider audience. Consistency is key; establishing love for players is one thing, establish long-term love for your team is another.
Part of eSports gaining increased prominence is distribution. We're beginning to see these major competitions in channels classically reserved for other professional sports. The final rounds of last year's Dota 2 International were broadcast on ESPN 3 and heavily featured on the ESPN website. MLG and ESPN teamed up to present the Call of Duty: Ghosts X Games Invitational, part of the X Games Austin festival, on the same channel; that event will return during this year's festival. The final match of the League of Legends World Championships was also broadcast live on ESPN 3. It had 32 million viewers during its stream, eclipsing the viewership of the MLB World Series and the NCAA Final Four.
The real tilting point in this growth seemed to be Blizzard's Heroes of the Dorm tournament this past weekend. The tournament, featuring college students playing Heroes of the Storm, had some bracket and participation problems earlier in its run, but seem to put the drama in the rear view when it aired live on ESPN 2. That's a big upgrade for eSports, as ESPN 2 is a common channel offering on basic cable packages. It's the first time an eSport event has ran on a major network; it even ran counter the NBA playoffs on TNT.
Angry Older Siblings
The greater visibility of eSports has brought them to the attention of older sports media, who don't quite understand them yet. Colin Cowherd, host of the ESPN Radio show The Herd, had words for what became a great achievement for eSports.
"Here's what's going to get me off the air: if I am ever forced to cover guys playing video games, I will retire and move to a rural fishing village and sell bait," Cowherd said on his show according to SportsGrid. "You want me out? Demand video game tournaments on ESPN because that's what appeared on ESPN2 yesterday. I tolerated Donkey Kong. That was the equivalent of me putting a gun in my mouth and having to listen to that."
Some people are angry at Cowherd's statements. I'm not.
For one, it's silly to assume that Mr. Cowherd would be required to cover eSports at all. Instead, new voices will fill the gap, stepping in with genuine enthusiasm and knowledge for the sport they're covering. Our coverage of eSports here at USgamer is pretty light because many of us aren't steeped in the culture, but there are sites Red Bull eSports where you can find solid, in-depth coverage. There are YouTubers and Twitch streamers who have legions of fans and can speak authoritatively about these games; many of them have participated in these events directly. This new blood will fill the spots left open by the old, not unlike one commentator being replaced with another. It's just a change in era.
He's not even the only one who hasn't realized that eSports are meant to stand alongside these other sports. If you're watching football, and golf is next up, you may change the channel because you're not interested in the sport. League of Legends, Call of Duty, or Dota 2 on television is no different. In the coming weeks, ESPN and its various affiliates will run programming related to softball, baseball, boxing, lacrosse, volleyball, tennis, and a Mathcounts competition. I don't know many people who watch all those sports, but there's something there for everyone. ESPN has played host to the World Series of Poker in the past, so what's the difference?
You Must Be This Tall to Ride
There's this contention that eSports shouldn't be included on channels like ESPN because they're not sports. The primary idea in this argument is that the physical activities do not comprise most of eSports competition (through Starcraft II player can have some insane Click per minute ratings). I personally choose to define a "sport" as a competitive exhibition of those who have put forth a great deal of time and effort in their field, but that probably opens up the concept in too broad a manner. Instead, I'll lean on the experts. SportAccord contains members of what is probably the most comprehensive group of sports organizations in the world. It's probably one of the better places to look at when defining "sport".
It doesn't recognize eSports yet, but they do recognize similar primarily-mental sports, including Chess, Bridge, and Go. Even the International Olympic Committee recognizes Chess and Bridge as "sports". Why should eSports be any different? The physicality is the same and in fact, there are probably more physical actions required in most eSports. What about strategy? There are whole byzantine corners of the mind that you have to plumb to play a high-level game of Dota 2.
The only difference I can really find, outside of a single organization speaking for eSports, is age. Chess, bridge, and go are simply older. They are understood by the executive members and voting bodies of these older organizations. Video games and eSports are simply too new. The old guard can't wrap their heads around them yet. That will come with time, or these people will simply age out of the system. That's part of how things change and evolve.
But for now, eSports will sit over in this corner, enjoying the participation and viewership of millions. It will continue to make tons of money and like ESPN, other organizations will realize they can be a part of that money-making. And slowly, but surely, things will change. Which is why I have no anger or malice for Mr. Cowherd. He's just on the other side of a history that's already been written and he doesn't realize it yet. It's not a matter of "if", it's a matter of "when".