In September 2014, ESPN president John Skipper noted that eSports wasn’t worth the coverage, mainly because “it’s not a sport—it’s a competition.” However, less than two years after he made that remark, the network will be airing its biggest eSports block to date.
This Sunday, July 17, the ESPN and ESPNU channels will air an unprecedented 18 hours of eSports programming, starting early in the morning with re-airings of matches from the Madden NFL 2016 Championship as well as the 2015 and 2016 Heroes of the Dorm competitions. Following these, ESPN 2 will broadcast live coverage of the EVO World Championship for the first time, airing the final round of the 2016 Street Fighter V face-offs. Audiences will also be able to stream each of these shows using the WatchESPN app.
This is the latest move in covering eSports, which first began when it aired Heroes of the Dorm back in April 2015. Even non-traditional eSports fans, such as Michelle Beadle, got into it, noting, “I took the bait. Just turned on ESPN 2. As someone whose face appears daily on the channel, I don’t have answers. #LeeroyJenkins #chicken.”
Speaking with [a]listdaily, John Lasker, vice president of programming and acquisitions for ESPN Digital Media, explained the importance of airing eSports competitions on its channels. “We’ve bought into this competitive side that the content needs to be live, and that’s the most important peak point of our findings,” he explained.
“The ESPN eSports vertical launched in January of this year. It hasn’t changed what we do on the TV side, but it’s an organic extension to what we’ve recognized at ESPN on the importance of this category. We want to treat it like any other sports category. Doing two years of Heroes of the Dorm or the recent Madden event, gamers quickly recognize we have an appreciation for this audience.”
But ESPN is part of a much bigger picture as eSports continues to evolve on television, moving beyond the usual livestreams provided by Twitch and YouTube. Back in April, the ESL announced the world’s first 24/7 eSports TV channel, eSportsTV, featuring a cavalcade of coverage through a number of partners, including Twitch, Azubu, Hitbox and Yahoo. Featuring over 2,000 hours of live gaming and eSports content, as well as traditional ESL-based shows, the network is expected to be a big hit this year.
More mainstream networks are getting involved with more eSports-related programming. The CW, partnering with Machinima, aired a Mortal Kombat X-related eSports special earlier this year, where players competed for $100,000 in prize money. TBS has taken over Friday nights with its ELeague series, focusing on devoted Counter-Strike: Global Offensive players competing for high stakes.
So what could be next for eSports on television? There are a few things that could happen. Firstly, ESPN is likely to continue expanding its coverage with other popular events. It could air The International, Valve’s Dota 2 Championship, which has thousands of fans and millions of dollars in tournament prizes. That would expand upon its ESPN vertical, along with events involving Street Fighter V. Then there’s Riot Games’ immensely popular League of Legends Worlds Championship, which pulled in 4.2 concurrent viewers last year.
After covering Mortal Kombat X, the CW could broadcast Injustice 2 competitions after the game releases next year. The superhero fighting game would match well with the channel’s collection of popular comic book-themed shows that include The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow. Furthermore, the CW is co-owned by Warner Bros., which would make it an excellent way to promote its games to an enthusiastic audience.
As more companies become involved with eSports, and the industry becomes more popularized online through Twitch, YouTube and initiatives from Facebook, we can expect to see broadcast coverage of eSports continue to grow.