Believe it or not, ESPN is coming around to the novel idea that it can be “The ESPN of eSports.” There’s room too, the demand is there. According to industry research firm Newzoo about 200 million people either watched or participated in eSports in 2014. That number is expected to come in at around 250 million this year.
That leads to my next point: the hottest job listing in the gaming media world right now. That would be a newly opened listing at ESPN titled “General Editor eSports.” The responsibilities include managing a writing staff and freelance writers as well as working on multiple content platforms (digital, TV, radio, and print). Sounds like a pretty serious position, eh? The heart of the position seems to be the part about working with a team of writers. This hints that ESPN may be creating a new division. Also listed under general qualifications is “expert-level knowledge” of gaming titles including League of Legends, DOTA 2, Call of Duty, CS:GO, Hearthstone, and Starcraft 2.
The move likely signals that ESPN is readying itself to step up their coverage of the competitive gaming scene.
Disney’s ESPN is a sprawling company, obviously a new eSports division would be a very tiny part of that. But it is the first step for ESPN to really get on board after just poking around gaming in the past, i.e. broadcasts of DOTA and HoTS as well as a special eSports edition of ESPN: The Magazine. Gaming and ESPN’s relationship has been shaky at best in the past. Every gaming competition aired sparks a firestorm of debate about whether the content belongs on ESPN. Even ESPN’s President John Skipper has called competitive gaming a competition, not a sport.
Honestly, I think most gamers are okay with that interpretation anyway. Frankly, I don’t think most gamers care what you call it. Its the love of the game that matters. Though ESPN arguably has been insensitive to gamers in the past, the question remains: Would gamers embrace an ESPN produced gaming version of Sportscenter? Yes, I think they ultimately would. Much of their success would depend on execution of course. Sure, the gaming culture is vastly different from traditional sports culture. Not to mention, each video game has its own unique complexities. They would need to choose their talent and support team carefully. They need knowledgeable people who know the games they plan to cover top to bottom. People who understand the intricacies, mechanics, and strategies of each game. Certainly, if anyone could pull it off, they could. Disney knows entertainment. Their ESPN is the behemoth of the sports media industry. If they were to even devote a small slice of their resources to creating an eSports division they would probably be successful. With their clout, they could snap up much of the best commentators and reporters in the business.
A simple job listing is a small step. But if ESPN runs with this idea and allocates a reasonable budget to this project, we may just see eSports content by ESPN sometime early next year. If they do it right, they could raise the overall quality and legitimacy of the eSports scene in general.
All this isn’t to say ESPN won’t have some competition. There are many media outlets trying to fill the void and become the ESPN of eSports. Turner Broadcasting is going all-in on eSports with an ongoing CS:GO league starting in 2016. Turner Sports Lenny Daniels says, “We’re going to treat eSports athletes like they’re LeBron James or Bryce Harper.” TBS televised coverage will take place every Friday night. SuperData Research CEO Joost Van Dreunen commented on Turner’s dedicated coverage as something that will help validate competitive gaming as a legitimate form of entertainment and help get it seen by traditional media executions.
Another challenger is the digital content network Endemol Beyond. They are partnering with big names such as Pizza Hut to sponsor content. Endemol is also working with Verizon and Roku to help distribute the content. They recently kick-offed their new gaming channel named Smasher. The key performer on Smasher will be the YouTube star Toby Turner. The channel’s most popular series so far is Legends of Gaming and Game Face. Legends of Gaming features popular gaming personalities including HotshotGG, Hafu, Perfect Legend, Fatal1ty, and other well known YouTube gamers and Twitch Streamers.
IGN and Coke also combine to make a formidable contender. IGN is an authority on eSports and Coke is an early adopter of competitive gaming. Their new project is a digital series that covers everything happening in eSports. This new show will be hosted by IGN’s Kevin Knocke. It is called eSports Weekly and debuted last Friday on the 9th. Their ambition is to become the leading, singular “smart variety program” for gaming fans who don’t have the time to watch every big gaming tournament or keep up with all the breaking news. “We want to create a new watering hole for the eSports community. Something they can dig into, something that can have real reporting behind it, not fluffy pieces but interesting news stories,” said Matt Wolf, head of gaming at Coca-Cola Company. Coupled with Coke’s big budget and IGN’s media spread (website, mobile app, TV app), ESPN will have keep an eye on them if/when they get their solid eSports division together.
Whoever rises to the top of eSports coverage stands to gain. While eSports originated in South Korea, the U.S. is now the world’s biggest market. According to research data firm Newzoo, North America accounts for $112.6 million (about 41%) of global eSports revenues today. That is compared to $36 million in China and $29 million in South Korea. The US has traditionally been the most important entertainment industry in the world, setting culture trends many other countries follow. If any of these new ventures are able to successfully capture this market and established themselves they will reap rewards. Particularly down the road when gaming has completed its convergence into the mainstream.Maybe ESPN Will Become the ESPN of eSports..