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eSports – Does that First Letter Mean it’s Not a Sport?

April 27, 2015, 5:45 p.m.
Michael Inouye, Principal Analyst

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ESPN or more accurately stated ESPN2 caused a mild uproar on Twitter Sunday night (April 28th) after viewers were surprised to see “Heroes of the Dorm” airing on the sports channel. Many on the opposing side called foul on the show, decrying the “athletes” lack of physical prowess – well aside from the strong dexterity of the fingers and commendable eye and hand coordination. Others, even some of those unfamiliar with a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena – in this case “Heroes of the Storm”) were oddly intrigued by the unfamiliar spectacle and some even found it hard to turn it off. Putting these differences aside, does eSports have a future among the mega sports leagues like the NFL, NBA, and MLB?

Before we get ahead of ourselves let’s put last night’s event into perspective. First of all this isn’t the first time ESPN aired an eSporting event on TV - last year (July 2014) they aired the Dota 2 tournament “The International,” so for those who saw last night’s broadcast and thought the world was coming to an end, it’s ok, we all survived the first airing. The second go around also pitted college students (from large universities like UC Berkley and Arizona State in the finals) playing against each other for prize money towards tuition. So there was a positive reward and it brought in both regional and collegiate affiliations to root for, even if you had no idea what was going on onscreen. It’s also worth pointing out that the event didn’t displace the NBA (or NHL) playoffs or a MLB game and ESPN is well known for airing plenty of poker tournaments, so not all of its programming needs to showcase stunning feats of athleticism.

So why was there so much turmoil on Twitter? On the one hand there’s the issue of change (and our general distaste for it) and then there’s the stigma attached to gaming. There was plenty of the “why are there nerds on ESPN2” type of banter, but is gaming really so disparate from a sports viewer’s experience?

On the surface the answer is clearly yes, but as we dig a bit deeper the dissimilarities start to give way to more common ground. There are “athletes” and each spends a good amount of time honing their skills and perfecting their craft (also called training). In addition there is prize money, sponsorships, and endorsements. Teams use strategy to out-maneuver opponents and at least within the realm of the eSporting community there are popular players and teams. So how about the “geeky” part of gaming? Almost paradoxically the same people who will call gaming “geeky” and disparage its players will then pour over copious amounts of player stats, run countless models (while tweaking algorithms) to predict player/team performances so they can manage a virtual team…that they pit against other players who are also managing virtual teams in numerous virtual leagues. Granted these are based on actual athletes, but the divide between fantasy sports and gaming is not terribly wide. So at least there is some common ground (and yes, there is also fantasy eSports).

 

Online gaming as a video entertainment medium is exceptionally popular in South Korea and while we don’t expect a similar level of enthusiasm here, there is a general trend towards wider acceptance of video game watching. Numerous OTT services like Twitch (now part of Amazon) and YouTube are pushing video game viewership higher and with the rising trend of MOBAs hitting other platforms (e.g. console and mobile) it should become more widely understood. Time will tell, but in the meantime collisions such as this will remain an interesting event as sports meets, umm…something less than sports.