League of not-so Legends; or, DoTA-wish your TV programming was hot like Twitch?

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So, did you hear? Boston won Baseball’s 2013 World Series.

Yeah, I kind of rolled my eyes too. But hey, if you’re a Bostonian, chances are, days later, you’re just BARELY starting to recover from the celebration.

I enjoy physical activity, and point of fact, am forced into it because of the military. But it’s not something I follow with vested interest. Though, as luck would have it, I have managed to surround myself with people in my life who are the very definition of “sport nuts.”

You know the type, the ones who disappear from the world every Sunday afternoon and Monday evening in the fall, ignoring new babies, husbands and wives, and work responsibilities. The ones who get online to endlessly review stats and logs of players from the previous week’s games to see whose “team” is scoring better.

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They skulk around with notebooks and papers, rulebooks, and stat sheets. Half their wardrobe was probably purchased in the sports section of Wal-Mart or Footlocker.

It’s amazing to see that as a nation, we can shut down several times a year to watch the championships of major sporting events, namely Football, Baseball and Basketball without a mind as to how much money goes into such events and who exactly is profiting from them.

Ok, now pause here and hold that thought…

Conversely, SK Telecom T1 won the Season 3 League of Legends World Championships last month. Did you know?

Chances are if you’re a gamer, you’ve at least heard a rumbling. But more likely, you only know of League of Legends, didn’t know there was an event about it, and like a majority of the nation, probably wasn’t even aware that there is a gaming league much akin to the NFL for games like League of Legends.

While the latter thought is growing increasingly less so, it’s still something that interests me, the fact that not many people know about eSports all together. Arne Phillips over at PolicyMic wrote a rather interesting piece about the increase in eSports support and viewership. He posted some VERY interesting numbers:

 The percentage of overall growth in viewership of eSports, especially, has dwarfed nearly all other sporting events in the United States and continues to climb at staggering levels. The IGN Pro League saw a 951%  growth in viewership between 2011 and 2012 for their flagship event, drawing over 6 million unique viewers through platforms like Twitch TV, YouTube, Xbox LIVE, and more.

Of course with something new, growth percentages are going to seem insane. As time goes by, what truly tests an industry is the ability to MAINTAIN those numbers. Phillips compared those numbers to the World Series ratings, which show a decline and lack of growth since 1979. But alas, Baseball has been around how long? Viewership comes and goes with a decades-old industry and the spurts more than make up for the drags.

eSports, like sports in general, doesn’t surround itself around a single title or game genre. There are more than a few that fall into that arena such as Multi-player Online Battle Arena titles like Defense of the Ancients 2, real-time strategies such as Starcraft 2, Computer-based Card Games like Magic the Gathering, and first-person shooters like Call of Duty. And all of these have a respective gaming league that supports the competitive arena such as World Championship Series that supports Starcraft and Major League Gaming that supports League of Legends among other titles.

As Phillips pointed out, the Season 3 World Championship for League of Legends sold out the Staples Center equating such a feat to superstar status entertainment acts like Taylor Swift and Wrestlemania. The proof is in the pudding, growth and interest is on the rise for eSports.

Part of what makes these events so grand is that there is a true sense of community at these events. “Hey, I sit at home and play this game like everyone else here, including those who are competing for the grand prizes,” seems to be the mantra that spreads itself over the crowd as they cheer on their gaming heroes.

The question Phillips proposes is this: why is it that online streaming platforms seem to be the only ones interested in broadcasting the events of an industry that has seen phenomenal growth over the last few years?

To put it simply, why can’t I turn on the TV and find a channel that is broadcasting these events, but have no problem finding a daytime broadcast of a professional golf tournament (I mean seriously? A sport on TV where watching paint dry is the best description of what you’re watching, no offense to golf enthusiasts).

I pondered this myself and compared eSports to physical sports:

  1. Footage: both are broadcast friendly, can be replayed, advertiser display friendly and can be interrupted at will for commercials
  2. Crowd draws: both have the numbers to support broadcasts on networks
  3. Venue profitability: both can be held at large venues where ticket sales and merchandising are essential aspects of the business plan
  4. Both are connected to industries that make money off of at-home participation, particularly in the ever-so-profitable 14-35 age demographic, whether it’s playing a video game, or intramural/high school/college level football.

So what’s missing?

As I watched the Starcraft 2 tournament that would identify those going to the World Championships at this week’s BlizzCon in Anaheim, Calif., I think I figured it out.

It’s people.

Older cats understand the connection of seeing Babe Ruth point to a direction in the field and the silence that followed when the bat connected with the ball and was sent soaring into the previously alluded direction.

Or that moment during the 1975 NFL play-offs when Dallas Cowboy Quarterback Roger Staubach made a fourth down pass from midfield to wide receiver Drew Pearson, who caught the ball four yards away from the end zone and was then able to drive it in for a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings (a sport defining play now known as the “Hail Mary”).

Who doesn’t watch their favorite sport and physically feel the triumph or heartache of loss from their favorite athlete?

You see, people are inspired by people who do inspiring things. Feats of physical strength, emotionally or physically, prowess, speed and endurance that test the depths of the human spirit tend to be what drives people to watch these events. Oh sure, you can throw a commercial or two in between those moments, but the point is that you can connect to the person.

Gamers do the same thing, but it’s different in that that connection is made in person. The Staples Center can fill up because gamers want to connect to not only the people who are competitors, but to OTHER people who simply play the games they play. But the connection is lost when they are only at home on their computers seeing a group of people sitting at a computer – the footage they watch online is simply game footage of characters being controlled artificially by other people.

Now comes the not so pretty part about this lack of connection and hesitation on part of TV broadcasters. You might not want to hear it. You might argue that things are different. But here it is:

WorldsVictory_PostVictory_195Source: LoLeSports  

Look at the winners of championships for a lot of eSports events. See a theme? A VAST MAJORITY of them are Asian. Much like Japan and other countries recruit talented athletes from America to play on their teams (basketball and baseball players, specifically, offering an obscene amount of money), WE recruit our top eSports players from countries like Korea (Starcraft 2 whiz, Polt, for example). This does not bode well for broadcasters who feel the American public doesn’t want to see people winning world championships of any competition who aren’t from, well, America.

Gamers don’t think like this. We see talented players, and because we’re more attached to their ingenuity to play the game we play on a whole different level, and because what we see on screen is mostly animation and avatars, we don’t see the issues of race that broadcasters have to deal with if they were to attempt to bring these events to television. Say what you will, but there’s a reason America is more interested in broadcasting the Superbowl (a sport played ONLY in America) and stopping as a nation to watch it, and more averse to give as much attention to the World Cup (a sport more beloved everywhere ELSE in the world EXCEPT America). The same could be said of eSports.

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Fortunately for us, I don’t think this will be much an issue for long. As more and more people stray from traditional cable subscriptions and increasingly turn to the Internet for their programming, it’s likely that an event whose very roots are supplanted in said source for entertainment will be less prone to the issues that plague traditional network programming. The Internet will not and cannot be dictated by close-minded ideals and history has proven that such attempts to control the openness of the Internet are futile.

So until then, eSports will remain in the domain of the triple-w, that’s just fine for us gamers. We can connect our computer to our big screen TVs now anyway.

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