eSports’ Television Debut: Why It Matters


Note: Republished from eSportGO.

The scene was not unique. It’s one that has happened many times before and for a variety of competitive video game titles. It’s the type of event that brings people to support those who stand out amongst a plethora of gamers as being the most proficient, intelligent, and agile competitors as they challenge each other in a neutral setting to determine who is the best among the best.

On April 26, however, that scene took a giant step forward and left the digital world for a few hours and appeared on the television sets of thousands of people watching the Heroes of the Dorm finals from their couch on ESPN2. Sharing air space with the NBA playoffs, the Stanley Cup playoffs and the spring season Major League Baseball games, it’s a milestone worth noting for an industry that has seen PHENOMENAL growth in recent years with no signs of decline. But if there were positive aspects to celebrate with this remarkable achievement for the eSports industry (as a whole, not just for Heroes of the Storm publisher Blizzard Entertainment), there were certainly those challenged with accepting the rise of a billion-dollar industry as it was broadcast for them on a sports network. The challenge seemed to the lie within the nature of sports, their related competitive events, and the acceptance of such broadcasts on live television. Observe:

The most heinous example of the close-minded vitriol spewed forth as a result of a lack of understanding from the shift in the digital culture paradigm came from ESPN broadcaster Colin Coward Cowherd.

As one can see, in his rant, he affirmed that if eSports relevance grew so large as to be reported on ESPN, he would forcibly remove himself from his career at ESPN. More disgustingly, he likened gamers to mama’s basement dwellers encouraging people to lock the door and let them die out.

So let’s go old school here and start this off with some vocabulary!

For source definitions I’m going to go with the Oxford Dictionary. Why this one in particular? Because the committee that proposes (and rejects) word entries spends a lot of time studying language, spoken, written, sung, but more importantly, communicated. Communicated not just among a small group of people, but words that bear significant meaning in cultures across the globe. Yes people might laugh when they see words like “selfie” or “bootylicious” in the Oxford Dictionary, but they were absorbed in the compendium of the English language because of their cultural impacts that withstand a high barometer of time. Let us begin:

Sport /spôrt/: An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment

Well isn’t that nifty – a road map from which I can steer this discussion, bolding the buzzwords: physical exertion, skill, individual/team competition, and for entertainment. It may be surprising to some that physical sports bear the same characteristics as those in the electronic realm – the ‘e’ in eSports. But it is true.

Let’s get physical, physical!

It’s safe to assume that sports in general demand a certain level of strength, stamina, mental fortitude and prowess to succeed in just about every type of sport. The swift repeated strokes in a pool of water, the uphill thrust of a peddle on a road bike, the clash of protected giants carrying a ball made of pigskin at high speeds. In order to translate this into eSports equivalence, it becomes necessary to look at this from both the physical and virtual realms. This is because a player exists in the physical realm, and controls a character (or several) in the virtual realm.

In the physical realm, high-end eSports players, especially of the real-time strategy (RTS) variety metrically track their movements, known as Actions Per Minute (APM). This video, posted a few years ago on YouTube, demonstrates the INSANELY high level of APMs average RTS players are expected to achieve in order to be competitive in the scene:

To reiterate, that is 300 actions per minute, or FIVE actions per SECOND. Let’s compare this to a quarterback, probably the lightest but most strategic player in the offensive line up of a football team. Upon making the call and receiving the ball, in an average of 2-5 seconds, the quarterback must execute a PREDETERMINED plan of action, but immediately readjust if said plan changes at a moment’s notice. With a laser precision (one would hope) he has to throw the ball (or in some cases pass it) based on that 2-5 seconds of analysis of his position on the field and that of his teammates. Once the ball has left his hand, his part of the action is over. Once the play is complete, the action is over. The players select another plan of action, reset, rinse and repeat. Some positions of team require more strength or speed, but the perception that ALL are athletes on the team remains unquestioned.

Is throwing a ball the same as finger movements on the keyboard or mouse. Clearly not, but the physical attributes differ as it would if you compared a quarterback to a cyclist, or a swimmer, or an expert marksman (because, you know, there are Olympic categories dedicated to standing there and shooting things with guns). But whatever the case, none of these demands a minimum of five actions per second which by extension requires a near supreme cohesion in hand-eye coordination. So by using the definition of sports as an observable physical prowess, as noted by an interesting commentary by Eric Johnson, yes, gaming is a sport.

Mind Over Matter

“The mind and the body are inextricably entwined, and rarely are their inseparability clearer than when we’re under some kind of mental pressure. The moment we start trying to learn a new skill, make a decision or otherwise think on our feet, our nervous system reacts – with accelerated pulse rate, increased respiration, even sweating.”

Jeffrey Kluger, Time magazine

Skill, among other things, is the result of either persistence or stupidity on part of the mind to master ordinary things and perform them extraordinarily. It is one of the few things in life that can see substantial gains from natural mastery, learned mastery, and the educational benefit of executing both with spectacular failure. The quarterback who continuously throws interceptions (*coughTonyRomocough*) must learn from the failure to quickly assess a play that has deviated from expectation and act accordingly. The gymnast must learn to control his or her speed to keep from falling when executing a front handspring step out, round off back handspring step out, round off back handspring, full twisting layout. So too must the competitive gamer know what units with which to attack a base, while simultaneously defending against an opponent’s attack on his or her own base, all while effectively managing resource gathering, knowing which units to generate and when, and what fortifications to assemble and strengthen (for example).

More importantly skill is a mental attribute that enables people to accomplish a task, regardless of the depth of challenge. To have a skill in something in essence, makes us better than someone else who does not have the skill, or, whose skill level falls below our own. In a competitive scene, one where people of great skill compete against each other, it is the clash of these individuals whether singularly or on a team that triggers physical responses from mental relays that places stress on the competitors. This stress exists in ANY competitive capacity from football games to multi-player online battle arenas. In the case of both eSports and physical sports, both require a link between mental acuity and physical reaction (which in the eSports realm could mean up to five different and simultaneous reactions in the span of a second, as previously noted).

Now THAT’s Entertainment

Vlad Coho, director of communications at Riot Games, is going kick off this section of the discussion:

esports_vlad coho quote

So here’s a copy and past of my response in that LinkedIn discussion.

“I think this question may presume that it’s our goal to spread the message of esports to the great masses of viewers of mainstream television who won’t watch unless we insert our content into places like ESPN.”

By this, it would seem like Coho was saying ESPN isn’t good enough; that he would rather another vehicle to carry his message (not sure if that was his intent, but that’s how I perceived it). With all due respect, I think it’s a bit shortsighted to think that a conglomerate of networks like ESPN that displays a variety of competitive scenes across its family of channels would be unable to properly handle broadcasting an event such as a championship series for a game like League of Legends. The entirety of the eSports scene, which most certainly includes the LoL community, was modeled after the physical sports realm, from the gear, to the advertising, to the sponsorship of high-end players/teams. Native systems in the virtual realm like Twitch empowered publishers of eSports titles with the ability to share that content IN LIEU of the traditional format which up until last weekend had all but forsaken eSports competitions, writing them off as mere extensions of nerd lovefests.

“We prioritize making sure that LoL content is available on the channels and devices that League of Legends players and fans use, and generally get good marks for our efforts to do so.”

This absolutely commendable philosophy has long been a staple for Riot: a player-focused company aimed solely at nurturing and maintaining that strong sense of community. But one can only rest on laurels for so long before the air in a self-contained ecosphere becomes stagnant. I think Nintendo of late is an EXCELLENT example of what happens when a company refuses to leave the ecosphere (“We’ll never make mobile games,” for example) and is eventually forced to do so. I’m not suggesting by any means to forego what the community will do with certain game-changing decisions, but rather to not be afraid to expand reach on a channel or format that is itself being forced to embrace change.

We don’t see esports as some sort of marketing vehicle that’ll convince the average ESPN viewer flipping through channels to suddenly start watching esports, nor should we.

Television (and networks by extension) is beginning a new stage of life, evolving from its own stagnant model of being tied down by deeply controlling cable providers with networks slowly offering their own ways of broadcasting their content. It’s only natural with steps being made to embrace online technologies in the digital spectrum that the traffic would begin to flow in the opposite direction and see the digital spectrum influencing the content displayed in the traditional formats. If gamers prefer watching things on Twitch, awesome. But if networks like ESPN are discovering that with their forays into digital content that eSports events are worth broadcasting on television AS WELL, I’m not convinced that the publisher of probably the LARGEST eSports title is so well established as to shirk its nose as an authority in an industry that has taken DECADES to gain mainstream acceptance. It’s easy to say “we were successful in our own rite without you” and write off these milestones being made by other companies under the guise of “well we only do what our players want” because it’s safe and it allows others to break down the barriers so you can just walk on through. As a member of the community I’d like to think my fellow gamers would just as well turn on a television to see a fun eSports competition as they would do so now sitting at a computer. Perhaps my belief is misguided optimism.

I choose to spend more time on this element of the sport definition because ultimately, spectating and hobbyist enthusiasm bolster competitive events to which our passion guides our support. It is asked that if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? We can translate this philosophical quandary into a more relevant question:

If two competitors compete, and no one watches, is there a winner?

The battlefront from which we as a society attempt to answer this question resides in the location in which we choose to view such competitions. The great games of Rome took place in a grand arena that could house thousands of spectators and it is this historical example from which we have built our structures to enjoy such events today. The great strides we have made as a race is that we no longer have to travel to these places to enjoy viewing such events. Radio then television, and now the Internet are all technologies that enable us to listen or watch from afar elevating the most knowledgeable individuals into stardom equitable to the competitors themselves as they relay the action taking place and offering insightful and useful commentary about what people are watching. Up until last weekend, eSports understandably was only available in the spectrum from which it was birthed, the Internet. For the first time it was it was TV! ESPN2 broadcast the finals of the Heroes of the Storm collegiate invitational Heroes of the Dorm. For two and a half hours thousands of people watched two teams of competitors battle it out. Was it successful? Forbes’ Paul Tassi reports the broadcast pulled in a 0.1 rating, or roughly 100,000 viewers. For perspective, the number one show for the week ending April 26 was the 20/20 Bruce Jenner interview, which garnered more than 17million viewers. So, success in the ratings game is a resounding no. Like Tassi though, for the time being, I’ll consider the fact that Heroes of the Storm, a title still in a closed beta development phase, does not command a presence in audience support as do larger, more well established eSports titles like League of Legends. Instead I’ll focus on the milestone that eSports made its debut on television, whether Blizzard accomplished that milestone or Riot Games or any other eSports publisher, it’s still one to be celebrated.

I started this section off with an eSports industry professional commenting on the necessity of eSports being on television and its suitability to the community. Riot Games, for the time being feels like it does not, according to Coho. I disagree, and it’s not so much a business perspective, but more over one that speaks of acceptance. Over the last few years I’ve written extensively on the level of acceptance our community, be that of geek or gamer-centric identification, has enjoyed in the past 15 years, thanks largely to the revolutions technology has made from mainstream Internet, to iPhones, touchscreen tablets and so forth. This of course was preceded by a long and hard-fought battle of social acceptance, the remnants of which surfaced in Cowherd’s comments on ESPN. The “jock versus nerd” trope rarely surfaces these days because of the incorporation of technology and those architects responsible for its social integration. But when it does surface the benefit is that it reminds us how far we have come as a community that even when – as Chris Kluwe would call them – slapjawed pickletits like Cowherd think they’re being cute by poking at gamers with clichés that have all but died and long since been buried with no extra lives to start over, people can band together to defend the community that is now forefront of innovation, ingenuity, and economical prosperity.

Our journey long ago started, has now shifted in a new direction

The milestone made this week is but a first of what I hope will be many to follow. There is no rush to see it done, as it did take years just to take the first step. But changes all around in the gaming, eSports, and broadcasting industries respectively, mean that there are countless possibilities from which to enjoy competitive events physical or electronic in nature. Cable companies will soon have to learn how to live in a cord-cutter’s world, and people in general will soon have to adjust seeing the fruits of labor by the digital world in a format some consider dying, but I see as evolving into a new stage of existence. So an eSports event was on TV. If there’s one thing I have always known growing up with that technology is that the little wonder piece of wireless technology developed by nerds for jocks to enjoy their sportsketball watching, known as the remote, empowers people with the power of choice. You can choose to continue watching, or you can change the channel. Either way, those tweeting all the negativity I shared in the beginning of this piece all had one thing in common when they were poking fun of Heroes of the Dorm – they kept watching. 😉

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