In our first VideoBrains Opinion piece, Sean Cleaver tells us why ESPN is right to show eSports.
If you ever listen to US talk radio, you’d immediately take back all the nasty things you’ve ever said about UK radio. One of the things that stands out is how brash, opinionated and entirely reactionary its hosts are, familiar figures like Howard Stern, Don Imus and Bubba the Love Sponge – Shock Jocks. Colin Cowherd, whilst not being a traditional shock jock, is no stranger to me.
When I covered US sports for a UK website, I listened to The Herd on ESPN Radio to get breaking news and mostly because Cowherd occupied the same space as people like Nick Ferrari or even Jeremy Kyle’s early radio ventures. He was an amusing diversion from the same four news stories repeated ad nauseam.
I’m well aware of his opinionated and often lamentable viewpoints. So it didn’t surprise me to see him throwing his toys out of his pram over ESPN’s decision to cover more eSports. He’s just another stalwart with an old-fashioned mentality decrying what could be a great business move.
The fact is that eSports catch a major advertising demographic – 15-35 year old men and women. This is the golden chalice of all TV advertising and network prosperity, and it’s not as if TV’s been faring well as an advertising medium in recent years. Over-saturation and new media have made a lot of programming feel repetitive and redundant. In fact, the controversy over what sports channels should show mirrors the late 90s, when professional wrestling stole the spotlight from ABC’s Monday Night Football, a timeslot/franchise that EPSN now owns. That audience began to dominate American television, and advertisers flocked to the raucous but profitable wrestling demographic over ‘real sports’.
This younger, college-age audience are already watching ESPN in large numbers. Local area marketing is vital to cable television in the US and ESPN’s ubiquitous association with colleges and collegiate sports helps local businesses target students with their advertising. Whilst eSports might be bad news for Cowherd and commentators like him, higher ratings potential is certainly good news for ESPN.
We don’t know how many viewers ESPN’s eSports coverage is averaging, but the market is huge. Riot Games published some numbers for their League of Legends world tournament in December 2014: it had a peak viewership of 11.2 million viewers for the final and an overall total of 27 million. To put that in perspective, even during a World Cup year, The Great British Bake Off was the UK’s most viewed show, with the final getting some 13.5 million viewers. Riot’s figures are even higher than three of the UK’s top exports: Doctor Who, Top Gear and Downton Abbey. When you think about how internationally popular and well known these shows are, Riot’s figures look amazing.
That kind of viewership, even on cable, is bound to attract major advertising money. It’s even more interesting to compare Riot’s viewing figures to last year’s Baseball World Series (15 million), and the highest rated show on ESPN2 of the past five years, the recent baseball opening night programme, which averaged 2.4 million viewers.
Reading Cowherd’s comments, you hear someone who feels threatened and who’s worried about becoming irrelevant. ESPN wouldn’t ever let Cowherd cover video games because he simply isn’t qualified – remember this is a guy who can only tolerate Donkey Kong. What’s more, I recall that he hates geek-favourite Game of Thrones. As soon as dragons appeared, he was out. Cowherd lives and breathes sports, like many of our parents do.
If there’s a football match on TV, it’ll be showing in my parents’ house. I’m not even sure if that’s out of love for the sport anymore or just Sky’s advertising and force of habit. The idea that future TVs might be showing eSports instead scares a guy like Cowherd because he doesn’t understand them. Whilst Heroes of The Dorm might not be the biggest or best example of the potential of eSports, it shows that they do have an audience.
Now, we’re still going to argue over whether the word ‘sport’ belongs in ‘eSports’ (I personally think that a sport is any competitive engagement of players in a game that takes skill and physical/mental prowess), but the subculture is there, the money is there and we should give credit to ESPN for trying something new.
ESPN’s parent corporation, Disney, is clearly looking beyond sports and merchandise for children, and using big franchises such as Star Wars and Marvel to broaden their scope. I’m sure Cowherd’s comment describing eSports on ESPN as ‘the equivalent of [him] putting a gun in [his] mouth’ won’t go down well with them. Disney doesn’t want anything or anyone associated with it that might damage its family-friendly image. In fact, the more you think about it, eSports are non-violent, exciting and youth-orientated – a perfect match for the conservative values of middle-America.
On the other hand, if you look at baseball, one of ESPN’s flagship sports, you might find something less Disney-appropriate. This, after all, is a sport where sabermetrics and mathematical formulae rule drafting. It’s a sport rife with doping allegations and more than 158 prohibited substances. All of the big US contact sports have had issues with injuries, concussions, and poor aftercare and understanding. And let’s not even start on the number of sportsmen appearing in the headlines for the wrong reasons.
Saying that, eSports don’t have a traditional governing body or US-style franchise organisation, and they definitely have their own issues. Simon Parkin recently exposed how Adderall has become eSports’ first performance-enhancing drug. Even though we consumers love a bit of scandal, this is obviously bad news and risks damaging eSports’ more youth-friendly atmosphere.
Televised eSports should be a feelgood story. A positive thing where like-minded people gather together to cheer on their heroes. ESPN has given them a space where new people can see them, learn them, and become enthralled by them. Even a sceptic like Colin Cowherd conceded that that the commentary was intense and that intensity can resonate from the arena to you through the TV screen, just like any other sport.
Subjectively, eSports are more exciting and vibrant to watch than baseball. For the target demographic, entertainment is always going to be the most important factor, regardless of athletic ability or tactical dominance. It’s nail-biting drama that brings viewers and fans to a screen.
This drama comes from witnessing the passion and excitement of everyone involved: shoutcasters, players and audience. As far as I’m concerned, if ESPN are finally taking notice of a great product with massive potential, then that’s excellent news for all concerned. Unless you’re Colin Cowherd, in which case you can quit any time you like.