Competitive gaming has millions of fans. Its biggest stars earn six-figure salaries. Yet it's nowhere to be found on American television. You may happen upon bowling, lumberjack contests, or even rock-paper-scissors while channel surfing, but nary a match of StarCraft or League of Legends.
More and more people are devoting their lives to playing in and maintaining professional eSports— electronic sports, a catchall for competitive gaming. For them, continued growth is a must. The professional leagues want to be on TV. They want to become part of the mainstream. But will the gatekeepers of American sports television let them in? Can eSports maintain this trajectory if they don't?
The people in charge of these leagues believe that eSports has the potential to be as big as it wants to be. A representative from one of America's biggest sports channels isn't as sure about this "next big thing." The men and women behind the biggest online streaming service that currently broadcasts eSports don't think network TV even needs to enter the picture. At least one of these parties is right, and will likely make a pretty penny because of it. Soon enough, we'll see who it is.
As it stands, millions of people watch eSports. They watch games like Starcraft II, where fast-fingered players control galactic armies in a dense and strategic war that's like speed chess via Gene Roddenberry. They watch League Of Legends, where two teams of five digital heroes level up and do methodical battle over towers they've sworn to protect. They watch Shootmania, an unreleased first person shooter with lightning fast pace. Knowing Americans, many of them probably dip into a bag of chips and a beer while they do it. And every single one of them is watching through the internet.
Believe it or not, it was not always this way. At least, not entirely. Over half a decade ago, a sports TV giant decided to roll the dice and broadcast something new: video games.
"It proved to be what we thought it would be. A bit too niche for our audience."
"One of the goals that we have is to always be really ahead of the curve, so we're always looking for how to best serve our fans," ESPN's Vice President of Games and Partnerships, Raphael Poplock, said to me on the phone several weeks ago. We were speaking about the 2008 deal ESPN signed with MLG—Major League Gaming—one the first and largest American gaming leagues, which was founded in 2002 and has been growing ever since.
"MLG at the time was up-and-coming and they were doing some really good things," Poplock said. Using ESPN3—the sports network's online portal—as an "incubator," the Disney-owned channel began to roll out its competitive gaming coverage. Eventually, it was supposed to make the jump to TV. But MLG never arrived in the living room. "It proved to be what we thought it would be," Poplock said. "A bit too niche for our audience."
After several broadcasts of Halo and football stalwart Madden on ESPN3—including features like "Top 10 Plays"—and written coverage of players and tournaments, ESPN and MLG ended their partnership. "I think one of the challenges that we had as we've evaluated this space, and even seen other people produce it, is that it really is hardcore," Poplock said. "The typical fan in our case, a sports fan, it's not very easy [for them] to consume or to pick up."
There was also the question of broadcasting "Mature" titles like Call of Duty. "We're part of the Walt Disney company so we have to be very considerate as to what kind of content we're putting on our air," Poplock said. "For various reasons, [we] just didn't think it would be a good fit for us."
More than anything, Poplock felt eSports had issues with production value. "Look at what [ESPN] has done for the sport of poker. We really revolutionized it, made it to a place where fans really could understand what was going on," Poplock continued. By adding in features like the pocket-cam—which allowed viewers to get a look at the players' cards in the middle of a hand—ESPN helped turn poker into a mid-2000s juggernaut. From 2003 to 2006, entrants in the World Series of Poker increased from 839 to 8,773, the pot from 2.5 to 12 million dollars. eSports gaming, to Poplock, was not "palatable for a casual fan."
Today, ESPN's gaming integration is kept to things like Madden Cover Vote and football simulations, but Poplock said "the more core eSports, shooter games, [are] not an area of focus." When I asked him if they were worried about missing out on this potentially huge audience, he said they're not concerned. In fact, he openly encouraged others to capitalize. "If they're doing it with Twitch.tv or other folks, more power to them. We love that, we love seeing that the overall industry is thriving."
Reaching the mainstream is of the utmost importance to David Ting, founder of IGN Pro League. IPL is an extremely fast growing gaming league which has seen its viewership and prize money increase wildly in its two years of existence. Formerly involved in engineering at IGN, Ting now manages dozens of employees, putting together events viewed worldwide. Over the phone he comes off as a man driven forward, sometimes divergently, by his twin passions for gaming and business. Started as a Starcraft II League in 2011, IPL has grown to include League of Legends, Shootmania, and just recently signed an exclusive deal with Capcom for their fighting franchises, Street Fighter included.
Their last event, IPL 5, had over six million unique viewers, and Ting hopes to increase that number by at least 50% for IPL 6 next month. Ting is a gamer who got inspired to start the league after spending months battling through StarCraft II's Diamond multiplayer league, the last step before "Pro." But in a conversation with me he also harped on concepts like "monetization" and "economically dictated growth." IPL came from his hobby, but he treats it as very serious business.
And the way Ting sees it, eSports will have to move to TV. "It's all about monetization at the end of the day," Ting told me. "The level spent on TV in terms of ads is still way higher than internet for per-minute views."
"For us, it's really important to reach the mainstream. Somebody who may not be watching videos on the internet," he said. "They may discover our program on NBC and fall in love with it." Ting sees eSports as something that America is waiting to love, just as he does. Hell, he's banking on it.
"For us, it's really important to reach the mainstream. Somebody who may not be watching videos on the internet."
In the months between IPL 4 and 5, the unique viewership for the events more than doubled. Over a long weekend last November, people across the world consumed over 20 million hours of streamed video. At any given moment there were just under half-a-million people watching. It's hard to say things aren't on the up-and-up. But Ting believes that putting their content at the fingertips of the channel surfer could make it explode into a cultural force. "eSports losing the 'e'," he said repeatedly.
When I asked him about MLG's ill-fated foray onto network, he confidently replied that times have changed. Now, he says, the time is right. "If you bring up e-commerce, like back when the internet was only available on mainframe, people think you're crazy. But today it's second nature. The same ideas that failed in the past—it's really about window of opportunity."
IPL is currently on television in China, and open to other foreign markets. For America, Ting believes the switch will come "within the next two years." Ting said IPL was "entertaining talks" with networks, but wouldn't reveal which ones. Presumably, it wasn't ESPN. "The opportunity is definitely in the US," he told me. "If you look at the majority of our broadcasts, they're in English. It's an economic system that dictates that. For now, I'm a person who wants to perfect our current case study and challenge as much as possible. We're doubling in traffic every six months. I want to keep up that growth rate."
A few weeks after we spoke, IGN had mass layoffs and closed some of their subsidiary websites like 1up and GameSpy. In an internal memo obtained by Kotaku last week, IGN said they were "actively engaged with parties interested in acquiring IPL." When asked for more details, neither IGN nor Ting would comment.