The “mainstreaming of esports” is continuing, with ESPN saying this week that they will broadcast parts of the Halo Championship Tour event at the X Games in Aspen on the main network at the end of the month, while streaming it on WatchESPN. It’s a move that will give the surprisingly low-profile Halo competitive scene a chance to connect with an audience on a huge network, while also giving ESPN the chance to showcase a game that its viewers can connect with.
This didn’t go so smoothly the last time ESPN tried this with the Heroes of the Dorm tournament, with most fans expressing bewilderment if not outright hostility. Even within ESPN, the decision to broadcast Heroes of the Dorm drew some fire, with professional provocateur Colin Cowherd (now at FOX) saying he’d rather quit sports media than cover esports. But perhaps worst of all was the fact that most people ignored it entirely, with the event drawing extremely low Nielsen ratings.
It will be interesting to see how competitive Halo is received by ESPN’s audience. Their last stab involved MOBAs, a type of game that is pretty confusing to people who don’t play them, and Heroes of the Storm was a very new MOBA at the time that ESPN carried the final. Halo is far more familiar to the ESPN audience, even if everyone hasn’t kept-up on Halo 5: Guardians or the pro scene. It will be interesting to see if that makes the audience any more receptive to it.
Competitive Halo is in an odd place. Like Call of Duty, it’s hugely successful just as a game people play and reaches a massive audience… yet has always been at the periphery of the conversation around competitive gaming. You see this reflected in the scale of the prize pools. The winners of the CS:GO tournament at DreamHack: Leipzig this weekend get $50,000. $100,000 grand prizes are becoming almost standard in CS:GO. Meanwhile, the Halo invitational at the X Games Aspen has a total prize pool of $30,000.
Admittedly, this is just an exhibition tournament in advance of the main event: the 2016 Halo Championship, which currently has a prize pool of $2 million thanks to the Dota 2-like crowdfunding model that Microsoft adopted for this tournament. Just as sales of the Compendium items have been used to increase the prizing for Dota 2's annual International world final, Microsoft have been putting a portion of REQ pack sales in Halo 5 into the prize pool for the 2016 championship.
The Halo 5 X Games tournament should be a decent preview of what’s to come during the regionals and world championship. The eight invited teams are among the strongest in Europe and North America including regional leaders Allegiance, Evil Geniuses, and PENTA. It will be a good chance for a new, potentially enormous audience of ESPN-viewers to get a taste of what Halo 5 esports are like right now.
Rob Zacny is a freelance writer and esports journalist. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org