Last year, ESPN aired what was more or less a very long paid commercial for Heroes of the Storm, in the form of an eSports competition that confused everybody, including its own employees. And this year, it’s not only back, ESPN is taking it very, very seriously.
As to why ESPN is airing something that might not fit even its most charitable definition of sports, the answer is viewership. Popular eSports matches can pull in millions of viewers from across the world at the time of broadcast and match highlights are watched by millions more. Unsurprisingly, most of this tourney will be aired on ESPN3 while simultaneously being streamed on Twitch and YouTube. And there’s no natural home for eSports on television except sports channels, as G4 has been off the air for more than a year.
That said, major broadcasters haven’t been able to figure out how to get Twitch viewers and YouTube clip fans to watch eSports on their TVs. ESPN has tacitly admitted as much by allowing the streaming in the first place, something it would never do with other sports. Attempting to copy the NCAA’s format, with 64 teams duking it out and renting out Seattle’s CenturyLink Field for the finals, seems unlikely to change that, however. Anybody who cares about the game doesn’t care where it’s played, and we’ve yet to see the individual personalities on these teams.
To be fair, though, ESPN is only following the cues eSports itself is trying to send. Leagues like Major League Gaming are so desperate to be the Next Big Sport, they’ll blatantly copy the format of major league sports logos. There’s certainly an audience for eSports, and the “Heroic Four” will get their moment on ESPN 2 April 9. But the main question will be whether anybody who isn’t a gamer can figure out what they’re even watching, or whether we’ll have a second round of confusion about why ESPN is showing video games.