TV needs esports more than esports need TV
Traditional sports fans hated it. "These “nerds” aren’t athletes," they said. The esports traditionalists laughed at it. "We don’t need mainstream acceptance," they said. "This tournament is a joke." But for all its problems, for all the hubbub it created, Heroes of the Dorm was a rousing success.
And it wasn’t the only esports news related to television this week. HLTV revealed that Swedish media company Modern Times Group, which runs several TV channels, may be offering tens of millions of dollars to buy esports juggernaut ESL, who just revealed a new Counter-Strike: Global Offensive professional league. Meanwhile, Blammo Media and Shine Endemol, two television production companies located in the Benelux region, are joining forces for esports content.
That underscores an important fact for the future of esports: Television needs esports more than esports needs television.
Television is dying a slow death. Streaming video, whether on Twitch, YouTube, or Netflix, is becoming the primary way users consume video content—whether its ten second cat videos or feature films. The DVR and streaming tech have made watching video an on-demand experience, one where users can skip the commercials and consume content on their own terms.
The one exception? Sports. The pro sports industry has thrived in this environment, their already massive television contracts ballooning to massive values. Sports provide one of the few narratives on television that are not written in advance, that have additional value to watch it live.
In 2011, the NFL signed a $27 billion nine-year television contract extending its packages with Fox, NBC, and CBS, a 60 percent increase over their previous take. That doesn’t even include the $12 billion it's getting from DirecTV in an 8-year deal closed last year. Also in 2014, the NBA signed a $24 billion, nine-year contracts with ESPN and Turner, one that includes a deal with ESPN to livestream basketball games. The MLB also received similar money in 2014, securing $12 billion over 8 years after deals with ESPN, Fox, and TBS.
Sports content is some of the most valuable in television, but there’s a finite amount of it available—there are only so many big leagues, after all. That’s why esports is so appealing: It offers the same potential to draw in live audiences, which has advertisers frothing at the mouth, especially when you consider esports hits a somewhat different demographic.
But no one has ever shown that esports works in the television format. While a live streamed broadcast is a similar beast, there are differences when translating it to the TV—the size of the screen, the makeup of the audience.
Heroes of the Dorm served as that proof-of-concept.
From a community perspective, the tournament failed in a number of ways. Some of the decisions Blizzard made—the minimalistic spectator interface, the lack of a minimap—seemed to fly in the face of esports convention and the fans who have supported Heroes of the Storm through its pre-release days. But many of those changes made the production work for ESPN2.
Take the fact that it hosted a collegiate competition. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that, so far Blizzard has completely ignored the grassroots professional esports scene that’s grown surrounding the game in beta. At BlizzCon, Blizzard invited four organizations that didn’t even have Heroes teams to compete on a massive stage, stiffing squads like the team recently acquired by Tempo Storm, whose players have dedicated themselves to the game.
Heroes of the Dorm was similar: A huge Blizzard endeavour that ignored established teams in favor of amateur pickup squads built from university students.
That didn’t make much sense as a promotional tool for the game's pending release—until it revealed the finals were on ESPN2. On that platform, the collegiate format was genius. One of the biggest differences between esports and traditional sports is geography. Esports is global, which gives it unique advantages, but also one disadvantage: Its teams lack the same kind of regional link that builds an emotional fanbase. If you’re born Atlanta, you’re basically a Braves fan by birth. That doesn’t happen in esports.
By broadcasting a college tournament on ESPN2, Blizzard transformed what would have been a boring competition for the casual viewers into something with an inherent emotional charge. People could root for the University of California and cheer for a Washington loss—or vice versa.
Heroes of the Dorm - I have never been so proud. Go Pac12, no truck stops here. Just reporting the facts
— Bill Walton (@BillWalton) April 27, 2015
It gave uninvested sports fans a link to a world they were used to. And considering the average ESPN2 viewer likely had never seen Heroes before, the level of play, certainly below pro teams like Tempo Storm, Cloud9, or Team Liquid, didn’t matter. Most of those watching couldn’t tell the difference.
There were certainly other problems. Many fans who wanted to watch couldn’t do so live because they didn’t have a cable subscription or a package that includes ESPN. Unlike previous rounds of the tournament, where fans were allowed to restream the broadcast on Twitch, the streaming titan shut down any attempts to rebroadcast the ESPN2 show.
But limiting the audience to cable susbcribers is only a problem if it becomes a trend. It’s not like Heroes of the Dorm featured the BlizzCon finals; it was an amateur college competition, after all. For a game that isn’t even released. If hardcore fans wanted real Heroes of the Storm action last weekend, they just had to to tune in to DreamHack Bucharest to watch Team Liquid take the title over Gamers2.
Even if esports move to television, there's still room for streamed broadcasts. It’d be stupid to turn down massive sums for television, but esports companies need to make sure they also serve their core audience. The recent ESPN deal with NBA, which for the first time includes plans for an online video service that would not require a cable or satellite subscription, shows there’s wiggle room to avoid a Heroes of the Dorm situation.
It’s true that esports doesn’t need to pander for mainstream acceptance to succeed. Sacrificing the sanctity of the product to please a different audience has been tried. And it failed. The Championship Gaming Series (CGS) demolished the esports landscape and left it desolate for years. But that doesn’t mean taking advantages of media like television, when appropriate and in appropriate ways, won’t help esports grow.
Heroes of the Dorm isn’t pandering or sacrificing what makes esports great. It was a successful experiment that showed not that esports was ready for the world, but that the world is perhaps ready for it.