Jan 14 2016 - 4:00 pm

ESPN's dedicated esports section launches this week

Almost every media company that's entered the scene over the past few years has optimistically claimed it's going to be the “ESPN of Esports
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Almost every media company that's entered the scene over the past few years has optimistically claimed it's going to be the “ESPN of Esports.” What exactly that means has often not been clear. The American sports goliath is many things at once: A 24-hour news network, an events broadcaster, a digital new outlet.

We're about to find out, however, what ESPN itself thinks the phrase means. Today, the company is launching a new section covering the burgeoning world of competitive gaming.

“Today’s launch is our latest push to reach and connect with this growing and passionate audience,” said Chad Millman, editor-in-chief of ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, in a press release.

The company has often flirted with esports over the past two years. In July 2014, it broadcast the biggest Dota 2 tournament in the world on its streaming channel, ESPN3, and was "delighted" by the viewer numbers. And in April 2015, ESPN2 hosted the finals for a collegiate competition in Blizzard's team brawler Heroes of the Storm, a broadcast that was well-received by fans and industry insiders alike.

Not everyone has been enthused by the company's interest in a niche community often stereotyped as antisocial and downright unathletic, however. Each esports broadcast was accompanied by a tempest of angry tweets on social media. ESPN shock jock Colin Cowherd threatened to quit if the main channel ever broadcast video games. And the company's own president, John Skipper, angered esports fans when he dismissed the games as something other than sport in September 2015.

The launch of a dedicated section, which will be accessible from the ESPN homepage, shows that the company is finally ready to commit to esports. That is a significant step in its own right for an industry often ignored or treated as a curiosity by mainstream media.

Millman says that the new section will be indistinguishable from the rest of the ESPN site in terms of quality and coverage. “Fans will find the same level of quality content and journalism that users of ESPN.com have come to expect, including in-depth looks at the competitive gaming world and on-site reporting from the major tournaments."

To make it happen, the company has hired a trio of editorial staffers that will be recognizable to plenty of people in the scene: Former onGamers co-founder and theScore eSports senior editor Rod “Slasher” Breslau and former theScore eSports and LoLEsports writer Tyler “Fionn” Erzberger will work as the section's writers. They'll be under editor Darin Kwilinski, a former managing editor at esports streaming site Azubu.

There are few better times to launch on the esports calendar. The next season of the biggest esports league in North America, the League Championship Series (LCS), begins this weekend. The LCS and its European sister league feature the West's best teams in League of Legends, the most popular esport in the world.

Still, it's not clear how the section's relatively small staff will cover the European LCS or other esports. In addition to League, there are several other games with huge fanbases and dozens of major events throughout the year, including Dota 2 and team shooter Counter-Strike.

ESPN isn't the first major media company to dip its toes into esports news. In November 2013, CBS Interactive launched its own esports news site, the aforementioned onGamers, with a staff full of popular names in the industry. That endeavor ultimately failed after onGamers was banned from Reddit, a major traffic driver in esports, after admins accused the site of using voting rings to artificially boost the visibility of its articles.

ESPN, however, has plenty of experience launching and supporting smaller verticals, and Millman is confident that its esports section will be no different:

“I feel like we have a track record of doing OK when it comes to covering events and doing new coverage with different kinds of things," Millman told the Daily Dot in a separate interview. "We started a section around gambling last year, and that’s been very successful. And a lot of the same principles we set up around are the same we’re setting up around esports. The point of hiring Tyler, Rod, and Darin is to be credible and authoritative and use our resources to ensure success.”

ESPN is entering an increasingly crowded esports media landscape. Multiple sites, including the Daily Dot and Toronto-based sports app theScore, run dedicated esports news verticals. In December, gaming behemoth Activision Blizzard acquired tournament organizer and esports platform Major League Gaming.

Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick struck a familiar refrain in the announcement. The company’s purpose with the move was to create the “ESPN of esports,” he said. Millman, who’s been ESPN’s editor-in-chief since June 2011, doesn’t seem phased.

“I think we will always be determined to be ESPN to all fans, regardless of content," he said. "We were all flattered by the comments. I think ESPN will continue to be ESPN in what we’re covering.”

Image via Jacob Wolf

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