Why ESPN Is So Serious About Covering Esports

11 minute read

It doles out prize winnings in the tens of millions, has an intensely watchful global viewership in the hundreds of millions, draws elite players with unearthly reflexes, and it’s growth can legitimately be described as meteoric. So naturally ESPN launched a dedicated vertical earlier this year to keep up with esports, the burgeoning field of professional gaming.

Pro-gaming is set to generate upwards of a billion dollars in revenues by 2019, according to research firm Newzoo. That’s sent large media companies looking for ways into the field, which ranges from pro-level matches in games like League of Legends or Dota 2 to longtime PC staple Starcraft. Games giant Activision Blizzard, which owns epic franchises like Call of Duty and Warcraft, announced it was buying esports outfit Major League Gaming in January for $46 million. Activision says it has plans to launch a devoted cable TV channel. ESPN, which is owned by Disney, has looked for new growth areas as subscribers and ratings growth has stalled.

Here’s what ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com editor in chief Chad Millman has to say about the company’s online esports push and the trend’s potential:

You’re doubling down on esports, but you’ve been covering it sporadically for some time, right?

That’s accurate. We’ve certainly been engaged in the events for a while and broadcasting them on various platforms. It’s been on our radar and something we’ve been interested in. Like what we did last year with an issue of the magazine that was dedicated to esports, the esports issue, and what we did earlier this year with the launch of the esports section [online] are just the next phases of what was started.

Where did ESPN’s online esports initiative come from?

From our perspective, there’s a group of people within ESPN who have been engaged in esports and saying “Wow, this is really cool and we’ve got to get involved,” and also people who were just mad gamers and preaching the quality of the competition and that this was an audience we wanted to get to.

What directly led to the launch of the site was, we had a brainstorming meeting in June of 2014. At the time I was editor-in-chief of the magazine and we had an all-staff brainstorming meeting and someone pitched doing an esports issue. And we said “Well that’s interesting, we hadn’t considered that before.” And we kept talking about it and developing the idea, watching esports become consistently more popular and get a lot more coverage in the mainstream.

So ultimately we found the stories we wanted to do and were able to get to the narratives from the magazine perspective we wanted to. And we did that issue in the spring of 2015, and the response was phenomenal. And from there, we said “We need to do an Esports vertical.” So we spent the next several months thinking about how do we want to cover it, who do we want to cover it, and can we do it with credibility and authenticity so that it serves the audience appropriately. And that’s how we ended up launching the site in January.

You’re personally known for covering and getting ESPN to pay attention to sports gambling. Is this new vertical you trying to do the same for esports?

Oh gosh, I can’t take credit for it at all. I think there were several of us who were seeing this industry grow and become something that was valuable to cover. There were many of us who were pushing for it, saying “Hey, this is a good idea.” One of the things that ESPN has been successful at is finding areas that are important to fans and making sure that we get into that space. We did it with Fantasy [football, baseball, basketball, hockey] many years ago, and it’s become a huge tentpole in our coverage across television, across print, across digital, across audio. We did it with gambling because we recognized it’s something that we should be covering the way we cover anything else.

And a lot of what we thought about gambling informed how we thought about esports, in that it should be treated professionally, and that we should be trying to break news in that area, and doing features in the area, and covering events in that area with the same rigor that we cover the NFL or the NBA or Major League Baseball. Because that’s really what ESPN can bring to it, right? A sensibility that lends credibility.

What about this thing ESPN president John Skipper said back in September 2014 that got him into some hot water, where he said esports was “not a sport—it’s a competition”?

I would say that John Skipper knows everything that we’re doing, and so the fact that we are doing this now is representative of ESPN’s commitment to what this is, and the potential of this audience, and the quality of the coverage that we want to bring to it.

In gaming, there was a debate some years ago over whether games could be art or artful or whatever, which then became cliché. And now with esports, you hear this question about whether it should be recognized as a sport. Distinction without a difference?

Who cares about the question, right? At the end of the day, it’s cool, it’s intense, the competition is crazy, it has million-dollar performers, it has high stakes, it has owners who are trying to steal team members from different teams, it has everything that makes sports interesting to cover. And it has an audience, and it’s an audience that isn’t necessarily duplicated with what ESPN is doing. So to wade into a debate about whether or not it’s sports is irresponsible from a content creation perspective, because then we’re not serving the audience, which is all we’re supposed to be doing. I don’t think the audience cares.

I don’t either, but I’m also out of my depth, because I don’t have any idea what the demographic that’s been coming to ESPN to watch, let’s call it for lack of a better term more traditional sports coverage, thinks when it sees something like Heroes of the Dorm. Do you know how that aspect of your audience feels when it encounters esports coverage?

It’s the right question, and we don’t have a sense of it yet. But it’s also because in a lot of ways if you’re a traditional sports fan, you don’t necessarily have to engage with it. There’s a dedicated social handle and vertical for esports. When an esports story appears on page one, you don’t have to click on it, right? So we have seen that there are really cool highlights we can do on SportsCenter that combine esports and traditional sports.

We just had a great one the other night, where we overlaid an esports game’s graphics on top of a really cool NBA highlight. People are just going to engage with that because it’s a different and interesting way to tell a story with a highlight. And we don’t get a ton of complaints for that. The key to these things, and this is what we found worked really well with the magazine, is you find a great story, and you tell it well enough that it doesn’t turn off the 10% of the audience that knows this content really, really well.

You’re probably experiencing this yourself at TIME in being the games critic, is that it’s an intense and passionate audience that is expert. And if you don’t get the details right, they will quickly turn and find you lacking in authenticity. And if you get those right and you keep them, then they will share the stories you’re trying to tell, and inevitably those stories will be picked up by people who might not be traditional esports fans, but because it’s good storytelling, they’ll engage and maybe either buy into what we’re doing from a storytelling perspective, or just become interested in esports because they see there’s something fascinating about it.

I wasn’t an esports guy either until we did the magazine issue and there were some stories I read that I had butterflies, because I thought the writers did such a good job translating this world.

Are you a gamer?

Not at all.

But you kind of are with the gambling stuff, right? I think of gaming as much broader than just video gaming.

Sure, if you want to increase the funnel, then by all means I’m a gamer. But from an esports perspective, I’m just a very interested party who thinks the stories are great and the audience is big and we should be in this space.

Over the last four or five years you see various reports that the gender divide in esports is both real and significant. Whereas the Entertainment Software Association reports 44% of overall video gamers are female, you had this survey conducted a few years ago by an esports production company that found more than 90% of esports players were male. Assuming the goal is more egalitarian gender representation, do you think ESPN has a role to play in how it covers the sport?

I think the responsibility is to find ways to tell the stories to as broad an audience as possible, whether it’s male or female. If the esports female audience is growing, then of course we’re going to want to speak to that audience and tell stories that will engage that audience and be interesting to that audience. And we’re also going to want to be able to tell stories to the male audience, to remind them that the female audience for esports is growing.

But our true north is always going to be the storytelling. And if the storytelling is capable and considerate and thoughtful, then we’re going to hit those touch points regardless of trying to have an active agenda against each one of those things.

Any thoughts on virtual reality’s impact on esports down the road?

I don’t have thoughts, other than very early stage thinking that’s really broadly about VR. I know that it’s rapidly progressing in esports and that might be where some of the most immediate, tangible opportunities are. But we’ve got a lot to consider when it comes to VR beyond esports, so it’s all part of the same conversation right now.

You launched the new vertical around the same time Activision said it was buying pro esports outfit Major League Gaming. I think Bobby Kotick [Activision president] said something at the time like “We want to be the ESPN of esports.” Compliment or broadside?

We thought that was very flattering.

Is the space big enough for multiple esports hubs, where there’s maybe net media growth because the coverage is promoting the sports aspect? Or are you worried about getting into a viewership fight?

It’s probably all of it. If we’re going to be in the space, we’re going to want to be better than anyone else who’s doing it. We got into this space because we felt the timing was right and we wanted to get there from a comprehensive authoritative digital perspective before anybody else. And so, you know, a lot of people are going to be trying to figure out how to succeed in this space, and certainly the more people are in it, the more attention it’s going to attract, and I would hope that if people are coming to it, they’ll come to ESPN because of the years of trust we’ve built up in covering all kinds of sports.

So is it time to call Chicago Manual of Style and ask them to settle the debate: “Esports” or “eSports”? I see you’ve settled on “Esports.”

You’ve hit on the biggest debate we had before launch. We came to that usage because every single person that we hired said we needed to do it lowercase and that it’s like “email.”

It’s funny, we sent out a memo today talking about something with esports, and someone had capitalized the ‘S’ and I got an email from an editor in esports who said “Can we lowercase the ‘S’?” And this is about an internal memo. So we’re being so vigilant about the spelling and how the industry thinks the spelling should be, that even when we’re talking about it internally, we’re trying to manage that message.

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Write to Matt Peckham at matt.peckham@time.com