How ESPN Can Become the ESPN of eSports

News that ESPN entered the eSports fray served notice to the world of sports media. The message is clear: competitive gaming is here to stay. So while coverage of electronic sports might seem like the inclusion of yet another vertical, it is also a substantial market opportunity. With the vast majority of eSports enthusiasts firmly entrenched as cord cutters, ESPN can build a bridge for audiences outside the reach of the US-based cable television universe. In order to succeed with eSports, the sports media giant must recognize its role within the converging worlds of digital and traditional sport.

Embrace the shift

Most analysts view eSports as the latest in a line of domains, e.g. mixed martial arts (MMA) or poker, to join the ESPN coverage buffet. However, this thinking is folly. eSports is an incredibly unique blend of technology, media, and entertainment. Therefore, ESPN must prepare to innovate around each of these touchpoints and create new ways of connecting to elusive digital audiences. While marketers and advertisers are intrigued at the prospect of reaching these hard-to-reach crowds through ESPN; pigeonholing eSports as bait for current sponsors like T-Mobile and Bank of America, must not predominate ESPN’s focus. Instead, a successful strategy entails tapping into the entire competitive gaming experience.

Figure 1 — Courtesy of espn.com/esports

This is best done by transforming the trajectory of coverage for electronic sports. While ESPN is at a decided advantage over current eSports media outlets, with regards to size, resources and brand value, they actually face a deficit of credibility. Electronic sports are a subset of general video game culture, of which ESPN must demonstrate a fundamental understanding. Further complicating the matter is a history of having been dismissive of eSports, in general.

To overcome these shortcomings, ESPN must become a pipeline of fresh, new eSports talent; whether journalistic or on-air. This means prioritizing aptitude over “established” names. For example, ESPN should seriously consider former professional players who can bring in-depth perspective and immediate credibility. There are a number of ex-pros, with writing experience, who fit the bill. Once again, ESPN must think outside the traditional sports mindset, which casts a strict line between pro players and journalism. eSports is an entirely different world and a winning strategy will reflect that truth.

Figure 2 — Tomi “lurppis” Kovanen, former eSports pro turned writer & analyst

Still, the global nature of competitive gaming offers an unexpected goldmine: expansion outside the western sports world. For ESPN, a sports media empire built atop cable television, widespread global penetration is not a simple task. With a powerful mix of competitive and video game elements, electronic sports have the potential to resonate with both worldwide gaming audiences and traditional sport fans. However, only a well-grounded approach to the entirety of the eSports opportunity can satisfy the tastes of both crowds.

Join the community

Contrary to its pioneering role in covering traditional sports, ESPN is moving into a space that came into being, and will continue to exist, without mainstream investment. To succeed herein, the company must accept that the eSports community craves a certain brand of enthusiast journalism — very similar to that found in comics and film. And while a high quality approach to sports reporting is more than welcome, there are more angles to courting audiences.

Consequently, ESPN should view its venture into competitive gaming as joining an extended community. Despite its scale and considerable resources, ESPN must adapt to a milieu where reputations can be tarnished instantaneously on outlets like Reddit; a world entirely apart from traditional sports media. To counter, ESPN is best suited to pursue strategic partnerships. Linking with the right organizations and companies will create key accelerators. See below, for examples:

  • License exclusive content from top eSports organizations — Some successful eSports organizations also function as leading content hubs; not just for fans but also for the general community. To tap into this model, ESPN can establish licensing deals with top teams. Instead of solely relying on the ESPN name to grant access to interviews, exclusives, inside news, etc. The company can build business relationships that will grow with these leading teams, and blossom into a competitive differentiator as other larger media companies enter the eSports space.
  • Rethink content distribution — ESPN’s experimentation with new forms of social media — its posts on Snapchat average about 1 million views per day — have already yielded success. The same approach should hold in eSports. In a mere six months, the Instant eSports team has become the go-to mobile app for following League of Legends. With plans to include Defense of the Ancients 2 (Dota 2) and Hearthstone in 2016, Instant eSports already has its sights set on designing the ESPN for eSports, see figure 3. Content distribution partnerships with companies like Instant eSports should be considered as valuable opportunities not competitive threats.
  • Create alternative channel(s) — ESPN must accept that cable TV is dying. On the other hand, mediums like live streaming are the future. Taking a note from Turner’s ELEAGUE play, which splits broadcasts between cable and online, is the way to go. eSports audiences expect live, zero-cost access to video content. ESPN must adjust to that reality and speak the same language.
Figure 3 — Screenshot of Instant eSports mobile app, courtesy of Shawn Park

Segment the future

Consolidated coverage of multiple sports is no easy task. Add to that, a commitment to high quality journalism, and ESPN is a leader for a reason. However, fitting eSports into that same narrative offers several notable challenges. For one, eSports is not a single discipline. There are multiple game titles that are considered electronic sport. ESPN has debuted with League of Legends (LoL), Hearthstone, and Defense of the Ancients 2 (Dota 2). Missing from that lineup is one of the fast-growing and most popular titles, Counter Strike Global Offensive (CS:GO), a fact which highlights the segmented nature of competitive gaming. At the end of the day, the eSports picture remains a complex collage that ESPN is attempting to corral into a single portrait.

“Whatever brings people to their favorite sports, be it ‘electronic’ or ‘traditional,’ I know I’m still waiting for the day that the local wing joint can let me watch Alliance and the NJ Devils side-by-side.”
— Victoria Rose, How eSports Helped Me Understand the Pro Sports Scene

The overall consistency with which informed content, for each game title, is generated will be vital over the short term. Yet, hiring the right writers is only the first step; integrating the culture of eSports, without brushing off mainstream audiences, will ultimately determine long term success. More importantly, ESPN’s authenticity within an increasingly significant demographic is on the line. The upside is an opportunity for ESPN to position itself at the nexus of digital and physical sport. The downside is that faulty strategy and/or execution will make room for another “ESPN of eSports.”

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Originally published at blog.entivagroup.net on January 26, 2016.