the ESPN of esports.
Media outlets everywhere are munching shit in 2020, regardless of stature or subject matter. ESPN is not special, and not immune, and is eliminating 10% of its staff. This included its entire esports department, whose operations are already shut down.
It sucks. The team there was good, the reporting was solid; it was an important part of the media landscape around esports. When ESPN opened a dedicated esports vertical several years ago, it was thought to be the beginning of increasing attention given to esports by The Worldwide Leader, reflective of what the esports industry saw as an inevitable shift over time in the appetite for sports content globally.
The move to wind down the entire department four years after starting is a firm rebuke to such an optimistic vision, especially since the insider scuttlebutt suggests this round of cuts was done to make room for expanded NFL football coverage when (if?) we get to a post-COVID return to normalcy.
So...who else can take up the title if ESPN couldn't, or wouldn't, be the "ESPN of esports?"
Dear reader, nobody should even bother trying.
To answer, we have to pull apart ESPN's overall content production model, which they rode from a humble existence as an early experiment in satellite-distributed television, broadcasting from a studio without running water built on top of a dump, to being a behemoth synonymous with the coverage of sports.
It's an approach that has not pivoted in the slightest since their first minute on-air, only added to with the advent of the internet. The components are:
- Gobs of actual sportsball gameplay aired in its unedited entirety, mostly live but also recorded
- SportsCenter, a regularly produced headline news and highlights show
- "Talking heads" opinion/commentary programs and content
- comprehensive scores, stats, and (relatively) independent business news reporting online
ESPN's first broadcast in 1979 was the debut of SportsCenter. It was followed by play-by-play coverage of the championship series in men's professional slow-pitch softball, between the Kentucky Bourbons and the Milwaukee Schlitz. Haha yea no, I didn't make that up. This was more or less the programming lineup for the first decade of ESPN, though over time their portfolio of exclusive league broadcasting rights was significantly expanded and upgraded. Obviously.
The last two components listed above began joining the party ten years later. Outside the Lines premiered in 1990, featuring the venerable Bob Ley as host, as the first significant foray into reporting that dug deeper than the quick hits of SportsCenter. It was joined by Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn in the early 2000s to get a piece of the talking head action that had been honed by regional sports talk radio.
ESPN's web presence started as a subdomain off of SportsZone.com in 1995 – a strange situation that would continue under Disney's go.com portal domain until 2016 when it finally landed without redirects at espn.com. Domain weirdness aside, it provided a place where content normally relegated to SportsCenter's production cycle could be produced and published 24/7, without the rigidity of a TV block schedule limiting the breadth or granular detail of the reporting. Every last score, stat, and whispered transfer rumor could be pored over anytime, day or night.
I wanted to briefly walk through this timeline of growth because ESPN owes a lot to a confluence of favorable conditions: the mass media era of the 80s and 90s, the fact that "fans of sports in general" exist, and just being first to try the pie-in-the-sky idea of a channel that airs nothing but sports. They were able to cement their dominance in a time where there literally was not enough spectrum bandwidth to allow for serious competition, and sports leagues had a pre-internet distribution problem that directly benefited ESPN.
The only way to get your product as a sports league into homes everywhere was to work with television networks, first among them being the ABC/ESPN empire. Entering the 2000s, they were able to build and reinforce interest in original content other than SportsCenter, and to drive habitual use of their web properties, by continually marketing these things to a captive audience who had to turn to ESPN to see marquee regular season matches in practically every big professional league.
I also highlight this because in any content model, not all components are created equal. There are leading actors, and supporting; meat, and potatoes. In ESPN's model, the stuff that came later – the editorial claptrap, the comprehensive reporting of scores and highlights with the cadence and quasi-serious tone of nightly news broadcasts, the massive website that had something new every half hour – none of those are the 'killer app'. They're potatoes. Though SportsCenter is obviously important as habitual appointment viewing, it's not really the main event either.
The reason why people put up with cable bundle fees, or pony up directly for ESPN's streaming options, is the real-time coverage of the sporting events themselves. That content is irreplaceable, and the raw materials can't be created by ESPN itself. The rest can be easily replicated and commodified, and just as easily ignored by the target audience.
When the phrase "the ESPN of esports" is bandied about, it's meant as shorthand for the last three parts of my ingredient list above: the vision of a well-staffed newsroom supporting a sprawling website, and a flagship pan-esports overview show that can command audiences of a million people each night. But if you accept my narrative about how the "ESPN of ball sports" was built, then you understand why this vision for the esports version is incomplete, and fatally flawed. It's hard to imagine how ESPN manages to build their newsroom without the foundational portfolio of exclusive rights to air marquee events, and the constraints of pre-internet television working in their favor to concentrate attention.
The confluence of favorable conditions that allowed ESPN to grow aren't around to help those who want to build a new ESPN around esports today.
We got a pretty clean demonstration of that fact earlier this year. The total shutdown of sports by COVID left ESPN digging deep into their vault of content. They were airing silly dive contests and marble races. Adpoting the ficticious 'ESPN 8: the Ocho' monicker for a while provided a bit of levity; but really it was just bleak, depressing shit. Since some parts of the esports scene were able to continue operating, it setup a unique opportunity for ESPN to put this whole esports thing it had been dabbling in to a true test, and solve a few unknowns in their approach and timeline around esports.
With absolutely no ball sports being played, they could try snapping up the rights to the biggest esports content still being produced, and see if (a) this much ballyhooed esports audience would show up for esports on linear tv, and/or if (b) their crusty core audience of "fans of sports in general" who loudly insist that "esports aren't sports" would shut the fuck up for an hour or two and watch some fresh unscripted competitive content, during the largest drought for sports since the Second World War, despite hating the whole concept.
ESPN picked up the rights to League of Legends' spring split finals in mid-April. It wasn't the first time ESPN aired an esports competition live, but I think it's probably one of the last. Despite "blasting" a previous viewership record according to ESPN itself, it drew a peak audience of about 800,000 – less than the average pull for SportsCenter in the before times. There are 25% more people playing Counter-Strike at the moment I'm writing this. It wasn't a resounding no to these questions of audience crossover, but it wasn't a resounding yes either; and if I'm a business dick for the Walt Disney Company that's exactly the sort of ambiguous signal I need to identify esports as fat to be trimmed when needs must.
Perhaps it's also a signal that there isn't much of a symbiosis to be found between esports competitions and large monolithic media companies. Even the relationship between traditional professional sports leagues and networks like ESPN is arguably an unnatural one; if it were at all possible, leagues would much rather have preserved a direct relationship with their fanbase and sold them content directly. They had no choice but to accept television networks as a middleman, taking one lump sum for the broadcast rights as a proxy for thousands of individual subscriptions. Now that the overall costs and complexities of video content production are much smaller, and you can easily stream video to just about everyone in the developed world, the symbiosis is breaking down in ball sports – every league now has their own dot-tv app and a 24/7 network on cable. It's a matter of when ESPN's foundation crumbles, not if.
So it makes even less sense to try with esports, in the internet era, when the scene has always been able to reach its audience directly, over the internet. Television networks don't bring a larger "mainstream" audience to esports, no matter how many times the industry convinces itself (read: gets paid to think) that it's a good idea to give it a shot. So I don't think this is just a matter of ESPN diving into an idea ahead of its time, or just not getting it right. Esports leagues have no need for a centralized proxy to reach "fans of esports in general" who by and large don't exist. And without that need for a centralized proxy, you don't have the thing that binds it all together; you can't build ESPN.
What does that mean for the next decade in esports? I think it means that some of the roles that people hoped ESPN might play will be handled by smaller independent ventures, who are better positioned to do those things anyhow, and examples of which already exist. Business and investigative reporting is better done by entities not trying to garner favorable deals for broadcast rights from the leagues they may need to report unfavorable things about. The leagues around individual esports can focus on strengthening the relationship with their fanbase, instead of fretting about how they might be received by a disinterested mass-media audience; and they're best positioned to deliver stuff like scores and highlights and surface-level reporting. Talking heads can talk on twitter.
So while I certainly hope everyone coming out from ESPN lands on their feet, I think we'll be just fine without involvement from Bristol, and it's my hope we stop seeking it.