ESPN Makes a Play for E-sports Audiences

The DOTA 2 International was broadcast on ESPN3 -- but confused ESPN's audience of athletic sports fans.


ESPN3 fans may have been surprised to see images like these on their screens over the last few days. The image is from The International, the grand final for the DOTA 2 championships, which appeared on cable for the first time ever. Indeed, DOTA 2’s developer Valve made a deal with ESPN for broadcast cable coverage of an e-sports event.

DOTA 2 is one of the leading games in e-sports — a ‘massive online battle arena’ (or MOBA) game, which pits teams of five against each other, as they attempt to destroy the other team’s base. While e-sports may seem strange to some, the prize pool for the International is more $10 million dollars divided among the top 14 teams.

E-sports are a growing market, one that’s been well served by streaming services like Twitch. Twitch Plays Pokemon started as a small experiment, but its audience ballooned to more than 36 million viewers, which shows the Internet’s appetite for live video game streaming.

The International was streamed live between the 18th and 21th, on Twitch, and ESPN3. So while ESPN3 may have been the first cable network to broadcast the finals, it wasn’t the only source. A pre-game and highlights show appeared on ESPN2, and met with some very telling commentary from Twitter.

Others commented that anyone tuning into ESPN during the coverage would be lost, and the ESPN2 special did little to help. Those who seek out e-sports live streams online have the luxury of time and context, as they are either already fans or players of the games they wish to see. Viewers come to a DOTA 2 International stream the same way football fans approach the Super Bowl.

The official press release about the partnership between Valve and ESPN expressed a lot of hope. “From the success of the Compendium to the collaboration with ESPN, this year’s International really demonstrates how much competitive gaming has grown to rival traditional sports,” said Erik Johnson of Valve. And while e-sports has grown significantly, perhaps this partnership hasn’t helped a great deal.

The question remains: Why would ESPN want this deal? Streaming e-sports is wildly popular among video game fans, so the desire may have been to draw that audience from the Internet to cable TV — or at least onto WatchESPN and off of Twitch. However, ESPN’s audience is there for athletic sports, even if that sport is frisbee.

ESPN fans aren’t there for e-sports, and e-sports fans are likely to be cable-cutters, so they probably wouldn’t have access to premium ESPN channels offline. While this partnership may have hoped to expand e-sports viewership, it seems there isn’t much crossover between the two camps.

Still, it’s exciting to see an Internet phenomenon cross into the mainstream, but it’s unlikely that the deal helped ESPN — or e-sports for that matter.