ESPN's New Soul-Eating Monsters

Video-game tournaments are like sports and unlike the rest of TV in one crucial way: People want to watch them live.


What is a sport? Sometimes, this question actually needs answering. In a case on gender equality, a district judge disallowed Quinnipiac University’s attempt to claim competitive cheerleading as a sport. Last year, the U.S. government awarded a visa reserved for “internationally recognized athletes” to a South Korean Starcraft II player.

But most of the time, questions of the form “What is X?” are too abstract and subjective, too prone to semantical quibbling, to ever be answered definitively.

Still, if you wanted to start an argument about the fundamental nature of sport, now would be a good time. Because last Sunday, in the final rounds of the DOTA 2 International Championships, a hellish demon named Shadow Fiend ate souls live on ESPN.

DOTA is short for Defense of the Ancients. In this wildly popular computer game, matches are fought between two five-player teams of “heroes,” each supported by an army of “creeps,” or computer-controlled soldiers, and several defensive towers. The goal is to raid the enemy team’s base and destroy their Ancient—an oasis-like structure crackling with strange magic—killing as many opposing heroes as possible along the way. Players are also expected to spend the gold awarded after each kill on one of myriad in-game items, provided, of course, that the “Drum of Endurance” or the “Oblivion Staff” is a good fit for whichever of the hundred-plus heroes (like the soul-eating Shadow Fiend) they happen to be controlling. Basically, DOTA is a sickeningly complex hybrid of chess, Pokémon, and high-speed fencing.


But why was it on ESPN? Because ESPN doesn’t care what a sport is either. The network has long shown non-sporting activities, like billiards, poker, and the spelling bee. The sporting behemoth has also branched out online, backing websites like the entertainment-focused Grantland and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight. ESPN will show a video-game tournament if it thinks it’s good business.

And yes, showing a video-game tournament is actually good business. Thousands watched in person in Seattle’s Key Arena, and the organizers raised $10.9 million in prize money from in-app sales, about half of which was won by victorious Chinese team Newbee. While the rise of e-sports is well-documented, DOTA’s appearance on ESPN certainly marks another step into the mainstream.

Some questioned whether ESPN did enough to boost DOTA’s legitimacy, given the match itself was relegated to the WatchESPN app, and the pregame show delivered to cable viewers was mostly a human-interest story about the top practitioners of a pretty impenetrable hobby. (If you're curious, you can watch ESPN’s stream of the tournament here. Yes, you’ll need a cable subscription.)

The thing is, video games might not need cable’s approval. Fans, especially the younger demographic that supports e-sports, are happy to watch on their computers, where connections can be made via chatrooms and you can play the game for yourself in the next window. As Dustin Beck, one of the executives behind DOTA competitor League of Legends, puts it, “I think our generation of fans is pretty unique in the sense that they’re not consuming their content via TV.  I think even when our fans have TVs they’re watching LCS [League of Legends Championship Series] streaming via PC or something—not the typical cable subscriber.” Youtube (hence Google) evidently agrees. The company was reportedly ready to spend more than $1 billion this year to buy Twitch, the popular video-game streaming company, before the deal fell through.

The cable company, with its strategy of selling bundles of channels you don’t necessarily want for a high price, is under siege from services like Netflix and TiVo. Sports is one of the few things people need to watch live. You might be okay catching the season finale of Scandal a few days late without commercials; you probably won’t want to save Game 7 of the NBA finals for the next weekend. The Internet has made more personalized entertainment available, and the media market is fragmenting. Cable really needs the big sports—and vice versa—to keep this business model going.

So the youth of its tech-savvy audience, the complicated nature of the games, and a worldwide dispersal of viewers who are better aggregated online mean e-sports might never hold down a regular primetime spot on cable. That’s just fine. Shadow Fiend will still be out there, making profits, eating souls, and legitimate nonetheless.

* This post initially incorrectly stated that Google had acquired Twitch.