A somewhat related announcement was made by the Big Ten Network that they would host an invitational League of Legends tournament at PAX East on April 22 and broadcast the show on television the following Monday. The tournament will feature matches between major colleges like Ohio State and Michigan State.
There is already a significant audience watching video games on Twitch and Youtube, with many eSports personalities and pros gaining hundreds of thousands of subscribers to their channels, but there still seems to be a gap between eSports and mainstream popularity. Twitch has a particular culture to it which someone unfamiliar with the inside jokes could find off-putting.
Streamers also tend to use language not conducive to widespread viewership. Introducing new audiences to eSports through collegiate play, with a more traditional sports style broadcast, may very well serve as the bridge between current eSports fans and those who are largely unaware of eSports in the first place.
How to make eSports appeal to mainstream audiences
The path to mainstream audiences is getting easier for eSports as time goes by. Video games have far surpassed their initial appeal to only a younger demographic and are now played by people of all ages. Playing Bejeweled on a phone, however, does not nearly compare to playing or watching a stressful game of Dota 2. For older viewers who are not yet as familiar with video games in the context of a sporting event, coverage and recognition by an entity such as ESPN provides a legitimacy which video games may otherwise lack with these audiences.
Online-only broadcasts would indicate that eSports possess a more niche appeal than is appropriate for television. If they stayed online only, current non-fans would not stumble into an eSports broadcast accidentally, like they might if eSports are on TV. eSports may very well thrive regardless of whether or not they succeed in their television broadcasts, but the acknowledgment of a longtime traditional sports network like ESPN proves that eSports are growing, and that people should give it a certain degree of respect even if they’re not fans.
While ESPN coverage is a great first step, people who still are unfamiliar with eSports will need to have some context for what they’re watching. If a person unfamiliar with Heroes of the Storm sees the names of professional teams and players they don’t recognize, they will probably turn the channel.
Television producers understand that people need to connect to something in order to take an interest in it. The CW, in their attempt at broadcasting eSports on TV, attempted to connect Mortal Kombat professionals to new audiences with reality television style snippets from their daily lives. While their reasons for including these vignettes was correct, they were abysmal to watch. The lives of these pro gamers were generally tedious and mundane to watch.
Having college teams compete with one another, however, leads people of many divergent backgrounds and interests to recognize something they know from before. New, potential fans can develop an interest due to their connection with a school. Someone may hate a particular school due to a rivalry and root against them while others may be interested in watching their alma mater compete regardless of what the event is.
The school serves to contextualize what would otherwise be very unfamiliar. Former students may take the time to learn about the game because they now have some kind of connection to it.
Even NBA legend Bill Walton tweeted about Heroes of the Dorm because of Pac-12 involvement:
Heroes of the Dorm – I have never been so proud. Go Pac12, no truck stops here. Just reporting the facts
— Bill Walton (@BillWalton) April 27, 2015
These collegiate broadcasts may cause people to seek out pro player tournaments, or to follow the future eSports careers of some of the students they saw. Perhaps people would even try the game for themselves, which is generally the most effective way of turning someone into a fan of an eSport.
If eSports grew in popularity, it’s possible that universities might start offering scholarships for them in a manner similar to traditional sports. This is a bit forward thinking, but the possibility definitely exists. Schools are beginning to embrace their video game clubs and the NCAA probably sees the potential profit in the rise of the gaming industry.
From a betting standpoint, college sports have always generated a tremendous amount of action. March Madness is one of the most popularly bet on sporting events every year. Any kind of mainstream attention will increase the amount of gambling related to eSports by massive amounts. The future is exciting for the growth of eSports and eSports-related gambling, and collegiate competition is likely to be a major part of that future.