It looks like you don’t have to try to convince ESPN that e-sports are just like traditional sports. One of the world’s largest cable networks revealed today that it is working with Valve to broadcast the game developer’s major Dota 2 tournament.
The International event will stream live to ESPN3, which is the sports network’s online service. The two companies are also teaming up to air a preview of The International finals on ESPN2, which is a standard cable channel, at 8:30 p.m. Pacific on Sunday just prior to the big matchup. That preview will feature highlights of previous matches, analysis of the upcoming game, and interviews with players as well as Valve’s Gabe Newell.
The International is the biggest competition in e-sports. The final prize pool will end up well over $10 million dollars, which makes it a larger purse than any pro golf event. Fans drive up the prize pool by purchasing an interactive digital book called the Compendium that works like a sports event’s program. It also unlocks special items for players.
“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,” Valve e-sports spokesperson Erik Johnson said. “We believe the teams have also pushed to a new level of play this year and will further demonstrate the incredible advances made across this tournament since it first began three short years ago.”
While a partnership with ESPN is impressive, it’s likely that ESPN3 will have smaller audiences than the built-in viewer in the Dota 2 client as well as the Twitch gameplay broadcasting website. With ESPN2 airing only the finals preview but not the finals themselves, most fans will likely end up watching on more familiar platforms.
This could, however, mark the beginning of a larger agreement that could see future Dota 2 events air on cable. ESPN will sell ads against the preview, and if that does well, then it might make a go to purchase the TV rights to next year’s The International.
ESPN has a history with non-traditional competitive events. In the past, the channel has aired tournaments for the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering as well as Scrabble. ESPN also hosts the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The company likely sees the massive numbers of viewers that Dota 2 and other e-sports events pull in (hundreds of thousands tuned in online to watch last year’s tourney), and it is wondering if it could get a piece of that action.
E-sports is thriving. Many of Twitch’s millions of monthly viewers come exclusively to watch online competitions, but other e-sports events have had a rocky past with cable television. Cable channel USA Network used to air Major League Gaming broadcasts at 10 a.m. Eastern on Saturdays, but that never really turned into anything more. That e-sports association now streams its own events on its website, and it is finding a lot more success with that strategy.