In 2003, cable-sports network ESPN turned playing cards into a television phenomenon with its comprehensive coverage of the World Series of Poker. In 2014, the president of ESPN voiced his hesitation about e-sports because he doesn’t think they are sports.
John Skipper, the big boss over at ESPN, spoke with website Recode as part of the tech site’s conference on media. When asked to give his thoughts about the massive Web retailer Amazon plunking down $970 million in cash to purchase the gameplay video-streaming site Twitch, Skipper was quick to dismiss Dota 2, League of Legends, and the rest of the e-sports scene that draws massive viewership on Twitch and other sites.
“It’s not a sport — it’s a competition,” said Skipper. “Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition. Mostly, I’m interested in doing real sports.”
Fans of e-sports will probably take issue with that sentiment — especially since ESPN.com includes “poker” on the list of sports that it covers.
In fact, here is a list of events that have appeared on ESPN or ESPN2 over the years that many probably wouldn’t consider sports:
- Cup stacking
- Spelling bees
- Classic car auctions
- Hot-dog eating
That is less a list of sports and more like “things my grandpa does to pass the time.”
Hell, ESPN2 even showed the 1997 Magic: The Gathering championship:
The double standard gets even weirder when you realize that ESPN has done work with video games. Over the summer, ESPN2 aired Call of Duty with Major League Gaming at the Xgames in Austin. In July, ESPN streamed the finals of The International, the championship event for the action-strategy game Dota 2. Fans could tune into ESPN3 on their PC, tablet, or smartphone and watch some gamers play something that Skipper is “mostly” not interested in.
Of course, that’s the key line in Skipper’s comments: “Mostly, I’m interested in doing real sports.”
I think a lot of people would entertain the argument that pro-gaming is not a sport. Hell, some people think the Tour de France or weightlifting are only competitions and not sports. But Skipper’s interest in “real sports” seems like an aging notion. More than 20 million people watched The International this year. The League of Legends season finals in 2013 drew 32 million viewers.
Maybe the ESPN president feels that cup stacking and eating hot dogs require a level of athleticism worthy of television coverage, but the real audience of the future is watching video games.