Over the weekend, ESPN2 aired a preview of last night's International Dota 2 Championships, a video game tournament that gives $5 million to its champion. Like many of you, I suspect, I have no idea what Dota 2 is, how it works, how it could possibly be worth it to give $5 million to its champion. But if the best in the world is getting $5 million to do it, then somebody must care. The team that wins the Stanley Cup only gets $3.75 million, after all.
The program, which was only a half hour preview of the tournament, featured very little gameplay and was primarily a human-interest story about a couple of the players involved. This ended up, perhaps inevitably, annoying both the people who love video games and those think they have no business on a sports channel. Hardcore gamers thought it did nothing to help the event cross over. Your average sports fan did what he or she (but mostly he) usually does when confronted with something even slightly different. He started screaming and freaking out.
(An obligatory reminder: Posts that randomly cull Twitter users' responses and act as if we could possibly learn anything from them are cheap and pointless.)
I would like to focus on this idea, though, that video gaming is not a "sport" and therefore should not be on ESPN or Fox Sports 1 or NBC Sports Network or whatever else is out there. The first question is whether these are two separate ideas. Does something have to be a "sport" to be on a sports network? The obvious, pedantic answer to this is "no," considering how little actual sports there are on sports network. Today -- July 22, 2014 -- ESPN will show zero minutes of live sports coverage. There is a two-hour block of thick-necked men grunting about the NFL, a couple of shows where sportswriters yell at each other, two documentaries about sports that happened years ago and 13 hours of SportsCenter. ESPN2 has two WNBA games. Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 feature the Big 12 Media Days and Mike Francesa grousing about there not being enough cameras pointed at him while he talks to himself for four hours, then a rerun of a car race over the weekend. NBC Sports Network is at least showing the Tour de France which, I'd argue, is a lot more dull to watch than a video game.
The point being, if you're upset about watching something that's not a sport on a sports channel, it might time to take a few steps away from the computer. (Note: It is always time for this.) We are long past taking note that "ESPN is like MTV in that it used to show sports but doesn't anymore." That ship has sailed; that horse has left the barn. People don't want to watch sports and only sports; pregame shows and chat shows exist for a reason. If people just wanted to watch sports without context, a ton of people would be out of a job, including me.
The real question is, what qualifies as a sport? The gist of the complaints against the video game championships preview -- not the actual event, remember; the show was largely an advertisement for the WatchESPN app -- seemed to be that the players involved were not "athletes." Saying that something is a sport because only "athletes" play it is limiting by nature; that might mean we can only watch the Crossfit Games. It might also disqualify as a "real sport" anything played by Boris Diaw, Bartolo Colon, Angel Cabrera, Vince Wilfork and John Scott. Part of the joy of sports is that Matt Adams can hit as well as Justin Upton, that Zach Randolph can outscore Gerald Green. It's not a fitness competition. It's a sport.
Much stranger things have been broadcast on sports channels than video-game competitions, that's for sure. My favorite is Bicycle Speedway, which shows up on a Fox Sports affiliate from time to time. Deadspin's Timothy Burke had the breakdown on this one, which is basically a human version of a bear riding around on a unicycle. This is to say nothing of the World Series of Poker, which is considerably less athletic than video gaming, or bowling, which requires maximum athleticism for a person to move roughly five feet at a time.
The answer, really, is that something qualifies as a sport if it's a non-artistic competition that people want to watch. They did televise the Rock Paper Scissors championships, after all. If turtle racing became a national obsession, I have no doubt that ESPN would air its national championships, and they would be right to.
I attempted to watch the Dota 2 championships on WatchESPN last night -- the replay is here -- and found it incomprehensible. It was hours of a bunch of people talking about a game, with just a few minutes of people actually playing it. (Perfect for ESPN, actually.) I had no idea what was going on when people were playing, but that's my fault, not Dota 2's. If someone had never watched an NFL game before, they'd be clueless if they started watching a game cold. (I sometimes am anyway.)
I'm not sure Dota 2 is the right video game competition to break through. I know it's the biggest one, but it's difficult to follow if you don't play. Impenetrable, really. It might be more enjoyable, as a test case, to try to have some sort of Madden tournament. I'll watch a well played, well matched Madden game between people I don't even know. ESPN tried this in the past with Madden Nation, but that turned into more of a reality show, focused more on the banal personalities of the players than the actual games. But if you gave me a tournament of great Madden players -- heck, even actual NFL players, who play Madden as much as anyone -- and had them play knock-down, drag-out games against each other … I'd watch that. I'd sure watch it a lot more than poker.
I bet there's a future in video games being televised, on ESPN or elsewhere, because there's a future for all niche sports. The entire cable television industrial complex is being kept afloat by live sports, i.e., programming that must be shown and watched live, unlike just about everything else on television. All you need for it to be a sport is enough people invested in the outcome to watch in real time. As competitive video gaming gets larger -- and it is -- television will demand to be a part. That's the reason this was on ESPN2 in the first place. These tournaments have had success in streaming, and television, ever in search of eyeballs, saw that and gave it a shot.
Competitive video gaming is kind of silly, but it's no more silly than actual sports. Watching any of these sports -- taking time away from our own lives to watch other people do things we cannot -- is frivolous by design. That doesn't stop us from doing it. Forty years ago, baseball, boxing and horse racing dominated the television dial. Now it's the NFL and the NBA (and baseball). In 40 more years, who knows? Smart people are already writing smart analysis of video gaming. There's always room for more sports. Put it in front of us, and eventually we'll watch.