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eSports need separation

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eSports, or professional competitive video games, have emerged as a lucrative giant in the entertainment industry, but confusion has stemmed from their classification. Citing the skill-based, competitive nature of eSports, longtime sporting news network ESPN has embraced gaming as fitting under the umbrella of more traditional sports. The network now includes eSports as a news category on its website while providing television coverage of the budding industry’s most notable events. This has sparked a heated debate among ESPN’s followers as to whether or not eSports can be categorized with the likes of baseball, football and basketball. Some have welcomed the change while others chastise the network for accommodating a profession that involves minimal athleticism.

I would also criticize ESPN, though not due to any animosity towards eSports themselves. Instead, I insist that this industry needs independence from ESPN because the nature of eSports and their established forms of coverage are contrary both to traditional networks’ journalistic model and to their fans’ desires. The two industries are so different that cramming eSports into the classification of more typical athletic sports creates awkward, unnecessary dissonance.

ESPN’s online model groups individual sports as categories atop the page, offering links to those specific portions of the website with in-depth coverage should fans desire more information. This works for traditional sports because they remain independent –each separate page offers extensive information on all facets of a specific sport, making each one worth exploring in depth. Want to know more about basketball? Click the NBA logo. Simple.

This is not the case for coverage of eSports. ESPN includes the entire eSports spectrum as a single category like every sport it reports on, but this generalization fails to do justice to the diversity and complexity of the new entertainment medium. League of Legends, Super Smash Bros., Overwatch and many others are wildly different games with their own intricacies, and they demand extensive individual coverage in order to sufficiently convey all they have to offer. By grouping them all together in a single broad category, ESPN fails to provide meaningful analysis of these games – as a result, its eSports coverage is unfocused and superficial. Imagine baseball and football being bunched under the same generic heading of “sports” – the two games are nothing alike, but they would receive similar shallow coverage. It wouldn’t and doesn’t make sense. eSports need dedicated media coverage that analyzes each game independently.

Furthermore, ESPN’s traditional journalism doesn’t mesh well with the landscape of eSports. It’s always useful to gain statements following the results of sporting contests, but whereas those quotes are the extent of fans’ communication with their favorite athletes, professional gamers have a more open relationship with their followers thanks to streaming websites like Twitch.tv. It’s common for top players to stream games extensively outside of competition while talking to their fans in a chat window, developing an informal relationship. They casually talk about tournaments they attend, provide gaming tips to their viewers and share their feelings about the gaming communities – essentially, these gamers are their own journalists. When compared to this personable nature of eSports coverage, quotes by these same gamers in ESPN articles feel awkwardly formal and unsuitable for the medium.

The debates among ESPN’s fandom about eSports’ validity as an athletic event are simply unnecessary – the network shouldn’t be covering them. ESPN must remove itself from eSports and let the new industry thrive independently with its own separate media content. Otherwise it risks alienating more of its followers and igniting controversy where it isn’t needed.

seidel1@stolaf.edu