As the Covid-19 pandemic shutters venues for traditional sports events and coverage, esports makes a return to online broadcasting in a move that capitalizes on its high viewership and intimate setting.
The hype is palpable online as big stories break on mainstream media’s sudden recognition of esports. Nascar broadcasted an iRacing event on Fox Sports to a record-breaking 900,000 viewers on the 24th, only to be surpassed by the 1.399 million viewers that tuned in this past Sunday. After having to cancel many of its events due to the pandemic, the NBA has announced a 10 day NBA2K tournament with contestants ranging from Donovan Mitchell, Andre Drummond, and Based God curse endurer, Kevin Durant. The consensus online is that the absence of traditional sports events will allow esports to rise to prominence, but the approaches many organizations are taking to their broadcasts emphasize another goal entirely.
When it comes to the spectacle of esports events, professional Starcraft has set the precedent for both the most extravagant events and intimate, personable broadcasts. For example, Korean Air’s 2010 OSL finals took place in an airplane hanger, with Terran player Flash arriving in a Korea Air aircraft and being escorted in via golf cart from the runway. In contrast, the HomeStory Cup series was a Starcraft tournament that invited players from across the world to live together in a house and compete, while also broadcasting intimate interviews with players and catching Starcraft pros off guard during their live commentary on matches.
The HomeStory Cup would go on to influence Dota 2’s The Summit, a similarly structured tournament that experienced surprising community support through crowdfunding via Dota 2’s in-game ticketing system. Both HomeStory and The Summit’s unique emphasis on the players’ lives outside of the game and seeing them in different situations translated into community support and longevity. TaKeTV announced StayAtHomeStory Cup for this upcoming April, making it 10 years of consistent events for TaKeTV. The Summit’s last event was held November of last year with the winner qualifying for the Chengdu Major in Dota 2.
It goes without saying that both Starcraft and Dota 2 have experienced declines in both player base and viewership as other games have risen to prominence. However, the events that took place in these scenes definitely have lessons to impart to newer games that are currently in the limelight. The Overwatch League’s hero pool draw’s final hero ban was determined by commentator Soembie’s pet cat, Nori and the LCS (League of Legend’s North American pro circuit) has analysts CaptainFlowers, Dash, Jatt, and others providing commentary from their bedrooms.
While broadcasting online from home may seem like a step back from the LCS studio or Blizzard Arena, it actually creates a unique viewing experience that emphasizes personality and intimacy that draws the community in. In an interview with Time, LCS Commissioner Christopher Greely says that the goal is to keep their existing audience engaged. In a time where everyone in America is in the same situation socially due to Covid-19, seeing esports personalities in a more relaxed and relatable setting is refreshing to spectators, and makes them feel more connected to what they’re seeing on their screens. In a time of uncertainty, people are going to appreciate efforts to be sincere and personable when it feels like the world is about to end.
Capitalizing on the sudden absence of a commodity to announce “legitimacy” or “opportunity” for esports feels a bit in poor taste, especially since many scenes are simply returning to a broadcast style that isn’t unfamiliar to many veterans in the scene. Much like Greely said, the goal should be to create a “product” that seeks to continually engage and entertain the established audience while remaining open to those whose curiosities have been piqued by the accessibility of esports broadcasts. Organizations should look at what others have done in the past when it comes to hosting online events and how they can highlight the personalities of their broadcast talents and players. Dignitas player Akaadian has already described the transition to online competition as something he’s comfortable returning to, implying that this “return to roots” format has considerable benefit to the mental and emotional states of competitors. If it’s benefitting the players, it should feel beneficial to the viewers at home.