The week of October 12, 2014

What the NFL could learn from esports

By Ferguson Mitchell

On Sept. 30, the FCC voted to end sports blackouts for good. The purpose of the rules, long-defended by sporting organizations like the National Football League, was to boost local ticket sales. If an event wasn’t sold out, teams could pull games from local television networks. Understandably, fans had long been clamoring for ending the practice, and for a move towards more fan-friendly policies.

For the NFL, it’s all about protecting the bottom line: revenue. Ticket sales account for about 25 percent of the total revenue for the league, and ensuring that games sell out helped keep that money coming in. But in recent years, that kind of practice had become largely unnecessary. This decade, only 6 percent of games necessitated a local blackout, compared to almost 50 percent back in the 1970s.

More importantly, the blackouts had larger effects than just punishing fans for not going to watch the games live—and it hurt local businesses, too.  Jim Zerwekh, vice president of a local Jacksonville broadcasting station, explained that “[Jaguar’s games are] the number one thing that we can run. It’s the highest rated programming that we’re doing.” When blackouts did happen, his station had to find alternate programming and refund all of the advertising revenue.

Blackouts are just one of the complaints fans have about traditional sports. Player conduct and possible cover-ups, for example, have come to a head with the recent Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson cases. Some fans even struggle with simply being able to watch games: Without cable, options are either limited, restricted, or illegal. Even with cable, complicated coverage maps are required reading if you need to watch certain games.

Many of these issues are easily solved if the industry took a more fan-friendly approach. But the truth is, they don’t have to look very hard. Competitive gaming—better known as esports—have already forged a fan-friendly path that traditional sports would be smart to emulate.

It’s no wonder that most of the activities surrounding esports are fan-friendly.

It’s not hard to see why. Esports was largely, almost solely, by fans. Look behind the curtain of every major gaming title in competition today and you’ll find a rich history of fans struggling ‘round the clock to bring the tournament scene to life. It’s no wonder that most of the activities surrounding esports are completely fan-friendly.

One of the biggest features is livestreaming. Top players around the world regularly broadcast their play out to the world, giving out tips to viewers and sometimes even playing games with them. Some of the top streamers, like Hearthstone player Jeffrey “Trump” Shih, routinely have more than 20,000 viewers. While traditional sports go to great lengths to reveal the person behind the helmet, with player interviews and shows like HBO’s Hard Knocks, the bottom line is that nothing can compare to the hours and days of footage that esports pros put out on a weekly basis.

Esports players are also more available for interviews and on Twitter, making interactions with fans all the more real and engaging. Instead of scheduled meetings with the press and post-game sound bites, players are free to (and often do) talk to whichever outlet or reporter they want to. Esports teams throw events at bars or dance clubs where fans can party with their favorite pros. And rather than filtering tweets through PR Firms, esports fans get a direct line to the pros, even if that can sometimes cause problems: Management for a top League of Legends team, for instance, have made a habit of riling up fans and opponents with vitriolic tweets.

But esports organizations are also a lot more proactive than traditional sporting leagues when responding to controversy. When League of Legends pro Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen included an offensive phrase in his in-game account name, Riot Games suspended him for multiple games. When Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper made comments that he would “fight every n*****” at a concert, he was simply given a fine.

In another case, when a championship in Korea segregated women from its Hearthstone tournament, creator Blizzard Entertainment stepped up and talked it into changing its policies. While traditional sports rightly celebrates the emergence of Little League phenom Mo’ne Davis, female pros have been playing in esports for years. And that’s not to say diversity in esports is anywhere near ideal; the demographic still swings overwhelmingly white and male. Discrimination, sexism, racism, and more still happen in the community. But one function of a fluid, young industry is its willingness to accept minority groups without much fanfare.

The growth of esports represents the changing desires of entertainment culture itself.

Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn, a transgendered StarCraft 2 player, is one of the best at that game in the world. She boasts one of the biggest fanbases in North America. An openly gay League of Legends pro, Tyler “Lautemortis” Nicholls, helped found the North American scene in 2011. It took until 2013 for the first openly gay pro basketball player to play a game, and this year for the first openly gay football player, Michael Sam, to be drafted. In esports, you’ll never find discussion about the “distraction” that these players bring to their teams.

In fact, one of the biggest strengths that esports has is that it embraces inclusivity, especially amongst its fans, opening its doors to all comers. With fewer physical limitations, and with gaming ever-expanding into new demographics, it’s clear that esports is taking major advantage of the simple fact that the larger your talent pool, the more talented your players will be. This kind of openness encourages fans who might feel ostracized in traditional sports landscapes. It’s a shame that it’s taken until now for athletes like Michael Sam and Mo’ne Davis to break into the limelight, though it isn’t hard to see that traditional sports have done their fair share of scaring off talent, from female NCAA kicker Katie Hnida to Jonathan Martin, the Dolphins offensive tackle who was a victim of race-based hazing.

The growth of esports represents the changing desires of entertainment culture itself. As people move away from broadcast television and embrace on-demand models like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go, they want their sports on-demand as well. A simple glance at Twitch’s directory shows that if you want to watch somebody playing through one of your favorite games, you can probably find them.

Not only that, but developers are starting to pay some very serious attention to providing not only spectator tools within games but integrating streaming and sharing functionality within games and consoles themselves. From the Playstation 4’s Share button, to Halo’s Theatre, to the extensive StarCraft 2 replay feature, it’s clear that the gaming industry is starting to wake up to the fact that players want to share their in-game experiences with one another, no matter the context.

Esports also dodge the complications of refereeing and rule interpretation. With everything being digital, there’s no way to break the rules within the game, because the rules are enforced automatically. It makes one wonder what would happen if traditional sports experimented more with electronic ways of keeping track of the ball and players, making those iffy calls by refs and umpires obsolete.

Esports provide an exciting, impossible-to-ignore model for traditional sports.

The most-clamored-for change that fans want for traditional sports, however, can be easily found pasted in Reddit game threads or on any “cordcutter” streaming website. People want the flexibility of watching games on their computers and on their phones, and without the exorbitant prices of season-long packages from uncompetitive providers like DirecTV and Entire websites model themselves around skirting the harsh broadcast restrictions that traditional sports have encoded into their contracts. And online conversations among fans at game time often includes which site has the best video and audio quality. There are even activists who provide HD streams to stick it to the monopolistic practices.

Esports show that there are fan-friendly alternatives that can be lucrative in their own right. The best example comes from the Dota 2 event, The International, an annual, global championship run by the game’s developer, Valve. Watching the games themselves is free. But add-ons like custom skins, voice packs, and other features are tacked on for people who buy the Compendium, a kind-of in game guide that comes with a few other perks and that costs $10. Fans contributed over $9 million to the prize pool through Compendium sales, which was only a quarter of total sales.

That means Valve added $27 million to its coffers, minus the cost of the event. The International drew 20 million viewers, around the same amount of DirecTV Sunday Ticket subscribers. Considering that just under 10 million players have logged into Dota 2 in the last month, Valve probably earns more from new players who watch the games and then find themselves browsing the company’s Steam storefront, where the real money is made. It’s a win on both sides, since fans get numerous benefits for the low price of $10—a steal when compared to Sunday Ticket’s $330.

The shift in models is as important as the change from big budget game titles like Call of Duty to free-to-play and indie offerings like Angry Birds and Minecraft. Esports were built from the passion of fans. They take a spectator-friendly approach to the sports industry and downplay large-scale marketing and revenue-focused practices. And while that naivete has hurt the industry to an extent—the coffers of esports organizations aren’t overflowing just yet—it has also helped propel esports increasingly into a major sporting industry with a ravenous fanbase.

Esports still has some growing up to do, and traditional sports are still a solid model for successful spectator events. But likewise, the way esports have succeeded so far shows an exciting, impossible-to-ignore model for traditional sports. Wherever both industries go from here, one thing is for certain—they’re going to be more and more alike.


Photos via Tim Donovan/Flickr (CC BY 2.0), Travis Isaacs/Flickr (CC BY 2.0), Calebrw/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0), and Diane Krauss/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0) | Screengrab via ESL/YouTube | Remix by Rob Price