Meanwhile, the telecast disturbed some regular ESPN viewers who said gamers weren’t athletes. But there were definitely people who were “oddly intrigued by the unfamiliar spectacle, and some even found it hard to turn it off,” according to Michael Inouye, principal analyst at ABI Research. Morhaime said Blizzard was “happy with the quality and reception” a year ago and happy to re-up with ESPN.
ESPN2 plans to broadcast the final stages of a collegiate video game tournament for the second straight year, a symbolic endorsement of increasing interest in e-sports events.
The announcement came Thursday from Irvine-based video game developer Blizzard Entertainment, whose five-on-five online war game “Heroes of the Storm” will be used for the aptly named Heroes of the Dorm competition.
College students in the U.S. and Canada may begin vying Thursday for a spot in the 64-team bracket, Blizzard said. Teams from more than 460 schools entered last year; UC Berkeley captured the title.
Blizzard’s parent company, Activision Blizzard Inc., is among the many gaming companies excited about the potential to collect big fees from broadcasters for the right to air video game matches. But it’s still uncertain whether cable networks can attract an audience for gaming competitions big enough to justify the expense.
Trials years ago didn’t go so well. And last year, Heroes of the Dorm on ESPN2 garnered only 100,000 viewers, according to estimates, on what the sports network called a “highly competitive night for programming,” including a marquee baseball matchup and basketball playoffs.
To date, most gaming competitions have streamed on online video services Twitch and YouTube. Streams regularly get millions of viewers worldwide.
“Recognizing emerging opportunities has always distinguished ESPN, and our coverage of e-sports -- including this latest agreement -- is reflective of that approach,” spokeswoman Kristie Chong Adler said in a statement to The Times.
Last year’s Heroes of the Dorm competition happened before the game officially launched. Since then, "Heroes of the Storm" has pulled in more than 20 million players, according to outside estimates. Blizzard said only that the game is “off to a great start.” It’s free to play but people can purchase extra characters, outfits and other virtual goods.
Offering big prizes and the chance to become a “champion” encourages people to play more. That’s why Blizzard launched both a professional and collegiate tournament. The winning college team gets up $75,000 in tuition credit per player. About $4 million will be doled out on the worldwide pro circuit this year.
“Now that the game is launched, there are millions of players familiar with the game and the strategies, which makes it even more exciting to see ‘Heroes of the Storm’ played ... at the highest levels,” Blizzard Chief Executive Mike Morhaime told The Times by email. “Heroes of the Dorm reflects our investment in the future of e-sports and the e-sports pros of tomorrow.”
ESPN2 will broadcast the final three matches over two days, April 9-10, instead of just the final battle on a single night. The change should generate more drama around the events, Morhaime said. Earlier rounds (starting March 19) will be streamed on ESPN’s websites and apps through its ESPN3 service as well as on YouTube and Twitch, doubling the scope of last year’s coverage.
Another schedule tweak from last year limits winners to a single match per day while losers only play two, Morhaime said.
Young gaming fans who’ve cut the cord complained about the broadcast set-up last year, but ESPN noted that 75% of TV-owning households headed by someone 25 or younger have pay-TV.
“We do not see the ESPN2 telecasts as a challenge -- it is an opportunity to deliver these events at mass scale,” Chong Adler said.
The championship venue hasn’t been set, and it may not return to the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, Blizzard said.