In Early Entrants: Vol. XV (July 22), we wrote that “The Walt Disney Company/ESPN plans to take a central role within the gaming space. While details remain scant, we’ve heard that the house of mouse intends on solidifying the fractured amateur video game landscape. Rumors are floating that additional details will be coming down the pike sooner than later.”
The Electronic Gaming Federation (EGF) and ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex have since announced the formation of the national interscholastic high school esports championship tournament. Participating teams will qualify by advancing through a series of regional competitions throughout the 2019-2020 academic year. The inaugural event will take place June 12-14, 2020, live from the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at The Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.
The EGF is essentially striving to become the NCAA of amateur competitive gaming. Formed in ’13, the organization has put on over 2,000 high school and collegiate esports matches.
Howie Long-Short: To understand the significance of the partnership, one must realize that “the development, growth and ultimately the maturation found in the professional esports space has been missing from the high school and college ranks.” Rod ‘Slasher’ Breslau, one of two individuals tasked with launching ESPN’s esports vertical, explained that “there are high school kids – who are literally the best in the world at a game – that are playing recreationally at home because their school doesn’t have a formal esports program. The tier 2 and tier 3 leagues below the pro level don’t include an academic component. Their only focus is getting players to the top league. Many of the high school and college aged kids – oftentimes from Asia – playing in those leagues wouldn’t be competing if they went to school.”
ESPN will host an Apex Legends tournament at X Games 2019 and recently held the ‘Collegiate Esports Championship’, so Thursday’s news doesn’t exactly come out of left field. Breslau said that while the network’s “editorial coverage [on competitive gaming] gets good traffic, tournaments are always going to bring in more eyeballs, more viewers on the Twitch Stream; and you can sell video ads against that. Video ads are the bread and butter of ESPN’s products, so it’s no surprise they’re now making a bigger esports play.” The worldwide leader has the platforms, but lacks the credibility amongst gamers – which explains their interest in partnering with EGF.
ESPN is also motivated to present esports in a manner familiar to their core audience. Aligning with an entity that serves as the ‘NCAA of high school and collegiate video gaming’ and adopting infrastructure that allows for interscholastic rivalries helps to make competitive gaming easier for the esports novice to understand.
Aside from the credibility gained, Schrodt said Disney and its ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex was the right partner because the company represents “the gold standard” within sports and entertainment. EGF seeks to provide meaningful experiences for gamers and Schrodt believes that “giving kids the opportunity to go to Walt Disney World, like so many professional athletes have over the years”, helps to accomplish that goal.
It must be noted that EGF isn’t the only organization looking to help create the next generation of esports stars. PlayVS, which has raised $46 million to date, is also looking to create a nationwide interscholastic association. Breslau said that the investment capital raised had initially given PlayVS an advantage, but that the legitimacy gained from the ESPN deal helps EGF to close the gap. Both companies are inevitably going to face competition from the NCAA, so Slasher suggested that an eventual merger could make sense to stave off a challenge from the old guard.
Fan Marino: Rick Fox recently sold his team’s spot in the League of Legends Championship Series for $30.25 million. Games that were popular in the late 80s and early 90s are no longer popular today, so paying millions of dollars to acquire esports teams tied to a specific game has always struck me as a risky proposition, but Breslau says, “it’s become a case of ‘too big to fail’. So much money has been invested into games like League of Legends, that it would take an incredible catastrophe for the game’s popularity to decline far enough that there weren’t enough people playing it for it to exist at a professional level. League of Legends, Fortnite, Overwatch and Counterstrike, they’ll all be around in 2050.”
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