ESPN made significant push for eSports and ASU was a major part of it

ESPN made a little bit of history on Sunday night as it broadcasted the first ever college eSports event on national television, the Heroes of the Dorm, and the ASU Sun Devils were part of the fun.

Heroes of the Storm (not Dungeons & Dragons and not played with a 12-sided die) is a video game that is still in beta form being produced by the makers of World of Warcraft and it may have shown ESPN the answer to a long-term search it has been on.

The worldwide leader in sports has been trying to get its hands into the eSports business for years now. ESPN was the network that created the TV poker boom and ever since the popularity in watching people play cards on TV has dropped, they’ve been trying to find the next big thing.

They tried it first with Major League Gaming, a league that focuses primarily on first-person shooters like the Halo franchise. But the audience was never there as the genre is simply not very transferable to watching on TV. So ESPN had to look elsewhere.

More recently the network has tried to capitalize on a very lucrative trend in the gaming industry, the rise in popularity of the MOBA genre of games. MOBAs, or multiplayer online battle arenas, are not a new genre of video games but a couple of recent releases has created an arms race for some game publishers to create their own version to compete with ultra-popular games like DOTA 2 or League of Legends.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, released in 2010 by Blizzard Entertainment the same studio that is making Heroes of the Storm, may have been the first game to restart the genre’s popularity. Especially in South Korea, the game quickly became extremely popular and tournaments with large prize purses became a regular occurrence.

And there perhaps lies the answer to ESPN’s search: Money. Not the money that they will receive for showing the events, but the money that the winners receive.

Part of the allure of poker on TV was seeing someone win so much money with just a single hand in Texas Hold ‘em, sometimes upwards of a million dollars. At the most recent "The International" tournament, the world championships for one of the most popular MOBAs, DOTA 2, the prize pool reached almost $11 million with the first place team winning just over $5 million. ESPN broadcasted The International tournament on its family of networks. 

The California Golden Bears team that defeated ASU on Sunday night in the finals of the “Heroes of the Dorm” tournament took home a prize of $75,000 each to go toward college tuition. That prize pool is not as large as some other MOBA tournaments, but this was also the first ever college tournament of its kind.

Twitter became enthralled with this event, and even if some of it was irony people kept watching. This is for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s different. It’s not something you see everyday when you turn on ESPN2 and people kept watching just to figure out what was going on. But more importantly, people love cheering for their school. Even if they do not know exactly what is happening they want to see their school win. And even though ASU lost Sunday to Cal, I’m sure if they were to make it to the finals of an event like this again people would tune in to watch.

The Heroes of the Dorm website even had March Madness style fantasy brackets to fill out when the final 64 teams in the event were finalized. Maybe if this event continues next year we can all get our brackets busted by picking the University of Waterloo to make it to the Heroic Four when it loses to Boston University in the second round.

Twitter had some fun with the event on Sunday night and some of the excitement may have been ironic. But executives at ESPN don’t care why you watch it, they just care that you tuned in. They’ve been searching for a replacement for poker on TV for years and they made a big step making eSports that answer on Sunday and the Sun Devils were a major part of that.

Reach the reporter at wslane@asu.edu or follow @bill_slane on Twitter.

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