Barge’s Bad Idea: Making the case for ESPN and The International

11 May


Every once in a while I get some bad bad ideas (shut up bobby).

Well valve recently released their much anticipated compendium for the upcoming International Dota 2 championships.

Last years International was my initial experience with the game and since then Dota 2 has came to dominate my gaming time. When I watched last years tournament I knew little to nothing about the game. I had heard of it, but had never played it. I barely understood what a MOBA (Multi-Player Online Battle Arena) was, frankly the game made no damn sense to me, it was like diablo and warcraft had a baby, which as it turns out isn’t really that far off.

Last years International was among my favorite events I watched last year. I can confidently say that I watched more of TI3 last year than the Winter Olympics in February and I straight love the Olypmics. Valve’s production was amazing. I had seen some other e-sport events, but nothing I had seen even came close to the quality of production that valve put into last year’s international. In spite of me knowing nothing about the game initially, it proved to be a very compelling watch, opening my eyes to what e-sports had become.

As qualifying for North and South America begins, I come upon one of my dumbest ideas to date, why doesn’t ESPN broadcast the International?

Now I know what you are thinking “ESPN air videogames… that is insane, ESPN is about sports not games, no one would even watch that”.

Let us think on that statement for a minute…

Why does it make sense for ESPN?

ESPN has a history of “Sports”

Remember when ESPN decided to put kids on skateboards on TV? Professional Bowling? Darts? Poker? It is clear that ESPN is willing and able to take a liberal definition of a “sport” and put it on air, in the case of the X Games and the World Series of Poker have launched a pair of very successful niche brands into the ESPN lineup. These were brands that fell out of the “Ball Sports and Boxing” model of ESPN broadcasting, but nurtured these into their niche.

I admit however this is a little different, ESPN had flirted with the concept of e-sports with the Madden Bowl, but lets be honest, the concept of watching people play a video game of a real sport only makes it more weird. DOTA being a completely different concept does bring up some challenges, but it doesn’t have to deal with the fact that it is a simulation of a sport.

ESPN is already trying out the concept of e-sports with Call of Duty at the next summer x-games. It is yet to be seen just how much air time is going to be given to the tournament, held in conjunction with Major League Gaming. I also have to admit that it is kind of a weird fit for ESPN. Does ESPN’s parent company Disney, really want to be broadcasting realistic virtual violence on TV? It feels like giving this tournament significant air time could open up ESPN to some very real scrutiny from a variety of groups, crazy anti-videogame people, the anti-gun crowd, I am sure elements of the military may take issue as well. I imagine that the extent of the coverage of this tournament will be a medal ceremony.


The International falls from July 18th to July 21st this year, or as many sports fans call it, that time of year that literally nothing important is happening. The only sport in it’s regular season at the time is Major League Baseball, which by the way has some pretty sorry ratings, especially in the summer. Besides that the only thing really going on is the rookie report dates for NFL training camp. Combine this with the number of ESPN platforms available and you have a lot of “dead” air time for the worldwide leader in sports around mid July.

Opportunity Cost

Opportunity cost is an economic term that basically means “the cost of choosing one thing over another”. If you choose to spend an hour napping instead of working, the opportunity cost of your nap was whatever money you would have made working. In spite of the multitude of ESPNs platforms there is an opportunity cost for them to air anything on an ESPN platform, which would be the money they would have made airing literally anything else. There are however a few caveats to this for ESPN. One as we have already figured out, there is nothing going on during this tournament. Meaning that the opportunity cost for airing it is likely pretty low due to the unique time of year the event is. If this was in August during the NFL preseason, the opportunity cost would be much much higher. Another side is that ESPN has a scaling opportunity cost based on which platform it would choose to air it on. ESPN would be the highest as it is the flag ship station, ESPN2 would have a slightly lower one (weird stuff like bowling, darts and such seems to end up on it), ESPN U would be even lower and ESPN 3/Watch ESPN has virtually no opportunity cost by nature of the platform.

Actual Cost

Let us leave our introductory macroeconomics lesson and instead focus on a more base level benefit of the International for ESPN. It would cost next to nothing to produce. Valve already does a down right amazing job of putting together their broadcasts, ESPN would probably want to lend a bit of polish with their expertise, but besides that Valve already makes a great broadcast in a way that is profitable for them. They also might find a very likely partner in Valve’s Gabe Newell, which could result in a pretty low cost to obtain the license to broadcast it.

The Audience

ESPN is always trying to get more “cross over” viewers, viewers that are not hardcore sports fans. They are also trying to dominate that coveted 18-35 year old male demographic, is there anything in the world more 18-35 year old male than videogames? Even expanding our scope, it is clear that videogames are very much in the mainstream and data from the entertainment software association paints a much more diverse picture of gamers than stereotypes would make you believe. However, I am just talking about a hypothetical audience for something that hasn’t been on TV yet. Let’s talk reality for a second.

Last year’s International was watched by over a million people concurrently. A million people watched The International with virtually no outside marketing on platforms like twitch and the Dota 2 Client. Lets compare that to the sad ratings that some ABC/ESPN programming has like darts (around 334K), Bowling (1.1 Million), even the relatively successful X games has put up some sad numbers at times, and just think how much it must cost ESPN to put those on. Even Major League Baseball has some serious problems at times. The International can match or beat many of these numbers while costing significantly less. In fact, it already does, without being on TV…

But isn’t Videogaming too foreign for some viewers?

Every niche sport has problems with this. The X Games had to convince people of their scoring systems. Poker had to teach viewers about hand ranking and he massive amount of poker jargon. MMA had to teach the world about Brazilian Jiujitsu. (Side Note: While I do not always like to listen to Joe Rogan, the bottom line is that he is virtually perfect at bringing the uninitiated into the basics to grappling, he will have a job with the UFC until he quits or does something horrifically stupid)

Dota 2 is no different, it has it’s jargon like “Carry”, “support”, ” Gank”, “BKB”, etc. It was all a bit confusing when I first watched TI3, but after a while I picked up enough to enjoy watching and this was with commentators that did not even attempt to explain these things. Really the most important thing that ESPN/Valve would have to do is train the already impressive pool of DOTA 2 broadcasters to target less initiated viewers. (Other Side Note : Tobiwan reminds so much of legendary MMA broadcaster Michael Schiavello it hurts, some day Tobiwan will drop a “Good Night Irene” or a “Big Kabosh” and I will lose my mind)

Another side of this is that I believe that the amount of knowledge needed to actually enjoy a sport/game as a viewer is very low. The average NFL fan would burst into tears if they actually understood how little they knew about football. The UFC, WSOP and the X Games have already put together a blue print of how to get the viewer to understand what they need to and DOTA 2 would be successful with a similar informational plan. It also helps that at it’s core DOTA 2 is a pretty simply concept, 5 vs 5, destroy the big thing in the other teams base.

But Why Dota 2 and Not _________?

It is true e-sports is exploding and there are plenty of other games with established scenes (League of Legends, Counter Strike, Call of Duty, Madden). If ESPN wanted to try and take a bite out of e-sports why DOTA 2? The biggest reason is Valve, the developers of DOTA 2. They happen to absolutely dominate gaming. Their PC gaming platform Steam has PC gaming by the throat and boasts an insane user base that ESPN would probably like to have a little better access to as these are prime advertising targets. The other reason is a bit more vain. Looks Matter. League of Legends enjoys a thriving competitive scene and the impressive viewership that comes with it, but we are talking about TV and the truth is DOTA 2 just plain looks better on a TV screen.  I am not saying one game is better than the other, just one is more fit for broadcast.


League of Legends

League of Legends

Dota 2

Dota 2


Why does this make sense for Valve?

Valve is a video game company, why would they care about getting The International on American TV?

Free to Play

Like the title of the valve produced documentary Free to Play, DOTA 2 is infact free to play, it makes money in a way similar to mobile games where players can buy accessories for their game. Things like different costumes for their heroes, loading screens, tickets to watch tournaments, sound packs and other stuff of that sort. Unlike most mobile games though, DOTA avoids the “Pay to Win” model of having players spend money to get an unfair advantage over other players. As a result the only way for DOTA 2 to make money is by growing it’s player base and the exposure of ESPN could result in a massive uptick in players.

Hail to the Brandmaker

If valve wanted to expand their tournament to TV, ESPN makes the most sense. It has a proven track record of taking niche sports and “sports” and building them into marketable successful TV properties. In addition, the previously discussed multitude of platforms ESPN enjoys would give the new partnership many options to find a way to make both parties happy. Valve already enjoys a good relationship with game streaming websites like twitch, but ESPN can offer everything twitch does and so much more and just because Valve put The international on ESPN, doesn’t mean that they couldn’t continue to use platforms like twitch for other events.


As in all things, money doesn’t just talk, it screams and the peculiar revenue model of DOTA 2 presents an interesting opportunity. E-Sports growth is driven primarily by the growing stakes of competitive gaming. As of writing, the prize pool for The International stands at over three million dollars and is sure to grow as more players buy their compendium. Remember that the next time you tell kids that video games will take them nowhere in life. Valve will only attract more players from other games by increasing said prize pool. Think about it, if you were a world class gamer and all of a sudden one specific game’s tournament came with a prize pool exceeding $5 million, you would think about switching to that game if your skills translated. Already elite players from League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth are finding themselves making the switch in search of the almighty dollar. Valve could take some of the money they will make from their partnership with ESPN and put it directly into the prize pool, raising the tournaments prestige and importance, while encouraging more competitive gamers to focus on DOTA over its competition. Adding the Iron Bank of Mickey to the prize pools contributors could make The International the end all be all for competitive gaming.

A Match made in the Mid Lane

With the growth of E-Sports in the US and abroad, it only makes sense for ESPN and Valve to team up in the future. The risks are low, the potential rewards are high and the logistics already match up, all it needs is Johnny Maziel to Midlane against Tim Tebow and ESPN will eat it up.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: