We are Sons of California,
Fighting for the Gold and Blue.
Palms of glory we will win
for Alma Mater true.
Congratulations to the Golden Bears for their victory over Arizona State University in the inaugural (we hope) Heroes of the Dorm tournament, Blizzard Entertainment for presenting a truly groundbreaking collegiate e-sports event and to everyone at ESPN for giving competitive gaming a chance to liven up our television sets. Well… almost everyone at ESPN.
Here are my takeaways from the tournament:
Blizzard is Both Lucky and Good
Approaching 5:30 PST, I can’t imagine that the e-sports division at Activision-Blizzard could have dared hope for such compelling drama as what unfolded in the Grand Finals. Yes, ASU had been involved in an entertaining Best-of-3 victory over Boston College, but UC Berkeley had just destroyed Illinois Urbana-Champaign and was looking the clear favourite.
Instead, Arizona State was one bad Hearth away from taking home a college career’s worth of tuition in the final moments of the 5th and deciding game. With the exception of Game One (won by Berkeley in the execrable Blackheart’s Bay map) every match was tightly contested and the series went the distance. The tension of the matches were heightened by outstanding casting from Artosis and Tasteless, whose energy and enthusiasm were as much a part of the flavour of the event as the competition itself. Michelle Beadle put the feelings of casual viewers best:
No joke, these announcers are killing it. I don't have a damn clue what I'm watching, but they won't let me leave.
— Michelle Beadle (@MichelleDBeadle) April 27, 2015
Still, credit must be given to the game designers as well. I’ve heard Heroes of the Storm criticized for being a ‘dumbed-down’ version of MOBA giants such as DOTA 2 and League of Legends. The games are shorter, there is no item shop, team leveling removes the skill of ‘last hitting’ and it’s objective-based system can seem gimmicky. And all of those things were why it made such compelling viewing Sunday night.
Imagine sitting down with a relative whose only exposure to ESPN is Monday Night Football and attempting to explain why 30 minutes of laning and jungling is keeping you on the edge of your seat. Why you gasped when one of the players decided to leave action to go to an imaginary store to purchase boots instead of the expected sword. Why not killing an enemy minion was a strategic error because it belonged to someone else. Or why there wasn’t a giant axe-wielding dragon cleaving turrets as if they were loaves of bread.
Collegiate Competition is a Great Entry Point to the Mainstream
As much as I loved to watch Heroes of the Dorm, it was the first time watching e-sports that I felt the same rooting interest as I do when I follow traditional athletics. It took me a while to realize that it was because I understood at a visceral level what tied these teams together. It wasn’t because they all met on a Skype channel or were recruited by a gaming accessory manufacturer. It was because they all went to the same school, attended the same campus – were part of the same community.
Living in Toronto, I cheer for the Maple Leafs, Raptors, Blue Jays and our closest National Football League team, the Buffalo Bills. These have been four of the most putrid teams of the last 15 years, yet I continue to invest my physical and emotional energy into their championship hopes. The only reason for this is because they represent my city, my region and my friends and family. I don’t feel the same way about golfers, or NASCAR drivers… they simply aren’t out there competing for me.
In the realm of e-sports the idea of geographic representation is much more difficult to pin down at the professional level. The Phoenix Evil Geniuses don’t play out of Sun Devil Stadium with onlookers viewing a Jumbotron… they play from their home while we follow their matches on Twitch. Player movement is fluid and there is no protection from anti-trust law binding a professional gamer to a team as there is in Major League Baseball.
How then to give the same tribal sense of loyalty to a team in an embryonic e-sports scene? Leverage collegiate competition with tournaments such as this and use it to introduce a new audience to the competitive gaming experience. There were a number of people who were following Heroes of the Dorm, not because they played the game but because they had a tie to the particular school or region competing. Some of them were great college athletes themselves…
Heroes of the Dorm – I have never been so proud. Go Pac12, no truck stops here. Just reporting the facts
— Bill Walton (@BillWalton) April 27, 2015
Not Everyone Will Like E-Sports and We Shouldn’t Care
Of course no event can occur these days without some effigy being burned. ESPN host Colin Cowherd struck the flint with an entirely predictable rant on his radio show referring to the competitors as nerds and swearing that the day he was asked to cover e-sports would be his last day working for the network.
Leaving aside the irony that, as far as I know, his remarks on the tournament was the highest profile coverage Heroes of the Dorm received from the cesspool that is 24-Hour sports radio, I simply can’t be the first to throw a stone at him. Not without remembering the times I’ve turned on the television and laughed that any of the following were being covered:
- Tractor Pulls
- Competitive Eating
- Spelling Bees
- Shows Where People Open Up Lockers And Find Stuff I Still Wouldn’t Want To Own
- And Most of All Curling
I know people who actually pay annual memberships to curl at country clubs. As sad as it is for me to admit, curling is one of the most viewed sports in my home country, beating out hockey. Hockey. If I were sentenced to an eternity in hell, curling would be my assigned weekend activity as it combines my least favorite temperature (cold) with my least favorite chore (sweeping). There will never be a time in my life that curling will be on a screen in front of me where I will not claim that ‘those people are not athletes’ and that ‘I can’t believe anyone would want to watch that’.
And if you love curling you shouldn’t care a bit about my opinion. Because lots of people agree with you and disagree with me.
That’s how I feel about those who mock the idea of competitive gaming on ESPN. There’s no need to call people names because they don’t like your favorite pastime. Don’t feel bullied by a mouthpiece on the radio trying to fill some time between segments with another ‘Hot Take’; you’re just another topic of conversation to him and he’ll soon move on to criticizing something else that will get the ratings needed. It’s how sports commentary works today, and if we, as a community, want to eventually reach the popularity of football or basketball, then we have to understand that not everyone will share our passion.
And it’s their loss.
You can follow David on Twitter @DavidJasonToy.