If you were channel surfing Sunday and happened to find something weird on ESPN2, the station was not hacked. "Heroes of the Dorm" brought competitive gaming to cable TV during prime time. The programming choice was a risk considering that this weekend also saw the end of the NBA regular season and the beginning of the MLB season, but it's a risk that seems to be paying off — at least, judging from reaction on Twitter.
“Heroes of the Dorm” is an unlikely candidate to hold down a coveted slot on ESPN2. Unlike the massive stakes and million dollar prize pools of The International Dota 2 2016 or a “League of Legends” world championship, the tournament features teams competing for college tuition scholarships. At stake was a $25,000 scholarship for up to three years of tuition.
At the same time, “Heroes of the Storm” is a relatively easy game to follow for those new to eSports. There’s a red team and a blue team trying to destroy the other’s team core. There’s also a layer of strategy involving teamwork, choosing or banning the right hero for the match and when to advance or defend. “All of that is totally relatable to traditional sports,” Adam Rosen, program manager at Blizzard, told International Business Times.
“Heroes of the Dorm” on ESPN2 is a chance for discussion between eSports enthusiasts and people who have no idea a competitive gaming scene existed. Even having this level of conversation can go a long way toward further mainstream acceptance of eSports.
Last year, when “Heroes of the Dorm” aired for one night on ESPN2, there were the usual snarky tweets about video games showing up on television. There was also some confusion and vitriol to be found by searching the #ESPN2 hashtag on Twitter, but a few people liked what they saw on television even though it wasn't basketball or baseball.
— Bryan Kryder (@BryanKryder) April 11, 2016
I don't know what I just watched on ESPN2, but it was absolutely epic. pic.twitter.com/U0aduyK8rr
— Caleb Reid Surly (@CSwurlz) April 11, 2016
Arizona State University, the University of Connecticut, the University of Tennessee and the University of Texas at Arlington advanced to the "Heroic Four," which aired on ESPNU Saturday. UT Arlington swept Tennessee 2-0 and Arizona State swept UConn to advance to the Grand Finals on ESPN2. Arizona State did not drop a match throughout the 32-team competition and their success continued in the Grand Finals by sweeping UT Arlington.
Part of the allure of “Heroes of the Dorm” comes from alumni support. People may not know the game or what eSports is, but they can root for Arizona State University or the University of Connecticut to succeed. For the two-hour broadcast, “Heroes of the Dorm” had a polished television presence with an enthusiastic live crowd and a traditional booth with experts and commentators.
"Heroes of the Dorm" is the most visible aspect of the work Tespa has done to promote eSports on college campuses. The organization has chapters in over 140 universities where groups of players can come together to play video games in a social setting. There’s also a competitive scene within Tespa for players looking to test their skills against the best players around the world.
Tespa has given out over $1 million in scholarships since its formation in 2014. “We’re starting to see this really tight knit ecosystem form on the college level which is serving to accelerate growth in the entire industry,” Rosen said.
Ratings for "Heroes of the Dorm" are not in, but success for ESPN may not be measured by traditional metrics. ESPN and other companies are investing in eSports as an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a potentially lucrative industry. The next challenge for mainstream acceptance of competitive gaming takes place with Turner Sports' "ELEAGUE," a 10-week tournament where 16 of the best "Counter-Strike: Global Offensive" teams compete for a prize pool of $1.2 million, which debuts on TBS in May.