Esports meets mainstream: Disney is taking esports seriously, and that's good

by Daniel Rosen Jul 25 2017
Thumbnail image courtesy of Disney XP

Welcome back to television, esports. It’s been a few weeks, but nothing is really different there, aside from the part where you’re on Disney now, but to be perfectly honest with you, I’m not sure exactly how much that really matters.

Last week, Disney and ESL announced that ESL would be producing two esports-adjacent shows for Disney XD. The first is ESL Brawlers, a new season of the ESL King of the Hill Street Fighter V tournament series they ran earlier this year, which is a pretty natural extension of the past few Street Fighter V TV broadcasts on ESPN and TBS. They’re also making a speedrunning show, which doesn’t quite fall under the esports purview, but it’s very interesting and I want to take a chance to talk about it later.

First though, this news all ties in really well with last week’s column, which was about how Street Fighter (and fighting games in general) could make a really great entry point to esports for a casual audience, but we need esports to be a bigger deal for people who aren’t already esports fans to want to watch them in the first place. I don’t think simply putting Street Fighter matches on Disney is going to make people tune in just because it’s Street Fighter, but Disney as a brand really does seem to be taking esports seriously.

Disney owns ESPN, which broadcast Street Fighter V at Evo in 2016 and 2017, as well as the Capcom Cup finals last year. But ESPN is a sports brand, and esports seems like a mostly reasonable step for them. Disney XD, on the other hand, is Disney’s more pre-teen focused channel, and the ESL shows will be airing on D|XP, the channel’s new gaming-focused programming block. For now, the block will only air “this summer” — though there doesn’t appear to be a clear cut, public end date — but it’s clear that Disney wants to take gaming pretty seriously given that they’re dedicating six hours a night all summers to gaming content.

Disney also broadcast both the Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and Street Fighter V Evo Top 8s before the ESL shows were announced, which implies this plan is at least somewhat long term. Disney is taking esports seriously on their pre-teen focused brand, more so than their actual sports brand. Part of that is probably demographics — younger people are just more likely to be interested in esports, and Disney XD is marketed at a younger audience than ESPN is. It seems like esports would be an easier sell to the existing Disney XD audience than the existing ESPN audience, especially given that the esports shows are going to be airing during a gaming-centric programming block, and not just in the middle of a random Sunday.

The other interesting part of the announcement is that speedrunning show I mentioned earlier. Speedrunning occupies an interesting place when it comes to esports, given that it’s not exactly an esport, but it’s a very similar field. People are ostensibly competing to be the best at completing a specific task within a game, the core difference is just that they’re not competing against other people simultaneously within the same game world.

If esports are like Soccer or Football or Basketball, then speedrunning is the 100-meter dash at the Olympics. People will tune in every week to watch their favorite team compete, but the average person doesn’t necessarily have a favorite sprinter, even if they’re a big sports fan.

Similarly, at the Olympics, people are more likely to care about the race if only because there’s someone in it representing their country, and it’s really exciting when people break records. People will tune in for a record breaking performance, but most of the time, it’s not very exciting to watch the preparation and practice that goes into that. Like a sprinter, a speedrunner is essentially running the same track again and again, testing their ability to run the course faster and faster every time. It’s not exactly all that visually engaging, especially given the focus it often takes to perform at a level necessary to potentially break records on any given attempt.

I do think, however, that a highly produced speedrunning show is an interesting way to present speedrunning to an audience that might not necessarily be aware of it. I’m unsure of the exact format of the upcoming Disney show, but speedruns in general pull in the most viewership during the two yearly Games Done Quick events, which do a great job of putting speedrunners personalities on display, but suffer from slower, marathon-safe runs that aren’t as likely to break records.

Pre-taped speedruns, even or speedrun-themed challenges, don’t have to worry about being boring to watch live since solid editing and post-production could theoretically gloss over the parts where the runner fails again and again. I honestly think that the repetitive nature of watching speedruns is what holds that community back from greater viewership, and while I don’t think a highly produced and edited speedrunning show is going to suddenly bring speedrunning out of its niche, I do think that it’s a very interesting experiment Disney and ESL are trying here.

Between the two shows, and their previous broadcasts, I think Disney is making a serious attempt at broadcasting esports, and I honestly think that the audience on Disney XD is going to be more receptive to esports than ESPN’s audience. I think there’s a lot of positives here, but at the end of the day, it’s still an experiment.

Grade: B — We’re a long way out from a dedicated esports channel from a major broadcaster, but this is really the first coordinated attempt from a company as big as Disney to bring esports to a larger audience, and that can only be a good thing.

Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.