In January of 2016, ESPN embarked on a bold new venture, announcing regular, in-depth coverage of competitive video gaming, popularly known as esports. The move came as the esports industry was enjoying a renaissance, soliciting hundreds of millions in investment money from well known celebrities, sports icons and team owners eager to get involved with what was being touted as the future of sports. In this setting, ESPN’s embrace of esports was seen by many as mainstream validation of the decades-long phenomenon that had steadily grown in popularity through online viewing platforms like Twitch and YouTube.
In the years since, as the esports industry continued its ascent, ESPN covered nearly every step, earning awards and recognition for its coverage from a demanding audience that is sometimes wary of newcomers. Over five years, the site won two Esports Awards for its coverage. Two different writers took home esports journalist of the year.
In 2020, with traditional sports shuttered by the covid-19 pandemic and with gaming and esports gaining mainstream attention unmatched in its relatively young history, ESPN pulled the plug, closing down the dedicated digital esports operation and cutting ties with nearly all of the department’s workers.
The move sent shock waves through the industry, though not all parties interpreted the ripples the same way. Some saw the news as a setback in the push for mainstream acceptance. Some suggested it was because the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” didn’t appreciate or understand the gaming audience. Skeptics of esports’ popular (and financial) potential pointed to it as evidence of a bubble, suggesting that esports was not providing the value its advocates promised. Why, after all, would ESPN shutter something with so much immediate appeal, and holding such promise for the future?
In interviews with current and former ESPN employees with ties to the department from its origin to its end, the decision appears to have stemmed from a variety of factors, including both the impact of the pandemic on the traditional sports normally broadcast on ESPN’s family of networks, as well as the esports group’s inability to generate an audience on par with the many other sports covered on ESPN.com.
It was not the future imagined by those who had worked to launch and elevate the department.
‘The ESPN of esports’
One day in 2015, Dan Kaufman walked into the office of then ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine editor in chief Chad Millman and saw the names of several coverage areas scrawled on a whiteboard. Among them were daily fantasy sports, gambling — and esports.
Kaufman — at the time a senior deputy editor running ESPN Insider, the website’s premium content offering — asked who was in charge of esports. Millman said no one, and asked if he wanted it, Kaufman recalled.
A 25-year veteran of sports media, Kaufman was already overseeing fantasy sports and gambling, but esports would be an entirely new venture. “Just so you know,” Kaufman told Millman, “I don’t know anything about it.”
A couple weeks later, Millman called Kaufman and said esports coverage would go to him. Kaufman asked for a timeline and details. “Go figure it out,” Millman told him.
The call marked the birth of ESPN’s esports department. Kaufman embarked on a months-long crash course, one aided, he said by ESPN talent Mina Kimes, whose ESPN The Magazine feature on “League of Legends” star Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok proved to be especially influential. The article ran as part of the magazine’s esports issue at a time when ESPN was trying to find its “next new thing,” Kaufman said.
“A lot of people at that time were saying, ‘We’re going to be the ESPN of esports,'” Kaufman said, recalling a phrase Activision CEO Bobby Kotick used after the company acquired Major League Gaming. “Well, actually no, we are going to be the ESPN of esports. That’s what we do.”
While ESPN had dabbled in gaming to varying degree, including broadcasting some events and integrating gaming segments into some of its programing in the early 2000s, it had never done anything on this scale. Moreover, Kaufman didn’t have many points of comparison among ESPN’s media peers to help guide the vision.
“l knew it was at least a five year project,” Kaufman said. “I wanted to be responsible and keep it lean — no one in the mainstream media was trying to do what we were doing.”
Many at ESPN were unfamiliar with esports when Kaufman began to assemble the department, giving him an added challenge. To help bridge that gap, he relied on a common experience — live competition.
In researching for the project, Kaufman attended The International in 2015, the championship tournament for the game “Dota 2” that annually carries a prize pool ranging into the tens of millions. Kaufman said it was the best sporting event he went to in 2015. That event’s display of fandom, he said, would serve as the basis of his argument for esports coverage internally.
“Once you saw how fans reacted to it [esports matches], that’s a language everyone in sports speaks,” he said. “I think people [at ESPN] really grasped it.”
In the fall of 2015, Kaufman posted his first job offer for a senior editor. It netted over 1,000 resumes. However, after reviewing them, he realized he was approaching yet another novel challenge.
“I didn’t know how to evaluate these resumes,” he said, having been used to applicants with traditional sports reporting backgrounds. “There was none of that in esports. I saw, ‘I’m 23 and have eight years of experience.’ You had to learn to think about it a little differently. … We also needed people who were going to be personalities for us within the company.”
He adjusted by relying on the key attributes he relied on to evaluate talent.
“You’re looking for drive, for people who can be coached and taught,” Kaufman said, noting he also focused intensely on writing skills and personal networks.
It led him to two of ESPN’s early esports hires: Jacob Wolf, hired just after the launch at 19 years old, and Tyler Erzberger.
“They knew everybody and everybody knew them,” Kaufman said. “You wouldn’t have that in the NFL.”
After Wolf’s arrival, ESPN’s esports department consisted of four dedicated staffers, including two reporters and two editors, in addition to Kaufman and Pierre Becquey who oversaw the department in addition to others. It also briefly included reporter Rod “Slasher” Breslau and a variety of contributing freelancers.
Shortly after the launch, Millman was quoted in the Los Angeles Times about the rationale for ESPN’s commitment to the department, saying “the story line [of esports] was so compelling that we decided there was no reason we shouldn’t be doing this on a daily basis with the same rigor we cover the National League Football or other sports.”
An early impact
The arrival of ESPN Esports on Jan. 14, 2016 served as a poignant moment in the evolution of media coverage for pro video game competitions, both for the public and also other reporters looking into covering the industry. Ben Fischer, a staff writer at Sports Business Daily who was the first esports beat reporter at the outlet, said he recalls that time as being a “land rush” situation for sports media.
“There’s always trendy new areas that catch a little fire, X Games, extreme sports, everyone’s always looking for the next big thing, and from 2016 the next big thing was esports for sure,” Fischer said. “It was useful because ESPN gave me a crash course into esports … [and was] an outlet I implicitly trusted about the games and what’s going on on the screen."
David Higdon, head of global esports communications at Riot Games noted the impact ESPN’s involvement had for esports leagues and organizations. “Esports benefited from that affiliation in a pretty big way, including in the debate about being a sport,” Higdon said. “Opinions and reports from ESPN Esports made it into proposals and decks for VCs [venture capitalists] and the like.”
There was benefit for ESPN too, as it aimed to pull new readers to its brand.
Ryan Garfat, who joined ESPN Esports in the summer of 2016 as an editor, said he first become aware of esports while covering the X Games in the summer of 2014 and noticed a crowd gathering around a Call of Duty tournament.
“It was treated as a sideshow, but there were people waiting outside in 100 degree heat because they could not get into the tent,” he said, adding that he saw Matt “Nadeshot” Haag — now head of esports organization 100 Thieves — being swarmed like a rock star. “This was one of the few untapped audiences we could embrace.”
ESPN’s clout also benefited those it now employed. Wolf, who was hired in April 2016, recalled having a very small audience and more limited resources at his previous outlet, Dot Esports, even as he had built a burgeoning reputation for breaking esports news.
“I instantly gained access to both financial resources and then also people resources that Dot Esports did not have,” Wolf said, noting that he went from about 5,000 Twitter followers to almost 90,000 followers now. “Going to events multiple times per month, speaking with investigative editors, working with ‘Outside The Lines’ … I also got to produce for TV and write for the magazine.
“I’d be remiss not to say it gave me a boost in visibility. A lot of it is because I busted my [rear], but I got into rooms because ESPN was on my business cards.”
ESPN’s resources helped enable Wolf to lead the industry in breaking esports signing stories, as well as propel him and his colleagues to produce a full suite of daily match coverage, features, videos, TV shows, social media content and more.
Esports was given further coverage on ESPN’s broadcast networks from 2016 on, with airings of tournaments and league play of Madden NFL, fighting games, “Rocket League,”" League of Legends," Overwatch League, “Hearthstone,” “StarCraft II,” “Heroes of the Storm” and “Apex Legends.”
Despite the spike in esports content, the department faced the same challenge as all others at ESPN, fighting for space on a crowded website. Still, the esports stories broke through with prominent placement from time to time.
Kaufman said esports content would get fair consideration at the daily ESPN.com editorial meeting, even though there was a learning curve for other staff members.
“The competition for real estate on ESPN’s homepage is intense,” he said. “We had to be intentional about the kinds of stories we’d pitch. … We couldn’t go in everyday and pitch, we had to wait for the good stuff. And with that, you’d get a good hearing.”
Until he left to become editorial director at The Athletic in May 2018, Kaufman said ESPN Esports was making good progress on metrics, including on social media. He said there was also an understanding that they were appealing to a new audience for ESPN and were operating as outsiders both at ESPN and among endemic media within esports.
Garfat, who oversaw the esports department after Kaufman’s departure, said the team deviated only slightly from the course set originally, adding coverage of “Fortnite” and other, broader video game topics that were not hardcore esports. According to Garfat, those moves came in response to audience interest and ESPN management, who felt they were slow to “Fortnite” as a “cultural moment” after the stream featuring streamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, Drake and others went viral in 2018. Blevins would later become the first gamer featured on the cover of ESPN The Magazine.
By the end of 2019, both Kaufman and Garfat had exited ESPN, with Garfat taking a position as the senior vice president of business operations with Kroenke Sports and Entertainment. Millman had left in 2017 to start sports betting analysis site The Action Network.
“We felt like we were making progress,” Kaufman said of the department’s standing at the time of his departure. “We were trying to do a whole lot of things that were new. I was extraordinarily proud of the company embrace of esports at that time.”
“I felt the house was in really good order,” Garfat said, citing their coverage of League of Legends Worlds and the Fortnite World Cup in 2019. “We had great momentum after the previous round of layoffs and there was no indication that anything would change when I left, though one title sponsor had not renewed.”
The coming months would see esports achieve an even higher profile both around the world and at ESPN, when the covid-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of numerous traditional sports leagues and events. Suddenly, airtime slots reserved for Major League Baseball or the NBA were available, and in some instances replaced by broadcasts of “NBA 2K” tournaments or “Overwatch League.”
While the pandemic further elevated esports and gaming content, it crippled that of traditional sports, the backbone of ESPN. The company, which had already endured several rounds of layoffs in recent years, was feeling the squeeze from the loss of live sports programming, and the correlated loss of advertising revenue. Another round of cuts was needed.
Over the years, ESPN invested in its esports team by growing it to 11 dedicated employees in both editorial and video at its peak, adding Emily Rand and Arda Ocal to augment video and written coverage. In terms of size, the department was comparable to the resources ESPN.com devoted to covering MMA. ESPN also gave them dedicated studio space at both its Bristol, Conn., headquarters and its Los Angeles offices. Several people familiar with ESPN’s budget estimated the company was spending about $1.5 million annually to operate the esports department.
Though many staffers announced they had been laid off earlier in the month, on November 11, ESPN announced its decision to dismantle its esports department. A company spokesperson said ESPN would continue to air esports competitions and cover the industry via assets in other editorial groups. Wolf, Erzberger and six of their colleagues in the esports department were either laid off or told their contracts would not be renewed. The esports team was among 300 employees laid off by ESPN in early November.
In comments made to The Post and on at least two podcasts, Wolf criticized the move as shortsighted and said ESPN was not interested in building new audiences long-term, opting to focus on the traditional sports audience they already had.
Wolf noted challenges faced by the department, with someone in their esports editorial pipeline changing roles every year, bringing a lack of consistency to his work. He also said the unique culture and desires of esports fans were not taken into account, with the company trying to put esports into an “ESPN box” without acknowledging that esports audiences are different and consume content differently than other sports fans.
“I think a lot of those things were not acknowledged or acted upon. I felt we kept kind of hitting a wall,” he said, “I think that arrogance and hubris was part of their downfall.”
In response to Wolf’s claims, which he made as part of an announcement that he’d rejoined Dot Esports, ESPN issued a statement on January 3.
“Esports on ESPN.com was by far our lowest trafficked section and was among the most resourced, relative to traffic and compared to other sections,” the statement read. “Both considerations were factored into the difficult decisions we had to make as a result of the pandemic’s impact on our business. We are still committed to esports as an opportunity to expand our audience, and we’ll continue to do so through programming and coverage from the broader team for major events and breaking news.”
ESPN aired over 20 esports events last year, including a dedicated “Esports Day.” Its most recent airing of esports was Rocket League during the X Games at the end of January. The esports subsection is still viewable on ESPN.com but was removed from the site’s navigation bar last week. The featured story, written by Wolf, carries a time stamp from 96 days ago. The top news story in the headline stack is from November.
In the closure of ESPN Esports, journalist Ben Fischer sees a correction to the frequently touted, rocket-like trajectory of the esports industry.
“It just really draws a line under esports’ inability to live up to the hype at the time I was covering the beat,” Fischer said. “That’s not to say it won’t make a return or there’s not a viable business. There’s a strong group of fans — it has just fallen off the screen as a buzzy thing traditional sports people talk about.”
Top tier esports leagues projected confidence in reaction to the closure, pointing to their own metrics for growth as well as the fact that all ESPN Esports writers found new jobs and will continue to cover the industry.
“It had a significant impact during its four year run,” Riot’s David Higdon said, adding that ESPN’s former staffers will help bolster other outlets and now provide veteran, insider perspectives on how to provide solid coverage. “They took talented people and made them more talented.”
Asked how he felt about the closure, Kaufman spoke of the young reporters he employed.
“It was a great team of hard-working people, they grew to be among the best in the business,” he said. “Some would be successful anywhere, and they chose to do esports.”