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The sports world’s divergent reactions to Heroes of the Storm on ESPN

The Heroes of the Dorm logo

When cultures collide, the results are often contentious, a little bigoted, and sometimes downright hilarious. That was definitely the case Sunday evening when the Heroes of the Dorm final aired on ESPN2, a channel normally reserved for traditional sports… and whatever the hell other competitions ESPN has the rights to.

Nevertheless, once a video game was featured in the sacred Olympian space that is ESPN2, there were a lot of unhappy people. And a lot of confused people. And they all wanted to let the world know about it.

There were really two spectator events for eSports fans Sunday night. The first was the Heroes of the Dorm Final, and the second was watching Twitter for the bemused reaction of ESPN viewers who tuned into ESPN to find a bunch of kids playing video games.

Not everyone was averse to games appearing on ESPN. The problem was that ESPN2 was not showing a real game.

More than a few people were vaguely aware that this had something to do with Warcraft, but the specifics eluded them

This is a bit like how my mom called all videogames “Marios” until like 2002. But it’d be a mistake to think the reaction was universally negative. I saw a lot of Tweets from people who weren’t sure what they were watching, but slowly realized they couldn’t stop watching.

Some users got right to the important questions: how did this Heroes of the Dorm tournament affect NCAA conference power rankings?

Then there were a lot of people who kept watching, savoring the absurdity of an eSports broadcast.

Grantland’s Rembert Browne then reminded us of how fleeting is a sport’s innocence, and how we must protect its guttering flame from the cold winds of scrutiny and distrust.

Meanwhile, former Blizzard PR mensch and current Riot PR manager Bob Colayco had quite enough of sports fans’ angst for one night:

But, it was the St. Louis Rams Twitter account that had the best reaction of the night.

Neither can we, gang. Neither can we.

On the other hand, one of ESPN’s radio hosts, Colin Cowherd, came unglued over the entire thing and said that if ESPN ever made him cover eSports, he would quit the network.

Yet it’d be a mistake the characterize the reactions to Heroes of the Dorm as universally negative. A lot of sports fans were, well, good sports about the entire thing. And sports mega-site SB Nation certainly came away impressed.

The truth is, a jocks vs. nerds dichotomy over eSports has always rang false to me. It was something I discussed at length with other games writers at PAX East a couple years ago, but the main point is this: the people I know who are into sports tend to be into a lot of sports. It’s not a particular brand of athleticism that gets people onboard, it’s the competition.

It’s why football and hockey die-hards will find themselves watching Olympic curling until dawn. You give people a good competition with reasonable stakes and a good presentation, and they’ll stick around. Most of the people I know that are really into eSports as a whole, as opposed to just a single competitive game, tend to be sports fans as well. It’s only the people who look to sports as a vindication of a particular set of values and beliefs that get angry when the wrong games are played.

This week, there have been a lot of negative voices about eSports. But if you looked closely, it seemed to break down by thirds. One-third of the (admittedly and predictably tiny) ESPN audience that watched that night was hostile. One-third was confused. And one-third grudgingly, even ironically, got onboard.