“Oh fuck this guy.” I turned my head to my friend as he said this. It was an understandable reaction. He’d just read the bitter words from ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd. And I get it. After reading Cowherd’s view on televising competitive video games—more commonly known as eSports— I wanted to say the same thing.
Let’s back this train up, though. The starting point of all this is ESPN2 airing a special called Heroes of the Dorm on April 26th, a college-focused tournament for the game Heroes of the Storm. The winners would get their entire college tuition covered, so who wouldn’t want to give it a whirl?
And a lot of people tuning into the channel were surely confused. I actually got texts and Slack messages about it, asking me what this was. It’s a fair question since 1) Heroes of the Storm isn’t officially out yet and 2) video games haven’t gotten huge broadcast coverage in American since G4’s Arena (and WCG Ultimate Gamer before that).
Many of them came around to the idea and actually enjoyed the program. MOBAs aren’t inherently difficult to understand the basics of, though mastering them is a much larger challenge, much like any physical sport. The scoring scheme is straightforward and it’s visually easy to understand, a one-two combo other competitive games fail to achieve like StarCraft and Call of Duty.
But not everyone seemed to like it. Here’s the first relevant pull quote from Cowherd’s segment.
Here’s what’s going to get me off the air. If I am ever forced to cover guys playing video games, I will retire and move to a rural fishing village and sell bait. You want me out? Demand video game tournaments on ESPN because that’s what appeared on ESPN2 yesterday.
Of course, that’s all entirely his call. If he doesn’t want to work a job any longer, then that’s perfectly fine. No one should have to do something they don’t want to, so if video games on ESPN is going to make Cowherd leave the network and pursue a career in the fishing industry, then good for him for having that kind of conviction.
Never mind, though, that ESPN has covered video games before. He, in fact, was the one that did it, as Own Good over at Polygon pointed out. Cowherd willingly provided coverage for Madden NFL 11, 12, and 13 as part of SportsNation. And it seems the great culmination of these team-up was MCing the vote tallying of Madden’s cover athlete.
He also was a member of the unlockable SportsNation team in 2010’s NBA Jam for Wii. (Apparently Ad Rock is one hell of a dunker.) So really it seems that Cowherd doesn’t have a problem with video games in general. It’s more that he doesn’t have room for anything beyond football and basketball.
Cowherd made a strange and broad implication as he talked about listening to the commentary for Heroes of the Dorm.
I tagged out at Harry Potter … I tolerated Donkey Kong, okay? I’ll tell you what that was the equivalent of there … Of me putting a gun to my mouth and having to listen to that.
He might have something there with the facet regarding commentary; it’s not always grade-A stuff. But he’s lumping Donkey Kong in with Harry Potter. He’s looking down upon two vastly different thing in the same sweeping view from atop his highly perched nose. There’s stuff he likes and there’s stuff he doesn’t like, sure. But apparently the stuff he doesn’t like all exists in one giant bucket.
That is inherently disrespectful and ignorant. It doesn’t matter whether he appreciates a sport or understands the nuance of ballet or the beauty of a piece of code; they all exist without his approval and have all the finesse and power and impact they would have regardless.
Not recognizing that is absurd. It’s like when characters in movies close their eyes and cover their ears to ignore bad news, as if those simple and childish actions would make it all go away. Cowherd’s tone itself is condescending, using his massive radio platform to disseminate his dangerous and bitter philosophy among his listeners.
More than that, he goes beyond wildly slinging personal opinion and goes to attacking those that play games. “Somebody lock the basement door at mom’s house and don’t let ’em out,” he says, a personal taunt to people that play games, one that ignores the fact that he horrendously broad label of “gamer” can apply to Angry Birds enthusiasts to professional League of Legend athletes. Also, video games? $21 billion in 2013.
Cowherd goes on with, “You know what the funny thing is? Listen to how intense they are. These guys are totally into it.” He’s now making fun of people for enjoying something. Britton Peele over at GuideLive laid out a perfectly succinct response: “Forgive them for apparently having fun incorrectly.”
Perhaps he has the same fear those behind the threats and insults of Gamergate have. It certainly has that same flavor, of an instinctual counter to the feeling of something being taken away from them. As James Dator of SBNation puts it, “Here’s the secret: eSports doesn’t need you to care about it. This is a thing that will continue to grow, with your validation or not.”
It’s coming whether Cowherd wants it to or not. He’s attacking the inevitable. He’s attacking the fact that everyone has different tastes. Even if you overlap with Cowherd and millions of others in liking football and basketball, you likely have views and opinions that differ from him as well.
Think about the people that likely celebrated the televised broadcasting of competitive eating onto ESPN. Or lumberjacking or spelling or any other niche competitive sport. They are validated by those that like it, not torn down by those that hate it or don’t understand it (and aren’t willing to try).
Certainly there are growing pains with eSports. Raphael Poplock, ESPN’s Vice President of Games and Partnerships, put it plainly in an interview with Kotaku in 2013. “Look at what [ESPN] has done for the sport of poker. We really revolutionized it, made it to a place where fans really could understand what was going on.” eSports needs a production scheme that allows intuitive consumption, not diving further down the rabbit hole of jargon.
But that’s not even what Cowherd is saying. There is legitimacy in his words—personal obligation, the strides that still lay before eSports, etc.—but his message is not one of insightful criticism. He is spouting hurtful, vitriolic, opinionated ignorance as if it were fact.
Cowherd’s words are playing directly into the human inclination to either retreat or lash out at things they don’t understand, things that are foreign to them. And given that he has a massive audience, he’s not just looking into his mirror with his positive affirmations but instead influencing thousands of listeners. (Potentially 23 million according to the ESPN fact sheet.)
On the basest level, it’s fine for him to think and hold these opinions on his own. But the fact that he spreads them so willingly and recklessly to a substantial audience makes him dangerous. It’s a poisonous viewpoint, one that diminishes and inhibits human and cultural development. Whether you agree with eSports belonging on ESPN, his words, like everyone’s words, deserve scrutiny. And his don’t pass muster.