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.
“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…