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Soledad O’Brien has a wealth of experience on her resume as a journalist, and before she was the host of Hearst Television’s “Matter of Fact,” O’Brien was on the forefront of reporting about esports for a mainstream audience in 2013 when she attended the League of Legends World Championship on behalf of HBO’s “Real Sports.”
Going to the event in person, she attempted to explain the general premise of the game and the rising popularity of LoL, as well as esports more generally. However, when she returned to the panel of talking heads at “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” the reception she received was less than open-minded.
“My issue is, it’s still not a sports,” former tennis player Mary Carillo said as an opening comment.
The following responses to O’Brien’s attempt to defend “cyber athletes” included references to “Star Trek” conventions and laughter at the thought of taking esports seriously.
“I want to talk about the twenty million people who are watching the damn thing,” sportswriter Frank Deford said. “They’ve got to be crazier than the people playing.”
Fast forward five years and a cartoonish battle royale game by Epic Games, Fortnite, has taken over the minds of America’s youth. The game’s rising popularity in 2018 helped a crazy-haired Twitch streamer named Tyler “Ninja” Blevins break viewership records by streaming with one of the world’s most famous celebrities in rapper Drake.
As Fortnite’s popularity boomed, so did Twitch viewership and revenue for numerous broadcast personalities, and the conversations about “cyber athletes” began to sound a little bit different.
Following Fortnite’s meteoric rise, Blevins made numerous appearances on mainstream TV programs such as “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” providing an amount of credibility to the growth of gaming.
While hosts like DeGeneres and Fallon weren’t exceptionally knowledgeable about Fortnite or gaming, the idea behind streaming for a living and making money from gaming was presented as something that intrigued them, and they asked questions that suggested open-mindedness.
“I’m not really into video games but I found out that Fortnite makes hundreds of millions of dollars a month, and people can make millions of dollars a year just from playing Fortnite,” DeGeneres said. “So this morning I went out and bought an Xbox, and I’m going to be rich.”
Having Blevins on to explain to her how to make money off of playing Fortnite on Twitch, DeGeneres asked questions about how many hours a day a streamer plays and where revenue comes from while the two played a game of Fortnite together.
Meanwhile on “The Tonight Show,” Fallon opened his interview with Blevins by spouting off all of the streamer’s credentials, including his number of followers and amount of time spent streaming. He followed that up by asking why Fortnite, and streaming are as popular as they.
“A lot of people can’t wrap their head around it like, ‘Why would you want to watch somebody play a video game,” Fallon said.
“I get it. It’s so funny, but why would you want to watch the best of the best football, soccer, hockey,” Blevins said. “It’s entertainment. You watch the NFL and things like that because you want to watch people do things that you can’t.”
While Blevins did his media tours in 2018, the language used about gaming was less demeaning and more inquisitive. The stigma surrounding gaming was beginning to change, but hosts like Degeneres and Fallon knew that many people still held the sort of opinions that Carillo and Deford expressed in 2013 on “Real Sports.”
The explosion of Fortnite as a game that didn’t take itself too seriously despite being massively popular allowed top influencers like Blevins to move the discussion from “Is gaming a sport?” to “why is this captivating to so many people?”
As Fortnite’s esports efforts reached an apex last month, it only made sense that when the inaugural World Cup for Fortnite in New York concluded with impressive Twitch viewership that the solo competition champion, 16-year-old Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf, would also earn an appearance on Fallon’s show himself.
“I think, people think ‘uh, you just play video games and you won,’” Fallon said. “But I think, no … you put a lot of work into this.”
Fallon’s questioning included asking about Giersdorf’s training regiment, and he added that he was “so jealous” of what Giersdorf does as a gamer. The entire interaction was a stark contrast to the way O’Brien’s reporting was received by peers on HBO’s Real Sports.
Instead of laughing about the legitimacy of what Giersdorf was accomplishing as a teenage kid, he was laughing at the nonchalant nature that Giersdorf belittled winning $100 in his early competitions as a professional.
“With $60, $100, you must have been freaked out,” Fallon said. “That’s a lot of money.”
While esports still has a long way to go before being in the same tier as more established traditional forms of competition, the approach that outlets like “The Tonight Show” are giving it suggests a shift in the mainstream mindset.
Instead of there being a negative stigma attached to gaming professionally, the is an increasing amount of general interest and open-mindedness that didn’t exist in the same way five years ago.
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