Earlier this year I found myself in the Colorado rockies USA eating a fantastic meal at a bar, situated at the base of beautiful snow capped mountains. Imagine my shock and - after I picked up my jaw off the floor - utter joy, to look up at the television behind the bar to see the EVO Street Fighter V video game tournament being broadcast live. The largest fighting game tournament in the world - and it has to be repeated: being live broadcast, nationally across the USA. I expected Baseball.
I looked around at the crowd gathered at the bar. I couldn't be the only person to perceive the obvious contrast of this location and what is currently being beamed into the faces of grizzled bar-flies and visiting tourists. Enjoying their meals and conversation, and enjoying the folk music being played by the band in the corner. I wondered what these people thought of such a thing, and somewhat expected a more inebriated person to yell at the staff to 'change the fucking channel'. Well the fact is, some people seemed to be watching on in bemusement, but most were either quietly confused or just didn’t seem to care.
This is an ESPN broadcast, and more specifically eSports at ESPN. And while I’m not completely up to speed with the professional eSports coverage situation worldwide, the fact is ESPN is mainstream media as much as any is, and is pushing eSports in a big, big way. Street Fighter, Counter Strike, Overwatch, the players of these games earn millions and attract thousands of fans. And yes, also enjoy national broadcast coverage. It might have taken a decade longer than enthusiasts thought it would, but eSports is now big and your mum and dad (if they live in the USA at least) has probably seen it on the tube.
This is why when ESPN gives coverage to competitive pinball, it’s big news.
The print magazine version of this article went to stores a little while ago, but this week the article is also now up on their website for all to enjoy. A fantastic article on the tale of Robert Gagno, the Canadian pinball sensation and now world pinball champion. He’s had a feature documentary made about him (Wizard Mode which is now available world wide), and has attracted a very large amount of attention particularly in his home country and the states. And it’s not just because he has a really interesting story to tell about growing up with autism and the challenges he and his family face every day. It’s also because he provides a lens with which the spectator can easily approach and comprehend competitive pinball play and the nuance and quirkiness of the world pinball community. How better to introduce such a niche subject, than frame it from the eyes of a person who has difficulty relating, understanding and moving amongst social cliques and complex rules. The viewer learns along with Robert and can empathise with his triumphs as a result.
So while the article is about Robert Gagno, the fact that ESPN is using this as a vehicle to discuss competitive pinball is massive for the sport. The fact that they have also featured former NBA player Todd MacCulloch is clearly no accident - it’s another wink and a nudge to say ‘hey, this stuff is serious guys, pay attention'.
Where will it all go from here? Who knows really, but I can’t help myself thinking this could be the start of ESPN + IFPA or something equally exciting. But I’ve been known to dream a little too enthusiastically before… Feel free to pull me back to reality every now and again, regardless the evidence of magic once materialised still captured on my phone.