I was driving home from Talen Energy Stadium on Saturday night when I flicked on the radio in search of sports talk.
94 WIP had just finished broadcasting the Phillies’ 60th loss of the season.
And 97.5 the Fanatic featured four voices I didn’t recognize, talking about League of Legends and Street Fighter 5.
Nope. The Fanatic was airing a syndicated eSports program called “Checkpoint Radio” in place of the national ESPN programming that would typically run during late night and weekend hours.
The main topic of Saturday’s show was some competition called “EVO,” which is apparently a tournament for fighting games like Tekken 7 and Super Smash Brothers. There was also an interview with an eSports lawyer, who was discussing some sort of gaming/Youtube legal issue that I didn’t fully comprehend, but found interest in.
A quick look at the Checkpoint website features a July 13th post welcoming Philadelphia and Saint Louis to the syndication family, a network that also includes 18 other cities in the United States and Canada. Most affiliates are airing the program during early morning weekend hours, but Toronto’s 1050 is giving the show a 3 pm Saturday slot while Pittsburgh and Houston are running the show at noon.
97.5 will play the program at 10 pm every Saturday night.
— Rick Scott (@SportsRadio101) July 10, 2017
Checkpoint Radio is distributed by Westwood 1, the New York-based syndication specialist that you probably know as the provider of national broadcasts on 97.5 and 94 WIP. If you listen to March Madness, for example, on local radio, that’s a Westwood 1 production. Rick Scott, Checkpoint’s CEO and managing partner, says they were approached by Westwood shortly after February’s Super Bowl. Now, just five months in, the show airs on nearly two-dozen stations in North America.
You may also be familiar with the Sixers’ gaming connection, as the franchise recently became the first North American sports club to own an eSports team.
Last September, the Sixers announced the acquisition of Dignitas and Apex, teams that compete in high-profile leagues for games such as Counter Strike, Overwatch, and Heroes of the Storm. Basketball has been the sport most attuned to the budding eSports scene, with 17 NBA clubs agreeing to participate in this year’s inaugural NBA 2k League. The brands of those clubs, Sixers included, appeared in that gaming league.
Why the basketball connection the eSports? It might be the fact that NBA fans are trending younger these days, while baseball and football fans are on the other end of the spectrum.
Gaming similarly appeals to youthful crowds, with a recent study showing that 73 percent of eSports fans are below the age of 35. There’s generational overlap when it comes to gaming, basketball, and soccer fandom.
“One thing is that sports franchises are looking at eSports in a different light because there is such a big opportunity,” Scott told Philly Views. “Take Rick Fox, who is an ex-NBA player – he has 12 teams with 48 eSports ‘athletes,’ as he refers to them. They travel and participate in tournaments throughout the country. These tournaments are huge. DOTA 2 has a big tournament in Seattle with more than five million dollars in prize money. There is significant money involved in this and I think the teams are seeing that. The NBA in 2018 is going to try to put together a mirror league with eSports teams playing each other. When the Sixers play the Knicks, hopefully the eSports team from Philly will play the Knicks’ eSports team. So that’s going to be interesting. FIFA is also interested in eSports and getting fans into that.”
It’s also worth noting that 97.5 is in negotiations with the Sixers to continue their broadcasting agreement, which was last renewed in October of 2014. The Fanatic was acquired by Beasley Broadcasting last summer, when former owner Greater Media sold off four Philadelphia radio stations in a $240 million dollar deal.
Right now, 97.5 is the only Beasley-owned station currently airing the “Checkpoint” program.
94 WIP, meanwhile, was recently acquired by Bala Cynwyd-based Entercom, though the official transition from CBS ownership has not yet taken place.
Both stations are navigating new territory in ownership while also reworking talent lineups and tweaking programming in a competitive and challenging marketplace. The Fanatic’s Rob Ellis was the most recent host to move on from local sports radio.
— Jason Myrtetus (@jasonmyrt) July 14, 2017
There is, obviously, the question of how popular eSports are in Philadelphia, a city that doesn’t exactly warm to new ideas as quickly as other American metropolises.
While male millennial types might show interest in League of Legends, the average sports talk listener in Philadelphia is still, without any sort of scientific data, probably an older, “four-for-four” Eagles and Phillies type. There’s also a bit of irony to the fact that you don’t hear anything about the Flyers, Union, or most local college teams on either radio station, yet we’re finding room for video game talk.
“An interesting stat is that 46 percent of the people who play eSports are also NFL fans,” Scott explains. “I don’t think you have an isolated group. Everyone seems to think that the guy who plays video games is somebody who stays in his mother’s basement and hollers, ‘bring me dinner!’ That’s not the case. It’s across the board, because you’re seeing all kinds of people who are huge fans of sports, whether it’s football or basketball, and it goes through to the other sports as well. They participate. It’s something that I think radio stations – like the Fanatic in Philadelphia – their management teams are recognizing that there is value in this. And they’re partners with the Sixers, so that’s a natural fit to do an eSports show.”
Like it or not, eSports is nothing to be scoffed at when it comes to global popularity or revenue-generating potential.
Just this year, the grand prize for the Defense of the Ancients (DOTA) 2 World Championships, which Scott mentioned earlier, was $9 million, awarded to the five-member Chinese team. For context, Sergio Garcia earned $1,980,000 for winning the Masters. Roger Federer took home 2.2 million pounds for his Wimbledon win, which is about 2.8 million US dollars.
When the DOTA 2 prize money was split between those five gamers, they each took home $1.87 million, which is enough money to buy a copy of Starcraft for everybody in the Delaware Valley.
Competitive gaming is soon to be a multi-billion dollar industry and it now owns a time slot on one of Philadelphia’s sports talk radio stations.
We’ve certainly come a long way from the days of sitting on our rear ends and playing Contra, which I wouldn’t know anything about.