ESPN airs 1st esports docuseries “Good Game” about League of Legends

SANTA MONICA, CA - MAY 28: A general view of the championship trophy at the League of Legends College Championship between Maryville and the University University of Toronto at the NA LCS Studio at Riot Games Arena on May 28, 2017 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images)
SANTA MONICA, CA - MAY 28: A general view of the championship trophy at the League of Legends College Championship between Maryville and the University University of Toronto at the NA LCS Studio at Riot Games Arena on May 28, 2017 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images) /

We interviewed the creative force behind the first League of Legends focused documentary series to air on ESPN!

ESPN has always been the worldwide leader of sports, but they’ve begun to delve into the great, new frontier of esports in recent years. Now, for the first time ever, the biggest name in sports television will be airing a series dedicated entirely to esports. Focused on the collegiate League of Legends team at UC Irvine, GOOD GAME is set to expose the LoL and the growing world of collegiate esports to a massive audience.

Helmed by Bonnie Bernstein, who has spent the last two decades at ESPN and CBS Sports covering events like the Super Bowl, College Football Championship and the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship, GOOD GAME is her first major reporting on esports. The series will follow the path of UC Irvine’s League of Legends team, the defending collegiate champions, in the first ever League of Legends documentary on a traditional sports network.

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This four-part series will look at the infrastructure behind UCI’s League of Legends program and the similarities between traditional athletes and esports athletes. However, Bernstein also promises that the show will tackle other important topics like the stigma surrounding video games and gaming, mental health and how it relates to esports, and the issues of misogyny and online harassment that surround gaming.

We were fortunate enough to sit down with Ms. Bernstein to discuss the experience of getting this series made and her thoughts on collegiate esports. If you want to learn more about her reporting and check out her other work, follow her on Twitter, and follow her on Facebook!

JT: How did you, someone who has an accomplished career in traditional sports journalism, decide to enter into the esports/League of Legends arena?

BB: To be honest, I didn’t find esports. Esports found me!

I was at a traditional sports industry conference called Cynopsis a few years back, and Andy Swanson, who was at Twitch at the time, was doing an esports keynote presentation. I wasn’t paying much attention, til he threw up a slide of Key Arena in Seattle, packed to the gills with fans, during The International. At that moment, I was like, “Whoa. What the hell is this?”

Andy and I started chatting specifically about collegiate esports, because college sports was my focus at the time. He introduced me to Mark “Garvey” Candella, who oversees Collegiate at Twitch. Garvey teed me up with Kurt “The Godfather” Melcher (who launched the first varsity scholarship program when he was at Robert Morris University) and Michael “Spicy Sherm” Sherman who runs College LoL for Riot. These are the folks who brought me into the fold, taught me everything I know and have treated me like family.

JT: What was the process like pitching this series at ESPN?

BB: Oh, I didn’t just pitch ESPN, I pitched everyone under the sun who would take a meeting! Networks, streaming platforms, social media platforms, brands, agencies representing brands. I tried every way possible to get it greenlit and spent my own money to shoot a sizzle reel with UCI (their League of Legends and Overwatch teams) because I knew with something this new, I needed more than just a paper treatment. I needed proof of concept.

ESPN always thought it was interesting, but didn’t have the budget when I initially approached them in 2017. We stayed in touch about it, though, and with the network recently making a deeper commitment to esports, polite persistence has paid off.

JT: How did you arrive at the decision to look at all these topics through the lens of following a collegiate team? Was there any particular reason you chose UC Irvine (other than them being the defending collegiate LoL champions)?

BB: When you consider how saturated our world is with content, it’s really hard to find something that hasn’t yet been done. To the best of my knowledge, GOOD GAME is the first multi-part documentary focusing on collegiate esports. Personally, I find the college angle a bit more “meaty” than the pro scene, because these gamers aren’t just scrimming a ton and playing hours on end of solo queue, but they also have minimum GPAs to maintain and want to be a part of the campus community.

As far as UCI goes, it’s not just a school with championship-caliber esports; the university has one of the most reputable computer game science programs in America and they’re doing all sort of amazing research around the impact of gaming on the body and the brain, which we’re able to touch on in the series, as well.

JT: What did you think about the recent decision by the NCAA to not establish a governing body for the growing esports scene in college? Do you think the growing movement and pressure to pay collegiate athletes had a part to play?

BB: There’s undoubtedly spirited debate in athletics circles about whether “esports” is “sports” and whether “gamers” are “athletes.” But to me, those aren’t the primary issues.

Your point is spot on with the money stuff. Collegiate gamers can win scholarship money in tournaments; NCAA athletes can’t get paid. But even if/when that changes – and it looks like we’re heading in that direction – there are two other big issues.

Number one: conference alignment. Some of the best esports teams in the country are schools like UCI, Robert Morris, and Maryville and there are some terrific Canadian schools, as well. How and where do you fit them into the Power 5/Group of 5 landscape that currently exists in college athletics?

And finally, there’s the intellectual property factor. The NCAA owns college sports (except for the College Football Playoff); publishers own game IP. Not quite as cut and dry as good ol’ basketball, baseball and gymnastics.

JT: What is something about video games/esports that you were surprised to learn during the filming/production process?

BB: Where do I even start? I guess one of the most fascinating elements to me is who teams scrim to prepare for matches.

While we always joke in the football world that Alabama can beat the worst NFL team, the Tide isn’t gonna go practice against a pro team. They practice against each other to prepare for games. In esports, not only will university teams scrim semi-pro and Academy teams, they’ll sometimes scrim their toughest college opponents!

Maryville is the #1 overall seed in Live Finals this year and UCI’s faced them, to the best of my recollection, at least 3 times (including five days before quarterfinals). That’s just nuts to me. But I do appreciate the notion of leveling-up to, ultimately, get better.

JT: Last question. Do you have a favorite champion, and if so who?

BB: So many champs, so little time! Think I’ll go with Teemo. Because if we could all be that precious AND have the ability to become invisible AND silence annoying people with poisonous mushrooms… we’d all have a better life, now, wouldn’t we?

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The first three episodes of GOOD GAME air Tuesday, May 21 on ESPN2 at 8:00 PM EST.