ESPN2 launched on October 1, 1993 at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Its inaugural program was the premiere of SportsNight, a sports news program originally hosted by Suzy Kolber and Terry Crisp. Launching with an estimated carriage of about 10 million homes, ESPN2 aimed to be a more informal and youth-oriented channel than parent network ESPN, featuring a heavier emphasis on programming that would appeal to the demographic. The youthful image was also reflected in its overall presentation, which featured a graffiti-themed logo and on-air graphics.
Its initial lineup featured studio programs such as SportsNight (which host Keith Olbermann characterized as a "lighter" parallel to ESPN's SportsCenter that would still be "comprehensive, thorough and extremely skeptical"), Talk2 (a nightly talk show hosted by radio personality Jim Rome, which was billed as a sports parallel to CNN's Larry King Live),Max Out (an extreme sports anthology series carried over from ESPN) and SportsSmash, a five-minute rundown of sports news and scores which aired every half-hour. ESPN2 also featured several half-hour news programs focused on specific sports, such as NFL 2Night (football), NHL 2Night (hockey) and RPM 2Night (auto racing). Event coverage would focus on coverage of mainstream sports popular within the 18-34 age demographic, such as auto racing, college basketball and NHL hockey (which was branded as NHL Fire on Ice), while also covering atypical sports such as BMX and other extreme sports.
ESPN2 would also be used to showcase new technology and experimental means of broadcasting events: on September 18, 1994, ESPN2 simulcast CART's Bosch Spark Plug Grand Prix using only onboard camera feeds. In 1995, ESPN2 introduced the "BottomLine", a persistent news ticker which displayed sports news and scores. The BottomLine would later be adopted by ESPN itself and all of its future properties.
In the late 1990s, ESPN2 would phase out its youth-oriented format and begin to serve as a secondary outlet for ESPN's mainstream programming; telecasts began to adopt a more conventional style, and the "graffiti 2" logo was dropped in 2001 in favor of a variation of the standard ESPN logo. On-screen graphics (such as the BottomLine) used a blue color scheme instead of red to differentiate it from ESPN. On February 12, 2007, the ESPN2 branding was stripped from most on-air presentation and replaced with ESPN: the ESPN2 brand is now solely used for station identification.
Sports events presented on ESPN2 originally tended to be alternative sports such as poker, billiards, lumberjacking, extreme sports and, more recently, drum and bugle corps. However, in recent years ESPN2 has broadcast increasingly more mainstream sporting events, including Major League Baseball games, the East–West Shrine Game, much of the 2006 World Baseball Classic, regular season KHL games, many Major League Soccer games, NCAA basketball games, the WNBA, the Arena Football League and Saturday afternoon NASCAR Nationwide Series races. In 2011, ESPN2 also acquired broadcast rights to delayed coverage for some American Le Mans Series events, with series' major events airing on ABC.
The channel has also become ESPN's home for tennis coverage. The showpieces are all four of the "Grand Slam" tournaments: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. Also featured on ESPN2 are the ATP World Tour Finals and U.S.-based tournaments, including the ATP Masters 1000 events at Indian Wells and Miami, as well as the US Open Series.
Most of ESPN's soccer output has been broadcast on ESPN2 including Major League Soccer, Premier League and La Liga matches; the channel also broadcast the United States' FIFA World Cup qualifiers in 2009. ESPN2 formerly broadcast matches of the UEFA Champions League. In 2003, ESPN2 began broadcasting Major League Lacrosse games. In March 2007, ESPN2 and the league agreed on a new broadcast contract that will run until the 2016 season.
ESPN2 has also simulcast many game telecasts with ESPN, usually as a part of a "Full Circle" or "Megacast" special, which covers a single telecast across several ESPN networks, with each network providing a different form of coverage (such as different camera angles). ESPN2 also simulcasts some programming from ESPNews, often during local blackouts of scheduled national game telecasts, and for a while provided a simulcast of ESPN Deportes' edition of SportsCenter on Sundays. In return, ESPN2 programming is often seen on ESPN during blackouts of games in certain markets.
ESPN2 also often carries SportsCenter at times when the broadcast on ESPN is delayed by a sporting event that overruns into one of the program's scheduled timeslots. ESPN and ESPN2 also jointly aired two episodes of a documentary special called This is SportsCenter, in which ESPN showed a documentary showing the production of an edition of SportsCenter, while the finished product aired on ESPN2. The documentary would usually air for two hours, where the first hour would cover the preliminary production of the night's show on ESPN, while ESPN2 aired ESPN's regular programming. The second hour usually spent time at production control while covering reaction to the night's developments.
Both ESPN and ESPN2 carried ABC News' coverage of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and The Pentagon (and the related crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania) on September 11, 2001. ESPN2 also aired the 2008 SEC Men's Basketball Tournament championship game in 2008 to most of the nation, since a storm damaged the original game site, the Georgia Dome, causing the schedule to be rearranged and site to be moved to the smaller Alexander Memorial Coliseum. The new schedule was in conflict with CBS's coverage of the Big Ten Championship Game; the game was produced by CBS. In the territory of the Southeastern Conference, the Big Ten game aired on ESPN2.