Say time travel was possible and you go back to 2007. Someone takes out their first iPhone, and you notice something missing. They can't watch that big game live because the WatchESPN app hasn’t…
Packed stadiums. Thrilling matches. World-class players. Chanting spectators. No, this isn’t the World Cup or the Olympics. We are talking about eSports, or in other words, professional competitive video gaming, and it’s been catching CES attendees and the mainstream media by storm here in Las Vegas this week.
But first, an introduction for the newbies. In eSports, professional video gamers play each other live at venues like Madison Square Garden, and fans shell out big bucks to watch. And now, just like traditional sports dominate television screens in every household, eSports has found a home in the programming world, as it appeals to a niche market of gamers and enthusiasts. But experts in the industry believe this new exposure is bound to catch the attention of casual viewers and to secure a space for eSports in mainstream culture. Thanks to advancements in mobile devices, more and more people now use their phones and tablets to play games. Gaming is more accessible and relatable than ever before, making its shift to the television medium all the more logical.
During an eSports panel and special Turner Sports broadcast this week, major players behind the development of eSports discussed the reasons behind the surge in popularity of the phenomenon, its recent shift to TV programming, and where it’s headed.
One thing rang clear — 2016 was a big year for eSports, and its growth looks to continue throughout 2017 and beyond. Newzoo, a market intelligence firm specializing in gaming, released a report last year which projected that 427 million people will be engaged with eSports by 2019. According to Newzoo, engagement with eSports in 2016 was in the 230-270 million range.
Turner Sports is one network that has tapped into the eSports space in a big way. Last year Turner premiered ELEAGUE, a professional Counter Strike: Global Offensive League (a multiplayer first-person shooter video game) that airs matches, playoffs and championships on TBS. Games are broadcast live from Turner Studios in Atlanta as fans watch 24 teams from across the world compete for the ELEAGUE Major title. CES reported that the first season of ELEAGUE generated nearly 900 million gross minutes of video consumption across TBS and Twitch, an online streaming service and community for gamers.
When asked to describe the experience in bringing ELEAGUE to fruition, Christina Alejandre, GM and VP of eSports at Turner, said the broadcasting process has been successful, with of course several challenges along the way during this experimental phase. “We learn from match to match, from every broadcast, what the best thing to do is. But the way we wanted to package this was to make it as accessible as possible to the mainstream, but still be authentic to the core audience so as to not ‘TV-ify’ eSports. [Meaning] no unnatural breaks in the games that don’t make any sense,” said Alejandre.
TV is also a “safe” place to watch eSports if one is not familiar with the gaming community, Alejandre explained. This is because TV is a familiar medium to most people, and they can watch it from the convenience of their couch or wherever they are most comfortable. In contrast to Twitch, which caters to experienced gamers, Turner provides a platform that’s warm and inviting to mainstream audiences.
Turner’s broadcasts of ELEAGUE also allow for more personal storytelling about the players and teams throughout the season. Viewers are given the opportunity to relate to the players, much like how audiences get to know major athletes better during Olympic competitions through narrative segments. During a special preview of ELEAGUE, the CES audience caught a glimpse of a few of the players who will be participating in the ELEAGUE Major championships in Atlanta later this month. Several of them spoke about how preparing for this competition feels very much like it would to gear up for the World Cup. Their sacrifices, time, dedication, ambition and dreams of earning the coveted title are the same.
Dennis Fong, a former professional player of first-person shooter video games, stressed that the real opportunity in eSports lies in viewership: “eSports is about the idea and realization that it’s entertaining to watch other people play games. There’s 1.3 billion PC gamers globally. So the audience is there. As a gamer, I have just as much fun watching my friend play the game over my shoulder.”
The idea behind eSports being a spectator sport is an interesting one and lends itself well to television and the potential it has to entice viewers. “Forty percent of people who watch eSports don’t play the game,” said Imari Oliver head of sales and global partnerships at WME/IMG, a talent agency that partners with Turner in its broadcast of ELEAGUE. “There’s an excitement there that’s unmatched.” In a video broadcast during the presentation about the history of eSports, a person who identified herself as an “observer” of gaming competitions explained that the thrill of it all comes from the players’ strategies and how they outsmart their opponents.
Fong also compared eSports and its impact on viewers to how Instagram has transformed social media interactions. “When you think of what Instagram did in allowing people to capture photos and share their world around them, and Snapchat as well, and when you think of gaming in general, they are designed to have these epic moments … There are billions of sunsets, just like there are billions of these [gaming] moments,” Fong said. “So the opportunity is to put cameras on these gamers and let the gaming community [and beyond] relive these moments.”
And with ELEAGUE reaching new audiences, the number of eSports fans is sure to rise throughout 2017 and beyond. So it turns out that eSports is just getting started as TV becomes an emerging platform for the gaming phenomenon, with the potential to be its largest stage yet.