As esports goes from strength to strength in the digital environment, one key frontier that remains something of an unknown quantity is television.
TV is a critical part of any sport, bringing awareness, drawing in new fans and generating critical revenue that allows the sport to grow. Esports has already made some headway into the medium and further growth is taking place every day. But what exactly is happening with esports and television and how will it affect the sport and its audience as the link develops? In this article, Neon finds out.
The difficulty of drawing TV to esports is that so much of the sport’s success has come away from traditional forms of media. Players and teams can completely bypass things like TV interviews and make a name for themselves in the one-to-one, self-owned world of social media and streaming services such as Twitch. Meanwhile, companies who organise the tournaments need not find exposure through Sky or the BBC: they simply establish their own broadcasting wing and push it straight to the internet, thereby owning the end-to-end experience.
It’s an enticing prospect and one that’s working well. The gaming community is built on loyalty and authentic engagement: fans want to feel like brands who are involved actually care, and obviously those running the tournaments do. They also want to feel connected with the rest of the community, a point underlined by an Ipsos survey that found that 56% of gamers on YouTube gather there to engage with the community. “I love that sense of community you get on YouTube, for gaming especially,” one gamer explained. “I follow this guy Dunkey and he’s great, but what I really love is reading the comments on his page and responses to his videos.”
Digital offers the perfect connected environment to do this in, and that can’t be easily or smoothly replicated through television. However, while this works for fans and gives a lot of power to the people who run the leagues and events, it’s also quite restrictive. As we found in our free guide, Field of View: How to Identify Your Esports Audience, esports’ total global audience is currently 385.5 million. This is obviously a significant amount, but it pales in comparison to the 2.3 billion people the English Premier League says follow football worldwide, and that’s a problem. For esports to grow, it needs more fans, and for it to win more fans, it needs mainstream exposure. That’s where TV comes in.
Current coverage is limited but expanding all the time. Last year, Sky and ITV became shareholders in esports broadcaster GINX TV and the station was added to Sky’s channel roster, making it the first 24-hour esports station on British TV. GINX was founded in 2008 and the switch to broadcast TV is specifically designed to expand reach. “GINX Esports TV aims to add significant mainstream TV exposure to the fast-growing esports ecosystem,” the company’s CEO Michiel Bakker explained. “The launch on Sky and the rebrand across all our 37 million households allows us to help new audiences discover esports and hopefully gives core fans a fresh perspective.”
Similar progress has been made in the United States. Since 2015, Turner Sports and talent agency WME/IMG have partnered on ELeague, a professional CS:GO league that airs on Turner’s TBS channel. With 24 teams competing in two 10-week tournaments, it’s a large scale set up, and Turner has taken it very seriously. “The level of investment is unlike anything that this sport has seen,” said the company’s President Lenny Daniels. “The way we treat players will be on par with the way we treat [former NBA star and Turner basketball analyst] Charles Barkley. We want to upgrade the whole sport.”
Results so far have been encouraging. Aired on both TBS and Twitch, ELeague enjoyed a successful first season in 2016, with DigiDay revealing that viewers consumed nearly 800 million minutes (13.3 million hours) of content: the gaming itself alongside behind-the-scenes footage and interviews. Focusing specifically on TV, the show attracted an average of 271,000 viewers, which is far below the numbers established sport pulls in, but a significant increase on previous televised esports events. “It’s an encouraging start,” Joost van Dreunen, CEO of gaming research firm SuperData, told DigiDay. “It represents a consolidation of an audience that’s typically been much more fragmented.”
Audience consolidation may be happening at the moment, but if all goes to plan and esports grows as a result of its increased TV coverage, that’s likely to change. The more people esports engages, the more the fanbase will diversify. The hardcore will be joined by esports novices, fans who are only interested in one game, fans who are keen to become players, fans who would never want to become players, fans who are fiercely into one platform over all the others, and fans who don’t have any firm allegiance one way or the other. It’s even possible that existing fans may feel alienated and frustrated by their favourite niche being compromised by efforts to appeal to the mainstream.
Indeed, some who’ve been covering esports for many years are suspicious of the latest attempts to bring it to TV. “Esports on TV has not worked since 2006, and it’s not magically working now that we’re actually broadcasting live games with good production values,” writes Daniel Rosen on The Score Esports. “Esports is so ingrained in the digital space that a TV broadcast would have to offer a lot of added value to make the audience care… Meanwhile, other esports-related TV broadcasts are far more supplementary and feel unnecessary in a world where fans just want to watch the game live, and talk about it on Twitter and Reddit later.”
This is why we wrote our free esports guide about audience segmentation. Esports is so big and growing so quickly that the audience can’t be judged solely as one homogeneous lump of people. As GQ games critic Sam White told us: “Nowadays when gaming is by far the most popular form of entertainment on Earth, gamers come in all forms.” So there’s a need for granular and fluid segmentation that appreciates the subtle differences between gamers and how those gamers can change as their engagement with and interest in esports evolves.
Esports is always in flux, and the introduction of major TV coverage will only speed that along. Brands who are already involved, or are looking to get involved, need to understand the audience and the factors that can expand and change it. By doing so, these brands will give themselves the best chance of succeeding in a new and difficult, but ultimately hugely rewarding, industry that’s already turning some of the biggest heads traditional media has to offer.
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