TV Tries to Crack eSports

TV networks still think eSports will be a big winner, although none of them has quite yet cracked the code on the emerging genre.

The young people who are fleeing traditional TV are flocking to online gaming sites. Reaching those viewers could be a bonanza, so such programmers as The Walt Disney Co. and its ESPN unit, Turner and NBCUniversal are airing tournaments and video game review shows. Sports leagues, including most recently the National Basketball Association, are also jumping in.

“Humans enjoy watching people play video games more than we thought,” said Marc Buhaj, senior vice president of programming and general manager for Disney XD, which this summer has been airing a primetime block of gamer programming called “D|XP.”

“That’s not groundbreaking to an audience that’s doing it, but it is quite insightful to some old dinosaurs that didn’t know that,” Buhaj said, adding, “we haven’t seen numbers where we’re literally backing the money truck in here.”

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Big Upside to eSports
The windfall from people watching people play on-screen games on a screen is potentially huge. eSports is expected to be a $696 million business in 2017, up 41% from last year, according to gaming research company Newzoo. That includes spending of $155 million on advertising, $266 million on sponsorships and $95 million on media rights. Newzoo’s forecast calls for eSports revenue jump to $1.5 billion by 2020, as brand investment doubles.

Most of gaming activity is now online. TV networks are looking to cash in as well. Time Warner’s Turner unit announced plans to start its eLeague joint venture with WME/IMG in 2015.

“When we looked at this space, obviously we saw the gargantuan numbers that everybody’s been exposed to,” Turner Sports chief content officer Craig Barry said.

But to be big, eSports has to be more mainstream.

“To be fair, I’m not sure anybody’s cracked the code on it,” Barry said. “So we continue to experiment. We continue to try new things. It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when, and it’s a matter of creating the best user experience for the highest level of engagement.”

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This summer, Disney XD turned over a big chunk of its schedule to gaming, with the D|XP block airing daily from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. (ET).

The programming covered a variety of genres, including live tournaments, game review programs, news coverage of gaming events and variety shows. The network got the programming from partners including ESL, Vice Media, Warner Brothers IGN, and Attack Media, as well as the Disney Digital Network and ESPN.

Disney XD ordered about 400 half-hours of programming, about two-thirds of which has aired so far. Buhaj, the network’s general manager regards the project as a pilot — a really big pilot.

So far, he said, viewers haven’t rejected the new programming, which is a good first step, and a couple of the shows — game review show Parker Plays, featuring YouTuber Parker Coppins, and Polaris: Player Select — did well enough to air elsewhere on the network.

Buhaj also said he was pleased with the response to the Super Smash Brothers and Street Fighter tournaments the network aired in mid-July.

But there were no huge hits. “The reason for that is gaming is still quite fringe,” he said. The programming also needs to find a permanent home where viewers will know they can find it.

The network’s research team is still going over viewer response to break down whether the programming is attracting new viewers to the already young-skewing channel.

“The 18-to-24-year-old age group is certainly one that’s responded well,” he said. “All we can go off is anecdotal feedback at the moment and certainly some people who are in that demographic here at work who may not usually watch the channel have suddenly found it new and interesting.”

Buhaj plans to make a decision about continuing the gamer programming later this year.

For Disney XD’s corporate cousins at ESPN, which has televised EA Madden football and Heroes of the Storm tournaments, eSports represents an opportunity to reach another generation of young males.

John Lasker, vice president of digital media programming at ESPN, noted that unlike other sports, eSports starts out as an online phenomenon. “Although traditionally we’re looked at as a television network, we are on all of the platforms that eSports has found success in,” Lasker said. “And that, combined with that younger male demographic, makes it an interesting category for us.”

Sports Games Cross Over
Video games that resemble traditional sports are a bit easier for TV viewers to follow, he said.

“A positive thing that we’ve seen is that there’s a really nice crossover of existing sports fans that have high interest in eSports,” Lasker said.

Turner’s Barry said his company produces tournaments differently for online and TV viewers. “We understand that it’s a native digital platform,” he said. “The hard core eSports community is going to consume the majority of their content online.

“Broadcast for us is a portal. We’re able to use that portal to teach the more casual fan how to play and how to watch. On a platform like Twitch, that might insult viewers.”

Advertisers are also starting to buy in.

“The reason we’re interested in this is the same reason advertisers are interested, because of that hard-to-reach demo that seems to be continuing grow,” Lasker said. “So the advertiser interest, I believe, has matched what our interest had been up until this point.”

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.