TBS commits to esports in a major way with biannual, televised league

24 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Competitive video gaming is set to return to TV in 2016.

From 2016 TBS won’t just show Conan and Big Bang Theory re-runs, as the channel has revealed that it’s launching its own eSports league. Turner Broadcasting and WME/IMG are about to find out whether live video-game competitions are ready for primetime TV: The companies have formed a new e-sports gaming league, with TBS set to broadcast 20 live events over the course of 2016.

TBS is leading what several industry sources say will be another flurry of agreements to bring professional video-game battles — today, under the catchy name eSports — to broadcast television. Tens of millions of Americans are already watching others play video games on the Internet, but the fast-growing genre has yet to gain a foothold in traditional TV. The parties cut a deal with game publisher Valve to feature its “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” first-person shooter (pictured above) as the title that five-person teams will square off in head-to-head matchups during the league’s first season. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive will be the featured game during the league’s first season, and events will air on Friday nights on TBS for 10 consecutive weeks, twice per year.

The partners see the yet-to-be-named league as an opportunity to grow the e-sports category, which is hugely popular online, by putting it on TV: “This is a way to bring e-sports to light and the 90 million homes TBS is in,” said Lenny Daniels, president of Turner Sports. Discussions between WME/IMG and Turner on the concept started about a year ago, Daniels said, and moved forward after Kevin Reilly joined Turner as chief creative officer and president of TBS and TNT. ESPN 2 recently aired Heroes of the Storm matches from the “Heroes of the Dorm” collegiate competition and DirecTV aired professional gaming competitions with the Championship Gaming Series as early as 2007.

As for whether they considered teaming up with an existing e-sports league, Daniels said “it just didn’t make any sense” given the resources of each company. As The AV Club reports, however, the move angered “real” sports fans who felt that activities where people don’t get life-threatening injuries aren’t suitable for a primetime broadcast. Turner, an equal partner with WME/IMG in the new venture, said production quality would match its college basketball, Major League Baseball and National Basketball Assn. broadcasts. Those objections probably won’t be around for long, however, since the sound of traditional sporting institutions like gambling and big-money sponsorship deals will drown out any lingering haters.

Last month, 11,000 people packed Madison Square Garden for a regional championship for the videogame “League of Legends.” TBS, a unit of Time Warner Inc., TWX -2.56 % isn’t the only company to bet on videogames as a spectator sport. The company announced a deal last week with Donald Trump to acquire the Miss Universe Organization after lassoing Professional Bull Riders in the spring. With over one million concurrent viewers at big events, it’s the biggest first-person shooter in eSports, but it’s dwarfed by the audiences of multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games like League of Legends, which can hit more than 10 million concurrent viewers. Companion coverage will run on Turner apps and websites. “The level of investment is unlike anything that this sport has seen,” said Turner Sports President Lenny Daniels. “The way we treat players will be on par with the way we treat [TV analyst and former NBA star] Charles Barkley. AMZN -1.45 % spent about $970 million to buy Twitch Interactive Inc., a popular Web video channel for broadcasting and watching people play videogames.

But when it comes to e-sports, how many Americans will actually tune in to watch videogamers wearing headsets – with their avatars duking it out on big-screen monitors? Analysts say television and gaming have changed significantly over just the last three years, justifying what Turner and WME/IMG called the “the most extensive commitment to televised eSports programming.” “ESports appeals to many more people and households,” said Joost van Dreunen, chief executive of game-industry consulting firm SuperData Research. “I would be very bullish.” Van Dreunen, who’s fielding a growing number of inquiries from advertisers and media companies, said several factors make the industry fit for American TV again. Daniels and his counterparts at WME/IMG believe that TBS’s regular audience contains many potential fans of competitive gaming. “The great opportunity here is there are a ton of esports fans out there that don’t realize they’re esports fans yet,” said Tobias Sherman, the head of WME/IMG’s esports division. Just this week, daily fantasy sports site DraftKings said it would soon let users draft professional videogamers the same way you would draft a fantasy football team.

It’s worth noting that when ESPN2 televised “Heroes of the Dorm” (pitting competitors playing “Heroes of the Storm”) in April, it generated a backlash on Twitter from viewers – and ESPN’s own employees and talent – disparaging the event as not worthy of the worldwide leader in sports. You’ll get to keep your current user name (as long as it doesn’t contain invalid characters, in which case you’ll have to go through a few extra steps to make the transfer), and all your old comments will eventually (not immediately) migrate with you. TBS is televising the men’s college basketball national championship game in April for the first time under its partnership with CBS, an event that is viewed as a chance to reach a large number of potential esports fans. The e-sports audience in the U.S. is currently 32 million people and is expected to hit 50 million in 2017, according to Newzoo, a research firm that specializes in the gaming industry. There, event promoters woo advertisers that covet the young consumers who dominate the gaming audience. “People are aware their kids and grandkids are playing ‘Minecraft’ on the iPad,” van Dreunen said. “They realize entertainment preferences have changed.” Neal Pilson is a skeptic.

WME/IMG says the e-sports business provides full-service team management, marketing and representation; Sherman said players for the e-sports league will be picked regardless of whether they’re IMG clients. “It’s not just the top teams but the underdogs as well,” he said. Turner is hoping that e-sport events will bring it a young male audience on a night of the week that most networks have found particularly tough to program. For any form of entertainment, said WME/IMG chief content officer Mark Shapiro, the key ingredients for success are competition, personalities and a compelling format. Online video ad spending is only a tenth of TV ad revenue, and the huge TV hauls could yield bigger salaries for players and better organized leagues.

Shapiro, adding that it will hook non-traditional viewers. “To have a successful television franchise, you need a combination of format, talent and competition. Digital content will also include behind-the-scenes event coverage and profiles on the e-sports teams and competitors, with additional coverage available through Bleacher Report’s Team Stream App. Forming a new league allows for innovation on presentation, where the limits of Twitch, YouTube and other services have created a “glass ceiling,” Sherman said. Though his experiment with USA Network wasn’t a huge success, he’s grown more receptive to inquiries because “TV can elevate the experience” when well-planned. ESPN said experimentation would continue: “The championship aired on a highly competitive night of programming, and we are pleased with the strategic goals of delivering the event.”

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