Video game tournaments will soon air on primetime TV

25 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

Turner Broadcasting and WME/IMG are creating a new esports league that will get airtime on cable, via Variety. Competitive gaming has become a wildly popular spectator sport without the help of mainstream TV, but now one network is trying to get in on the action.

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. This could help the growing esports scene — which is expected to generate $278 million this year, according to the latest Global Growth of Esports Report from industry intelligence firm Newzoo — reach an even larger audience. On Friday nights starting in 2016, eSports athletes will compete live in the authorities-versus-terrorists shooting game “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” through a partnership between Turner Broadcasting System Inc.’s TBS and talent agency William Morris Endeavor’s IMG sports and media division.

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. The broadcasts are the latest sign of a media company trying to attract younger viewers whose entertainment habits have moved online and away from traditional television. If you’re wondering who would watch this, just ask the 11,000 people who packed Madison Square Garden to watch a “League of Legends” championship last year.

It’s not the first time that eSports has graced the lighted stage of basic cable, since ESPN showed off a Heroes of the Storm tournament earlier this year. 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. Competitive gaming is already a huge worldwide phenomenon thanks to online video services such as Twitch, which Amazon acquired for nearly $1 billion last year.

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. The company announced a deal last week with Donald Trump to acquire the Miss Universe Organization after lassoing Professional Bull Riders in the spring.

DraftKings, a fantasy sports site, plans to soon add an e-sport component in which people can draft professional video game players just as they would draft a fantasy football team. 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. Newzoo, a research firm that specializes in the gaming industry, has estimated that the current e-sports audience in the U.S. consists of 32 million people; it expects that number to jump up to 50 million in 2017. AMZN -0.43 % 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. 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.

Merely existing on cable won’t be enough, as the youth demographic TBS wants is already perfectly comfortable watching games online, and may not even have cable TV in the first place. 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. There has also been some controversy regarding gamers using attention-enhacing drugs such as Adderall to improve their performance, which brings up the consideration of drug testing to preserve “the integrity of the sport.” 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. On TV, TBS plans to feature 10 consecutive weeks of e-sports programming, twice per year, with a schedule that includes playoffs and a championship round. Shapiro, adding that it will hook non-traditional viewers. “To have a successful television franchise, you need a combination of format, talent and competition.

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. Executives at the companies cite the success of ESPN’s X Games extreme sport competitions as evidence that a major investment and high-quality production values can grow the audience for an event that started out as counter-culture. 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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