The first Heroes of the Dorm tournament (a collegiate eSports competition where teams play Heroes of the Storm to win $500,000 in scholarship money) was hailed by Activision Blizzard as a major milestone, being the first eSports event to be televised in the US—shown on ESPN2. However, that was two years ago, and now ESPN is scaling back its eSports coverage plans amid criticisms and low ratings for the tournament, giving Facebook a chance to pick it up and grow its eSports audience instead.
Although ESPN has aired both Poker tournaments and eating competitions, eSports may have been a step too far for many of its viewers—and there are good reasons why the company’s efforts haven’t been as successful as Turner’s ELeague, which hosted the ELeague Major over the weekend with a televised Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) Grand Final.
“We understand that the native platform for eSports is digital,” said Craig Barry, executive vice president and chief content officer for Turner Sports, discussing ELeague’s first season. “Understanding that the majority of our audience lives and breathes in the digital space creates a great opportunity.” The challenge for ELeague was to properly introduce eSports, which continues to grow in the digital space, to a more mainstream TV audience. That’s one of the reasons events like the ELeague Major play-offs and Quarterfinals were shown on Twitch and YouTube while the Grand Final was aired on television. However, there’s more to it than deciding on which tournaments to show.
Choosing The Right Game
There are quite a few games that are popular among eSports enthusiasts, chief among them being League of Legends (LOL), Dota 2, and CS:GO. ESPN was right to hope that light coverage of eSports might bring in a fresh, younger audience, especially considering how millennials watch as much eSports as they do baseball. It was also smart to look to a then an up-and-coming game developed by Blizzard as a starting point. Heroes of the Storm, which was still in beta at the time, was already growing in popularity among college students. Except, it turned out to be the wrong game for the wrong channel.
One of the main reasons ELeague chose to feature Counter-Strike instead of League of Legends was because it was both popular and accessible to viewers. There’s less explaining that needs to be done with a first-person shooter than with a MOBA, which usually starts with having to explain what MOBAs are and why people like them. Additionally, ELeague worked with key sponsors, including Arby’s, to help promote the CS:GO competition and win over gamers, who may have helped explain the game to newcomers.
While many hoped that Heroes of the Storm would shake up the eSports status quo in a way World of Warcraft changed MMORPGs, there was no getting around the fact that the game was Blizzard’s entry into the MOBA market, and its players and fans are generally the ones who understand it. Those that don’t have little motivation to learn more and find out what all the excitement is about. Furthermore, it was a newly released game that, despite Blizzard’s reputation, hadn’t made a name for itself yet outside of dedicated gaming circles.
According to Christina Alejandre, general manager of ELeague and VP of eSports at Turner Sports, TBS successfully attracted a younger audience. The first season of ELeague brought in a 70 percent increase in the male 18-34-year-old demographic, while there was a 38 percent increase in men 18-49. She also talked about how airing eSports on television helped bridge generations, as families came together on Friday nights to watch televised tournaments.
It’s Still A Digital World
ESPN’s Heroes of the Dorm coverage last year may have been a kind of course correction, with a different balance between the digital and televised coverage of the tournament. However, it may have been too little too late. While ELeague hosted an Overwatch tournament during the off-season, ESPN viewers had to wait a year between Heroes competitions, and most dedicated fans were already used to watching tournaments online.
It’s also important to note that while Overwatch is also developed by Blizzard, it is a first-person shooter, and it quickly skyrocketed in popularity among both viewers and gamers despite not being free-to-play. Similar to the CS:GO tournament, only the Overwatch finals were televised while all the competitions leading up to it were broadcast online.
Even with the televised coverage of less esoteric games last year, audiences already got the message: ESPN was not the channel for eSports fans. Therefore, its annual broadcast was not enough to attract a new audience. So, perhaps the move to Facebook is the right move for everyone involved, being that it’s a digital platform for a largely digital fan base—especially given Blizzard’s livestreaming partnership with Facebook.
It remains to be seen how far ESPN intends to scale back its eSports plans and whether this move will impact coverage of games like Street Fighter V and Madden NFL. Will ESPN back out of eSports completely, handing the audience over to someone else, or strengthen its online presence before experimenting with TV broadcasts again?
Christina Alejandre is speaking at the [a]list summit. Learn everything you need to know to invest in today’s fastest-growing media channel—Competitive Gaming and eSports on 2.16.17 in Los Angeles. Go to alistsummit.com for more info.