Tobias Sherman is a former eSports caster who co-founded Global eSports Management, which was acquired by WME/IMG on January 21, 2015. The agent is now working with Turner to bring Counter-Strike: Global Offensive to national TV through TBS. Two 10-week tournaments have been mapped out for 2016, allowing eSports teams flexibility to compete in established league events like ESL One. Sherman talks about the new deal and how TV could catapult eSports into even higher thresholds in this exclusive interview.
What’s your eSports background
Five years ago I was the guy who brought the agency model into eSports. Rather than focusing on teams, I focused on player and team advocacy. I started to get some organization around how this could look and create some structure around what the industry could look like. I started off casting at MLG and producing some stuff over there, but I wanted to get in on the ground level and understand it at the base level. Business grew slowly the first few years and then picked up, and then we connected with WME/IMG integration this January.
So many pros and experts have told me over the years eSports doesn’t need TV. What’s changed
I was one of those guys years ago who said we didn’t need TV. Back then we believed there was no second bubble and we could make it in livestreaming alone. But the big ad dollars still flow through conventional TV moreso than digital. It would be small thinking to assume that everyone who wants to watch eSports knows to tune in to Twitch. We work closely with Twitch and they’re a great company. But we think Twitch would agree that there’s a bigger audience out there. If you asked any team owner or player, they deserve those sponsor dollars. It’s a viable competitive entertainment.
How are you going to deliver television content that both hardcore fans and the mainstream audience can enjoy
There’s one word we’ve stuck with through this whole joint venture with Turner and it’s “authenticity.” We want to provide the hardcore viewership with content they want. But we’re using Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, which is easy to understand than some other eSports games. People won’t get turned off as easily. A key part of this Turner initiative is that there is a digital companion product that goes along with that. It’s a hybrid product that allows for the most reach possible.
How do you see commercial interruptions impacting the TV broadcast
You can’t take an eSports product and jam it into a TV format. We’ve come up with an authentic solution that offers some innovative ways to advertise. And we have some tricks up our sleeves with the commercials that we think fans will accept because it’s not too far removed from what they’re viewing now. We’re not trying to disrupt how they view eSports.
How do you think TV will attract new eSports fans
That’s one of our most important questions we’ve been asking internally. We looked at the noob streams of Dota 2 and things like “Beginners Guide to eSports” that take people by the hand and walk them through it. I think the storylines are important. As an industry we could have done a better job of telling eSports stories. Someone could tune into this program and not know when the game starts or finishes, but they understand this kid’s story. It’s all eSports from there on for people after having that “a-ha” moment. Not enough people have been exposed to eSports to have that moment.
What have you learned from established leagues and eSports
The hardcore fans you satiate by sticking to the competitive format and best of 3’s and upholding the integrity of eSports. We took feedback from the teams and players to make sure this is the best tournament structure we can possibly have. It’s a strong product that will satisfy both hardcore and new fans.
ESL is doing drug testing for CS:GO because of Adderall abuse. Will you have drug testing
We’re circling that same questions right now. We’re getting feedback from teams and fans now. We haven’t made a hard fast decision, but we’ll have one come league time.
How important are big prize pools to attract mainstream viewers
The International is one of the top prize pools in eSports with over $18 million, but I’m not a big fan of the flash prize pool. I’m tuning in to see my favorite teams and the stories that evolve. The fan side of me doesn’t see large prize pools as a big deal. For the mainstream attention, Valve has done a good job of making a big splash with their big numbers — and the way they do it with crowd-funding is very smart. But eSports is not all about putting big prize money out there. Anyone can put out a big prize pool. I believe that while a huge headline will grab some curious viewers, what will keep them there is the content.
How will you be keeping players happy
We are going to be elevating the compensation from travel to prize pool to P&E so the teams are going to be taken care of in full regard. It’s important to keep in line with rewarding the teams for the competition. I do believe there should be some responsibility for prize pools because it could have diminished returns if it gets too out of control. We have a good elevation in line with the market and the eSports industry will grow across the board. We also positioned these two tournaments so it allows teams to travel to other tournaments. We’re encouraging them to do other events. Rising tide raises all boats and we want more tournament play. I’d liken it more to what we’ve seen in golf, where there are tournaments as well as majors.
What teams will make the cut and will this tie into ESL, MLG or other events
We want a wide array of teams to compete because we want those underdog stories. There’s no plan to link together to other leagues or events. We’re built from the ground up and siloed. It could get there at some point.
Where things are heading, you could have an official ranking down the road. But internally, everything we’re doing is in terms of this league right now. Great story arcs could be told across Dreamhacks and everything else.
What role will the second screen experience play for the TV broadcast
We’re programming this for the hardcore gamer. We’ll be experimenting with different things like sharing in-game audio that gives you a moment, but doesn’t divulge any secrets. We’ll have a mixture of interviews and stats. The second screen could become something no one wants to miss. We want to make it feel like a primary experience so you can enjoy what you’re viewing. It’ll definitely attract a lot more of the hardcore fans.
What type of viewership do you expect to attract
I don’t know a metric I can put on it, but I feel like it will get initial traction out of curiosity. That will segue and grow into the second season. We have some unique ideas for shoulder content that we could do that’s around the storytelling that will contribute to more of a rapid fan increase.
What impact do you feel FanDuel acquiring AlphaDraft will have on growing the mainstream audience
We just closed an eSports deal with DraftKings and Cloud 9, TSM, CLG, SK Gaming, compLexityGaming, and Mousesports. And we’ve done a lot of the influencer deals for AlphaDraft. Fantasy Sports is an example of having something that happens in traditional sports. Fans are always looking for something new. People are going to love Fantasy ESports because it does give them an attachment to the game. It’s a great thing that both of these fantasy leagues are making a commitment.
We also now have eSports betting companies like Unikorn. What are your thoughts on betting in eSports
If it’s legal and you’re of age, and players and teams insulate themselves from it, then there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s competitive entertainment. I’d never condone it if it’s not legal. Whether anyone likes it or not, people aren’t going to stop it. You can install different functions so it’s done right and you’re protecting everyone.
We’ve seen a poor ecosystem in South Korea result in some players throwing matches for quick cash from gamblers.
We need to identify where the soft spots are and how to improve. There has to be a zero tolerance policy for cheating. It’s open and shut. You simply can’t have cheating because that ruins the integrity of eSports.