ELeague represents one of the big success cases in creating a synergy in eSports, balancing between digital streams on platforms such as Twitch and broadcasting live tournaments on television on TBS. It completed its first season of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) tournaments in July, and recently announced that the next CS:GO Major Championship will be held beginning January 22 in Atlanta. The Grand Final will be televised live on TBS with a simulcast on Twitch on January 29 from the historic Fox Theatre.
Christina Alejandre, ELeague’s general manager and vice president of eSports, spoke at the New York Media Festival this week about the success of the first season.
In the world of eSports, TV is a brought audience. The core community watched using platforms like Twitch, and ELeague knew that. “We wanted it on television because we felt that we were capable of giving it that kind of framework and exposure that eSports normally had [online],” said Alejandre.
The bet paid off, as TBS saw a 95 percent increase in the coveted 18-to-35-year-old demographic during the ELeague’s first season. Over 19 million people tuned in to TBS on Friday nights to watch ELeague. Many were people who had never watched an eSports tournament before. Friday nights had become a destination for families to watch eSports, with fans explaining concepts to new viewers.
When asked about the reaction fans had to ELeague, Alejandre said that the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. However, Alejandre also explained that there was some apprehension. “I think that when we started the first season, a lot of people who were into eSports desperately wanted us to succeed,” she said. “But the community was also kind of holding their breath for us to fail because it was definitely a risky endeavor to put eSports on television—whether or not we could drive a consistent audience.”
Part of the concern was in bringing a number of non-endemic sponsors into the eSports space. Alejandre explained that people wondered whether ELeague would be all corporate and “TV-ify” eSports. “We didn’t want to TV-ify eSports,” Alejandre explained. “They already had a solid foundation and our job was not to reinvent the wheel. It was to provide this framework and exposure. We also worked closely with our partners and sponsors to make sure they were integrated in a healthy way.”
ELeague’s sponsorship partners include Buffalo Wild Wings, Credit Karma, Geico, Dominos and the movie Sausage Party. There even once was a Sausage Party studio takeover on ELeague. Additionally, Buffalo Wild Wings would host weekly ELeague viewing parties at its restaurants. But one of the most successful partnerships was with the sandwich chain Arby’s.
ELeague worked very closely with Arby’s, which came onboard with the mentality, “Hey Turner, we’re super excited about eSports and you guys are experts in this space. What we don’t want to do is be the guys that show up to the party that weren’t actually invited,” Alejandre explained.
Arby’s sponsor integrations included the “Locked and Loaded” series of videos, which took eSports players to shooting ranges to fire real guns at sandwiches. Arby’s provided a different sandwich each week and released slow motion videos of them exploding. “It was just an amazing piece,” said Alejandre “and it was also just kind of funny to watch these players, who are the best at their craft, but some of them could not shoot a gun to save their lives.”
Then there were the TV commercials, which featured the deep voice of actor Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction, Mission Impossible) talking with Counter-Strike-themed language. In the game, one team plants a bomb and defends it while the other team tries to move in and defuse it. In the commercial, Rhames becomes agitated as a sandwich beeps and then explodes, which saddens Rhames. Some commercials have a message at the end reading: “Don’t try this at home. It’s a waste of a sandwich.”
“[The audience] saw that and were like, ‘you made this for the Counter-Strike community? You get us!’” said Alejandre. That’s when ELeague and Arby’s starting seeing a lot of positive feedback. Arby’s showed that it wanted to be part of the community instead of just selling roast beef sandwiches. “When people walk past an Arby’s now, I guarantee you they look at them very differently.”
“How often, in a sporting event, do you have people in the audience cheering for a sponsor versus cheering for what’s going on? Arby’s did such a great job with its commercials—their commercials were targeted toward the community and showed that they ‘got them.’ The audience showed its appreciation by cheering ‘Arby’s, Arby’s, Arby’s!’ And they were tweeting about the commercials,” said Alejandre.
ELeague did a study featuring Arby’s and found that brand awareness, how much people liked them, and purchase intent grew by double digits. So the partnership was very successful for both, showing the power of integrating partners in a natural way.
“For a lot of these partners, it’s not just ELeague saying, ‘look, you need to integrate so our game or product doesn’t get hurt,’” said Alejandre. “We need to be smart with how we integrate with you because that fan base can turn on a dime. But as long as you embrace the community, they’ll embrace you right back.”
Alejandre also explained how ELeague chose CS:GO for its featured game because “CS:GO is a FPS (first-person shooter) game and the basic rules of understanding it are very simple. If you choose a MOBA-type game to start with to be the primer for competitive gaming, you’re going to get a lot of people who are going to be overwhelmed with all the different rules, all the different characters, and will have no idea what they’re watching.”
When speaking to [a]listdaily, Alejandre explained the game-selection process. Did ELeague choose games based on their popularity in the eSports space, or ones that sponsors most likely want to be associated with? “I think it’s a combination,” she responded. “We have to look at all the different angles. Is it something that’s relatable or understandable? If not, can [Turner] make it relatable and understandable? How popular is the existing fan base? We’re probably not going to dedicate an entire ELeague season to a game that’s not as popular, but there are a myriad factors that go into it. We have a great research team, and we all talk about it. All of us are gamers too, and [we ask] ‘do we just understand this game because we play it?’”
When asked whether ELeague would consider following EA’s strategy of featuring sports games such as Madden or FIFA as eSports—ELeague is under the Turner Sports umbrella—Alejandre said: “I think there are a lot of benefits to it, and that people understand a basketball game or football game. And also, the Turner Sports synergies are there. But we’re closely watching it, and it’s definitely one of the things that we watch and evaluate.”