Disney-owned ESPN continues to up its eSports coverage. ESPN2 will televise the Street Fighter V World Championship from the Evolution Championship Series (Evo) final on Sunday, July 17. Live coverage of the event will begin at 10 pm ET from the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. In connecting with the digital eSports audience, the program will also be available via WatchESPN.

Evo 2016 is scheduled for July 15-17 at the Las Vegas Convention Center with finals taking place on July 17 for Street Fighter V, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Mortal Kombat X, Guilty Gear Xrd-Revelator and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. ESPN will focus solely on Street Fighter V at Evo fighting game tournaments this year.

John Lasker, vice president of programming and acquisitions at ESPN Digital Media, talks to [a]listdaily about this new Evo deal, as well as the recent EA Sports Madden tournament at E3, in this exclusive interview.

How have you approached eSports coverage at ESPN?

Since about mid-2014, we have distributed about 300 hours of live eSports content, covering Halo, Madden, and Heroes of the Storm; some of which was digital only on ESPN 3. And now we’re adding Street Fighter V. We’ve been exploring incremental TV distribution. We appreciate and understand the existing digital distribution of eSports and where the fan base is and where they’re used to consuming this content. TV provides incremental distribution.

How did the Madden Championship perform at E3?

The Madden Championship aired live on TV and it came across as a big event. It wasn’t to a level of League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm or Dota 2, but the competition was exciting. From an audience perspective, we announced the broadcast the day before we did it, so there wasn’t a lot of lead-up time and it co-existed with a lot of other platforms. But we saw at 6 pm on the East Coast that it held the ESPN2 lead-in rating. That’s promising, considering it was eSports and not a traditional TV sport. Madden does play a little closer to what our audience interests are and it held true in this instance.

How does Electronic Arts’ commitment to competitive gaming help what you’re trying to accomplish?

It’s helpful because it makes setting up conversations, planning, and all those types of things a lot easier when you have dedicated group on the publisher side interested in the event side of the business. It’s not commonplace now, but we’ll see more and more of that dedicated team structure across other publishers in the future.

Does ESPN still have an on-going partnership with Electronic Arts?

The relationship with EA stands, but eSports is separate and apart from that. The Madden event was a separate arrangement.

How does the fighting game genre compare to Madden?

Street Fighter V falls closer to Madden because visually, it’s easier to accept and understand. You don’t need to be educated on it like League of Legends or Dota 2. There’s a low barrier of entry into the sport. Seeing all the news around how Evo has exploded this year, where the entries are off the chart, I’m excited to see how this does. I’m hoping we find a great cross-platform audience, and through the TV side, help to expand the reach.

What are you learning as you explore eSports on TV?

We’re in an exploratory stage for the foreseeable future. All the titles we’ve been involved with have been done in different ways, and all of that has been part of trying to figure out what the best way to do it is. We want to make sure the audience gets the content digitally, but we’re also trying to expand this audience through television.

How important is having these competitions live on TV?

We did the Madden Championship live and we covered the earlier rounds on ESPN3. The semi-finals and championship aired on ESPN2, and we did re-air it as well. We’ve bought into this competitive side that the content needs to be live, and that’s the most important peak point of our findings.

What did you learn from The International with Dota 2 last summer?

For The International, we did a highlight show after the event. We saw there’s a 24/7 appetite for this type of content, but for these big events and competitions—similar to traditional sports—live is the way to go. We love Dota 2 and we recognize Valve’s importance in the ecosystem and the amount of attention The International gets.

How has the launch of eSports coverage on ESPN.com impacted the television and digital video coverage?

We did our first Blizzard event two Aprils ago before Heroes of the Storm was even released. The ESPN eSports vertical launched in January of this year. It hasn’t changed what we do on the TV side, but it’s an organic extension to what we’ve recognized at ESPN on the importance of this category. We want to treat it like any other sports category. Doing two years of Heroes of the Dorm or the recent Madden event, gamers quickly recognize we have an appreciation for this audience.

How does this eSports audience compare to your traditional sports demographic?

The eSports audience is younger. When you see all of the activity in the marketplace from more traditional companies, the allure of eSports is that they’re reaching some folks that are hard to reach. We have a great young audience coming to our networks, and eSports allows us to expand upon that with a younger audience.

What role do you see televised eSports playing in attracting non-endemic advertisers?

We’re trying to put forth the best content activations around these events. We think TV is an important part of that offering in both the short-term and long-term. The advertising community always follows where the audience is. If it’s digital only, they’ll find a way to market to that audience. If it’s multi-platform they’ll do the same. We believe eSports coverage will fall under more the latter than the former, especially where there might be a lower barrier to entry such as Street Fighter and Madden.

EA also had eSports competitions during E3 with UFC 2, Need for Speed and FIFA. What potential do you see for those games on television?

They’re all up for consideration, depending on what EA’s plans are for those titles moving forward, and if it’s similar to the Madden competitive structure over the next couple of years.

Will Madden expand on ESPN moving forward?

We did the EA Play event at E3 and we have no plans to announce, at this stage, further distribution.

Arash Markazi/ESPN
Frank Sardoni Jr. wins Madden Championship at E3.

I put NBA 2K in the Madden category. I was impressed, watching the Madden competition in full screen with fantasy lineups and Rob Gronkowski playing on an old 49ers team. There’s something intriguing about seeing the appreciation people have for competitive gaming.