Turner Broadcasting is seeing great success when it comes to eSports. Its ELeague initiative, which hosts tournaments that are broadcast online and followed by televised programs Friday nights during prime time, has pulled in both existing and new fans to eSports. In the days leading up to last weekend’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) finals, ELeague boasted 800 million gross minutes of video consumption across digital and linear platforms, 18 million video streams, 16 million viewers on TBS, and over 45 million social impressions.
Now it has begun hosting a new tournament called the Overwatch Open in partnership with FaceIt. In it, teams from across the US and Europe compete in the hit shooter, Overwatch, for a $300,000 prize pool and a shot at the Regional and Grand Finals, which will take place at Turner Studios’ ELeague Arena in Atlanta. The Grand Finals will be broadcast live on TBS and Twitch.
“We understand that the native platform for eSports is digital,” said Craig Barry, executive vice president and chief content officer for Turner Sports, during a media call. He explained that television was an important point-of-entry for casual eSports fans, and that, “understanding that the majority of our audience lives and breathes in the digital space creates a great opportunity.”
“This is not different from five years ago,” Barry said, “when we were in the more traditional sports space and everyone was asking: what’s the digital extension? What’s the companion app? How do we get the millennials? Flip that model 180-degrees, and we have the core native audience on the digital, and we have this support system that we can use as a portal for new fans and a new audience.”
When asked about how ELeague balanced between online and televised content, and whether he expected the television content to expand next season, Barry told [a]listdaily: “We have to manage to the strengths of the platforms.”
“In this particular case, all platforms aren’t created equal,” he continued. ELeague played to the strength a linear format by using television big events showcased storylines, teams and important tent pole moments throughout the season while creating a new portal for new or curious fans. “I don’t think there will ever be a time when it’ll be on five days a week on television instead of five days a week on Twitch,” said Barry. “I think it’s important to strategically use the platforms that creates the best user experience.”
Christina Alejandre, general manager of ELeague and VP of eSports at Turner Sports, spoke highly of the production values Turner put into it eSports initiative during the call.
“Turner puts just as much effort and resources into ELeague as they do for any of the verticals under the Turner Sports umbrella—whether that’s NBA, NCAA or PGA,” said Alejandre. “The thing that wowed me is that we would have Emmy Award-winning personnel working on ELeague, and it’s incredible to see eSports getting that attention and devotion.”
Alejandre also discussed how eSports benefitted network by drawing in new audiences.
“One of our main philosophies, outside of being authentic, is: what’s good for eSports is what’s good for us. We did a great job of bringing newer audiences in and leveraging the addition platform of television to bring those in. I think television lends itself almost being a sacred space for someone to watch eSports. If you go into Twitch chat right now and know nothing about eSports, it can be a bit intimidating—if not overwhelming—to watch. Providing an episodic structure and a safer, more familiar space to watch, we’ve been able to open it up to newer audiences that generally wouldn’t watch or be interested in eSports.
“I also think that the television aspect has enabled us to bring on a lot of non-endemic sponsors to the space. We’ve had great partners like Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Credit Karma and Domino’s. That additionally helps us to open it [eSports] up to new audiences, because those are brands they’re familiar with. If those brands are getting behind eSports, why not tune in? We’re seeing a lot of posts on Reddit about how kids, for the first time, can sit down with their parents and watch eSports. It Friday night—Family Fun Night—and they’re all watching eSports together.”
Alejandre continued to discuss audience growth, particularly with millennials. “It has not only been successful for us; it has also been successful to TBS,” said Alejandre. “We’ve seen millions of new viewers coming to TBS, and those are viewers that have not watched TBS over the prior months. Those are viewers that are specifically tuning in to watch eSports. TBS is attracting a younger audience to the network. Its audience composition is up 70 percent in the male 18-34, 38 percent in men 18-49.”
With ELeague’s first season now concluded, attention now turns to the Overwatch Open, which fills in the period before Season 2 begins. Alejandre spoke with [a]listdaily about the Overwatch Open and how it will help continue the audience growth that eSports brings to TBS.
What do you think makes Overwatch the ideal game to bring to broadcast TV?
For starters, it has the power of Blizzard behind it, and they have earned a reputation for delivering some of the most popular eSports titles in the world. Since its launch, the entire community has been buzzing about Overwatch, and we think its popularity will continue to grow. It’s a beautiful game to watch, with great gameplay, and we believe it will translate well across all screens.
In what ways do you think Overwatch will help towards the mainstream adoption of eSports?
The visuals for the game are amazing, as are the characters and storylines. We think those elements will lend well to television, as a natural extension to the digital experience.
Does showing an eSport on television have different challenges compared to online streaming?
We approach both similarly from a general production standpoint, but we also understand there may be a new viewer coming to TBS that hasn’t previously been exposed to eSports. First and foremost, we want to cater to the hardcore fan, but we also realize we have an obligation to explain certain aspects of the gameplay and strategy to the more casual fan.
How do you think audiences will respond to a new game, compared to eSports classics such as CS:GO, League of Legends and Call of Duty?
It’s a relatively new game, but Overwatch is already among the most popular eSports titles right now, and we anticipate that interest is only growing.
What lessons were learned from the ELeague’s first season, featuring CS:GO, that will be applied to the Overwatch Open?
At our core, Turner is a content creation company, and we’ve focused on producing these events with the highest of production values. Ultimately, content is king, and we’ve concentrated on telling richer narratives surrounding the players and teams. That same approach will carry over to Overwatch, whether it is character development or other key aspects of the game. That is the type of content our fans have come to expect, and we are committed to producing the absolute best experience for them across everything we touch.
What has been the response so far to ELeague and broadcasting eSports on TBS?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. We’re thrilled with the sentiment from the community and engagement with our content has been consistently strong across all platforms throughout the first season of ELeague.