- ESPN is broadcasting its next major esports event live on Twitch, before bringing it to its TV channels.
- "If we can create more sports fans, they’ll ultimately come back to the platforms," Kevin Lopes, director of business development at ESPN, told Business Insider.
- Esports has become a massive global phenomenon — and a billion-dollar industry. Pretty much every sports broadcaster, including ESPN, is trying to figure out how to cash in.
The sports network is experimenting with broadcasting esports on different platforms, like Twitch, YouTube, and Caffeine, as well its own live-TV channels and subscription-streaming service ESPN+, to see where viewers have an appetite for gaming.
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Last summer, ESPN broadcasted the first day of the professional gaming matchup, the"Overwatch" League finals, during prime-time on its flagship cable-TV network, ESPN. It was a major test for the appetite for competitive gaming on traditional TV.
But ESPN’s next major contest in competitive gaming, its inaugural Collegiate Esports Championships, will stream live on Twitch instead of ESPN’s own cable channels.
The US sports broadcaster, a monolith among traditional sports, is airing the college esports finals, held in Houston, Texas from May 10-12, on the Amazon-owned streaming platform beloved by gamers, Twitch. A recap of the three-day event will air later in the month on one of ESPN’s cable-TV channels, ESPN2.
The college esports finals will be a test for ESPN
By airing the esports contest first on Twitch, and later on TV, ESPN hopes to pull the diehard gaming crowd into its broader network of sports properties, and create more casual esports fans among its existing viewers.
"If we can create more sports fans, they’ll ultimately come back to the platforms," Kevin Lopes, director of business development at ESPN, who has focused on esports programming for the past five years, told Business Insider. "The goal is to drive people back to ESPN, or to consume ESPN on the platform that makes sense to them. But, I think, inherently they’ll end up coming back to ESPN given how much content we do have."
The free, ad-supported livestream on ESPN’s Twitch channel will be geared toward core esports fans, who want to watch the action live over the weekend. The finals will be tape-delayed and aired on other platforms including ESPN’s YouTube page, Caffeine channel, and app. An hour-long recap show, which will air on ESPN2 at 9pm ET on May 23, will follow a handful of athletes competing in the championships with an eye toward more casual esports fans.
"And also the core esports fan who wants to know more about the storylines they might not be picking up on with the live gameplay," Lopes said. "But we think that tape-delayed, highly produced post-show really could sing on linear TV and has tremendous opportunity to widen the fanbase for esport, to do better storytelling, to get to know the characters."
Esports reach a coveted viewer demographic
Esports, and gaming in general, are big draws for teens and millennials. The average US esports fan is 25 years old, according to a 2018 Nielsen report. By comparison, the average viewer for NBA broadcasts was 42 in 2016 and the average viewer for NFL games was 50, according to a Magna Global study conducted for SportsBusiness Journal in 2017.
ESPN was the highest-rated US cable network among adults 18-49 last year, a demographic coveted by advertisers. But like other cable channels, ESPN still lost viewership from the previous year. It’s working to make the current generation of 15- to 30-year-old sports fans as addicted to its sports networks as the generation before them was to leagues like the NFL and highlight shows like SportsCenter.
"Expansion is one of our key goals and drivers for the entire company," Lopes said. "We see esports as a potential way to do that. I will even take a step back and say we see gaming as a way to do that," he said, referring to informal matchups, such as when gamer Tyler "Ninja" Blevins’s played "Fortnite" with rapper Drake, and drew 635,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch last March.
ESPN jumped into esports in 2015, when it broadcasted video-game developer Blizzard’s Heroes of the Dorm contest exclusively on its cable-TV channel ESPN2. About 100,000 viewers tuned in, compared the 1.5 million who watched the average NBA game on ESPN that season, Business Insider previously reported.
"The ratings on TV weren’t crazy but we didn’t necessarily have any expectations," Lopes said. "The amount of attention and really recognition of the esports industry with enough for us to decide to continue."
The TV ratings for last year’s "Overwatch" League grand finals on ESPN, ESPN2, and sister broadcast network, ABC, were low compared to other major sports, too.
Not all esports fans are alike
The ESPN Collegiate Esports Championships this weekend includes a handful of games that appeal to different kinds of gamers, Lopes said. It features "Overwatch," a team-based, first-person-shooter game; "Street Fighter V," part of the classic fighting-game franchise; "Hearthstone," a mobile card-game that Lopes described as "essentially a poker game"; the science-fiction strategy game "Starcraft II"; and the multi-player battle-arena game, "Heroes of the Storm."
If viewers aren’t drawn to the games themselves, they might be drawn to the universities that are competing, including Maryville University, Rutgers University, University of California Berkeley, and University of California San Diego, among others.
"The strategy there was for us to wrap people in the flag of a university and so that hopefully they would attach to their fandom to that team," Lopes said, adding that that was the strategy for the Heroes of the Dorm competition in 2015 as well.
ESPN will be experimenting with broadcasting the event on different platforms like Twitch, YouTube, and Caffeine, as well its own live-TV channels and subscription-streaming service ESPN+, to see which platforms pull in live viewers, where people prefer to watch on-demand, and where they might have an appetite for the kinds of highlight shows ESPN is known for in sports more widely.
"Different platforms have different strengths," Lopes said. "I think those will show themselves after the event."
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