ELeague: Another Attempt at Prime Time TV eSports

Esports on Television isn’t something that’s completely brand new. Back in 2006, the Championship Gaming Series premiered on MTV which featured such games as Counter Strike, Dead or Alive, and Battlefield 2. For more than a decade now, the general consensus has been that competitive gaming needs a stage for greater exposure. Although it’s unclear why the programming stopped after 2 seasons, the facts behind the popularity can’t lie. After the first invitational was completed, ratings for the channel spiked 400%. Fast forward to 2015 and TBS is green lighting a professional Counter Strike league for Summer 2016. Unlike media exclusion in pro sports, the Eleague is available for free streaming on Twitch.TV while it plays live on TBS Fridays. But can a video gaming league succeed on cable? What has changed since 2006’s CGS? Can large prize pools develop enough interest from consumers as well as breed a new group of talent with future motivation? And lastly, how has viewership for eEleague compared to physical sports like NBA, NFL, and NHL?

Prize Pools for major video gaming tournaments are reaching an unprecedented amount. The Dota 2 International in 2016 brought in a staggering 20 million dollar prize pool with over 8 million dollars being contributed to the first place team. For comparison sake, the PGA Championship this year has a prize pool of 10 million dollars with first bringing in 1.8 million dollars. The real question though, is a large prize pool enough to bring in competition AND create a pool of newcomers that are interested in moving forward to competitive gaming?

First, a prize pool that large has spiked interest in the develop and the creation of teams, brands, and new ownership. There’s no way to ignore the sheer amount of money involved in these tournaments and sponsors are going to flock because of it. There is absolutely no argument that teams and brands will try to jump into the fray and develop a competitive team or recruit professional players from previous ones, it’s already happening in League of Legends with older Korean professionals joining US based teams. The real questions here are will people tune into a production of video gaming because of these prize pools and will talent develop with it? Development of talent is a real concern in competitive video gaming. In physical sports like football and hockey, children begin playing at ages so young it could potentially be dangerous. They grow up watching them on TV, their parents live vicariously through them, and by the time they get to professional levels they may have been playing for 17 years already. To be clear, there has more to do with the complexity of what games become popular in production.  For instance, Counter Strike has had professional leagues running since it’s inception. First person shooters are easier to follow, easier to understand, and are a genre parents and children alike grew up with. Genres with games like League of Legends and Starcraft 2 will have a significantly more difficult ability to grow talent as the learning curve can be daunting and even sometimes unattainable.

The development of talent in League of Legends has been slow even with a solid strategy in place. The inclusion of salaries has been a major stepping stone for development and safety of a prolonged career. College based leagues are a great way to introduce competition to a developing crowd as well as provide another competitive outlet to players that may not be in the top .000001% of players. Taking a look at the landscape of competitive League of Legends, star power has come at a premium. The wave of top players and “Allstars” of the game began with the introduction of the first World’s tournament and hasn’t really shaken up since. Whether there’s not enough talent in the player pool or players with the ability to become competitive are overwhelmed is unknown. Players have swapped teams repeatedly and the drafting of Korean and Chinese players over to Europe and the US has become commonplace.

Can a video gaming league succeed on Television? It’s hard to deny the exposure that competitive video gaming can support as live tournaments have been selling out venues like Madison Square Garden for years. The numbers for success are there but the strategy is crucial. Media consumption and choice of an introductory game are crucial for the longevity of eSports. Counter Strike is a great game to introduce to the general public as it’s easy to follow and there aren’t a slew of crazy particle effects to confuse the eye. Skill, strategy, and ability are all easy to understand when you see the sharp movements and reaction times of a first person shooter. Media consumption and media availability is a factor we’ve seen in the major physical sports. The NFL has a tight grasp on where you can see live games and the restrictions on blackouts and markets can be frustrating to fans that may not live in the area of their teams. College football has been much more lenient on where and how you can view your team and have even introduced specific channels for full conferences. The availability to watch Eleague on TBS or Twitch.TV is exactly what competitive gaming needs to succeed in a World of cable cutters and the tech savvy.

How does viewership compare to NBA, NFL, and NHL? It’s pretty impressive what Eleague has done on TBS already. As an avid watcher of Twitch.TV and competitive video gaming I wasn’t even aware of the production until it was almost complete. At its peak on Twitch, Eleague had 168,000 concurrent viewers according to Turner Broadcasting. There was an estimated reach of 19 million total viewers on the TBS broadcast over the span of the season. Even more impressive, it’s estimated that Eleague brought in 3.4 million NEW viewers to TBS. Here’s a comparison chart created by Gamoloco comparing Twitches largest streamer, Eleague on Twitch, Eleague on TBS and other major sports like NHL and NBA.