Few industries have managed to match the huge growth that esports has enjoyed in recent years. By the end of 2019, competitive gaming is expected to be a billion dollar industry with a global audience reach of over 450 million. Not bad for a genre that not so long ago was viewed as little more than a hobby for teenage boys.
Much of esports’ growth is coming from brand investments, such as advertising, sponsorship and media rights. World class brands like Toyota and Coca Cola are getting in on the action by sponsoring Overwatch league events; traditional sports leagues are launching esports competitions and there’s an ongoing discussion about whether advanced competitive gaming should become an Olympic sport. Broadcasters are now starting to follow suit and are looking for ways to bring esports to their services.
Yet if broadcasters want esports to mirror the success of traditional sports on TV, then they need to adapt the format, so it is relevant to a wider audience.
It makes perfect sense for broadcasters to include esports into their programming line-up. Esports’ heritage is rooted in the world of online video, which is a huge part of the daily entertainment diets of both millennial and Generation Z (Gen Z) audiences.
Forward-thinking broadcasters have already started evolving their programming line-up in line with the tastes and habits of this demographic by bringing curated short-form video content to their services, and esports is a natural addition. By including esports content as part of their offering, broadcasters will be able to re-engage with the highly sought-after millennial and Gen Z demographics. This generation is often nicknamed cord-cutters or cord-nevers, because a number of them have cancelled or never had a pay-TV subscription. This is not because they do not want to pay for TV - it’s because they can’t find the content they want to watch on traditional services.
The esports content popular on streaming platforms, such as Twitch, typically attracts a niche audience that is already deeply embedded in the world of competitive gaming. This audience avidly follows and discusses the most complex games in extreme depth and will happily watch a live tournament for hours on end. However, in order to make esports relevant to a wider audience, broadcasters need to adapt their online format, so it is TV friendly. For example, the type of games watched online can be quite violent, complicated and long. Broadcasters need to shift the focus onto simpler and less violent games, such as Street Fighter and Rocket League, which will allow broadcasters to reduce the length of esports programs from hours to minutes – making the genre compatible with the time constraints of TV.
Broadcasters can also make esports TV friendly by partnering with traditional sports organisations. Tapping into the popularity of sports such as football and basketball can help drive the genre’s growth among a mainstream audience and turn it into a global sport.
There has already been quite a bit of crossover between esports and traditional sports. The English Premier League has started its expansion into the world of competitive gaming by launching its ePremier league which kicked off in January. Additionally, the genre has been boosted by high-profile footballers like Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin and Juventus’ Andrea Pirlo, both of whom are avid gamers. By introducing esports programs that feature sports that are universally understood and utilising high-profile traditional sports stars as influencers for the genre, broadcasters make the format more relevant to mainstream audiences.
Traditional sports stars are not the only celebrities that can help drive esports viewership among mainstream audiences. There are, for example, a lot of similarities between esports and hip-hop: both are hugely popular among young males and there is a significant amount of overlap in the apparel and music tastes of consumers from both worlds. World famous rappers, like Drake and Travis Scott, have already joined one of esports’ biggest stars, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, for a session on his Twitch stream.
When Drake joined Ninja’s stream it broke the platform’s record for concurrent viewers on an individual stream and Ninja received more than 50,000 new subscribers. Celebrities have streamed on Twitch before, but this particular occasion was described as a “transformative moment for gaming” by ESPN writer Rod Breslau. Broadcasters can replicate the Drake effect by using stars that mainstream audiences already know and love as influencers and ambassadors for their TV esports offerings.
Esports is one of the fastest growing sports in the world right now. Any forward-thinking broadcaster who wants to re-enage with millennial and Gen Z audiences should be adding competitive gaming to their programming line-up. In order for esports to succeed on TV the format needs to be adapted so it attracts die-hard gaming fans and mainstream audiences. The broadcasters who will succeed at this will be the ones who take a creative approach to this exciting challenge, and the pay-off will not only be more subscribers, but playing an important role in supporting esports leap into the mainstream arena.
Curt Marvis (right) is chief executive and co-founder of QYOU Media, a fast-growing global media company that curates and packages premium ‘best-of-the-web’ video for multiscreen distribution.