How esports plots to conquer television
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How esports plots to conquer television

How esports plots to conquer television

Computer games are exhilarating, and broadcasters are betting that this excitement will keep the audience glued to the screen


The already hugely successful esports sector is looking to conquer another frontier – the TV screen.

Esports streaming on Twitch and YouTube and other such platforms is a thriving model, with channels attracting fans by the hundreds of millions. But bringing esports to TV screens will bring in hundreds of millions of new devotees and help further legitimise gaming.

In the region, Starzplay last year signed up to broadcast the V10 R-League, a sim racing series that saw Rachel Stringer, Nicolas Hamilton and Ben Daly among other stars in the genre competing.

Further afield, the BBC linked up with video game publisher Electronic Arts (EA) to air live coverage of the FIFA 21 Global Series esports competition on its digital platform iPlayer as well as BBC Sport website and app this year. The BBC has previously broadcast, among others, the Rocket League European Spring Series and League of Legends UK League Championships.

Nigel Crow, Sport Rights executive for BBC Sport said the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated the massive appeal of esports, a fact not lost on traditional broadcasters who are fighting for eyeballs with online platforms. “What has caught broadcasters’ eye is the fact that gaming is bigger than music and video combined. That has been the case for a few years now but there has been a whole lot more information in the past 12 months that’s shone the spotlight on gaming and esports in particular.”

Crow was part of a panel brought together as part of the ESI Digital Spring online event to discuss esports development in 2021, with a focus on the esports content that appeals to traditional broadcasters. Crow was joined by Nicolas Estrup, VP of Product at Blast – a global esports content producer – and Ryan Thompson, CPO and co-founder, Esports Engine – a producer of esports content and broadcasts. The panel moderator was Nick Collier, managing director, High Viz Media
Group. ESI (Esports Insider) is an esports business news outlet, consultancy and organiser of industry events.

Estrup highlighted the evolution in esports that has brought the genre to the TV screen. “We started broadcasting on national TV, which helped take esports from conference halls and events to mainstream coverage just like sports. We see
broadcast as an incredibly important piece in legitimising esports at a whole new level.”

Streaming on Twitch and similar platforms has a Wild West element to it, in contrast to broadcasters who have to operate in a more regulated environment. Crow highlighted the rating regime that is brought to bear on the kind of violent content that is a staple in most popular online games.

Also, anyone who has been in an esports tournament knows that they rarely end on time and many games finish hours later. This is challenging for broadcasters where programming is timed to the second.

“While the sheer amount of content created in esports is in some ways a blessing, the lack of certainty of when a series or a match will end is particularly challenging for us trying to get esports onto the video channels,” Crow said.

According to Estrup, some elements of the game can be tweaked without necessarily scaring away the core audience. “This means making sure that games start and finish at a given time, something that in the early days of esports wasn’t a consideration, but now increasingly crucial with broadcast becoming important.”

The risk of alienating the core gaming audience highlights the delicate balance esports promoters have to navigate – keeping the core constituency happy while appealing to the more traditional TV-watching audience. “What traditional
broadcasters bring to the table is the prospect of turning esports into a communal experience where family members and friends gather in front of the TV,” Crow explained. This will go a long way in helping overcome the negative stereotype of
loner gamers holed up hours on end in their rooms.

Computer games are exhilarating, and broadcasters are betting that this excitement will keep the audience glued to the screen. “One of the main things going for us is just how exciting games are no matter the audience, and whether or not they
understand the genre. Games like League of Legends are produced at a very high standard and with lots of exciting action, you’re still going to be entranced even if you don’t know exactly what is going on,” said Crow.

Thompson of Esports Engine however cautioned that television viewers are a different type of audience from those on streaming platforms, hence highlighting the need to create content that appeals to their palate. “We need to pick the right game, maybe pick something that’s not as complicated as some of the stuff that tends to get on streaming sites.

“One strategy that we have found a lot of success with is broadcasting an abridged portion of a tournament. Esports tournaments are long and gruelling, a formula hardly suitable for TV. For example, at prime-time, you could transmit the last
match of the tournament. That’s a great compromise to have by keeping the core audience on streaming services, and then have some form of exclusive content for a linear TV audience,” Thomson added.

The question remains whether bringing esports to traditional TV will dissolve the authenticity of the experience in an attempt to cater to a more nuanced audience. Estrup of Blast said insiders should recognise the differences between the two

“TV and streaming solve two different things. Our approach has always been to distinguish between the two audiences by putting the more hardcore content on Twitch because that’s where the primary audience lives, and then produce a more muted version for broadcast.”

The industry could take lessons from traditional sports. Typical cricket matches are long and complex, so figureheads created Twenty20 cricket. Similarly, Crow recommends brand new competitions geared specifically for TV. “In such a scenario, you can still have Twitch events for the fanbase, and then a new cup competition specifically for broadcasters. That would be best for everyone as it caters to both.”

The potential windfall from broadcasters may start influencing the way games are designed from the outset. Thompson highlighted how publishers have adapted to the mobile platform as a model of how to approach the broadcast
channel. “Last year, two of the top five most viewed esports were mobile games. So, if you’re a developer, you should acknowledge that, embrace the changes and incorporate that at launch.”

Crow stressed that the main takeaway from the short history of broadcasting esports is that there’s a “passionate fan base and incredibly skilled pool of talent”.

“What was interesting for us was just seeing these organisations come together, promoting themselves and promoting the sport. The second season of the League of Legends UK League Championships was much better than the first. The promotion and the relegation aspects were very interesting for me because you don’t often see that in esports. I think these are very good examples of what can be done in esports,” he concluded.

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