Turner Broadcasting and WME/IMG are about to find out whether live video-game competitions are ready for primetime TV: The companies have formed a new e-sports gaming league, with TBS set to broadcast 20 live events over the course of 2016.
The parties cut a deal with game publisher Valve to feature its “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” first-person shooter (pictured above) as the title that five-person teams will square off in head-to-head matchups during the league’s first season.
The partners see the yet-to-be-named league as an opportunity to grow the e-sports category, which is hugely popular online, by putting it on TV: “This is a way to bring e-sports to light and the 90 million homes TBS is in,” said Lenny Daniels, president of Turner Sports.
Discussions between WME/IMG and Turner on the concept started about a year ago, Daniels said, and moved forward after Kevin Reilly joined Turner as chief creative officer and president of TBS and TNT. As for whether they considered teaming up with an existing e-sports league, Daniels said “it just didn’t make any sense” given the resources of each company. He declined to disclose how much they’re investing in the league, but said contestants will be fighting for “meaningful prize money.”
For WME/IMG, the new venture is part of its expanding portfolio of live-event franchises, coming after WME bought IMG Worldwide in late 2013. The company announced a deal last week with Donald Trump to acquire the Miss Universe Organization after lassoing Professional Bull Riders in the spring. In addition, IMG and TBS are jointly executive producing the first Live Nation Music Awards slated for Oct. 1.
But when it comes to e-sports, how many Americans will actually tune in to watch videogamers wearing headsets – with their avatars duking it out on big-screen monitors?
It’s worth noting that when ESPN2 televised “Heroes of the Dorm” (pitting competitors playing “Heroes of the Storm”) in April, it generated a backlash on Twitter from viewers – and ESPN’s own employees and talent – disparaging the event as not worthy of the worldwide leader in sports. To date, virtually all the e-sports action has been on the Internet from players like Twitch (acquired by Amazon last year), Major League Gaming and YouTube.
Tobias Sherman, head of WME/IMG’s eSports division, said he expects the new league to expand the popularity of the pastime. “It’s my firm belief that there are many e-sports fans who don’t know they’re e-sports fans yet,” he said. “Hell, I was one.”
Daniels, for his part, defended e-sports as a bona fide sporting category that will find a fanbase.
“There’s no doubt in our mind that this is a sport – these are athletes… It’s competitive, and it requires endurance,” he said. “What hasn’t happened is that it hasn’t been exposed to a mainstream audience.”
The formation of the e-sports league comes after WME/IMG in January acquired Global eSports Management, a talent agency repping pro-gaming clients co-founded by Sherman and Min-Sik Ko. WME/IMG says the e-sports business provides full-service team management, marketing and representation; Sherman said players for the e-sports league will be picked regardless of whether they’re IMG clients. “It’s not just the top teams but the underdogs as well,” he said.
Turner and WME/IMG point to data showing the immense popularity of e-sports: In the U.S., the estimated audience is currently 32 million people, expected to grow to more than 50 million by 2017, according to research firm Newzoo. And most of those fans are the millennials, a hard-to-rearch demo coveted by marketers.
On TV, TBS plans to feature 10 consecutive weeks of e-sports programming, twice per year, with a schedule that includes playoffs and a championship round. The live e-sports competitions – shot in front of a studio audience – will air Friday nights on TBS.
Additionally, the Turner-WME/IMG e-sports league is set to produce extensive digital content, which will include live daily competitive gaming Tuesday through Friday during each tournament week, as well as a live digital companion experience on Friday nights simultaneously with the TBS airings. Digital content will also include behind-the-scenes event coverage and profiles on the e-sports teams and competitors, with additional coverage available through Bleacher Report’s Team Stream App.
Turner Studios in Atlanta will be the East Coast hub for the league and will serve as the primary operations facility for the live gaming broadcasts. Turner Sports will produce the e-sports competitions, in association with WME/IMG, and will sell ads and sponsorship opportunities.
Sherman added that the companies picked Friday nights for the e-sports coverage on TBS to allow pro gamers to compete in tournaments on the weekend.
Turner and WME/IMG expect to announce more details on the newly formed e-sports league later this year, including teams, e-sportscaster talent, events schedule and locations.