Esports is the biggest opportunity in TV that nobody’s talking about — yet.
That’s the view from video game industry veterans who see esports — or the exploding world of live video gaming competitions, complete with crowds of virtual fans cheering them on — as poised to explode in the coming years.
Riot Games and Activision Blizzard are among the gaming giants making big investments to juice the burgeoning market for esports TV rights deals. A new round of consolidation and fresh capital coming into gaming, as evidenced by Microsoft’s pending $69 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard, will raise the stakes, as esports content is a clear growth engine for gaming.
“We don’t necessarily see obstacles in front of us — we see opportunity,” Brandon Snow, head of Activision Blizzard esports, tells Variety. “Broadcast and cable networks have been losing our fan base and demographic to digital streaming services over the last five years, and any real commitment to esports requires vision and a broader strategic purpose. We see this as an opportunity, because the longer traditional broadcast media wait to make real investment in esports, the more they will need to play a frenzied and frenetic game of catch-up.”
In 2021, the esports industry drew an estimated 474 million viewers and brought more than $1 billion in total revenue, up 14.5% from 2020, according to games and esports analytics company Newzoo. It’s projected to rise to $1.6 billion by 2024. But esports media rights brought in only $192.6 million last year, according to Newzoo’s annual report. That’s small potatoes compared with $110 billion worth of TV rights deals inked by the NFL last year with CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN/ABC and Amazon for pigskin games stretching to 2033.
“If you look at the most watched [and] consumed esports events over the last five to 10 years, they rival that — in terms of overall eyeballs and audience participation in viewership — of some of the largest sporting events that are put out by the traditional sports leagues,” says Daniel Schnapp, partner at Sheppard Mullin and head of the firm’s esports and games team.
Activision Blizzard signed a $53 million-per-year pact with Google in 2020 to give YouTube the exclusive rights to stream its esports titles, including the upcoming season of Call of Duty League, through 2023. That followed a two-year, $90 million agreement that Activision Blizzard signed with Twitch in January 2018 to make it the home of the Overwatch League.
Outside of those, the largest esports rights deal is Shanghai-based platform BiliBili’s $38 million-a-year license for Riot Games’ League of Legends League, which is good from 2019-2023.
A few esports partnerships have been set with traditional broadcast and cable networks, including ABC and the Overwatch League, The CW network and EA for the Madden video game, and CBS and the Nintendo World Championships. Turner Sports has been the most bullish, producing Eleague events including the upcoming Apex Legends Championships and an ongoing FIFA video game franchise deal broadcast on TBS — and Turner’s Bleacher Report sports digital platform has its own B/R Gaming content vertical. (Turner Sports’ Eleague also produced the Nintendo World Championships that aired on CBS.)
Activision Blizzard’s Snow argues that the industry needs to promote itself like a crown jewel property if it wants to become one.
“To date, only a handful of game publishers and esports IP holders have put in the work to drive the appropriate value for their content. Until that changes, there will be some ambiguity in esports’ ability to generate consistent rights fees across the board,” Snow says.
The heightened activity around esports comes after two years of pandemic conditions that have greatly expanded the ranks of casual gamers.
“If you think about the amount of people that play games casually that are interested in playing their friends on an amateur level, or just a casual level as a form of interactive entertainment, they just need to be converted,” Schnapp says. “And how they convert that audience is going to be key — whatever companies unlock that magic elixir to convert those casual fans into eyeballs that are attractive to broadcasters.”