One of the biggest names in cable television is getting into esports, and it think it can do a better job than current leagues.
Turner’s Eleague, which will feature Counter-Strike: Global Offensive competition, will air matches and coverage on both TBS and Twitch starting on May 24. More than a billion people will know about the concept of esports before the end of 2016, according to industry intelligence firm Newzoo. It’s a growing market, which explains why big media companies like Turner are gettin involved.
GamesBeat interviewed Craig Barry, the executive vice president and chief content officer at Turner Sports. He discussed Eleague’s goal and explained why Turner is bullish on esports for cable TV.
GamesBeat: Why is Turner getting into esports?
Craig Barry: In all honesty, it was pitched by our partners in the [talent agency] WME-IMG. We took a look at it and — the landscape of content, the media landscape in general, is evolving. Whether it’s digital or mobile or social or linear, traditional broadcast networks, people are starting to insist on content when they want it, where they want it, on various platforms.
This is not necessarily new for us. We work on all platforms and properties. We have the traditional NBA on TNT or March Madness or MLB. But we also run NBA.com, NCAA.com, PGA.com. On the entertainment side of the business there’s Super Deluxe. This notion of alternative platforms and finding content that we feel fits with our brands, and ultimately creating and producing and distributing content, is something we feel very strongly about.
It’s no different with esports. We saw an opportunity that lent itself to our strengths in content creation, storytelling, something where we could leverage our infrastructure, resources, manpower, capabilities. Something we thought we could differentiate from what was out there in the marketplace. It seemed like a good fit. Along with the fact that the millennial demo is right in line with the TBS re-brand.
GamesBeat: Is your approach to esports going to be similar to what you do with traditional sports like the NBA? Or is it going to be a different approach?
Barry: From a production standpoint, we’ll bring the same quality. The network’s broadcast quality is platform agnostic. It doesn’t matter what platform it falls on. We’ll still produce at the highest quality. But ultimately, when we talk about esports, being authentic to the game and to the community is the most important part of the approach.
I’m not sure it’s apples to apples from a content standpoint, but from an overall production standpoint I’d say that we’re going in with the same high quality network production with which we approach the NBA or MLB or March Madness?
GamesBeat: What led to the partnership with Twitch?
Barry: Twitch is the premier distribution platform and destination for esports. That was the starting point. It’s what made sense to us, to make sure we had a partner that understood the space, that had great reach, that had great support in the esports community. It was an easy decision to partner with Twitch?
GamesBeat: Why the focus on Counter-Strike: Global Offensive as the first game for the league?
Barry: When you talk about accessibility — as a point of entry to esports, we have an obligation to the community to create the most authentic experience possible. When we talk about expanding the audience and having the opportunity to reach the hardcore fans, and then having TBS or other additional platforms where we have an opportunity to reach the casual fan — the first-person shooter, CS, it has a rich history in esports. Compared to other esports games, it has an easier learning curve. It plays well on broadcast. We thought that was the best point of entry for us as far as accessibility. Not only to support the community with a very rich title, but also having the opportunity to expand that community to more casual or curious fans.
GamesBeat: Do you think there’s a point where the league would expand to include other games?
Barry: We’re open to it. We’re constantly looking at other publishers and other IP. Valve has been extremely supportive, and we’re very happy with the progress we’ve made and where we sit right now to launch Eleague. But I’d never say other titles are off the table. We’re interested in the entire ecosystem of esports, not just Counter-Strike.
We’re focesed on that community right now, but we look to ultimately be involved in a much larger ecosystem and provide a larger degree of support to that ecosystem with whatever we choose. We’ll walk before we run. We’ll listen to the community. The thing about this community, unlike traditional sports — in traditional sports they have opinions. They tell you what they like and don’t like. They’re relatively engaged in the shows and broadcasts you put on. But the esports is extremely engaged. You have to be very generous to the community and the ecosystem. You have to listen to them and give back.
Whether that’s from an access standpoint, making sure they know they have a voice and that it’s heard, making sure you’re monitoring their sentiments — it’s an extremely important part when we’re trying to look at what success looks like in this model. We’re focused on the CS community right now. We’re looking to create a great product and find the support of that community and ecosystem.
GamesBeat: You’re talking about bringing in more casual viewers. Do you think you have a chance to attract a TBS audience that wouldn’t necessarily go to Twitch to watch competitive gaming?
Barry: I don’t have a crystal ball, obviously, but I can tell you that when we looked at the space originally, we looked at things we thought we’d be able to — what are the gaps? Where is the white space? What can we bring to the table that might differentiate us? The two things that popped out were — we think we can bring a higher level of production value day in and day out, and we felt like we could create a stronger narrative around individual players. When we looked at the space, at first we thought, okay, it’s about these events and these teams. But the individual players were the fabric of the ecosystem.
We thought, if we could create an emotion connection between players and fans — hey, these are the players you love, these are the players you love to hate, these are the Lebron James and Stephen Currys of esports. We felt that there was space there to create these narratives that would build a stronger connection. I don’t want to equate the approach pound for pound, but when you look at the Olympics — granted, that’s tons of culture and hundreds of years in the making. I’m not equating it to that. But if you look at the Olympics, I don’t watch track and field day in and day out. I don’t watch figure skating. I don’t watch cycling. I don’t watch curling. I don’t watch downhill skiing. But when the Olympics comes around, you have this great international competition, but more important, you have these great stories about athletes and the sacrifices they’ve made to be where they are. You get emotionally connected to them and it drives you to have a deeper engagement with what you’re watching.
If the stories are told correctly and we give people a reason to care, we can attract casual fans on any platform, whether it’s TBS or Twitch or VOD or anywhere else. There’s a lot of space for storytelling. It’s something we do very well from a company standpoint. I’m hoping that the ability to do that, mixed with the TBS brand — do I think it’ll pull millions of fans in? No. But we’re hoping to take some baby steps to open the door and get casual fans and curious fans to engage.
GamesBeat: How do you get the Twitch audience, which is very comfortable watching on the PC, to come over to the TBS show?
Barry: When you look at the evolution of esports, you see that there’s a lot of passion around creating a certain amount of legitimacy for esports, the same as you have with basketball, baseball, football. There’s a lot of support for having that broadcast pillar. People understand that they’re going to have to migrate in order to help support that legitimacy. I also feel like you can — there’s an experience that you can watch online, but if you want the full national broadcast you’ll have to move to TBS. We’re not necessarily cutting the digital audience out. We’re just asking them to participate in support of ultimately legitimizing esports on the broadcast level.