Craig Barry is one of the esports true believers at Turner Sports. The executive vice president and chief content officer at Turner is one of the people running ELeague, the esports competition that is broadcast on TBS on television, as well as online.
Television is one of the last places you’d expect to find young millennials these days. But ELeague has drawn more than 9 million young viewers to TBS, and that means that esports is on the verge of becoming a mainstream pastime, just like traditional sports. We talked with Barry about Turner’s experience so far in building an audience and attracting sponsors and advertisers for the league.
Our conversation touched on why TV works and the distinction between casual esports fans and hardcore fans. We also talked about why Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is so much better to spectate than Blizzard’s popular Overwatch.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How are things going?
Craig Barry: It’s going well. We’re only two years into this. Even though we’re a big company, we approached it like a startup. We wanted to create an authentic brand that was super considerate of the community. We wanted to be quality- and narrative-driven. We felt like that was a differentiator in the space for us.
It’s funny. One of the things, when I was doing the due diligence before we committed to the space — I saw all the metrics from Newzoo like everyone else. I went to a bunch of conferences and tournaments. What I realized was those metrics represent a large global footprint across all platforms. Those gargantuan [numbers] — not only revenue but also user base — were PC, console, mobile, microtransactions, game sales. When you whittled it down to the North American audience, you knew that there was a large opportunity, but it was a much smaller percentage of those massive numbers.
At that point, you become a realist about the approach. A lot of people have been in the space for a long time — like ESL. You ask yourself how you can differentiate yourself. Although we’re a global company and we believe in the global footprint, how can we start to get people in North America interested in the space? That was the differentiator. We’re going to do a quality product. We’re not a league. We’re a tournament brand and a content creation and distribution platform. We’ll be completely authentic to the community. We’ll be narrative driven with good storylines.
[These are] all lessons from the traditional stick-and-ball space. We’re going to take the best of what we know there and integrate it into our approach to esports. Philosophically, we believe — whether it’s NBA, March Madness, or esports — in straddling that line of sports and pop culture. We believe in listening to the community and ultimately creating as much access as possible. How close can we get the fan to the player, to the court, to the game, and get them emotionally connected to the storyline and the players? Who’s the player you love, and who’s the player you love to hate?
And then, we have to be super dynamic. Don’t just hang our hat on one title or one approach or execution of that title. Make sure that we’re dynamic around the titles and dynamic around the way we approach the titles and create content around those titles. All the while, let’s continue to create proprietary experiences — like Game Commander, like VR — that offer more value to the community.
Understand that, as a player in the traditional stick-and-ball space, we have a lot of tentacles into the non-endemics. How are we going to engage the non-endemics? How are we going to grow revenue after we create this brand? I want to be clear because the most important thing through the first two years to where we are right now — it wasn’t driven by revenue, obviously. It was driven by the authenticity of the brand. It’s a little cliché, but we say that if it’s good for esports, it’s good for Turner. As we went through that approach, hopefully creating value for the endemic and non-endemic sponsorship opportunities and advertising opportunities — understanding platforms.
This is a native digital platform, but because of this philosophy of straddling sports and pop culture, we have an obligation to the hardcore fan — whether that’s an NBA fan or the esports fan — but we also have an obligation to the casual fan. Making sure we’re fulfilling that obligation — for example, as a native digital property, we’ll stream the tournament on Twitch, and it will be what they expect, with a high production value and hopefully good narrative. But on TBS, we may teach you how to play. We may teach you how to watch. We’ll wrap that around the competition. But it will be more narrative driven, hoping that the more casual fan — who’s intimidated by a digital platform, who doesn’t understand Twitch, who just wants to dip their toe in esports — has a platform or a portal to walk through.
GamesBeat: What is the audience like now?
Barry: It varies. Ultimately, the business has grown year over year, whether it’s revenue based or metric based. But the one thing esports has taught us, even about our stick-and-ball sports — you can’t just go out and sell the ratings and the CPM like you can in normal sports. You have to sell the collective. You have to sell the engagement. Engagement is the most important metric in our industry going forward. Are they watching? Are they sharing? Are they following? Are they engaging with the content and for how long?
When you take something like esports, if you say, “300,000 people were watching on TBS,” that’s only one tenth of the story. Once you roll in social and mobile and concurrents and time spent viewing and unique and views on all the platforms — I believe in not necessarily being exclusive, so we go to Twitch and YouTube and Twitter. Rolling up all that engagement, then you go to the brand and say, “Hey, I have a brand with a higher level of engagement than X or Y. This is why you should connect your brand to our brand.”
You need to connect it authentically because if you don’t, like we all know, the esports community will reject you. If you try to shove stuff down their throats, they won’t accept the integration of the brand. Whereas if the brand connects with them, the brand can message whatever they want. Arby’s, for example. Arby’s came in, and instead of shoving commercials down their throat, they created their own IP and asked us, “How can we immerse ourselves more?” We went and took the teams and had a competition where they were shooting sandwiches at a high-powered rifle range. By the end of the season, at the majors last year, 5,000 people were chanting “Arby’s” in the theater. What other sport has ever had the community chanting the name of a brand?
We don’t have any automotive, but I always say that a good example, hypothetically — if you come in and try to sell the community a Ford Focus, they’ll probably never buy a Ford Focus. If one of your prizes at the end is a Ford Focus, and you talk about supporting the community, they’re going to be fully engaged with the Ford brand and support the Ford brand going forward.
GamesBeat: Shooting at a sandwich sounds a little scary for a brand.
Barry: They ate it up, no pun intended.
GamesBeat: It sounds like they have to come up with something just a little different.
Barry: Esports is teaching me so much about the way that we approach even traditional sports around this whole engagement of the brand. It’s not just us. When you talk about authenticity in esports, the brands have to be authentic to esports. If they’re not interested in that, it’s going to be a very difficult integration for them, endemic or non-endemic. Obviously, endemics are already somewhat integrated.
As we continue to look at the space and try different games and different approaches — this year alone we did the major. Then, we had the Street Fighter tournament. We stood up a championship fight format where it was Clash for Cash, and we brought in the two major teams — one night, winner-take-all — just to see what that prizefight format would look like. We went to the International. We didn’t do one frame of live competition. We followed two teams — one that made it, one that didn’t — through the tournament, a la 24/7 or Hard Knocks. That was five episodes. Then, we went back to the traditional Counter-Strike format. After that, we’ll do Injustice 2.
The thing about Injustice 2, whether you think it’s a great fighting game or not, we have lots of assets to leverage because it’s our sister company in WB Games. Warner Bros. is coming out with the Justice League movie two weeks later. We have the launch of NBA on TNT. We have the MLB postseason. It’s a perfect storm of sports content — or content in general — that we can roll up with Injustice 2 and the power of our combined assets to see how that works together.
GamesBeat: It sounds like TV winds up being only a small part of the package.
Barry: It depends on how you look at it. From these first two Counter-Strikes — I don’t have the updated number, but the answer is yes. On the other hand, 9 million new viewers came to TBS to watch esports. I’m not sure what other property TBS has [that] attracts 9 million millennial viewers. That’s over the course of multiple weeks, but still, these are people who don’t normally go to TBS, who don’t normally visit the destination to consume content. TBS, for us, understanding what that platform is — it’s a portal for a more casual fan. Someone who may need a richer narrative to understand what’s going on on the screen.
GamesBeat: What have you figured out about the line between casual and hardcore gamers and whether you want to mix those audiences? Lots of people are gamers, but there’s a smaller audience that wants to circle the wagons around their idea of authenticity.
Barry: The curve is much smaller than in a traditional sport. From the day I pick up a basketball to the day I walk on the NBA court, the curve is massive. From the day I pick up an Xbox controller to play Call of Duty to the day I play professionally, that’s much smaller. That’s accessible. Even at 10 years old, you look at that and think, “I could do that.”
There’s another layer, I think. You have the pro layer, the amateur layer, and the casual layer. We’ve all seen the pyramid that says 10 percent on top is pro, 40 percent below that is amateur, and then you have casual. To be successful, you have to have a vertical through all three. There’s no D-league. This casual and amateur space, first of all, makes up the majority of the scale of games. Second, you have to go through casual and amateur to be pro. This is the farm league of how people become pro gamers. It’s inherently connected.
It’s maybe not the case with every title. Someone who plays Rocket League professionally might never be a professional at Counter-Strike. But believe me, when someone plays Rocket League and starts to have an affinity for it, they start wanting to level up and play more competitive people. It matters what their ranking is, whether they’re on a proprietary server or an outside server. They’re looking for a higher degree of competition. This is just my opinion, but I don’t think people start playing a game wanting to become a pro gamer. They get into a game and realize they have a talent in that specific game, and they keep playing and investing hundreds of hours in that game. They do it because they enjoy it, but next thing they know, they’re at the highest level of executing on that game.
GamesBeat: It seems like it’s difficult to graph that level of authenticity that’s edgy enough for the hardcore gamer but doesn’t alienate the rest of the crowd.
Barry: Well, where do you think pro gamers came from? Where do they think they came from? They were amateur. They were casual. Are they forgetting where they came from? I have the most respect for pro gamers, but we all have to start somewhere. Even when we got into the space — you can’t take it for granted. We came in and knew we had to be about building the brand. We had to be about creating value for the community and for the ecosystem. We can’t just come in flexing. We had to start from the bottom and earn our way.
GamesBeat: In the narratives, do you find this surfacing? Do the gamers exhibit something that larger audiences or brands might be afraid of?
Barry: If you ask the publishers, it’s imperative to have that ladder for them. Supporting the community is everything, and the community, for them, is not one-dimensional. It’s not the pro community. It’s the amateur community, and above all others, the casual community. Getting people to play the game and get into the ecosystem, that’s their business.
As important as it is to support the community and create this authentic product, it’s equally important to support the publishers to be able to create a better product for the community, a better integration and a better value proposition. None of this conversation we’re having — we haven’t even talked about revenue because what’s important is we get to a place in this space that makes sense. Even the ESLs and the MLGs who’ve been around 10 or 15 years, I’m not sure they’ve cracked the code as this community grows.
The global community is probably a different approach than the domestic community. We have to understand that variable, too, or something that works for both. It’s all in its infancy, even if it’s been around for 10 or 15 years. It’s not mainstream. I don’t care what people say. It’s niche, even if it’s a big niche. It took the NBA 40 years. It took the NFL 40 years to get to a place of true profitability around media content creation and distribution.
GamesBeat: But it’s important that it reaches millennials.
Barry: Right. That’s definitely a benefit. No network, no sport can match the age demographic of esports.
GamesBeat: Does CS:GO represent an ideal in some ways, as far as the style of sport?
Barry: CS: GO has a low barrier to entry to some degree. It’s five on five, terrorists versus counterterrorists. There’s an economic system in it that’s somewhat complicated if you don’t know how it works. But much like the World Series of Poker — people have played poker for hundreds of years. Nobody gave a shit about it until the hole cam. The hole cam gave you the ability to get in the subconscious of the player, which ultimately made it super interesting.
Counter-Strike kind of has that. With the X-rays and the ability to see things on-screen that the players can’t see, it gives you the ability to be in the mind of the player. “Don’t go there! He’s right around the corner!” There’s this greater influx of information that makes it easier to understand. It helps you determine why people do what they do on the screen. Is it easier than Rocket League? It’s definitely easier than a MOBA. Overwatch is super frenetic and hard to watch. Street Fighter is probably the lowest common denominator: two guys on the screen fighting with life bars. For the most casual fan, that’s probably the easiest consumption lift.
I’m also really bullish on [PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds]. It’s a super interesting model. It lends itself, if done correctly, to a great narrative. One-hundred people drop in, and one comes out. It’s very much like reality TV, like Survivor or Amazing Race. Once the model is built — obviously, you can’t watch 100 people at once, but once we can create a narrative around it, it’s a super interesting model from a content-consumption standpoint. Not necessarily from a pro-gamer standpoint — but for consumers and the community, it could be super interesting.
As games start to evolve — again, I don’t think you’ll see 25 esports games in the next two years. You’ll see one, maybe. We don’t decide. The publishers don’t decide. The community decides what’s going to be an esport. I don’t see that changing. The one example of a publisher that’s done that well is Blizzard with Overwatch. That was an esport before it came out, before the community had played it. That’s an interesting case study. But ultimately, the acceptance and the connection to a game as an esport will be up to the community.
GamesBeat: As far as that revenue-per-fan number Newzoo has called out, what do you think will affect that?
Barry: That was something like $3, versus $15 for the NBA and $75 for the NFL? I don’t know. But look, it’s infancy. I’m sure the NBA was still in its infancy five years in, on its way to being a successful sports media platform. It was probably pretty similar. I’m not going to read too far into that. It’s also highly digital right now. We’re not paying billions of dollars in rights fees. It’s relative.
GamesBeat: Maybe the broadcast numbers would make up a big part of that difference.
Barry: I really don’t see that happening. The publishers are in the business of selling games. They’re not in the business of selling broadcast rights, not yet.
GamesBeat: I’ve been writing about this idea of the leisure economy, that one day, we’ll all get paid to play games. Journalists, streamers, esports athletes, these are people getting paid real money for jobs that didn’t exist before. So, why can’t that be the case for most people?
Barry: In the last five years, there’s this entity that’s bubbled up. Never even existed until five years ago. We know them as influencers. Influencers represent a certain scale of people. Again, it all goes back to creating awareness and selling the brand.
Especially, with in-app purchases and stuff like that, we’ll never be paid, per se, to play games. But there will be an opportunity to win money. I call it the Wonka ticket effect. Words with Friends goes out and says, “Hey, anybody can play, winner-take-all, at the end of six months, whoever bubbles up the ladder gets a million dollars.” All you have to do is download it, maybe pay 99 cents to enter. They have 120 million people playing that game, something like that. It’s ridiculous.
Or let’s take Clash Royale. All of a sudden, you have this thing out there where everyone who thinks they’re good enough — let’s say it’s only 20 percent. That’s still 20 million people who think they’re good enough to play for a million-dollar prize, so they’re in. Those opportunities — I think you’re kind of talking about virtual currency. You play, I pay. That will exist. It already exists. You play enough, you grind, you get paid — not in real currency but maybe eventually in Bitcoin? Who knows?
If you go back in history, our commerce, whether it’s e-commerce or physical retail — it’s no different from getting 20 percent off here or 50 percent off there. But I don’t think it’ll ever get to a point where you’re getting paid more than you’re contributing. I’m not an economics guy, though.
GamesBeat: When AI eliminates all our jobs, maybe we’ll get paid to play for the data we generate.
Barry: Well, I will say that data is super important to our industry. It’s important to the way we approach things. It’s important to our advertisers. It’s important to the community. It’s important to the publishers. Now this vehicle — it’s not like regular sports, where you have to watch through a platform and wait for the third-party data. All the data here is organically part of the games themselves.
GamesBeat: How do you think the industry consolidates as audiences amass much more influence?
Barry: For that question, O&Os are good for that. If you own and operate the league, that means from top to bottom, like Riot. Even Riot is not a true O&O because they don’t own the teams. But let’s look at what the NBA is going to do. They’re going to do a league. The teams will be offshoots of real NBA teams. The NBA is going to govern the entire thing. That has the opportunity to standardize the community for that game and that ecosystem and keep it governed, so it’s not the Wild West like the space we’re currently in.
I feel like the space we’re in now — I hear everybody reference the Wild West. It’s the cost of doing business. This is where it is now. It’s the same when the internet first arrived and when social media first arrived. It’s a disruptive influence, and I mean that in a good way. It’s disruptive technology, content, entertainment. It’s coming in and seeding itself in all these different ways. It’s going to adhere to things really well. It’s going to be super additive. It’s going to disrupt and turn other things on their heads.
GamesBeat: The Overwatch League, with the investors it’s attracted — it’s getting to some interesting milestones.
Barry: The problem I have with Overwatch is it’s hard to watch for a consumer. It’s super fun to play, but it’s hard to watch. We’ll see. I’m sure they’ll fix that. They’re the publisher, right? They own it, so they can adjust.
For a lot of people, it’s the shiny thing. They’ve dropped X amount of investment, and they’re expecting this fast, aggressive return. Like anything, I don’t think it works that way. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You have to go into it strategically correct and understand — we’re learning piecemeal. First, we had to learn about the community. We had to learn about the ecosystem. We had to apply what we do there. Now, we’re learning about the domestic market and the global market. We’re learning about the integration of sponsorship and brands and advertisers. It’s ongoing. If you come in looking for lightning in a bottle, you’re probably going to fail.
There’s not that many companies out there, I don’t think. ESL and MLG, ourselves, some NBC stuff, a little bit of ESPN. There’s not that many content creators and distributors. BAMTech made a big investment in League of Legends and Riot. That was an interesting deal. I’m sure, in that big number, a lot of it [is] service related. A lot of it is IP. I’m sure Disney loves the League of Legends IP for content creation.
I don’t know about a specific percentage of the population, so I won’t speculate. But over half of the population has engaged with a video game at some point in their life. It’s embedded in our culture and has been since Pong in the 1970s, this interest in technology-generated entertainment platforms.