Turner plans to partner with an online streaming company, expand into other esports

Esports is coming back to television, and it could be bigger than ever before

Esports is coming back to television, and it could be bigger than ever before.

Media giant Turner made waves in September with the announcement it would host an esports league featuring Counter-Strike on the company’s cable television channel TBS. The league is set to play host to some of the world’s biggest teams and best players while presenting the game to a brand new audience.

It isn’t the first time esports, and Counter-Strike in particular, have been televised. DirecTV launched the Championship Gaming Series nearly a decade ago in 2007, bringing together multiple games with Counter-Strike at the forefront and presenting them to a television audience. CGS ceased operations the next year. The failure of CGS proved a significant setback for the esports industry at the time, and the ill-fated attempt stands out to this day in the minds of fans and community members alike.

There were many factors that led to that fall. But Turner Sports EVP and Chief Content Officer Craig Barry is confident his company understands how to do right by the growing esports industry.

“You have to make sure you’re as authentic as possible entering a space that’s grassroots,” Barry told the Daily Dot. “You don’t come in pounding your chest and trying to reinvent the space, but supporting it and the ecosystem as a whole.”

Appealing to the unique and relatively new fan base that powers esports is a challenge, even for those familiar with the scene. Turner officials have sought to address this potential difficulty by listening closely to the existing community and partnering with WME/IMG. The talent management group, which acquired the esports talent agency GEM on in January, brings an intimate familiarity with the industry to the table. WME/IMG will run the actual league, while Turner will provide the production, promotion, and the platform of cable television.

Turner’s entry into esports coincides with a refocusing of the TBS brand that seems to click with the primary demographic behind esports: digitally fluent youth. The company’s interest goes well beyond the industry’s attractive demographic, however. Turner also sees the vast potential of esports and the big payback an early investment could have.

“It’s growing into a legitimate sport and it lends itself well to the future of media with the over-the-top content mentality and working across all platforms,” Barry said.

Even with the industry’s obvious growth, the decision to put esports on television was still big enough to send waves across the industry. Since the DirecTV debacle, other groups have attempted to put esports on television. And while these have been more successful, none have quite managed to recreate the success competitive gaming frequently sees in its native online home on sites like Twitch.

Blizzard’s Heroes of the Dorm tournament, played through relatively new MOBA Heroes of the Storm and broadcasted on ESPN2, was a modest success, boasting high production values the type of professional presentation you’d expect from ESPN. Industry insiders and fans alike generally praised the broadcast.

At the same time, it attracted some noisy derision from mainstream sports fans and shock jocks looking to grab an extra headline or two. That’s hardly a signal that esports don’t have a place on television. Soccer is the biggest sport in the world and has a sizable and growing American fanbase, but broadcasts of the game on major American networks still draw similar blowback. Still, the online reaction to Heroes of the Dorm does show the disconnect between competitive gaming’s passionate online following and a television audience that isn’t necessarily familiar with the phenomenon.

For its part, ESPN has remained bullish on esports. The company is building its own esports section and is in the midst of a multi-year deal with MLG to bring competitive gaming competitions to the X Games. A company spokesperson indicated that more could be on the horizon.

“For years, we have delivered live programming, coverage and content to competitive gaming fans and we will keep exploring more ways to serve this passionate audience,” the spokesperson told the Daily Dot.

Turner’s efforts won’t be strictly relegated to television, however. In fact, the majority of its content will live online in digital form, just as most existing competitive gaming events do. The company plans to work with an established streaming platform such as Twitch, Hitbox or YouTube Gaming, though it hasn’t yet decided on a particular partner.

Bringing esports to television and mixing distribution between these very different platforms raises the question: How does Turner plan to work with sponsors and advertisers? The company acknowledges that competitive gaming is new and different enough to require partners Barry describes as “pioneers.”

“Companies need to be progressive in how they integrate with esports,” Barry said. “The traditional model of sponsorship probably isn’t the most effective in this case.”

Even with these admitted difficulties, esports’ highly engaged demographic is still a huge appeal.  And advertisers are eager to reach them—including some groups esports fans aren’t necessarily used to seeing, according to Seth Ladetsky, Turner Sports’ senior vice president of digital ad sales.

“There’s interest from brands that are endemic to the gaming category, as well as major national advertisers who are trying to reach the coveted demographic of fans who follow esports,” Ladetsky said.

The topic of so-called “super leagues” has been a hot one this year. Talks between major players were first reported in April. Attempts made at forming premier Counter-Strike: Global Offensive leagues have featured some early iterations requiring varying degrees of exclusivity from participating teams.

While no such league has yet been formed, fears were again stoke when Turner announced its league. Barry was quick to assuage any such concerns.

“The teams are free to do whatever they want to do,” Barry said.

Barry revealed the network’s storytelling won’t be limited to the tournaments. The network, for instance, will film Australian team Renegades as they transition from life in their native Australia to their new home in the United States, a narrative that exists outside of the strict boundaries of any particular league.

“We’re going to pursue creating content around teams regardless of their being in our tournament or a different one,” Barry said.

Valve, the famed developer of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, is also helping things move smoothly. The industry giant has become increasingly involved in the professional scene ever since banning a number of players during that match-fixing scandal that dominated headlines several months ago.

Valve works directly with event organizers that host major tournaments. Barry called the developer “a great partner,” and emphasized that the company’s growth and esports goals are closely aligned to Turner’s.

Where then do things go from here? TBS has suggested that Counter-Strike won’t be the only competitive game the channel highlights. Counter-Strike is seen as “a great point of entry” with its large fan base and a viewing experience that is easily translatable to unfamiliar spectators. 

One thing is certain: Turner is confident about its chances to make the most promising entry yet for competitive gaming on television really work.

“I expect TBS to be embraced for their entrance into esports,” Barry said.

Photo via C.P. Storm/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed