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Is esports part of the broadcasting mainstream?

Jenny Priestley isn't quite sure of the answer

The global esports audience will reach 453.8 million viewers in 2019 according to figures from Newzoo. Compare that to the FIFA World Cup final in July 2018 which attracted a global audience of 3.262 billion. What’s the difference? The way both sports are broadcast. One reaches its audience via streaming, the other through global broadcasters.

So if esports fully crossed over into the broadcast space, just how big could its global audience be? According to Tim Part, senior sport consultant for analysts MTM London, broadcasters are still approaching esports conservatively because they still don’t fully understand it. “They don’t know whether it is sport, entertainment, both, or neither,” he tells TVBEurope. “They don’t understand it for two main reasons – firstly it’s a sub-culture that few key decision makers in programme commissioning will have had enough exposure to, but more importantly, the viewing experience is so un-TV like, complete with fan interaction, data feeds etc, that the transition presents many challenges and risks. Ultimately, this lack of understanding means that they wouldn’t know what to do with it, especially when an esports target audience barely watches TV.”

Part argues that at the moment, esports doesn’t really need broadcast; it has created a mass dedicated fanbase without it through social media and Twitch. “But equally why would esports abandon the current distribution model in favour of a streaming service?” he asks. “At the moment esports is growing so quickly that it doesn’t need to take risks like this.

“With concurrent viewing audiences in the millions, why do they need to do either?”

If broadcasters were to jump on board with esports, how soon does Part think it would become mainstream, attracting the same kinds of audiences as soccer or American Football? “Within its core demographic esports does well, but that demographic is still a relatively small part of the global audience. Gaming – from Candy Crush to Fifa via Fortnite – is more mainstream, but esports is still so niche, technical, brash etc. that in its purest form it is unlikely ever to be mainstream,” he says. “It’s unclear whether esports ever will be mainstream,” Part continues. “Firstly, there are cohort effects; we still have to see whether the teenage esports fan of today is a still a fan in 20 years’ time when they have a career and have had kids. Because esports is such a (and I use this word reluctantly) zeitgeist topic at the moment, commentators tend to overestimate the true size and significance of the esports sector.”

However, not everyone agrees with Part. Keith Buckley, from True Wind Capital, owners of The Switch, argues that esports has already moved into the mainstream: “Although the esports audience remains largely digital with the majority of esports tournaments viewed via streaming online or OTT platforms, in 2018, Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch League Grand Finals were broadcast for the first time on the ABC network and it was also the first time live competitive gaming aired on ESPN in primetime,” Buckley explains.

He adds that esports is currently the fastest-growing segment of the entertainment industry with viewership estimates expected to exceed one billion by 2022. “For comparison, this year’s Super Bowl LIII attracted 98.2 million viewers. American Football continues to be the highest-ranked sport by viewers in the US, but viewership continues to decrease year over year,” says Buckley. “Conversely, esports viewership continues to increase with no sign of slowing down.”

The Switch is among the sponsors of NAB’s new ‘esports experience’ which debuts in the North Hall this year. Buckley says that attendees at the esports experience can expect to have the opportunity to engage with esports producers and those in the esports communities. The Switch will be displaying its esports pop-in-a-box, which enables production and transmission workflows from essentially anywhere gaming is occurring.  

Finally, how do the experts see esports developing over the next 12-24 months? According to Part, it will see further strong growth from a small base – with lots of room for yet more live tournaments, more conventions, and more games graduating to the big leagues. “In terms of organised tournaments, the Battle Royale genre should prevail. Although Fortnite became the biggest game in the world and an online video phenomenon without having a developed tournament scene, this is likely to change,” Part continues. “Despite high viewing and tournament prize funds, overall industry revenue remains low – expect to see more sponsors, brands and sport clubs buy their way onto the bandwagon.”