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ESPN to move into social gaming

Upfront news also includes 'Nacion ESPN'

NEW YORK -- A push into social gaming, an ESPN Deportes show modeled after SportsNation and new iPhone apps -- those were some key news nuggets from the ESPN upfront presentation here Tuesday morning.

The event once again took place at Nokia Theater in Times Square, but instead of it being hosted by the SportsCenter team as in recent years, SportsNation anchors Colin Cowherd and Michelle Beadle served as hosts. Their ESPN2 show had been unveiled at the sports powerhouse's upfront last year.

In addition to such execs as ESPN and ABC Sports president George Bodenheimer, executive vp content John Skipper and Ed Erhardt, president customer marketing and sales, Robert Iger, CEO of parent company Walt Disney was also in attendance.

Guest appearances included NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden and University of South Carolina mascot Cocky.

Key themes that speakers highlighted in front of the advertiser crowd Tuesday included ESPN's focus on 3D, social media and other technologies, the continuing growth of ESPNU, ESPN's long-term commitment to soccer and plans to include sports science into coverage more regularly.

Serving the sports fan is key to serving ad partners, Erhardt emphasized. "The future for us is the fan experience, is the live experience," he said. And the rise of social media plays to ESPN's strength as it is "an amplifier for passion and engagement."

One of the increasingly popular digital ad methods highlighted Tuesday are ESPN.com homepage takeovers, which movie studios have used. ESPN executives mentioned the recent "Avatar" home video release as an example of a big campaign.

Here a look at some of the news announcements from the ESPN upfront:

* ESPN Interactive has struck a two-year deal with social gaming firm Playdom to develop ESPN-branded sports games for the two companies' respective sites, as well as social media platforms, including Facebook, MySpace and Bebo. The first two in development are slated to launch this fall. Games will have in-game ESPN brand integrations.

"Our deal with Playdom marks ESPN's first major (foray) into the social gaming space," said Raphael Poplock, vp, games and revenue strategy and development for ESPN Digital Media. "The sports genre for this category of games has gone virtually untapped thus far, and through this agreement, we have an opportunity to be in front of a highly engaged audience and at the forefront of what is currently the fastest growing games category out there."

* Nacion ESPN: With SportsNation now a year old, ESPN Deportes will early next year launch its own Spanish-language studio show driven by fan interaction. Produced from ESPN's LA facility, it will be hosted by Adriana Monsalve and David Faitelson who made a brief appearance at Tuesday's upfront event.

* U:Nite: A new nightly ESPNU signature show at midnight, set to launch in 2011, wants to "cheer, debate and celebrate" anything of interest to viewers across sports and pop cuture, including gaming, music and technology.

* ESPN 3D will launch next month with 25 of the 64 soccer World Cup matches broadcast in 3D. Games shown in 3D will include group stage matches featuring the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, three quarterfinals, both semis and the final, among others.

* ESPN plans to expand its mobile reach with the launch of six local-based iPhone and iPod touch apps.

Five apps will focus on score and breaking news about hometeams in the LA, New York, Chicago, Boston and Dallas markets.

A sixth app, called ESPN Passport, will launch in the next month and allow fans to chronicle at-game experiences via digital scrapbook functions, such as photo uploads, commentary and virtual ticket stubs. Among other things, fans can check in and confirm their game attendance via GPS location verification.

* ESPN has dubbed 2011 "Year of the Quarterback," with content across platforms set to analyze and discuss the marquee position in football.

* ESPN CreativeWorks is a new unit that will help ad partners develop branded or co-branded creative across media platforms, including in video, digital, print and mobile form. "No one knows our fans better than we do, and we can leverage that knowledge to help our clients deliver their brand message to our audience in the most effective way," said Erhardt. The unit includes copywriters, designers, producers and affiliated agencies.