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The field of competitive video gaming known as eSports can draw thousands of spectators and millions of viewers, but traditional television broadcasters have largely ignored the growing entertainment genre. That will change next year when WME | IMG and Turner Broadcasting System launch an eSports league with weekly televised games.
In its first year, the league will focus on competition around Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a first-person shooter published by Valve Corp.
The league will consist of two 10-week tournaments — including regular-season play, playoffs and a championship match — spaced throughout the year. During tournament play, teams of video gamers will compete weekly out of Turner Studios in Atlanta, with Friday night matches airing on TBS, the largest U.S. broadcast commitment to eSports programming to date.
“I don’t think there’s been an investment at this level ever in this space,” says Turner Sports president Lenny Daniels. “What it’s going to do is really propel the sport. This is not just about TBS. This is about building a league from the beginning to the end and really remaking how people think about eSports play, how they get involved and how the stories are told.”
In addition to weekly televised matches, WME | IMG and TBS have committed to bringing live digital competitive gaming content to fans Tuesday through Friday. During the Friday night matches, companion content will be offered online. Bleacher Report has also agreed to offer behind-the-scenes event coverage, player profiles and other coverage through its Team Stream app.
ESports has been a big business in Asia, especially South Korea, for years but has only recently started to gain traction in the United States. Among a number of independent leagues, Los Angeles-based game publisher Riot Games has helped to grow the sport nationally through its organization of tournament play around its popular arena battle game League of Legends. The world championship, held last year in Seoul, was watched by more than 27 million people.
Today, eSports viewership in the U.S. has grown to 32 million, according to market research firm NewZoo, and is expected to jump to more than 50 million by 2017. Corporate sponsorships for the sport totaled more than $110 million in North America last year, according to research company Superdata. Earlier this year, ESPN2 became the first American television network to broadcast live eSports game play.
WME | IMG made a big bet on the space last year through its acquisition of Global eSports Management, which represents professional video game players and commentators, and now manages several large eSports franchises.
Tobias Sherman, head of the WME | IMG eSports division, says that the agency began talking with TBS nearly a year ago about bringing eSports to the small screen. “Their demographic is absolutely perfect,” he says of the primarily male-oriented network, adding that they’ve proven their ability to tell sports stories through their coverage of MBL and NCAA March Madness. “They have a core team that understands eSports and speak the language.”
Sherman says they chose Counter-Strike as the first game that they would focus on because “it’s really easy to digest. It’s a really good baseline for new viewers but we can still satisfy hardcore viewers.” That’s especially important given that they will be introducing many viewers to eSports for the first time. “We can bring audiences that might not have been exposed to eSports and expose them to it,” Daniels says.
They chose to set up an arena at Turner’s Atlanta headquarters to establish an infrastructure for eSports on the East Coast. “This could be so much more than just a league,” Sherman says. “This should be the East Coast epicenter for eSports. We’re perfectly set up for it.”
More details about the new league, including the schedule and programming information, will be announced later this year.
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