Why Turner and WME Are Betting on E-Sports

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive 2 - H 2015
Courtesy of Vavle Corporation

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive 2 - H 2015

TBS will launch an e-sports league next year ('Counter-Strike: Global Offensive' competitions on Friday nights), while the talent agency adds professional gamers to its roster of stars and professional athletes: "This is going to be on par with the World Series of Poker," says one analyst.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

In 2014, the competitive video gaming industry scored more than $110 million in corporate sponsorships, while Hollywood largely watched from the sideline. That could all change, thanks to a flurry of dealmaking in the fast-growing field of e-sports.

WME-IMG is leading the wave of activity with its Sept. 23 reveal that it is partnering with TBS to launch an e-sports league next year. The news comes nine months after the agency acquired Global eSports Management, adding professional gamers to its roster of stars and traditional athletes.

It isn't the first time that television has eyed the space: MTV aired the World Series of Gaming in 2005, USA ran a series of Halo 2 matchups in '06, and DirecTV co-founded an e-sports league in '07. But those attempts had a hard time finding an audi­ence. "The fan base was not ready," says WME's e-sports head Tobias Sherman. "You didn't have kids coming home from school and going straight to YouTube and Twitch."

That's changed with the rise of connected devices and services that let gamers broadcast their play. Last year, Amazon paid nearly $1 billion for live-streaming platform Twitch, setting off a number of e-sports investments, including mobile streaming app Mobcrush, which CAA Ventures and Lionsgate backed this spring. Research firm NewZoo estimates that the e-sports audience has grown to 32 million in the U.S. and will hit 50 million by 2017. With those eyeballs have come sponsorship deals, ticket sales and ancillary income for the companies and teams that operate on the e-sports stage.

Next year, as part of its deal with WME-IMG, TBS plans to air Counter-Strike: Global Offensive competitions on Friday nights during two 10-week tournaments. Turner Sports president Lenny Daniels promises to give the games the same treatment that the network gives to March Madness and the MLB playoffs. "It's about building a league from beginning to end," he says, adding that there will be multiplatform content and live streaming as well as the cable component. "It's remaking how people think about the games, how they get involved and how the stories are told."

Audiences are likely to be bigger than they once were, but Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter cautions that it could still take time before live video game competitions take off on linear TV. To wit, ESPN2's April broadcast of collegiate gaming tournament Heroes of the Dorm had fewer than 100,000 viewers, says Nielsen.

"This is going to be on par with the World Series of Poker," predicts Pachter. "That's popular, but not Super Bowl popular."