TBS will broadcast group finals action between Luminosity and Cloud9 on Friday at 10 p.m. ET. While it’s not esports’ first go-round on national television, proponents are hopeful it will be the sport’s most successful showing yet.
Esports fans have praised the quality of Turner’s production thus far, and if the TV broadcast looks anything like the Twitch broadcast, potential viewers who know nothing about esports could be intrigued if they stumble across it on Friday night.
Bringing the games to Twitch simultaneously doesn’t necessarily negate the goal of bringing them to a national TV audience, but it would appear to indicate the genre’s continued reliance on online streaming.
What is the ELEAGUE?
The ELEAGUE is a new made-for-TV esports league featuring CS:GO contests between 24 professional teams. It is a joint venture between Turner Sports and WME | IMG. Matches take place at Turner Studios in Atlanta.
Both companies will also manage the live events, which fans can attend in person. Tickets for all future scheduled events were sold out earlier this week, but the league has made free tickets available for the following weeks’ group matches via its website. The league is notable for its being broadcast on national television, and will air in two separate 10-week installments over the course of 2016.
Game maker Valve signed on for the league’s first season, ensuring that CS:GO would be the ELEAGUE’s featured game. The league could feature another game in subsequent seasons.
Currently, 12 teams are partitioned into three groups of four (there is no schedule at this time for the other 12 teams slated to compete in the tournament). Each group will play in a round-robin format on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
For example, Group A, which began play on Tuesday, featured matches in which each team (Luminosity, Cloud9, Liquid and Renegades) played each other over two days. Thursdays mark semifinal action between the four teams in each group, while the two winners of those semifinals will advance to a Friday night group final.
Borrowing the parlance of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which Turner also broadcasts, winners of each group will advance to the “Elite Eight.”
Inside the partnership with Twitch
Twitch will broadcast ELEAGUE matches in the following schedule:
- Tuesdays at 12 p.m. ET, six round-robin matches
- Wednesdays at 12 p.m. ET, six round-robin matches
- Thursdays at 2 p.m. ET, two best-of-three group semifinal matches
- Fridays at 10 p.m. ET, best-of-three group final (concurrently with national TBS broadcast)
The partnership between the ELEAGUE and Twitch was not entirely a surprise. The league announced in December that there would be digital coverage of matches throughout the week, and promised a “live digital companion experience” on Friday nights concurrent with the television broadcast, without specifying who would execute it.
It’s not clear how the partnership sits with ELEAGUE advertisers, who potentially risk losing viewers to Twitch’s “alternative viewing experience.” (There is no ad blocking software, for example, for a TBS broadcast).
The aesthetic thus far of the Twitch broadcasts has been akin to a cross between TNT’s NBA studio broadcast and some sort of offbeat gameshow from the future. The hosts joke with one another on a set backlit with blue light at a desk that awkwardly rotates to face various areas of the 360-degree space.
The hosts offer genuine and unfiltered insight, but lack the polish or restraint of what viewers have come to expect from many national television commentators (whenever esports analysts lob serious burns at various underperforming players and teams, commenters light up Twitch’s chat).
Broadcast component an attempt at taking esports mainstream
While the Twitch partnership makes almost too much sense, what stood out to several about the ELEAGUE’s formation was its clear goal of bringing esports to a national audience not via the internet (doing this alone is, decidedly, not new), but instead via a traditional cable viewing experience. An early press release billed the league as being “exclusively” shown on TBS.
But by putting the games on Twitch, the broadcaster could risk losing the gaming community’s television viewership. This begs the question: Who’s going to watch the TV broadcast, then?
It’s possible that passionate esports fans could watch both broadcasts simultaneously, with a laptop on their couch in front of a TV.
But as Twitch Community Development Manager Scott Ball recently said, Twitch viewers are loyal to the platform and value authenticity over all else. It remains to be seen why anyone within the gaming community would prefer to watch the TBS broadcast over the Twitch broadcast.
According to the CEO of one esports wagering company, Turner is aware most gamers will gravitate to Twitch, and is instead betting that mainstream viewers who lack an esports background will tune in to a national broadcast.
Said UNIKRN CEO Rahul Sood, whose company allows gamers in several jurisdictions to bet legally on the outcomes of esports contests: “I think what (TBS) is trying to do is not only cater to the mainstream audience, but also educate the mainstream when it comes to esports.”
Many in the industry still lament DirecTV’s disastrous late-aughts attempt at nationally televised esports, the Championship Gaming Series, which folded after two years.
Sood has hope that ELEAGUE will avoid a similar fate. “They’re investing in the entire league, in the players, the teams, they’re really going all out on this. Whoever is behind the strategy is really smart. They’re going the right way. And hopefully it’s a long bet for them. They just have to give it time.”
Show the game, tell the story
One element of the broadcast that many believe is crucial to its success is its ability to explain, and make accessible, the idea of esports to a legion of American non-gamers who lack Friday night plans.
One of the ways TBS can do this is by emphasizing relatable points of teams and athletes: how a gamer trains for a big event, the back story of how they got into gaming, how and why various teams were formed, or highlighting a player or owner’s career arc.
“It might not be successful for [TBS] just to broadcast ELEAGUE and expect people to come and watch,” argued Sood. “But I think it would be successful if they broadcast ELEAGUE and tell the stories of the players and their journey and stuff, that’s super interesting.”
ESPN’s Chad Millman told Fortune.com earlier this year that readership of ESPN the Magazine’s esports issue came very much from outside the gaming community as well as inside, and that covering esports for the Worldwide Leader was ultimately very similar to covering traditional sports because it still involved writing about universal themes.
Where betting and ELEAGUE intersect
Regardless of the ratings for TBS’s broadcast, the league’s dual-channel delivery could have an outsized impact on the amount and type of gambling associated with ELEAGUE matches.
Various books Thursday gave Liquid between a 6-to-1 and 5-to-1 payout as an underdog against the formidable Luminosity in the first Group A semifinal match. Notably, the spreads featured more variance in price across competing books than one would usually expect for a sport like, say, NFL football.
The books EsportsBettingReport.com spoke with were reluctant to give exact handle figures for the week’s initial ELEAGUE matches.
More noteworthy than the value of real money sportsbook-style betting is the value of skins—the sought-after, in-game cosmetic alterations to CS:GO weapons players can either unlock or purchase—being wagered on ELEAGUE action on sites like CS:GO Lounge.
“I think the money has been and is going to continue to be on the skins sites,” said the Chernin Group’s Ed Chang, formerly of the fantasy esports site Vulcun.
Unlike the Twitch audience, TBS viewers are probably not going to hop on CS:GO Lounge right away and start betting skins. The average TBS viewer Friday night likely doesn’t even know what a skin is.
Symbiosis between viewing and betting
The relationship between gambling and viewership runs both ways, with esports wagering likely driving gamers to tune in to the matches just as much as watching the matches drives gamers to bet.
“CS:GO Lounge is actually known to be able to influence the viewership of tournaments, mostly on the smaller to medium end. If they list a tournament on the front page, they can actually increase viewership by five to ten thousand viewers,” Chang said.
A Wednesday match between arguably Group A’s two worst teams, Renegades and Liquid, featured more than 20,000 bets that consisted of more than 58,000 in-game items such as guns and knives.
Analysis by ESBR suggests that the average value of a CS:GO skin wagered on Lounge approaches $10.
That level of handle could not only indicate the genuine interest of Twitch viewers. It could also prompt the interest of regulators.
All of this comes against the backdrop of Nevada formulating a plan to regulate and offer esports betting, and of Twitch gaining a foothold in the broader gambling community outside of gamers.
Seth Schorr, the chairman of the Las Vegas hotel The Downtown Grand and an esports entrepreneur, told a recent Nevada Gaming Policy Committee meeting of his plans to add Twitch as a channel to the televisions in his hotel. Schorr also indicated at the hearing that the sportsbook operator for the DTG applied earlier this month for approval to offer esports betting in a traditional sports book style.