Esports on ESPN: Overwatch ratings highlight challenge for TV broadcasters


TV or not TV? A question possibly even Shakespeare couldn’t answer. Well, he never had TV I guess so there is that…

Anyway, in 2018, it’s a question for a lot of people both in the TV and esports industries. Can it work on linear TV? Should it be on traditional TV? How do traditional TV providers make esports work on TV rather than streams? Is it important for the growth of esports to be on TV? Lots of questions and important ones for both sides.

And, to be clear, I’m not talking about watching esports on a physical TV here, I know we all do that too, usually because we’ve got an app on the smart TV for Twitch or YouTube or because we’ve plugged the console or PC in via a HDMI cable. No, here I am talking about traditional, scheduled live-to-air TV via cable, satellite or good old fashioned rooftop aerial.

Recently, figures were released of the Overwatch League grand finals appearance on ESPN. Thanks to John Ourand from Sports Business Journal for sharing these on Twitter.

I won’t get in to the figures and how they are worked out (you can Google if you are interested), but suffice to say they were low. So low, in fact, that compared with the same time slot the week before they were 20% down and lost almost half of the viewers from the lead-in segment on Sportsnight which aired just before.

Frankly, I’m not surprised and it has little to do with Overwatch, though it’s worth noting that both League of Legends and particularly ELEAGUE’s CSGO shows have posted much higher linear TV results in the past.

Again, not surprising as they were both more mature as esports at the time and in ELEAGUE’s case were aired slightly differently to the version fans got on Twitch (on Friday nights, TV viewers got the fully production, Twitch got a basic production of the game feed).

Of course, working out exact comparisons on numbers between TV and Twitch is pretty tough, not least because of the way the ratings system works for TV and the fact that you have a clearer (but not 100% accurate due to multiple viewers on one IP - universities, watch parties etc) view of Twitch’s numbers. But what we can establish is that it is vastly more popular on streaming services over TV when both are aired at the same time with the same production.

A long-standing dilemma

This isn’t new, we’ve seen it at countless other events such as ESPN covering The International and BBC covering League of Legends Worlds.

So, back to our original questions. Can esports work on TV? The likely answer is no, at least as the primary or only way to watch it. As a supplementary way to watch, sure, it’s going to be mostly a different audience after all.

The majority of our viewers watch it on streams, for the chat, because it’s easier, on multiple screens on a PC, through their console or tablets or phones. That’s just how the younger generation tends to watch content today and not just esports. They want to watch it where they want, on what they want and in the case of non-live events, when they want. And they usually want it for free.

Cord-cutting is a real thing and ESPN and other subscription services on traditional TV have seen huge downward trends in the last three years, ESPN losing 500,000 subscribers in April this year alone.

It can’t be a coincidence that stream services like Netflix and Amazon have also seen huge uptake in the same period, even if they are not free.

We’re also assuming the game is easy to watch and get in to, which the vast majority of esports are not initially, it takes some investment in education and not everyone sat at their TV is interested in that.

How do traditional TV providers make esports work on TV rather than streams?

So if you are going to put esports on TV, it’s likely for the already committed esports fan, though I’ll accept it can pick up new viewers who do become esports fans down the line. And, if it’s done properly with great education pieces thrown in to the broadcast, it can also educate as it goes along, but only if done as a different broadcast, as the BBC have done in the past, rather than just taking the “for esports” produced feed and replicating it on linear TV.

I’m certain that esports on TV can attract the more casual esports fan, not so much the TV casual.

How do traditional TV providers make esports work on TV rather than streams? So far, only ELEAGUE have made it work and that was by delivering a vastly different (and lower quality) production level to the stream simultaneously. It’s tough to see how TV can garner more viewers than the now traditional esports viewing pleasure of streams without adopting the same technology themselves.

Does esports need to be on TV?

Is it important for the growth of esports to be on TV? – This one is tough. It likely is important, if for no other reason than it grants access to the billions of dollars available from sponsors and advertisers, to esports.

My gut feeling, however, is that, over time, these dollars will come to esports regardless of platform. It’s a little like the transition from radio to TV in the last century where radio was the dominant force for a long time before TV became popular, but during the transition there were many who refused to put their money in to TV advertising, believing that their audience was still on radio.

When the power of TV and visual advertising became obvious however, most switched their cash and ploughed it in to TV.

It may take a generation to happen with esports, with today’s university graduates becoming tomorrow’s media buyers and marketing directors, but it will happen eventually. I’ve simplified this too, I know, but I don’t have the time right now to go in to the detail of what other things must happen before we get there, but I’m aware it’s not JUST a generation change required.

Of course, in the case of the Overwatch League Finals, figures were always going to be lower on ESPN compared to Twitch. There was no discernible difference in coverage of the matches and Twitch has both the base viewership and the options that fans prefer. The fact that ESPN wanted to show it should be taken positively though and why wouldn’t they?

They need this demographic more than most with record numbers leaving them over the last couple of years. They are, however, asking the wrong question of how do they get the under-30s back to linear TV. They should be asking how and where they reach them, because they aren’t coming back to linear TV.

It’s clear, too, that while the traditional and hardcore esports fans won’t tune in (unless it’s not aired on a streaming service), the super casual esports fans will, the question is whether there is enough of them for the likes of ESPN to stop their slide.

It would be easy to be flippant about traditional TV and dismiss it completely from esports coverage, but right now, in what I believe is a transitional period of consuming live video content, we do need it if we are to continue growing. There is definite value in having esports on TV but we shouldn’t ever expect it to hit the same kind of numbers we get on a live stream service.

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Paul ChalonerPaul Chaloner - AKA Redeye - is among the most recognisable figures in esports, working as a host and commentator the biggest events across the world. He is also an advisor and ambassador for Luckbox