ESPN and Overwatch League: The challenge to get esports right on TV

The announcement that ESPN will broadcast Overwatch League was met with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Esports being taken more seriously by one of the world's biggest broacasters is surely welcome but does it work on TV and how will audiences react?

It is not the first crack at esports from ESPN nor is it its first attempt at covering "unconventional sports". The sports channel has always been keen on experimenting with new TV broadcasting experiences as reflected in its tendency to cover major poker events such as the WSOP during the early 2000s, which is at the heart of the running joke around 'The Ocho', a fictional ESPN channel dreamed up for Dodgeball, but constructed around the real-life habit the network has of showing obscure and occasionally niche events.

This time around with esports, however, it is a totally different beast to tame and a totally different audience to attract. ESPN has understood this, taking time to first build a reporting arm for esports, and has been cautious in its way of introducing esports to its viewers.

That caution has extended to considering any previous attempts to air esports no more than experiments to refine their strategy and finally come up with an esports coverage that would fit their image, introduce its viewers to the fantastic esports experience but above all attract esports viewers to TV networks. That said, as ESPN The Magazine and editor in chief Chad Millman already acknowledged in Time magazine in 2016, esports fans want authenticity and it certainly takes somes some work to find an authentic esports formula on TV. Is there even one?

Esports on TV networks: The challenge

Introducing action-packed esports and high-stakes events to ESPN viewers seems like a piece of cake compared with bringing esports viewers from Twitch and YouTube (therefore from other devices than TV) to traditional cable TV networks.

Esports conversion to TV is a challenge ESPN and more broadly, the Disney group, has been taking seriously. In 2016, launched its esports section with a comprehensive coverage of CS:GO, League of Legends, Overwatch and Dota 2 news as well as several replays accessible for free on their website.

Heroes of the Dorm

The first serious attempt from ESPN came in 2015 with the first season of Heroes of the Dorm. While the initial responses from ESPN viewers and the first ratings were rather negative, the show seemed like an opening salvo in what was going to be ESPN’s long assault on traditional sports broadcasting.

The show featured students competing for scholarships in Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard's MOBA franchise which was at beta stage when the show first aired. Beyond the innovation of airing esports on TV, the show also introduced the possibility of changing one’s life through video games pro-playing, albeit in a more scholarly way than we are used to.

For ESPN, it was a fantastic opportunity to test the popularity of TV-aired esports shows and to get to know if the MOBA format was appropriate for it. In spite of a lukewarm welcome, ESPN was happy with it as they got the information they wanted from a show that took one month to prepare and was based on a game that was not finished developing at the time. Eventually, Facebook got the exclusive broadcasting rights to Heroes... in 2017, allowing ESPN to focus on its overall esports strategy, already armed with their data.

French soccer esports during the Super Bowl: changing the experiment into a survey

What could possibly push ESPN to pitch the 2017 Super Bowl against an esports soccer competition - and a French one at that? The question could be asked the other way around: What better moment is there to assess North American esports hardcore fandom and viewers?

While the attempt could look like an exercise in self defeat, it appears in line with the ESPN strategy which seems to think that there is nothing to lose with esports, there is only information to gain, ahead of the day esports viewers actually make the jump from their computers and mobile devices to their TV to watch it. Or was it again a test ahead of Madden NFL event coverage this year?

Esports on ESPN: part of the Disney's overall strategy

One year ago, ESPNU and Disney XD were covering the EVO 2017 and featured games such as Street Fighter V and Super Smash Bros. Disney Channel is also about to air the Nintendo Switch family showdown contest after it had an initial test run with the ESL Speedrunner and the ESL Brawlers.

Is Overwatch League the right formula for TV?

While Overwatch has not found as much popularity among Twitch and YouTube Gaming viewers as other games, partly due to issues with the way the game is presented and watched, it has shown a constant and stable viewership rate of esports hours watched. Overwatch can take advantage of a strong core of fans too, making it a solid horse to bet on for ESPN and Disney, with all the financial might of Blizzard behind it.

Source: Newzoo 2018

Watch Overwatch: The need for a patch

The relatively low esports viewership can be explained with the preponderance of other major esports events like CSGO's ESL Pro League Finals at the end of each year. Other games' successes are not the only ones to blame however, as low viewership has also been pinned on a number of other known issues when it comes to watching Overwatch, including the speed, complexity of the game, and relative youth of the scene and the presentation of the same.

With that in mind, isn't ESPN going for another experiment whose only value will be the information they gain from it? Or can what is initially considered a punt eventually be turned into an opportunity? Who knows, Overwatch could actually fit TV viewership, especially with the creation of the new spectator mode.

The new spectator mode

As Nathan Grayson, Kotaku Reporter wrote, the new spectator mode seems to have improved the viewer experience thanks to:

  • On-demand instant replays,
  • Clearer team color coding,
  • A top down map view

This new spectator mode shows Blizzard’s willingness to make Overwatch a serious esports contender, and may have been a key element in ESPN's choice to air the Overwatch League.

All things considered, given Overwatch needs continuous attention to follow the action, a TV show might just be what Overwatch was needing to improve its viewership and what ESPN has been looking for since first wanting to tackle the esports scene.

On top, of that, the success of the Overwatch League on ESPN only seems to matter marginally in comparison with a Twitch or YouTube, as even in the case a failure, the data will be golden.ESPN and Disney are already taking the next step according to their modus operandi, to finally find the right formula for esports on TV networks.

It is again a risky bet ESPN is taking, but one they can afford, as the implied odds behind esports potential are worth it. A risky bet is also a valuable one if you can afford to lose, and every time they make it it becomes a more educated decision.