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esports is a chance for traditional TV to show millennials that they share their passions

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One of the important themes at Connected TV World Summit last week was how the traditional television market can broaden its appeal, which among other things means Pay TV platforms and free-to-air broadcasters offering more content that appeals directly to millennials, and which has often grown out of a digital-only environment. A classic example is esports and James Dean, Managing Director at ESL (Turtle Entertainment) UK, the world’s largest esports company, revealed how, when Sky UK debuted some ESL content, viewer feedback ranged from: ‘This is not sport!’ to ‘Wow, Sky is adopting our passion.’

Whether esports should be considered a sport is a good debate for the pub, although it is worth noting that the International e-Sports Federation is processing an application with the International Olympic Committee to be recognized as such (with a view to getting into the Olympics). But any such recognition, although great for esports, is not the real point. Whether a true sport or just an armchair pursuit, this is an activity that excites huge numbers of young(ish) people. Passion, as mentioned in that Sky feedback, is a good place to start when selling TV subscriptions or trying to get more eyeballs for advertisers.

Dean gave figures for uptake and usage of the recently launched EsportsTV broadcast channel at one European triple-play provider, which made the content available as part of a wider bundle of Pay TV channels. After four months, 40,000 people had access to the channel and 16,500 of them were actively watching ESportsTV. Total viewing time spent with the channel, during that four month period, was 8.5 million minutes. The average viewing time per visit was 48 minutes.

“The average viewing time per visit is high. It compares with 38 minutes [per visit] for the second sports channel in that country, a popular sports channel offering Premiere League and other content,” Dean told Connected TV World Summit in London. The Pay TV customers who took eSportsTV ‘a la carte’, requesting it specifically rather than receiving it as part of a wider bundle, watched for an average of 92 minutes per visit.

EsportsTV was introduced in May 2016 and made its debut on the Viasat satellite platform (part of MTG) but is now available from Com Hem, Waoo, Canal Digital, M7 Group, Telia and Telenor. By the first quarter of 2017, five million Pay TV subscribers had access to the 24/7 broadcast channel, which now provides over 1,000 hours of live coverage a year (so nearly three hours of its daily schedule is live, as an average). As we reported previously, esports represents the ultimate in ‘crossover content’ – born-digital content that is making its way into ‘traditional’ broadcast television.

According to James Dean: “TV is another hardware platform and we are seeing that some of our audience will use TV as their screen. They are sitting on the couch, maybe in a social environment and probably with a laptop on their knee and a mobile phone next to them.

“This is an audience that is not used to paying for their content – everything has been free for them growing up, from YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, so having our content behind a pay wall [on the Pay TV platforms] is an interesting experiment, but it seems that the engagement is there.”

The esports audience looks like a good catch for Pay TV operators, commercial broadcasters and brand sponsors and not only because they skew young. ESL gave figures from Newzoo (the market intelligence firm specialising in games across all segments and screens) showing that 42% of the esports enthusiast audience in the U.S. owns an iPhone compared to 38% of the online population generally, 35% have a Spotify subscription compared to 13% of the general online population, and 35% own a Samsung phone compared to 31% of the overall online population. 39% have an AT&T subscription versus 28% of the online population. This all points towards people who like technology and have disposable income.

Interestingly for traditional media companies, 22% of the U.S. esports audience watches ESPN compared to 13% of the overall online population, and 52% have an HBO subscription compared to 29% of the online population.

Whether you want to classify esports as a ‘proper’ sport or not, this is an industry that has all the hallmarks of premium sport in the way it is organised and commercially exploited. The International e-Sports Federation (IeSF) has been working hard to establish high levels of credibility and sports status. It has been an official signatory of WADA, the World Anti Doping Agency, since 2013, for example.

There are professional leagues, big tournaments, huge prize money and worldwide betting. AEG (experts in live event production, ticketing, marketing and sponsorship, and possibly the world’s leading sports and live entertainment company) has a long-term global strategic alliance with ESL, which itself is the leading producer of esports content.

367,000 people attended ESL events in 2015 and another 285,000 attended events from rival Riot. In all, over 900,000 people attended esports events that were organised by the top five esports events providers during 2015 (figures from Newzoo).

There are strong engagement levels among people watching live events online. James Dean showed what happened when the ESL One Cologne quarter-finals played out on Friday, July 8 last year, with the matches played one after another between 11am and 11pm. One-quarter of the eventual peak audience (taking one of the various distribution feeds as an example) was online a full hour before the first match. “We had a holding screen with a camera but viewers started collecting around the feed, talking and using different social platforms,” Dean explained.

Figures from Newzoo showed the 2016 market for esports at 144 million occasional users and 148 million enthusiasts globally (total market of 292 million). ESL reached 172 million of them (including 87% of the enthusiasts). Newzoo forecasts that by 2019 the total world audience will be 428 million, rising to 510 million by 2021. This growth could be faster depending on the impact of linear TV and some other factors.

The esports ecosystem is well developed and combines content producers, event organisers, distributors (including Twitter, Twitch, YouTube and Sliver), and platforms (PC, Xbox, PS4, iOS, etc.). Big brands are already involved as sponsors including Red Bull, Audi, Coca Cola and also Gillette, which has given one of the esports stars the same (clean shaven) treatment they would a professional footballer. He now acts as a kind of brand ambassador.

Traditional sports clubs are getting onboard, with the likes of Manchester City, Paris Saint Germain and Valencia backing their own teams as part of a brand extension into this millennial-biased market. esports is coming into the mainstream and as James Dean noted in London last week, this is a chance for television companies to share the passion that their younger and future customers already enjoy.

Photo: The ESL One Cologne event

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