Some big eSports leagues in the past have flirted with the idea of television but most of them fell short when it came to walking the line. While the larger part of the failure was the business model and intent behind such projects, the inherent problem of regular content to make television seemed to be the tail-end part of the problem. eSports couldn’t quite pop-off the way you and I would’ve wanted them to, but times have changed (or have they?). With new deals being inked and the power of much more advanced production technology thrown into the mix, can and should eSports once again eye the mainstream media with a fresh perspective?
We’re heading towards the end of 2013 and looking back is such a mind trip. You can’t help but feel for the newer generation of viewers who’ve probably missed out the spectacle of eSports as an industry in its true infancy. A glimpse into the past though can answer a lot of present related questions and future related dilemmas. To put things in perspective, I’m talking about RealAudio Server being used for radio broadcast of Quake matches by Marcus “Dj Wheat” Graham with a maximum cap of 25 listeners in stark contrast with more than 300,000+ viewers on a single Twitch stream today. To me, Wheat was the very first yet complete eSports commentator who was also fulfilling the role of Quake 2 TDM Clan 519′s leader. His deep connection to the game always brought about that perspective to the games he commentated and his technical background made him THE guy everyone would tune in and listen to.
However, the concept of not being an actual player and yet be connected to the game along with the scene that surrounds it had been around for ages. There are people who’ve never played Football or Cricket professionally, yet commentate it much to the liking of listeners. At best, they’ve been keen followers of the game and the scene surrounding it. Surprisingly, that’s all they needed to catapult their careers as professional commentators to levels above the ex-players you’d have wanted to excel at casting. Basically, people who passed the acceptance test kind of made it. eSports commentating has not been much different from actual sports in that respect. Not all the casting studios have people with Mass Communication graduate degrees or World Championships to their names, yet they commentate StarCraft 2, Dota2, CS:GO and League of Legends matches with much finesse.
Yet another factor has always been sponsorship which has turned out to be the crucial part to holding this dream together. Sponsorship in its crudest form means money and exposure. Teams that could not afford to travel overseas for an event but can convince the sponsors with their track record of victories or good performances have a higher chance of getting picked up. From sponsored gear and clothing to funded travel, sponsors have been keeping the eSports boat afloat.
The CGS Story
Why did the attempts to televise eSports in the west fail in the past? Perhaps no eSports-Television story is complete without the CGS debacle, so here it is. Although professional video game competitions had been going on for several years, organizers felt the need for their efforts to gain greater exposure, preferably through regular telecasts. The World Series of Gaming was shown on MTV in a 30-minute special in 2005. The World Series of Poker had become a popular program on ESPN back then with Texas hold ‘em poker transcending into a huge spectator sport. It was the success of the aforementioned that gave an executive at Fox Sports and DirecTV (David Hill) the idea of a TV program based on video gaming.
In 2006, a pilot episode of a Counter Strike 1.6 match between Team compLexity and Team 3D was taped under the name of Championship Gaming Invitational (CGI). The first Invitational was said to have brought in a 400% increase in ratings for DirecTV’s The 101 channel at that time. The first pilot was then followed up by 2nd CGI2 Invitational event in Los Angeles which became the platform for first ever superstar female gamer Vanessa “Vanessa” Arteaga. With the ratings continuing to climb, a full season with a league structure was planned for 2007.
The first CGS season consisted of six franchises from six different major cities throughout Region 1 (the U.S. and Canada) plus a total of ten more franchises from the other Global Regions around the world. The first televised match was shown on DirecTV-exclusive channel, The 101, on July 9, 2007. The Region 1 Grand Finals were held on July 30, 2007 in Los Angeles. In the World Finals in December, the Chimera defeated the Core again to become World Champions and win the $500,000 top prize.
In 2008, the 2nd season kicked off with the addition of two new franchises. DirecTV which was the satellite-television company behind Championship Gaming Series (CGS) had by now poured in millions of Dollars hoping that CGS on Television could become the next big thing. But in another move, DirecTV struck a deal with NBC to co-produce the football drama series Friday Night Lights which allegedly led to the closure of its gaming division. On the fateful day of November 18, 2008, the news of CGS ceasing to exist was made public. David Hill who had conceptualized the whole idea of CGS left DirecTV after it was purchased by Liberty Media and no longer had any influence on programming for The 101.
So was CGS a project ahead of its time or was it doomed since day one? While their management was busy adding franchises like compLexity and Team 3D from the US to their shopping cart, they had little insight into the European scene and the fact that organizations like Fnatic, mYm, mTw, SK, Mouz, etc. had stable business models with most of the major sponsors of that time on board with them. As outsiders to the scene, their evaluation of the EU scene was weak and could almost be compared to how IGC organizers from India tried to buy out Copenhagen Games in their childish attempt. With the kind of sponsorship these EU teams had and the cult following for the celebrity players who represented them, they would’ve added a lot of value to CGS than take away anything from it. CGS wanted to establish franchise-only teams which just couldn’t work. When the big-wig eSports organizations in EU tried to suggest better ways and adjustments, they were ignored. CGS wanted to muscle in and enforce what the people pulling their strings behind the curtain commanded. They were neither interested in micro tournaments, nor any weekly or monthly leagues open for participation and casting by you or me. They basically had a bad product compared to what already existed in Europe and their American NBA-esque franchise driven approach was the reason they didn’t last long.
So a satellite television company investing millions of dollars into TV Programming with competitively played games as the major content failed. Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Because imagine if a super league or a world championship league existed with that kind of money being pumped into it by CGS rather than this sham, we might have known eSports and CGS for better reasons.
eSports on Television – Korea vs. The World
In South Korea, electronic sports and events are regularly televised by dedicated 24-hour cable TV game channel Ongamenet. MBC Game used to have similar programming but the channel was shut down on January 31, 2012. With League of Legends sweeping aside StarCraft 2 to become the most popular game in South Korea, the viewership has increased tremendously because the numbers that LoL brings over SC2 are simply huge. While South Korea has popularized electronic sports on television, the west has had sporadic brush-ins with televised games:
- Germany – GIGA Television covered esports until its shutdown in 2009
- UK – XLEAGUE.TV broadcast on SKY channel 208, showing both features on eSports and broadcasting matches from its online leagues and tournaments, which for the purpose of television shows, were shot from its studio rather than played online. This channel ceased broadcasting as of 1 March 2009
- ESL TV briefly attempted a paid television model re-branded GIGA II from June 2006 to autumn 2007
- France – Game One broadcast e-sport matched in a show called “Arena Online” which was associated with the invitational tournament Xfire Trophy
- U.S.- ESPN hosted a show called Madden Nation, which showed gamers competing for a cash prize playing the Madden NFL game for Xbox 360 from 2005 to 2008
- DirecTV broadcast a tournament they created named the Championship Gaming Series for 2 seasons in 2007 and 2008
- CBS aired pre-recorded footage of the 2007 World Series of Video Games (WSVG) tournament that was held in Louisville, Kentucky
Should eSports Target Television?
Yes and No. Yes, because eSports have survived in a parallel universe for a long time. While traditional sports have had the luxury of mass media’s vast reach, it was really a no-brainer for them to cross over and be relevant in the auxiliary world of Internet as well. An EPL package can be purchased on StarSports.com and you can get all the matches over the live stream. But would it make sense to have a “Purchase DreamHack Winter 2013″ pack on StarSports.com when there’s no televised version of the same? No! Because that approach will simply fragment the competition on the same medium (Internet). The big production houses and channels will outlast the home studios casting Dota 2 matches. Not the outcome that we’re looking for right? Hence, TV! Because the desired outcome is more exposure and sustainability for eSports instead of pitting both the mediums together and choosing a winner.
On the flipside No, because eSports are different. Organizations like DreamHack and MLG might as well keep doing their own thing and we could be just fine. MLG’s eSport Report and DreamHack’s addition of a full-time Studio could possibly serve the needs related to online video content with a news bulletin approach to it apart from the tournament matches we get to see over their live streams. Ads on live streams therefore have now become the norm, specifically with big events and sponsors supporting gaming events. However, bad internet connections in some parts of the world and people’s priorities in life which might include not investing in a high speed internet plan (thereby making TV the obvious choice) are factors these organizations cannot control.
Sponsorship, Publishers, Community & Media
Believe it or not but by the end of 2013, eSports leagues and tournaments are set to cross $15 million in prize money alone! The presence of good solid recurring leagues, tournaments and an ecosystem involving the fans, sponsors, players and the publishers have gradually helped this industry slowly inch towards the spot it wants to be at. We still have to be careful not to jump to conclusions here but the eSports industry is now being noticed by a lot of mainstream sponsors who are best known for their backing of traditional sports. PC hardware manufacturers like Gigabyte, Intel, Corsair, Kingston, Acer, ASUS, Zotac, voice communication services like RaidCall and FMCG companies like RedBull and Monster Energy have quite an illustrious list of events and tournaments they’ve sponsored and continue to support. However, we’re talking about even bigger stuff here – Coca Cola! League of Legends World Championship was held at the sold-out Staples Center in October 2013 and was televised in South Korea. Coke Zero is already gearing up to sponsor a new Amateur league that will serve as a stepping stone for aspiring pros to compete before they can challenge the cream of the crop in the pro circuit.
Sponsorships aside, the real big change in the eSports industry has largely come from the publishers and the community. Valve gave away the highest amount of prize money ever awarded at an eSports tournament in the history of this industry. Just like The International 2012, they put up a $1.6 million prize pool but handed a special compendium to the community which had stuff like dream team, a special Smeevil courier that had 3 other unlockable variants with mounts, player details, player card challenges and predictions all for $9.99. They announced that $2.50 of every compendium sale would add on to the overall prize pool and the community went berserk with it, to the extent that it raised $1.2 million on its own to give Valve a combined prize pool of $2.8 million.
Back in 2012, Valve had partnered with mainstream production companies like Trifilm, Graystone Media and TNDV who even brought in Aspiration – a 40 ft mobile production truck to the venue! There were no channel deals/contracts in place and Valve might not have been too enthusiastic about the idea to begin with. TI3 was no different and this time, Valve even roped in a professional Anchor and Features Reporter from Q13 FOX News – Kaci Aitchison, who provided fan and player interaction outside of the main event and was lauded for it.
Targeting 13-35 Age Group – Is Twitch.TV Enough?
The CBS-Twitch deal was put in place because the CBS Ad sales team wanted to target the 13 to 35 age group, a demographic that Twitch has had huge success with. However, Twitch ended up doing its own thing. As long as more companies like Twitch can come up and offer a consumer the choice to maybe purchase a month long eSports package deal full of SC2, Dota2, LoL, CSGO content, we might not need to look at television at all. The content package could group up practice sessions, friendly online scrims, patch discussions, DLC, new heroes/weapons/mechanics discussions, etc. The content could actually be in the form of collective products coming in from full time studios and gaming organizations.
A lot of people in the past predicted the future of eSports to be bright and mainstream but eSports haven’t yet broken into the big screen and popped off. Gaming reality shows are not the need of the day but I can bet everyone loved to see someone like Dwight Howard casting and competing at MLG Anaheim Spring Championship! In the end, we might not even need television as Stronger and recurring gaming leagues, third party LANs, Publisher Tournaments (WCS, LCS, TI) and micro-tournaments become the norm with a strong streaming backbone and perhaps television-like subscription services with attractive monthly or quarterly pricing. The possibilities are endless if imagination, intent, business and technology can meet a common ground.