The NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and eSports? That seemingly odd combination is a real possibility as more companies look to the burgeoning world of competitive gaming as the next big source of revenue. But figuring out how to package eSports as a commercial product ready for mass consumption is a tricky proposition.
Machinima, the multi-channel network that was one of the first companies to recognize that people enjoy watching other people play video games, is betting that original programming with a strong narrative is the key to unlocking the eSports puzzle. Chad Gutstein, the company’s CEO, said Machinima looked at the "blue ocean" that is eSports ahead of creating "Inside eSports," a daily program covering the world of competitive gaming.
In the style of ESPN’s "SportsCenter," the program "will bring the voice of the superfan, but made accessible to the noob," Gutstein told International Business Times Friday at a presentation to advertisers in New York.
Machinima's creative team will create new content daily, with Verizon’s Go90 being the exclusive U.S. distributor. Gutstein is looking for international partners with the goal of being flexible in how the content can be delivered. If it's a television partner looking for an hour recap of the week in eSports, Machinima can create a version of "Inside eSports" to fit that need.
When discussing new eSports content, Machinima quickly ruled out tournaments or live streaming due to heavy competition or other companies, such as ESL or Major League Gaming, already having strongholds in the respective fields. Storytelling is one of the company's strengths, says Gutstein. "There are a lot of people jumping into this. ESPN did their coverage. Yahoo made a big deal of it, but there's no brand relevancy for any of them," he said. "It's always going to be this thing off to the side. It's not core to who they are. They don't have a legacy in the space and they don't have a voice."
Gutstein also points out how in September 2014, ESPN president John Skipper compared eSports to chess and called it a competition, not a sport. "ESports fans have the most finely tuned bulls--t meter in the world. They know when something is not authentic, and they know these people are Johnny-come-latelys," Gutstein said.
For an example of a large company entering eSports properly, Gutstein highlights Turner Sports' "ELeague," set to air May 27 on TBS.
There are challenges facing anyone entering the eSports business due to its fractured nature and very dedicated fan base. If a company's actions are poorly received, gamers will turn out en masse to let them know how far they have strayed off course. That's where Machinima, with its strong ties to gamers dating more than a decade, has an advantage with its original content.
During Gutstein's presentation, he revealed a slide that showed just how fractured the eSports industry was even before discussing the various teams, players and tournaments. There's digital gaming, but also mobile gaming. There's casual gaming or very hardcore massively multiplayer online gaming. Through all of that there are companies handling analytics, matchmaking, monetization and player acquisition. That's not to mention the developers, publishers, manufacturers and distribution methods.
To simplify things, take "Counter-Strike: Global Offensive," developed by Valve. It's a very popular eSports title. But, there's no "NBA of 'CS:GO.'" Instead, there are tournaments set up throughout the world with big money on the line. One of the best teams in the world, Europe's Fnatic, would likely compete in these tournaments run by Major League Gaming, Twitch and Turner Sports. There is also a professional league, with European and North American divisions, run by ESL. Chances are, Fnatic is playing in all of them over the course of a few months. It's exhausting to think about, but that's the predicament of any eSports fan who is looking to keep up with a favorite team or game.
"If you are feeling overwhelmed about the idea of getting into eSports, then we have one very clear message for you," Gutstein said. "'Keep calm and watch 'Inside eSports.'"
ESports has an estimated audience of 214 million, and that's expected to grow to 303 million by 2018, according to SuperData Research. Its core audience of largely male (85 percent) ages 18 through 35 (67 percent) consumers is an advertiser's dream. Whether it's the next media bubble or a fascinating case of "what if?" remains to be seen.