Charles Barkley famously said athletes are not meant to be role models, but they are household names. And yet eSports doesn’t yet have its Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods or Derek Jeter — yet — and that’s what Turner Broadcasting hopes to change with its multiweek “ELeague” tournament in May.
Prior to Turner’s “ELeague,” TV’s forays into eSports have been limited to one-off specials. The CW, most recently, aired a “Mortal Kombat X” eSports special. ESPN recently announced its two-day collegiate “Heroes of the Storm” tournament, “Heroes of the Dorm” will return for a second season in April.
“ELeague” will be a dedicated 10-week series with a $1.2 million prize pool. “We want these players to be stars and household names,” said Seth Ladetsky, senior-VP of ad sales at Turner Sports. “Every league has known athletes. Whether its LeBron James or Jordan Spieth, every sport has named athletes. We want that here.”
To achieve that, Turner will treat the players like stars with pre- and post-game shows along with player profiles. “That way when you watch the actual event, you care a little bit more. You know these people,” Ladetsky said.
An important tool to create a “LeBron” of eSports will be an informative ticker broadcast during the limited commercial breaks in “ELeague.” Unlike football or any other professional sport where each timeout is another opportunity to air a few commercials, “ELeague” won’t cut away from live gameplay of “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” the game chosen for the first season.
“We are only going to run our commercials when games are over or in between games,” Seth Ladetsky said. He equates “ELeague” commercial breaks to those seen between innings in baseball. “Even then, we’ll be doing something called an ‘ad tracker.’ While the commercial break goes, there’s always going to be some information about the game that’s going on. In some sense, it’ll be a ticker with the commercial running above.”
The ticker is of particular interest for fans as it will provide stats and always provide a way to tell a story behind “ELeague.” With “CS:GO,” for example, there are great teams and great players who are unknown to the mainstream. A team like Fnatic that hs been dominant over the last year in the game does not have name recognition beyond the eSports world. Turner hopes to change that with “ELeague” with the scrolling ticker being a key component to that.
Turner needs to balance its desire to appeal to the masses with the well-established base of eSports fans who are used to the experience delivered by streaming sites such as Twitch. For “ELEAGUE” to succeed, television has to become more like digital with advertising a key piece of the puzzle for a lucrative foray into televised eSports. “As you watch our tournament as its on digital streaming, it will be identical to what it will look like on TBS and it will be much more like a Twitch native experience than a TV experience,” Ladetsky said.
Ladetsky said ad breaks will be limited so as not to interrupt the action and fewer sponsors who will get a chance to integrate their brands within the broadcast. “What’s important, to us, is that we approach the market with authenticity and creativity. It needs to be really true to the fans and to put the fans first,” Ladetsky said. “We’ll limit the advertising in general, but, by doing that, the advertising becomes more impactful.”
The commitment to authenticity is what is being pitched to potential sponsors. While not revealing who may be working with “ELeague,” Ladetsky said it falls in line with the 18-34 male demographic. Ladetsky said they are looking to top brands that appeal to a male audience.
The average age of an eSports fan was 32 with 57 percent of those surveyed between the ages of 18 and 34, Nielsen reported in October. The mean total household income was $64,900. “ESports fans live in households with strong spending power, as the household income for this group is 10 percent higher than that of U.S. gamers overall,” Nielsen wrote in its report.
To further target the key male audience, Turner Sports will be introducing eSports content on Bleacher Report. The site does not traditionally carry eSports coverage, but that will change with the debut of “ELeague” in May. “Bleacher Report is one of the great sports sites that appeals to this demographic. So we’re trying to expand the reach of eSports by leveraging the appeal of Bleacher Report so we can get the word out,” Ladetsky said.
“We really believe as eSports and the space grows, so too will ‘ELeague’ as a leader. We’re very bullish and in for the long-term. We see this as an infinity investment,” Ladetsky said.