ELEAGUE Promises To Set High Bar on Live eSports Production

Turner’s TBS is just a small piece of a massive, digital-first content strategy

It’s T minus two months and counting to the latest big broadcasting foray into the burgeoning and polarizing world of eSports. On May 24, ELEAGUE, the joint venture of Turner Sports and WME | IMG, will debut from a new complex at Turner Studios in Atlanta with live-streaming coverage on various digital platforms (including Twitch).

Turner and WME | IMG are diving into the deep end of the pool, head first, with ELEAGUE, which promises to be trailblazing in scope and production quality, bringing the type of budgetary and technological resources that Turner Sports would normally reserve for its coverage of the NBA, MLB, and March Madness.

ELEAGUE1“We are going in with an advanced approach to what our expectations of the quality of the end product should be,” says Craig Barry, EVP, production/chief content officer, Turner Sports. “It’s a translation of what is the most authentic and organic eSports experience and how that translates to a higher-quality network sports experience.”

Turner is currently erecting a massive multimillion-dollar facility that includes an arena, multiple studios and control rooms, and a wealth of editing suites. According to Barry, the shows promise to be very tech-heavy productions, with a lot of resources going in to creating a strong spectator experience with large viewing screens.

“We’re trying to create the most immersive experience for the people in the arena,” says Barry, “and translating that to whatever platform that we’re on.”

The Growing Industry Evokes Strong Opinions
As mentioned, eSports is an industry that’s equal parts burgeoning and polarizing. Burgeoning in that it’s booming (a report from the research firm Newzoo projects the market to grow by 43%, to $463 million, this year and to break $1 billion by 2019). It’s polarizing, though, in the number of players trying to grab a piece of a very fractured marketplace and there are myriad strong opinion (both for and against) on what eSports’ place in sports television should or shouldn’t be.

Though passionate about the property, Barry is well aware of the skepticism, particularly in the eSports community.

“The thing you can’t do is say ‘We’re Turner’ and pound your chest and declare that we’re going to do it our way,” he says. “For us, it’s be true, be authentic, and make sure that we are building on supporting an ecosystem that enhances the experience not just for ELEAGUE but for all of eSports.”

The 10-week tournament — which will make its national TV debut May 27 on TBS and features Valve’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive — will include a six-week regular season, a one-week last-chance qualifier round, and two weeks of playoffs culminating in a Global Championship on July 30. It provides a tight window for the property to resonate with the eSports community.

“We probably won’t get a second chance. We’d love to be great, but we’ve got to be good enough to get people to come back and continue to check it out. So there’s a lot of pressure around that." - Craig Barry, EVP of Production & Chief Content Officer, Turner Sports

“We probably won’t get a second chance. We’d love to be great, but we’ve got to be good enough to get people to come back and continue to check it out. So there’s a lot of pressure around that.” – Craig Barry, EVP of Production & Chief Content Officer, Turner Sports

“Authenticity is key,” Barry adds. “You have to be authentic to what’s going on in the space. Philosophically, we said this is an opportunity to stand up and lead and be selfless. If it’s good for eSports and good for the ecosystem, then it’s good for Turner.”

For that reason, he will be the first to say, thinking this is purely a TV play at eSports is missing the point. Although the four hours on Friday nights on TBS will get a lot of attention in the weeks leading up to ELEAGUE’s debut, digital is where the wealth of live content will appear. More than 30 hours of live exclusive content of the tournament will stream each week on popular gaming platforms Twitch, Azubu, and others.

A Business Model of Its Own
“It’s funny, we’ve always talked about ‘what’s the companion app’ with our sports properties,” says Barry. “Now it’s digital first, and the companion app is TBS, the linear platform. The model has flipped, and it’s not because we asked it to. It’s because that’s what it is. To do three hours a night every night on TBS and a little bit on Twitch would be a ridiculous model.”

So why have it on linear television at all? Barry sees it as both a point of entry for the casual fan and a way to bring clout and greater legitimacy to the property, putting it up against the media company’s high-profile professional sports.

As a media company, Turner has some experience already in attempting to flip the model and put digital first with potential growth into linear. CNN has Great Big Story, a millennial news subsidiary. Then there’s Super Deluxe, a digital venture that has gone through various evolutions since its launch in 2006. Each features a business models completely independent of its corresponding parent television network.

“If you look at the media landscape and the evolution that’s happening with multiple platform, it’s only recently where we we’re asking, ‘What’s the digital extension?’” says Barry. “That philosophy is out the window. The digital extension is Facebook and Twitter, and that’s it. That’s where everybody is when [he or she] is watching something, regardless of the screen. Now everybody is insisting that they want to watch what they want, when they want, on what platform they want. If they want to lean back, they’ll lean back. If they want to lean in, they’ll lean in.If I want the long version, I’ll get the long version. If I want the short version, I’ll get the short version. eSports lends itself directly to that.”

The Value of eSports
What exactly would Barry consider a success? He understands the pressure to show an immediate impact but notes that it’s hard to define by traditional methods, such as ratings or CPM (cost per thousand impressions).

The value, instead, is the collective: engagement. Are fans sharing? Are fans commenting? Are fans following? Is there notable growth over these 10 weeks? And these factors are not exclusive to ELEAGUE; they will be true for any eSports property.

“We probably won’t get a second chance,” says Barry. “We’d love to be great, but we’ve got to be good enough to get people to come back and continue to check it out. So there’s a lot of pressure around that.

“At the end of the day,” he continues, “when the 10 weeks end, we want people to come back and say, ‘I can’t wait for the next 10 weeks.’ Economics aside, ratings aside, if the community — and that’s what you’re betting on — is going to connect itself with your brand and that community is going to grow, your brand is going to grow with it.”

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