Log in to any sports broadcasting network, and there’s a strong chance you’ll run into a well-polished documentary or feature on a player’s life, technique, or claim to fame. To anyone who cares about sports, the games we watch aren’t really about the sports themselves but more about the personalities lacing up to take the field or court. We tune in because we want to see those players succeed or fail, and we want to see how they’ll do it.
The end, as they say, isn’t as compelling as the journey.
It’s not surprising, then, that story and competition are uniquely linked. From the earliest days of sport, story fashioned from the splendor of victory and the disappointment of defeat has compelled us to watch, perhaps even more than the innate fun of the sports themselves. It’s true in analog sports, and it’s true in digital sports as well.
In many ways, esports is the natural progression of competition. Just as analog sports have evolved from their primal roots, so have they evolved from traditional stick and ball sports — such as baseball, football, and basketball — to something if not more advanced, more closely tied to the digital age. Of course, traditional sports still entrance and enrapture us, but it’s time to come to grips with a simple fact: sports are evolving, and both fans and broadcasters have to evolve with it.
One of the companies leading the charge into that brave “new” world of broadcast esports is a name that’s become synonymous with sports itself: Turner Broadcasting. Well-known for its coverage of the NBA, the MLB, the PGA, NCAA basketball, and more, Turner was one of the major broadcasting companies to quickly realize that esports wasn’t just a fad but instead a legitimate cultural zeitgeist. Because of their foresight, their esports network, ELEAGUE, is one of the fastest growing and most renowned esports-centric networks currently showcasing games and tournaments.
Speaking with Matt Mosteller, Vice President of Content for Turner Sports, who also oversees production for ELEAGUE, the idea of crafting compelling narratives lies at the center of each ELEAGUE production. As a fan-first esports brand, ELEAGUE seeks to bring esports stories to fans in interesting and creative ways — some they may have never seen before.
[Esports is] a great digital property, and there are a ton of young fans that are consuming this content and are ferocious when following these sports. For us, being able to create content and bring in a younger audience is always something that’s key. It just made sense.
At Turner, we’re always looking for what’s next; what are the new, big sporting events and phenomena? We want to be a part of those and help tell stories around those. We pride ourselves in doing premiere events. We looked at esports — and being able to jump in and help grow some of those games and create some more premiere events — [as something we were very interested in].
One of the ways Turner looks to help grow established esports such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Street Fighter V, and Tekken 7 is through leveraging its experience in traditional broadcast storytelling. Creating hype around these games in ways both hardcore and casual fans may not have experienced before is an important wrinkle in the company’s strategy.
In many ways, I’ve seen it work on the “uninitiated” in person. Injecting broadcasts with player profiles, educational segments, and creative features such as this gem featuring ELEAGUE’s 2018 Street Fighter V Invitational Champion, Tokido, serve a dual purpose in engaging the hardcore viewer and humanizing the competition for the casual viewer.
Setting out after that goal, it’s the creative work Turner employs outside the game that often sets its broadcasts apart from other esports coverage and analysis. It’s crazy polished. It’s engaging. It’s compelling. The ELEAGUE team uses storytelling to give fans better insight into the every-day lives of these players, showcasing the monumental investment these players put into their training. What’s more, it highlights the fact that esports players are just as passionate and skilled as players in the NBA, NFL, and MLB.
Mosteller says that one of the best ways to ensure all of those boxes get ticked is by giving viewers what they really want, which is access to the players. That one thing is the connective tissue by which the entire organism seems to work.
The game’s the game. There’s only so much we can do within the game itself. [But the question is], “What can we do around the game to create this buzz and get people excited and draw in more of an audience?”. One of the great things fans love is access. They want to be these players and they want to see them away from the controller …
One of the things we looked at was, “How can we bring fans closer to the action?”, giving them the chance to know these guys. So we’ve dived into some of the documentary style [content], like the road to the international, the road to the Boston Major this past year for our ELEAGUE Counter-Strike major, and it really gave fans a chance to get to know these teams and see that other side of them, and create that connection and bond that will hopefully bring people back to watching live gameplay.
That’s a tall task when it comes to Joe Public. It’s a safe bet that your average sports viewer isn’t all that keyed in to esports — or doesn’t hold the niche in very high regard due to general views on gaming. Although studies show that some 250 million people follow esports competitions around the world, that’s across all esports properties and tournaments, not a specific event.
In 2017, IEM Katowice brought in 46 million viewers, making it the largest esports event in history. However, that pales to the 2017 Super Bowl, which alone brought in 111 million viewers. This shows that broadcasters have the attention of hardcore gamers, but getting the attention of an ordinary audience requires a bit more finesse.
In response, broadcasters like Turner have become more flexible.
That adaptability has helped ELEAGUE grow its brand and engage esports fans on both digital streaming channels such as Twitch and BR/Live, as well as TBS. It’s been aided by leveraging proprietary and third-party technology. Used in conjunction with more traditional storytelling elements — features, player profiles, and more — tools such as eye-tracking technology and Game Command tell story in an engaging, yet more analytical way.
Without eye-tracking technology, you wouldn’t know that many Street Fighter V, CS:GO, and Tekken 7 players move their eyes just as fast, and in some cases even faster, than athletes in almost all traditional stick and ball sports.
That storyline in and of itself not only gives casual fans direct analogues by which to understand esports and overcome some of their initial hurdles, but it also gives hardcore fans the validation they’ve sought since players started gathering around cabinets in their local arcades decades ago.
From another angle, ELEAGUE’s Game Command gives viewers unprecedented access to professional esports play, specifically CS:GO. In Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, viewers streaming matches are able to see not only the main feed (which is similar to a typical sports broadcast on cable), but they are also able to see multiple angles of action, similar to a multi-feed that’s sometimes provided during traditional sports broadcasts.
But that’s not all. There’s a unique wrinkle that takes the game to an entirely new level. With Game Command, viewers can watch specific players throughout the match, easily switching between players and viewpoints at their own discretion. It gives viewers unprecedented access and control to the games they love; and in cases of the uninitiated, gives viewers a new way to learn about the game they’re watching.
Mosteller says that’s the whole point: to bring viewers and audiences as close to the game as they possibly can. Just like traditional sports, it’s important to build a conversation around esports that grows it from a niche market into something bigger and more accepted.
We always try to push ourselves on the technology side. And the gaming space is a great place to do that. Whether it was the eye-tracking technology or the augmented reality we’ve done around Street Fighter or the Injustice League, where we brought these great characters these fanbases know and love to life in the studio and during the broadcast. Those are just some things we can do to spice up our coverage and get the fans excited.
I think if we’re going to continue to grow the esports space, that’s something that’s big for us: bringing in that more casual audience, especially on TBS where people aren’t as used to watching esports on that platform.
If any mainstream broadcasting company can make esports widely popular, Turner is one of the very few that can do it. What makes Turner Broadcasting unique is that it has a wide array of ancillary properties from which it can pull from to further build hype around the scene. It has specific brands that already overlap with the gaming space, such as Cartoon Network, that further facilitate the push to greater esports ubiquity.
It’s that mixture of styles (a firm understanding of traditional media alongside a genuine excitement and interest in emerging technologies) that’s helped ELEAGUE become so popular so quickly. Often, there’s not a lot of context around esports matches. By crafting traditional and analytical stories around them, Turner looks to help both hardcore fans and casuals better understand what they’re watching. By proxy, that understanding will hopefully transform into wider acceptance of esports as an “actual” branch of sports.
Much like NFL films has done for the league’s 32 teams and thousands of players, Turner uses technology and creative storytelling to craft compelling, engaging, and informative content that breaks down barriers.
It’s telling stories where it at first doesn’t seem stories could or should exist. By humanizing gaming and crafting stories around each of the scenes it represents, Turner is using ELEAGUE to firmly make the argument that competitive gaming isn’t just for the initiated.
Just like traditional sports, it’s for everyone.
To see first hand the way ELEAGUE tells stories around esports tournaments, make sure to tune in to the CS:GO Premier 2018, which starts this Saturday, July 21, at 2 p.m. EDT on Twitch, BR/Live, and Game Command.
The group action will go through Wednesday, July 25. After the dust has settled, four teams (two from each group) will face off in single-elimination playoffs held Saturday and Sunday, July 28-29, for their share of the million-dollar prize pool.
As always, stay tuned to GameSkinny for more news and information on ELEAGUE as it develops.