If you ask people who are not into competitive gaming where you can watch eSports matches, there’s a high probability only one name will be cited: Twitch.
But there’s actually much more out there than just the Amazon-owned streaming platform.
Azubu, DingIt, YouTube Gaming, MLG.tv, Facebook, the BBC, Ginx… These past few years have seen the introduction of a huge number of platforms or initiatives around live eSports coverage.
According to data firm Newzoo, the number of people watching eSports will rise from 292m in 2016 to 427m by 2019.
This dramatic increase has now attracted the attention of traditional TV networks. And these companies feel they can help eSports get even bigger.
“Television is the ideal medium to help eSports engage with the mainstream,” says Michiel Bakker, CEO at Ginx, which just launched Ginx eSports TV, the first 24-hour channel dedicated to professional gaming in the UK.
“I think we are very well placed to collaborate with players, teams, publishers and tournament organisers to create an even bigger buzz around eSports. Having said that, [broadcaster] Turner, Ginx and others will have to earn their stripes and make sure we generally will be a ‘force for good’.”
Andy Swanson, Twitch’s VP, also agrees that TV has a role to play in eSports.
“Traditional TV provides an avenue for a wider range of exposure to viewers that may not be familiar with eSports, as well as some advertisers that are more used to buying traditional sports on TV,” he tells MCV. “It also can help eSports expand into other environments that might still rely on televised content, like sports bars.”
(Above, left to right: Twitch’s Swanson, Ginx TV’s Bakker and Hitbox’s Atkins)
But even if it seems to be a perfect way to engage with more viewers, the good old traditional TV isn’t the most relevant medium for eSports. Jason Atkins, event manager at streaming platform Hitbox, fears that in an attempt to make it more accessible, TV could ‘sanitise’ eSports and damage what makes it unique just to
“There is a role for television but I think it misses a lot of the essence of eSports,” Atkins believes. “As eSports becomes sanitised for a mainstream audience, a la DirectTV’s Championship Gaming Series, then my concern is the sport becomes secondary to raw ratings.”
He adds: “When done correctly, such as the recent BBC broadcast of League of Legends from Wembley, or the way Turner has approached Counter-Strike: GO, it can be quite successful.
“Streaming platforms like Hitbox are in a much more flexible position when it comes to catering to the audience – after all a large portion of eSports fans have unplugged and consume media differently – and if traditional broadcast television can adjust and adapt to these new viewing habits, then they have a chance to be successful.”
TV may be a new place to watch eSports but it’s never going to truly challenge online platforms. But with millions of people watching on Twitch, is this sector already sewn up?
“There is always room for competition, be it technical or in terms of content. What is HBO without AMC to challenge their programming model?,” Atkins asks. “Hitbox is forging ahead in emerging markets and establishing properties where we can have a direct influence, insulating us from some of the market pressures our competitors deal with.”
Even Swanson agrees that Twitch is not the only force to be reckoned with.
“We are seeing other distribution platforms, whether that is linear television or other digital services, playing a role to widen mainstream exposure as well as offer more localised regional content,” he admits.
Bakker also adds that, as the number of platforms continues to increase, new viewers will join the competitive gaming scene. “eSports viewing will continue to grow on many platforms. I believe services that add something genuinely new will be able to build an audience. Some of that growth will be at the expense of existing platforms, but most of it will be new engagement,”
So here is the big question around watching eSports – should broadcasters charge people to watch it?
In traditional sports, consumers are required to pay-per-view or subscribe to things like Sky Sports. So why shouldn’t Twitch do the same thing?
“Broadcast rights and pay-per-view revenues are definitely a hot topic in eSports,” Swanson says. “It’s important to understand the difference between publisher driven leagues or events – League of Legends Championship Series, The International – and independent leagues – ESL, Intel Extreme Masters, Dreamhack and so on. Publishers directly monetise eSports in the form of games sales, micro transactions or retention, or acquisition metrics. Therefore, they have much less incentive to restrict the content behind a pay wall.”
Bakker also reckons that broadcasters should maintain a nearly-free access to eSports: “For now I believe the barrier to entry should be left low to allow people to discover the excitement, scale and spectacle of watching eSports.”
There are obvious benefits to keeping eSports free-to-view, not least because of how it promotes the games. One impressive statistic shows that a huge number of people that watch League of Legends or Dota matches, don’t actually play the game themselves… yet.
“Research shows that roughly 40 per cent of eSports viewers do not play the individual game that they view,” Swanson explains. “As production values of tournament broadcasts increase and eSports content expands, engagement opportunities for those less familiar with eSports will increase.”
Atkins also believes that eSports has the potential to reach an audience who doesn’t play.
“eSports has an abundance of compelling stories and personalities - be it stories of underdogs or dominant champions, plenty of human interest,” he says. “Communicating these elements and explaining the skill and dedication required to be a top player or team will go a long way in converting viewers into fans. To use a mainstream analogy, not everyone who watches the Great British Bake Off can bake but it still pulls in really high viewing numbers.”