When trying to explain esports to newcomers, it’s common to use traditional sports as a reference point. That comparison has influenced some of the early attempts by traditional broadcasters to televise esports.
However, the media consumption differences between the two worlds are also important: esports are not watched just like, for example, a football match on TV. Interactivity is one reason: you might watch PSG vs Barcelona on TV while chatting about it on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.
Esports generates plenty of buzz on social media too, but its social conversation is also built in to the viewing experience: think live chat windows alongside the action on Twitch or YouTube.
The platforms for watching esports are also the platforms for talking about esports, and that has driven the consumer media habits around the latter category. As esports continues to grow, this is just one of the lessons that will influence the evolution of media coverage back in the broadcasting realm.
Consumer media habits and a growing audience
Hundreds of millions of people are already used to this dynamic. Research company Newzoo‘s latest figures predict that there will be 434 million esports viewers in 2021: around the same as the combined population of the US and Russia.
That would represent 8.7% year-on-year growth in esports viewers, with Newzoo breaking it down into 240 million ‘occasional’ viewers and 234 million ‘esports enthusiasts’. The two groups are growing equally fast.
This large audience has grown with certain expectations. First, that the live chat from the community is an intrinsic part of the viewing experience, even if they do not jump into the chat themselves.
Second, that esports is a truly cross-device, on-demand experience, able to be watched across all their devices, and at a time of their choosing if they can’t or don’t want to watch live. It’s the kind of maximum flexibility that has been a long road for traditional sports rights / broadcasting to work towards. And this flexibility is part of a wider trend in consumer media habits.
“It is no secret that traditional TV viewership is declining among young people, the most important target group for esports and gaming. Instead, on-demand platforms, where consumers can decide for themselves what they want to watch and when, are gaining popularity,” wrote Disht Advani, senior associate at PwC Europe, in a blog post last year. “Twitch, YouTube and Facebook, to name a few, can be watched on almost any device at home, on the road or in another country.”
This is a key point. Esports don’t just appeal to younger audiences because of their content – the gaming that those audiences love and have grown up with – but also because their delivery is a perfect match for those consumers’ media habits.
Remember, too, that it’s not just that the platforms for watching esports are also the platforms for talking about them. In some cases, they are also the platforms for playing those games: Rocket League, Clash Royale and others have in-game features for watching live and/or replays and highlights of their esports tournaments.
New channels and the opportunity for media
The challenge for traditional broadcasters with esports ambitions, then, has been that they are coming into a market with established digital platforms, which provide the interactivity and viewing flexibility fans expect, and upon which the key esports brands and personalities have built their own popular channels. Plus many popular esports games are becoming broadcasters in their own right.
Still, media players have entered this market, in part through necessity as the initial wave of Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 caused traditional sports events to be cancelled, leaving yawning gaps in the broadcasters’ schedules. That is something explored in more depth in this Esports BAR blog post from July 2020, as events like eNASCAR and games like Rocket League found their way onto TV.
There was encouragement for this strategy. Even in 2018, Deloitte’s fan engagement survey found that while 66% of esports viewers used streaming services to watch, 44% said that they also watched through “a standard broadcast network”.
“Like TV, revenues for esports are largely based on advertising and sponsorships. Both TV broadcasters and video game publishers, therefore, would probably benefit from more collaboration, such as fine-tuning viewability to make it easier for broadcast audiences to follow gameplay,” suggested its report, while warning “however, TV broadcasters will likely need to differentiate their programming to lure audiences away from social streaming services”.
It suggested that American Football offered a useful model to follow. “Broadcasters leveraged the scale of their audience to reinforce the value of the sport, while developing compelling programming based on the lives of the players, their teams, their cities, and the swirl of aspirations and drama animating them all. Savvy broadcasters may be able to do the same with esports.”
Competition is good for media evolution
The future of many digital media sectors, not just esports, is about competition between online platforms doubling down on their early-mover advantage, and traditional media stepping up its efforts to gain a foothold.
That competition should be good news for the esports industry, especially if it drives an increase in licensing and rights. Newzoo’s latest forecasts suggest that while sponsorship will remain the biggest annual revenue stream for esports – $641m this year – media rights will also grow 13.4% to $192.6m.
Broadcast and digital esports rights have also coexisted in the past. In April last year, for example, Activision Blizzard was reported to be in talks with broadcasters about deals to televise its Overwatch League events, having already signed a lucrative exclusive digital deal with YouTube.
The future evolution of media may ultimately break down this separation, as broadcasters do more digitally and as digital platforms continue their growth on televisions. More than 120 million Americans are already watching YouTube on connected TVs, for example.
As boundaries between traditional and digital media blur, with esports one of the sectors at the heart of it, the task will be to continue innovating in the way events are broadcast and interacted around, while maintaining and evolving the culture that has made esports such a vibrant sector.
“The next generation of development will focus more on individualisation, greater possibilities for immersive participation and engagement, and a next level of quality in production without losing the traditional appealing charm of an organically grown community that is reflected in its language, forms of interaction and lighthearted humor,” is how PwC’s Advani put it in his blog post last year.
By 2024, Newzoo predicts that there will be 577.2 million esports viewers: 281.6 million casuals and 285.7 million enthusiasts.
Traditional broadcasters and media can play an important part in this growth, including both bringing in new casual viewers and turning them into enthusiasts, if they find good partners in the esports world, and respect the culture that has made it so tempting to explore.
What’s more, if they do it well, they will not just make themselves relevant to the future of digital media. The lessons they learn may well translate back to their coverage of traditional sports and other live events, and ensure those also evolve to match changing consumer media habits.
Interested in the synergy between esports and media? Join us at Esports BAR in Cannes on 13-15 October where leaders from the two industries will be discussing this and other key topics!