If you want to watch esports, then you will probably go to streaming platforms like Twitch, Facebook Gaming, or YouTube Gaming. But as competitive gaming grows in popularity, there have been growing numbers of traditional television broadcasting networks that have started to show esports.
However, there remain many concerns about how esports on TV could actually work. Competitive gaming has often been seen as being too specialist for mainstream tastes, and there is the question of why gamers would want to go back to television for their esports entertainment.
But as the global esports audience has grown to include over 500 million people in the past few years, it seems that TV bosses will have to start featuring esports sooner or later.
Where can you watch esports on TV?
Ever since the dawn of competitive gaming, there have been some broadcasting networks that aimed to show esports on TV. South Korean television networks showed WCG tournaments well over a decade ago, and Sweden’s TV6 broadcasting network still shows the DreamHack tournaments, as well as The International and some CSGO Majors.
Some esports brands like ESL have even taken matters into their own hands. The esports TV channel showcases ESL, IEM and Pro League tournaments on networks like Canal Digital and Skylink so that gaming fans in the USA and some European nations can watch the action.
Disney was one of the first major broadcasting networks to move into esports. The brand owns ABC and ESPN and have used these channels alongside Disney XD to show the Overwatch League and the EVO Championship Series.
Although ESPN is known as primarily being a traditional sports broadcaster, they have teamed up with ESL and Riot Games to broadcast some NA League Championship matches, as well as ESL One, IEM and Pro League competitions. Despite their experience as a sports broadcaster, even they needed some help from the esports community. It looks like a different skill is needed if you want to convince viewers to watch esports live.
In relation to Esports in the UK, the BBC jumped on the competitive gaming bandwagon by featuring live coverage of the League of Legends World Championships in 2015. Rival UK brands like ITV and Sky teamed up to launch Ginx Esports TV that is a multi-language channel devoted to esports like Dota 2, Rocket League and Call of Duty, and is currently available across 50 different nations.
Why esports on TV broadcasting networks makes perfect sense
Broadcasting networks’ main aim is to put on TV programs that are viewed by as many people as possible. This ensures that they can attract advertisers, and esports offers an easy way to do this.
For example, the 2018 League of Legends World Championship final was watched by almost 100 million unique viewers which was more than the 2018 Super Bowl that had an audience of 98 million.
Such figures will not be lost on advertisers, and we have already seen major brands like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Toyota stepping up efforts to sponsor some of the biggest esports tournaments. As a result, TV bosses will be doing all they can to ensure that they offer enough coverage of one of the world’s fastest-growing entertainment trends.
Although esports might differ from traditional sports, many broadcasters have found that the competitive gaming format offers enough of a spectacle to attract new audiences. Features like elaborate lighting, LED screens, and thousands of spectators have likened esports tournaments to music awards shows.
Tournaments like 2019’s very first Fortnite World Cup hit headlines thanks to the fact that the 16-year old gamer Kyle ‘Bugha’ Giersdorf won a $3 million prize. Bugha then went on to make an appearances on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and the emergence of celebrity gamers will help to make esports more identifiable to mainstream audiences.
There has also been the welcome growth of more standardised esports tournaments that mirror the format of traditional sporting leagues. The Overwatch League currently features a fixed number of franchised teams that are based in specific cities. This makes it easier for viewers to get to know the teams and the format is equally attractive to advertisers.
Above all, as viewing audiences mature, so will their tastes. A Nielsen report stated that the average age of an esports fan is 31 and while video gaming was once a niche activity, it looks like it has entered the mainstream. Therefore traditional broadcasting networks will have to cater to the more mature esports audience.
Issues to overcome before we see esports on TV
Esports audiences are traditionally hard to reach for broadcast networks. This is because they are mostly composed of a younger generation who have grown up with the internet and bypass traditional media to get their entertainment.
With streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube Gaming offering an instant way to watch live-action for a seemingly endless amount of esports tournaments, there would seem to be little reason to switch over to a relatively passive TV viewing experience.
Live streams are about so much more than just sitting back and watching the action. Alongside interactive features like community chat areas, esports betting has grown in line with competitive gaming and it’s hard to see why gaming fans would want to watch esports on TV that offers a relatively static experience.
The sheer mechanics of covering esports tournaments also offers plenty of challenges for broadcasting networks. While it’s fairly easy to offer split-screen coverage of a fighting game like Street Fighter V, the same cannot be said for a battle royale game like Fortnite where there might be over 100 gamers competing at the same time.
It has to be said that the majority of esports may not be suitable to mainstream tastes. The violence of games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive would not sit well on primetime TV, and trying to explain the gameplay of League of Legends to a newcomer would also pose big problems. But as esports audiences mature and competitive gaming grows in popularity, then it’s surely only a matter of time before we start seeing much more esports on TV.
Esports on TV in 2020
What a difference a year makes! After the Covid-19 pandemic hit, all major international sporting events shut down. Well, not all of them, there was still one sport that could be played remotely, esports.
Esports filled the gap left by the cancellation of traditional sporting events. TV channels needed something to fill the airtime and esports was more than happy to help. More and more esports events appeared on terrestrial television in 2020. ESPN even created a branded ESPN Esports Day which included 12 hours of programming for esports fans. Not all of these esports events are strictly professional. Many of them feature actual sports stars taking part in the video game version of their sports. NFL players like Derwin James took part in a Madden 20 tournament on FOX Sports.
Only time will tell if this sort of change will end up becoming permanent but it has definitely raised the profile of the esports world by magnitudes.