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Why TBS Thinks You’ll Watch Other People Play Video Games

The eSports league looks to succeed where DirecTV, USA and MTV failed in an effort to court younger viewers

Turner Broadcasting and WME|IMG announced in September that they were partnering on a competitive video game league based in Turner’s home city of Atlanta, Georgia, to be broadcast on TBS.

On one hand, the move seemed like a no-brainer as competitive gaming for spectators, or eSports, has exploded in recent years thanks to the rise of live streaming services.

To provide some context, live streaming platform Twitch, considered the premiere venue for watching eSports, boasted 8.5 million daily active users in 2015, up 20 percent over the previous year, according to data provided by the company to TheWrap. The average user engaged for 421.6 minutes per month.

On top of that, Twitch’s key demographic is males age 15-34, which the company estimates makes up 75 percent of its viewership. As TBS looks to rebrand itself for younger viewers, moving into areas like gaming is a must.

“The league is hoping to expand its reach beyond the traditional consumer to the digital native,” Brian Solis, principal analyst at Altimeter Group, told TheWrap. “The idea is to incite fear of missing out among digital consumers hoping they will subscribe to content and ultimately build a relationship that leads to future programming and audience expansion.”

On the other hand, challenges abound for the new league. Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham, Twitch’s director of programming, previously worked for the DirecTV “Championship Gaming” series when it aired from 2005 to 2009 and saw problems arise quickly.

“This was a really well put together league with some of the best minds in sports behind it,” Graham told TheWrap. “That was great, but the show was always stunted by the accessibility of only being available to DirecTV subscribers.”

Other networks like USA and MTV tried similar programming, but failed for similar reasons.

Graham also said that the DirecTV league attempted to alter the gameplay in order to fit into a traditional television advertising model, ultimately alienating fans.

“Sports did it, they put in TV timeouts,” he said. “But games aren’t always built that way. And I think one of the worst things you can do is to butcher one of the reasons a fan base loves a particular piece of content in the first place.”

“I’m not suggesting that is what TBS is going to do, but anyone who is going to put this content on television who has to deal with the traditional advertising model is also going to have to deal with how the length of these games plays into the competitions overall,” Graham continued.

He also pointed out that popular eSports titles like “League of Legends” can vary widely in the length of any one game. A single “League of Legends” game, for example, could be as short as 30 minutes or as long as two hours.

Essentially, you can’t fit a new media peg into an old media hole.

But TBS isn’t approaching eSports like a traditional television broadcast. Instead, they are going into it knowing full well that it’s a digital-first platform.

“For the last 10 years, we’ve been looking at things like ‘What’s the digital extention? What’s the second screen experience?'” Craig Barry, executive vice president of production and chief content officer of Turner Sports, told TheWrap. “Now, we have this massive digital content platform and quite frankly the linear is a support extension.”

The TBS program, called eLeague will feature 10 consecutive weeks of programming twice per year. A six-week regular season will be followed by a bye week, semifinals, and then a global championship match.

During those weeks, from Tuesday to Friday, TBS will digitally release live daily competitive gaming content, building up to a finals match on Friday nights, which will air on TBS and digitally.

The digital component is essential for drawing in young viewers. A recent study conducted by Nielsen found that those in the 14-25 age range consume 57 percent of their content on a mobile device. For those 26-31, it was 43 percent.

Barry also says that TBS will not attempt to fit the gameplay into the traditional television ad model, but rather will adapt their advertising techniques to the content.

“The traditional model of advertising and formatting programs is starting to evolve,” he said. “If the advertisers are looking for tonnage, saturation, or frequency, this honestly might not be the best platform. If you’re looking for innovative, creative ways to talk to this audience, then this is a fantastic platform for that.”

He also says that while the basis for the eLeague will be the two 10-week tournaments, TBS could potentially expand well beyond that.

“We could integrate Bleacher Report. We could integrate iStreamPlanet, both of which we own,” he said. “We may do a daily eSports show, like a ‘SportsCenter,’ and that will widen our net or our footprint. We may do tournaments for different games in the white space between those two 10-week pillars.”

The TBS eLeague launches today with the first tournament centered on the Valve Corporation game “Counter Strike: Global Offensive.”

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