As ESports Viewership Soars, TV Leaders Must Get Off The Sidelines

On TV And Video” is a column exploring opportunities and challenges in advanced TV and video. 

Today’s column is written by Lindsey Harju, co-founder at Blinc Digital Group.

Advanced TV has experienced an explosion of change over the last couple of years, largely driven by consumer behavior shifts like the introduction of eSports.

In eSports, video game players professionally compete for millions of dollars in prize money. There are 176 million loyal fans and viewers, but that is predicted to grow to 276 million people by 2022. Twitch and YouTube viewers exceed the combined viewership of HBO, Netflix and ESPN. The industry is expected to reach $2.4 billion by 2020.

Any media that can draw those viewership numbers, with extremely high engagement, especially for coveted demos, should have all of our attention.

And in some areas, it is receiving the attention it deserves. Investors are flocking to teams, leagues and distributors, and pop culture commentators seem fascinated by how fans watching other people play video games has silently surpassed baseball and even the Super Bowl in scale.

Now it’s time for more TV industry leaders to get involved. Our industry seems to have slotted all the biggest providers firmly in the digital bucket, but at its most basic function, eSports is TV content.

ESports’ TV focus

In many ways eSports has always been clearly identified as TV. The most popular platform for viewing eSports – Twitch, which was acquired by Amazon – essentially began as a reality show, and it’s no coincidence that the URL is

TV is storytelling that hits multiple senses: sight, sound and motion. How the content is accessed or who produces it doesn’t matter anymore. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, all originally digital or commerce companies, are now major contenders at the Emmys. No one cares about who creates the content or what device consumers prefer. TV is TV.

ESports looks like content created by other TV providers

Some say that eSports is far too engaging to be considered TV. While I admit eSports takes it to a new level, it’s not as if TV has always been completely non-interactive.

Viewers have chosen a winner from a group of hopeful amateur singers on American Idol since 2002.  And TV accessed via digital platforms has blurred the line between viewer and content for years.

ESports makes money like a TV player

Broadcast and media rights are expected to represent 40% of eSports revenue by 2022. Major deals are already happening with traditional TV players Fox Sports and ESPN. Sponsorship is currently the primary revenue driver for those in the space, and not just by video game production companies. Major brands, such as Coca-Cola, Audi and even Airbus, are aligning their brands with teams, leagues or specific events. ESports is even participating in the time-honored TV tradition of upfronts.

Why does channel category matter?

You may wonder why I care about categorizing media correctly. In the future, it will not matter. All marketing dollars will flow freely between channels based on what works best for a specific strategy and target audience. Ideally, the buying will even exist within a single platform that will seamlessly move budget from one tactic to another without intervention.

But that is not the case today. And until it is a reality, the entire TV industry needs to draw this developing medium closer.

Buyers are missing an opportunity to reach a valuable demographic they are missing in linear.

Today, those on the buy side who consider eSports to be digital media are not having conversations about how to make their TV budgets sing. Yes, someone at Brand A is probably evaluating an eSports investment, but it is not the person with control of TV strategy.

This problem is made worse when you add agency support. Major TV agencies don’t want to collide with digital counterparts, so they steer clear of eSports opportunities, which would bring their media plans into this century. And digital teams are handed aggressive goals and metrics to hit that simply don’t play well in the brand-occupied TV space.

The best TV innovation isn’t happening in a vacuum

I am absolutely invigorated by all the cutting-edge work happening in TV today. The speed of innovation is largely due to the entire industry taking steps forward together. By keeping eSports at arms-length, they are not participating in the conversations or collaborative opportunities available to other TV providers.

Specific examples include advanced targeting to reach highly valuable niche segments, data application to personalize experiences and, my personal favorite, measurement. Gone are the days when big investments were not held accountable. And attribution cannot be executed in a silo.

For a multitude of privacy, data access, and client perception factors, it takes a village. And it is always better to be part of a village that understands your unique strengths and struggles.

ESports impressions need accurate valuation

After years of programmatic ad taxes, the publisher rates for digital ad impressions have taken a beating. To better monetize media, many digital players are focused on participating in the TV market because digital media has just been cut too close to the bone. When planning a buy, the value of an eSports impression should be compared against an addressable TV impression, rather than a digital impression.

Marketers need to make meaningful comparisons and not make overreaching assumptions about a media form based solely on how users access it. And eSports leaders should continue to embrace any opportunity to position themselves as TV.

Although I cannot speak on behalf of an entire industry, I would like to welcome eSports to the TV party – your millions of viewers and high engagement are welcome, too. By evaluating eSports media as TV, buyers with budget will find new avenues to reach key demographics and make up for linear losses in their plans.

ESports providers that own the TV badge will connect with the buyers that understand the value of video as a mechanism for storytelling and gain access to a much higher budget pool at major brands.

At the end of the day, it’s not complicated: The winner is the one who plays the game best. But first, make sure you know which game – digital or TV – you are actually playing.

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