En­ter­tain­ment: Will peo­ple watch young dudes sit­ting around play­ing video games? TBS thinks so

TBS tries to solve the e-sports dilemma.

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - By Will Leitch

Spend a day at the 10,000-square­foot At­lanta stu­dio that Turner Sports built to house its new com­pet­i­tive video gam­ing show, eLeague, and you’ll come away con­vinced that e-sports are a le­git­i­mate ac­tiv­ity with le­git­i­mate fans and the po­ten­tial for a le­git­i­mate mar­ket share of the TV-sports uni­verse. You know who isn’t con­vinced? The cam­er­apeo­ple. They’re used to cov­er­ing live ath­let­ics in which play­ers, you know, move. One of them jokes in the bath­room, “S---, I could go on the roof and have a cig­a­rette, and no one would no­tice.”

This has long been the dilemma of bring­ing e-sports to tele­vi­sion: How do you make an en­ter­tain­ing pro­gram out of peo­ple sit­ting in one place for hours at a time? The trick, says Craig Barry, Turner Sports’ chief con­tent of­fi­cer, is less about get­ting e-sports go­ing than mov­ing out of its way. “This is a com­mu­nity that al­ready ex­ists,” he says. “We want to help ex­pand it, not fix it.” With a three-hour show­case broad­cast every Fri­day night on TBS (and about four hours of daily stream­ing on on­line gam­ing broad­caster Twitch Interactive), eLeague is the high­est-pro­file cor­po­rate plunge into com­pet­i­tive gam­ing to date.

Here’s how it works: Twenty-four teams, split into six di­vi­sions (col­lec­tively, the eLeague), play Counter Strike: Global Of­fen­sive. Each team’s five play­ers work as a platoon to shoot their op­po­nents’ avatars dead in 20 one-minute-and-fifty-five-sec­ond rounds and earn fake money to buy more so­phis­ti­cated and lethal weapons. The TBS show is the fi­nal round of a di­vi­sional tour­na­ment played on Twitch through­out the week. Each episode’s win­ning team gets a spot in the eLeague play­offs, with the ul­ti­mate cham­pi­ons stand­ing to take home $390,000 from a $1.4 mil­lion pool when the show con­cludes on July 30. Its May 27 de­but av­er­aged 509,000 view­ers—not hor­ri­ble for a Fri­day night— and 4.3 mil­lion peo­ple streamed games on Twitch dur­ing the week.

Even OK au­di­ence num­bers haven’t stopped some peo­ple, in­clud­ing Turner Sports em­ploy­ees, from throw­ing shade at com­pet­i­tive video gam­ing: In­side the NBA’s Kenny Smith has al­ready de­clared it “not a real sport.” Fox Sports ra­dio dope Colin Cowherd reg­u­larly calls par­tic­i­pants “nerds.” Barry, how­ever, has been eLeague’s cham­pion, get­ting on­board early to spear­head the project even though he says he was “never a gamer.” He com­pares the broad­cast to the early-aughts boom in TV poker. “It’s some­thing peo­ple know, but we’re show­ing them how to watch it bet­ter,” he says. Many eLeague play­ers are al­ready star gamers. One, “Tarik,” who plays for Team CLG (Counter Logic Gam­ing), says hav­ing his matches on TBS is no big deal, be­cause “I’ve had a mil­lion peo­ple watch me play be­fore” on Twitch. But for a viewer un­fa­mil­iar with the gam­ing world, the play­ers are just pasty self­ies float­ing on a screen—it’s the game it­self, plus fast-talk­ing an­nounc­ers with well­lu­bri­cated vo­cal cords, that does all the work. In one early match, an un­der­dog team mounted a rally to come back from a four-round deficit—then ran out of cash, leav­ing it un­der­equipped, help­less, and, even­tu­ally, to­tally an­ni­hi­lated. It was thrilling.

Barry says he’s not too wor­ried about how quickly the TBS au­di­ence catches on—though rat­ings have grown each week so far, and ex­ec­u­tives at Turner have al­ready green­lighted a sec­ond sea­son. The TBS show “is for the cu­ri­ous fan, but we’re serv­ing the loy­al­ists,” he says. That may be a smart move: Gam­ing anal­y­sis firm New­zoo projects that rev­enue from e-sports will rise 43 per­cent from 2015 to $463 mil­lion this year. And if you think e-sports are ab­surd, well, all sports are ab­surd. Take a piece of wood, hit a piece of cowhide, run around in a cir­cle. Throw a piece of rub­ber through a ring. Hit a small frozen disc with a stick into a net … while skat­ing. It just takes ex­po­sure to make it seem nor­mal. <BW>

A COME­BACK, THEN TO­TAL AN­NI­HI­LA­TION—IT WAS THRILLING

Fans cheer on eLea­guers at Turner Stu­dios in At­lanta

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