Magazine article Variety

Game on for Those with the Control

Magazine article Variety

Game on for Those with the Control

Article excerpt

Eleven years ago, Ted Owen had a dream: to persuade the Olympic planning committee in Beijing that video games belonged in the 2008 Games. The skepticism was overwhelming. And despite the best efforts of the founder of the Global Gaming League, the Olympics came and went without a game controller in sight.

Today, that dream doesn't seem so farfetched. Several major networks, including ESPN, NBC and TBS, regularly air eSports programming. And the organizers of the Asian Games, a pan-continental multi-sport event held every four years, have confirmed eSports as a demonstration event in 2018. At the 2022 Games in Hangzhou, China, it will have full medal status.

The explosive rise of eSports in the past decade has caught many offguard, perhaps none more than the traditional - or "offline" - sports world. Game Five of the 2017 NBA Finals - the mostwatched Game Five since 1998 - was watched by 24.5 million people. But the 2015 world finals of online game "League of Legends" nabbed 36 million unique viewers, according to Riot Games.

Meanwhile, overall NFL ratings were down 9% in the 2016 regular season and fell 6% during the playoffs, according to MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson.

That's leading networks to escalate their involvement in competitive gaming.

"It's impossible to ignore the impressive growth eSports has had, both in the U.S. and globally," says Rob Simmelkjaer, senior VP of NBC Sports Ventures. "We always want to be tapping into what people love and how they're spending their time and what they're choosing for their entertainment. ... For any sports media company, this is becoming an essential component of your strategy."

Ironically, while both the broadcast and gaming worlds are quick to talk about the growth of eSports, they're still figuring out how best to capitalize on them.

"ESports is in its infancy ... and everybody's still figuring out how to crack the code, not only producing or distributing it, but creating the best value for ad sales, creating the best viewer experience," says Craig Barry, executive vice president and chief content officer for Turner Sports. "This is part of the evolutionary process of setting up something brand new."

There's certainly big money for players. The International (a tournament for the game "Dota 2") has given out more than $55 million in prize money since its launch in 2011. "League of Legends" has awarded more than $36 million, says Ben Schachter, an analyst with Macquarie Capital.

But on the game-publishing side, it's still mostly a marketing play. While publishers Activision and Electronic Arts have launched eSports divisions, neither has made a significant contribution to earnings so far. Take-Two Interactive Software has held two eSports tournaments, with little financial return.

"The tournaments we did were test cases to see if consumers would like this, and they did," says Strauss Zelnick, CEO at Take-Two. "Millions of matches were played and hundreds of thousands of teams were created ... but in terms of the revenue created - if there was revenue created, and we're not sure there was - it came about through brand-building. So far, all we've done in eSports is in service to building the brand and delighting consumers, it has not, so far, been in service of creating revenue."

Take-Two hopes to change that with its recently announced partnership with the NBA to form an eSports organization. Based around the company's "NBA2K" franchise, teams in the league will be operated by NBA franchises and will follow a tournament format similar to that of the NBA - a regular season, a bracketed playoff, then a championship match. …

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