After proving to the world that it was a genuine media force, the exploding field of esports is expected to conquer fertile new ground in 2017 with lucrative new partnerships with both traditional broadcasters and online streaming services. The sporting world will also likely see the line between real-world sports and esports begin to blur into a stunning new kaleidoscope that redefines the concept of fandom.
The 21st century phenomenon where viewers watch players compete in video games online, on TV or in person at stadiums across the globe, esports has already thoroughly conquered YouTube and has dedicated services like Twitch, a video streaming service where many esports fans watch their gaming heroes play live.
And other tech giants are opening their wallets, too. On Jan. 25, Facebook announced a partnership with game designer Blizzard to stream the popular esports tournament “Heroes of the Dorm” on Facebook Live. The tournament, which features college-aged gamers battling it out on Blizzard’s beloved title, begins in February and ends with a championship game on April 8. Thousands of fans watch in person as dozens of teams from colleges across the country compete in the online multiplayer game for some $500,000 in scholarships. Many more have watched the competition on ESPN2 and ESPN3, although the audience is still growing.
Blizzard has not said whether the competition will return to TV along with Facebook Live. Facebook and Blizzard are hoping the real-time updating and engagement offered by directly pushing the event through social media will bring a whole new world of fans to esports. Viewers, for example, can win prizes by correctly guessing the victors.
"‘Heroes of the Dorm’ has featured some of the most dramatic college esports action of the past two years, and with more prizes for more teams up for grabs this year, we’re looking forward to a whole new level of competition,” Blizzard co-founder and CEO Mike Morhaime said in a statement.
Experts also believe more sports teams and players will integrate esports into their marketing strategies. Athletes can expand their brand and reach new audiences by competing, and the world of esports can earn new tiers of recognition with the buy-in from sports pros. Brands working with teams can bring their marketing materials to a digital front as well by integrating advertising into the video games themselves or at the live esports events.
In September, the Philadelphia 76ers became the first U.S. sports organization to purchase an esports franchise when they bought the esports team Dignitas. 76ers managing general partner Josh Harris said, “We see our entrance into esports as a natural extension of our expanding interests in traditional sports and entertainment and are confident that our involvement will accelerate the already rapid pace of growth in esports as a whole.”
The Sixers took over the day-to-day operations of Dignitas and pledged to hire the best esports talent to help the team dominate the competition when it competes in tournaments with games like Overwatch and Smite. “We have an infrastructure of a mature business that’s going to be laid on top of an incredibly attractive business with a growing fan base,” 76ers CEO Scott O’Neil told Forbes. “We think the missing ingredient in making this growth on the fan side and player side is the actual infrastructure.” The Sixers bring in revenue through sponsorships, sales, branding, digital marketing, merchandising and more.
“With the continued growth of the esports industry, it won’t be a surprise to see more traditional sports players, executives and teams getting into esports,” esports reporter Kellen Beck predicted at the close of 2016. “The incoming money and experience pouring in will probably help esports mature as a whole, give teams more staying power and help stabilize the competitive gaming scene.”
Media executives of all stripes, both digital streamers and traditional broadcasters, should take notice of esports since it has matured into a global phenomenon in two years. Analysts at firm Newzoo predicted last year that esports will be a $1.1 billion industry by 2019 – money that comes from a diverse, global and hungry audience.
Broadcasters are discovering that esports is not a niche; in fact, it might be one of the best ways to ensure millennials keep their TVs in the coming years. Cable channels like AMC and TBS are already getting involved. Turner’s first season of competition show ELeague, which pitted 24 esports teams against each other, ended last summer and the company announced viewers watched approximately 13.3 million hours of ELeague content across both Twitch and TBS.
Other important tracks for those interested in esports will deeply explore the future of virtual reality, the next generation of content marketing and the role of broadcast technology in the 2020s. Both the backend and frontend of esports will be dissected in panel discussions and on the Show Floor.