Viewership ranged from a low of 153,000 viewers on June 10 (which went up against the NBA Finals) to a high of 386,000 viewers a week earlier, on June 3, which was the season’s second week. These numbers represent viewership over a two-to-four-hour period starting at 10 p.m. on Friday nights. The June 10 show was three hours and 42 minutes long; the June 3 show was two hours and 30 minutes.
But this focus on TV viewership — something I do for every other sports property — does not tell the full story, Turner executives stressed.
It may be PR spin. But in this case, I’m buying it.
ELeague made its TV debut Friday, May 27, on TBS. Tournament coverage as of press time included a six-week regular season, a one-week last-chance qualifier round and a quarterfinal round. The tournaments aired Fridays at 10 p.m. ET. The events were televised in their entirety, which varied from four hours and 15 minutes in Week 1, to approximately one hour and 20 minutes in Weeks 5 and 6. The first half of the Week 3 coverage went head-to-head against Game 4 of the NBA Finals on ABC.
Source: Austin Karp, SportsBusiness Daily
“Esports will always be a native digital property,” said Craig Barry, Turner Sports’ executive vice president of production and chief content officer, who added Turner executives remain enthused about esports.
But even those low TV numbers carry a silver lining. Barry noted that the male 18-34 demographic — where there has been erosion in TV viewership — represented a whopping 70 percent of the series’ audience. The male 18-49 demo was up 38 percent compared with the same telecast window over the previous month. That helped make ELeague’s audience five years younger than the typical TBS audience — a figure that has been noticed by potential advertisers.
These numbers do not include the league’s digital results, which Barry said were higher than expected, logging 18.7 million video streams on Twitch and 47 million impressions on Facebook and Twitter.
Speaking a few days before the ELeague championship, Barry called the season a learning experience, saying that Turner and WME-IMG executives will make some tweaks to the schedule. Specifically, Barry said the season went on too long — both the 10-week season and the 30 hours of programming across digital and TV each week. Comparing ELeague to the NCAA tournament, Barry said the schedule needed more “do-or-die tension during the competition.”
“It’s a lot to ask the community to watch 30 hours a week, day in and day out,” he said. “Take March Madness, for example. From a bracket scenario, it’s one-and-done. Every game is super important, which gets everybody to tune in because there’s a sense of urgency around each game. When we look at a new format, we’re going to look to create something where every game really matters.”
Barry said TBS’s focus was to produce shows that gamers felt were authentic — ones that were not dumbed down for television. Some in the gaming community said Turner achieved that goal.
Manny Anekal, founder of the esports business publication The Next Level, pointed to the set design as an example. Turner built a set in Atlanta to handle the league. By comparison, Anekal pointed to ESPN’s coverage of the Evolution Championship Series — a gaming tournament based in Las Vegas that featured contestants on folding chairs.
“Any time you take something niche and try to make it mainstream, the inherent challenge is how to keep things authentic,” Anekal said. “I’m not sure how to define authentic, but Turner did a fantastic job on production, trying to educate a new audience about esports and introducing a story to ELeague.”
A consistent storyline that drew viewers this year focused on the eight U.S. teams that competed.
“Whenever they came into the studio, the audience would get larger — the event and viewing audience,” Barry said. “The majority of the time, the U.S. teams were the underdogs against the European teams. There was always a great energy and dynamic around the North American teams coming in and trying to pull off the upset. Those were the evenings that resonated because there was so much energy behind them.”