After bundling games in one app, ESPN watches fantasy take off
he storylines around traditional media companies seem to be unrelentingly negative these days. TV ratings are down. Household distribution numbers continue to fall. The advertising market is in a slump.
But one area of sports media is experiencing wild growth, at least at ESPN. ESPN’s fantasy business is producing eye-popping usage numbers this year. Not only have all 15 ESPN fantasy games — spanning football, baseball, basketball, etc. — posted bigger numbers than last year, but 14 of the 15 have set record highs so far in 2017.
Just two years ago, it appeared that ESPN’s fantasy business had run its course. Its NFL game still produced massive numbers, but ESPN was finding it difficult to grow any of its other fantasy games.
That changed 18 months ago, when ESPN decided to put all of its fantasy games in one app, rather than having a separate app for each fantasy game.
ESPN’s senior director of product management, Chris Jason, said that decision is the main reason ESPN’s fantasy results have been so big this year.
“The first big milestone was the launch of a single fantasy app last August,” said Jason, who essentially is in charge of product development for ESPN Fantasy.
The problem was that the audience for ESPN’s fantasy football was so big that company executives prioritized it over other fantasy games. That meant that people who had a good experience with fantasy football were underwhelmed with ESPN’s fantasy baseball and basketball apps.
“When we moved the games into the single application, we built it in such a way that all of the games would benefit from the enhancements that we were making. We essentially achieved feature parity across all of our four seasonlong games.”
ESPN does not release user numbers for its specific fantasy games, but a spokesman said that more than 20 million people have played an ESPN fantasy sports game in the last 12 months. ESPN fantasy’s total number of unique users has nearly doubled over the last four years, with more than half of that growth occurring in the last 12 months.
Along with putting all the games in the same app, ESPN also experimented with games to keep people playing longer. For example, ESPN’s Tournament Challenge bracket game around the NCAA tournament offered a “second chance bracket” that kept people playing much longer than they had previously.
“That was an epiphany for us,” Jason said. “That birthed the idea around the single ESPN Fantasy App, which is the single largest, most impactful driver of all the results. Building on what we learned from Tournament Challenge, we decided to make all these games playable in the same application. The impact was massive.”
Two years ago, ESPN’s fantasy basketball usage was dropping, even as interest in the league soared.
“We made a bet that the reason more people weren’t playing fantasy basketball had nothing to do with their interest in playing the game,” he said. “Rather, it had everything to do with the amount of effort that we were forcing them to go through to play the game.”
By putting the game in the same app as football — and making the experience similar, ESPN’s fantasy basketball recorded high numbers this year.
The Streak has a similar story. Started in 2008 as Streak for the Cash, the game flirted with all-time lows just a few years ago. ESPN added new features, like having people compete against ESPN personalities. It also moved it into the same fantasy app that housed its NFL game.
“The results have been massive,” Jason said. “The last three months have been the largest month in the history of the game in terms of unique people playing the game.”