(Corrects typo in eighth paragraph to “WME” from “WMG”)
By Curtis Skinner
May 24 (Reuters) - Sean Gares has played video games in sold-out arenas and for millions more fans online, but soon he will be playing in front of a new audience: U.S. television viewers.
Competitive video gaming is set to return to television with the Tuesday launch of a 10-week gaming league that will partly be broadcast on cable network TBS. Gares, 27, hopes the league will finally validate so-called eSports in the eyes of a long-skeptical American public.
“I think it takes (competitive gaming) to the next level,” Gares said. “There’s still that stigma that eSports athletes are acne-ridden nerds playing World of Warcraft in their parents’ basements. I think this will help erase a lot of that.”
The league will feature 24 teams from around the world, including Gares’ own Echo Fox, owned by former National Basketball Association player Rick Fox, who won three NBA championships while playing with the Los Angeles Lakers.
The teams will compete in the cutthroat first-person military shooter “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.”
With interest in professional gaming surging and money pouring into the industry, Turner Broadcasting and entertainment agency WME/IMG, the companies partnering on the new eLeague, are betting the timing is right for eSports’ breakthrough into the mainstream.
The last attempt at a regularly broadcast gaming league, DirecTv’s “Championship Gaming Series,” was launched in 2007. It foundered after only two seasons because it was “ahead of its time” and turned out not to be financially viable, organizers said at the time.
Turner and WME hope this time will be different, largely because of the exploding popularity in the last three years of the streaming website Twitch.
Almost 2 million professional and amateur gamers stream their play on Twitch monthly to more than 100 million viewers . The eLeague aims to replicate that booming interest on television, with games streamed on Twitch Tuesdays through Fridays and simultaneously aired on TBS on Fridays.
The eLeague is “sort of the coming of age of a subculture into the mainstream spotlight,” said Joost van Dreunen, CEO of research firm SuperData and an adjunct professor at New York University’s Game Center.
SuperData recently projected a growth in revenue for the competitive gaming industry from about $750 million this year to nearly $1.2 billion by 2019.
The lion’s share of that money is coming from sponsors and brands aiming to get their names and products in front of the young and advertiser-coveted gaming audiences.
Among them is Buffalo Wild Wings, a restaurant chain often associated with traditional TV sports like basketball and football. It is joining the eLeague as an official partner and will air TBS’s Friday night broadcasts and portions of the Twitch-streamed games at its restaurants.
For all that promise, TBS will face the challenges of drawing new fans into the fold and enticing millennials to tune in despite their notorious aversion to television, let alone cable.
While gaming research firm Newzoo estimates that around 43 million people watch eSports in the United States, cable companies have been increasingly abandoned by “cord cutters” unwilling to pay for bundled cable TV channels and preferring to watch media on demand on a variety of devices.
This is a particularly acute problem for competitive gaming’s transition to TV, because eSports have historically been native to online platforms.
Still, Tobias Sherman, head of eSports for WME/IMG, said he hopes Counter-Strike will be popular enough with gamers to pull them to TV and easy enough for non-gamers flipping through channels to understand.
Either way, Sherman said gaming will not go away any time soon, and established media companies will have to start taking notice: “The appetite for content is undeniable, and it has grown.” (Reporting by Curtis Skinner in San Francisco; Editing by Patrick Enright and David Gregorio)