In July, Disney signed a deal with Activision Blizzard to broadcast the Overwatch League Grand Finals on its ESPN channels. The first round of the finals aired at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 27, on ESPN — yes, primetime on the main ESPN channel. It was the first time competitive video gaming (or “esports”) aired on ESPN.
The ratings were tiny. Friday night’s first round on ESPN rated a 0.18 (and reached 215,000 households), or 20% lower than a Golden Boy Boxing lightweight bout on ESPN on the previous Friday night, and well below a typical MLS game on ESPN. Saturday night on ESPN2 rated a 0.05.
Nonetheless, ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro says ESPN is doubling down on esports.
“Look, esports is not a fad,” Pitaro said to reporters in response to a question at ESPN Media Day last week in Bristol, Conn. “It’s not going anywhere. We believe it is ascending, and in the spirit of us attracting a younger audience, esports has got to be a priority of ours.”
Indeed, broadcasting the Overwatch finals was not ESPN’s first foray into esports. In 2014, ESPN entered an agreement with esports tournament organizer Riot Games to show the League of Legends World Championship on its ESPN3 streaming network; in 2014 and 2015 ESPN3 showed the International Dota 2 Championships, plus a preview show on ESPN2; and in 2016 and 2017 ESPN2 aired the Street Fighter V World Championship, to name just a few instances.
While esports may still look niche, it has grown rapidly. In 2015, a League of Legends tournament sold out Madison Square Garden. The esports industry is expected to hit $905 million in revenue this year, a 38% increase from 2017’s $655 million, according to market research firm Newzoo. In April, Activision made a partnership with Nielsen to have Nielsen track Overwatch sponsor exposure in great detail.
And according to a Citi research note, total prize money for all esports events held in 2017 topped $100 million for the first time. The 2017 International eSports tournament had a total prize pool of $24.7 million, which Citi points out was twice as big as the total purse for golf’s 2017 Masters.
Pitaro also quibbled with the common definition of esports. “I think it’s helpful to look at esports as just a category within games,” he said. “My 15-year-old son spends a ton of time watching Ninja play Fortnite on Twitch. That’s not esports. People say it’s esports, but that’s not. That is a gaming influencer demonstrating his performance within a specific game. All of that is interesting to us. We’re not looking solely through the lens of esports. We’re looking through the games lens as an opportunity for us to do something that is relevant to a sports audience on ESPN.”