Even as Turner Sports embarks this week on its coverage of the 2016-17 NBA season, it is expanding its role in eSports and, in particular, with the eLeague, which it launched earlier this year in partnership with global sports and entertainment management firm WME | IMG.
ELeague was built to resemble the NBA and other pro sports leagues, with teams competing during an extended regular season to make the playoffs and then win a championship, playing on the “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” first-person shooter video game from Valve.
Season 1 this past summer was so successful in terms of viewership, brand awareness and marketing — non-endemic sponsors included Arby’s, Credit Karma and Buffalo Wild Wings — that a ramped-up second season is now underway, scheduled to run Oct. 21-Dec. 3.
Mainstream non-endemic brands aligned with eSports also include Coca-Cola, Geico, General Mills, Intel, MasterCard, Nissan, Taco Bell, Vodafone and Xfinity.
The fact that Turner is hot on eSports and NBA is no coincidence. Demographics match well, marketing partners see strong ROI and broadcast platforms can evolve together.
“One of the things we have learned from being in the eSports space is how important it is to be authentic to the community,” said Craig Barry, executive vice president of production and chief content officer, who has overseen Turner’s NBA productions for many years and has now added eLeague to his roster.
According to Barry, whether it is the NBA on TNT or eLeague, the integration between product and marketing has to be authentic.
“It is such a concentrated and dense community that there is so much conversation going on and so much interaction around the content. They focus on everything you distribute to them and evaluate what they are consuming and digesting,” said Barry.
Brands are anticipated to spend $128 million on eSports sponsorships and nearly $200 million on advertising this year, an increase of 49% over 2015, according to research and consulting firm NewZoo, San Francisco.
Those totals are expected to top $800 million by 2019, "the same year the total (eSports) marketing passes the $1 billion mark," per NewZoo.
The connection between basketball and eSports extends well beyond Turner. Mark Cuban, majority owner for the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, has an investment in eSports, as do owners for the Philadelphia 76ers, Golden State Warriors (Peter Gruber) and Washington Wizards (Ted Leonsis).
Among others with NBA-eSports ties are Shaquille O’Neal (who is part of Turner’s “Inside the NBA” on-air crew) and Magic Johnson.
AEG, which owns or operates sports and entertainment arenas worldwide, recently signed with global eSports organization ESL to bring competitions to its venues, which include the Barclays Center (home to the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets), Oracle Arena (Golden State Warriors) and Staples Center in Los Angeles (Lakers and Clippers).
Among U.S. men ages 21-35, 22% frequently watch eSports and 9.6 million also watch basketball, according to “Why Sports And Brands Want To Be In eSports,” a new study from NewZoo.
Occasional viewers in the U.S. will reach 144 million this year, with 148 million enthusiasts. Those numbers will grow to 212 million and 215 million, respectively, in 2019, per NewZoo.
In dollars and cents, revenue is expected to reach $493 million this year and top $1.1 billion in 2019.
“When we talk about brand integration with sponsors, that is highly vetted with our creative group, our content group and our talent to make sure that it’s an organic match,” said Barry. “We do not want to put a round peg in a square hole. That would not go well with our audience, be it NBA or eLeague.”
ELeague Season 2, which gets live weekly broadcast coverage on Turner’s TBS and online streaming service Twitch, will culminate with the eLeague Major CS:Go championship in the Fox Theatre in Atlanta (Jan. 27-29).
According to Lenny Daniels, president for Turner Sports, “When we launched eLeague, we set out to deliver a best-in-class experience for eSports teams, players and fans and we’re grateful to the entire community for their ongoing support and engagement with our content. Less than one year since eLeague’s debut, we’re thrilled to host the next CS:GO Major Championship and we will utilize all of our collective resources to help further elevate this prestigious event.”