Craig Barry is very aware that others have tried to put video games on TV before him and failed. MTV. USA. NBC. ESPN. Next in that of alphabet soup of networks is TBS, who starting early next summer will be digitally broadcasting 30 hours of eSports per week during ten-week tournaments, with two-hour live broadcasts on Friday nights.
"I don't think that we're looking to change the landscape of how people consume eSports," the Turner Sports executive vice president and chief content officer tells me. "We're looking to expand it."
Though eSports is a massive industry with a $612 million global market value and countless fans, that audience tends to remain a digital one. To wit: over two million people tuned into the Twitch stream of this weekend's BlizzCon, while a mere 120,000 people tuned into ESPN's April broadcast of Blizzard title Heroes of the StormHeroes of the Storm.
TBS isn't particularly worried about coming out of the gate with a massive audience, Barry tells me. "I think, in the past, we've seen some people trying to change the approach of what they thought eSports should be on a different platform and I don't think that's the way to approach it all," he says.
The difference in Turner's plans, Barry says, is that they're not looking to horn in on what's already in place. This means tethering their eSports hopes and dreams to the first-person shooter Counter Strike: Global Offensive and building the audience for their eSports league both online and on TV. "You have to keep the structure and the authenticity from a digital platform and just make sure you can translate that correctly to a linear one," he says. "It really starts with a philosophy and understanding of the space, how important that authenticity is in the space, and not to fuck with that."
The next eight months are crucial for the Turner eSports team. They're looking to leverage their already existing digital products—Bleacher Report, NBA.com, NCAA.com—to promote and build momentum for the forthcoming eSports league. More importantly, Barry and company are producing their roster of on-air talent, signing teams, meeting with partners, and trying to find ways for everyone to benefit from what he often refers to as the "ecosystem" they're building.
Despite TBS's best intentions, there are others who see TBS as another name to add to the flop list. "When televised eSports have been attempted in the past they've usually been done very poorly, and then the concept of eSports was blamed when bad shows inevitably failed," eSports Today's Andrew Groen told Atlanta's alt-weekly Creative Loafing after news of Turner's initial deal broke.
"We're not naive to the platform we feel is the most dominant to eSports, which is digital," Barry says, adding he felt that whether or not it's broadcast on TBS or a MacBook doesn't necessarily matter to today's gamer, or any sports fan for that matter. At the heart of any competition, whether participating or spectating, are emotional connections, something he believes his team will provide. Barry says the approach is analogous to how ESPN worked to establish its Ironman World Championships as something someone who doesn't necessarily give a shit about freakishly strong humans can enjoy, saying that ten years ago the competition was solely focused on the contestants' feats of strength rather than their story.
With that in mind, the TBS team recently traveled overseas to document the transition of the Australian branch of the Renegades gaming crew from their homes to Las Vegas. "These people are leaving their friends and families and they're going in search of fortune and fame. We've heard this story," Barry says. "This is not a new narrative for people who are trying to leverage a skill or talent and try to chase their dreams, and that's a really important part of what's going on in eSports."
He says TV's failed in the past because of the wrong reasoning behind it. "TV's not a replacement; TV's an addition," he says. "We're still completely committed to the digital space, but if we have an opportunity to introduce eSports to a wider audience and create an experience that may be a little more dynamic or has a little bit different of angle on it we should be able to explore that. I think people should be open to that."
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