Translating eSports to traditional television has been a challenge broadcasters have been trying to wrestle with since the advent and rise to prominence of the popular streaming service Twitch. Now TBS is becoming the first network to throw their hat in the ring with "ELeague," which will begin airing next year.
Variety reports that TBS will air 20 weeks of eSports, focusing on "Counter-Strike: Global Offensive" at its flagship game. This follows the heels of ESPN, which has made a renewed effort in recent years to put more eSports on TV with the popular airing of "Heroes of the Dorm" in July, which opened Blizzard's "Heroes of the Storm" to a new audience.
Turner Sports president Lenny Daniels appears to be taking eSports very seriously.
"There's no doubt in our mind that this is a sport -- these are athletes," Lenny Daniels, president of Turner Sports, said. "What hasn't happened is that it hasn't been exposed to a mainstream audience."
The struggle is whether a mainstream audience in the US is ready to accept eSports. There remains a stigma towards the platform from traditional viewers who still see it as frivolity, rather than true competition. The social standing on eSports in the West lags far behind China and Southeast Asia, where eSports competitors are stars in their own right, and games are given top-billing on major channels.
Another barrier to entry is CS:GO itself. A wildly popular game, it's unclear if non-players will be able to follow the frenetic pace and speed of professional CS:GO. Core concepts like shooting an enemy may seem simple to grasp, but translating that to an audience is far more difficult. TBS will need to balance making their programming as easy to grasp as possible, without dumbing down their casting and presentation too much -- thereby alienating its die-hard fans.
Valve has attempted to achieve this balance at the "The International Dota 2 Championships" in each of the last two years. Relegated to online streaming, Valve offered different casting options for viewers of varying familiarity -- the traditional stream for those who know Dota, and a "newbie" stream that took a slower pace and focused on macro concepts, rather than the minutia of individual heroes.
The risk is relatively low for TBS, but the success or failure of "ELeague" could be a bellwether for the proliferation of eSports in the US. A failure could set back the push for more mainstream coverage, while its success could see eSports become a battleground for networks looking for programming over the summer to offset a baseball-dominated space.
"ELeague" will begin airing in Summer of 2016 with two 10 week blocks of programming a year, accompanied by 30 hours a week of events shown online.