What television gets wrong – and right – about esports

It’s no secret that many in the media ecosystem have attempted to bring professional gaming to linear television. Esports both reflects and accelerates the move away from linear television and towards digital formats. Understanding the role that linear will play in this changing paradigm is a task of urgent importance for media corporations worldwide.

That's not an easy task. Among other markers of difficulty are the number of attempts that have either failed outright or fell far short of their potential. As we see things at Power Play, bringing esports successfully to television is all about leveraging what linear does well; merely recreating what’s already available for free on Twitch is a sure path to disaster. Rather, companies interested in bringing esports to linear television ought to think carefully about how these two forms of broadcasting can complement each other.

To that end, we want to quickly take up a few examples of where attempts to bring competitive gaming to linear have gone wrong, and how they might have gone better.

Candy Crush (CBS) – Though not esports in a narrow sense, CBS’s disastrous attempt to bring King’s popular mobile game to television sets nevertheless offers several lessons for the challenges endemic to translating digital games into programming for television audiences. One is the importance of the game itself: Candy Crush offers little in terms of deep strategy, nor does it lend itself to narrativizing. Likewise, just because a game is fun to play, it does not mean it’s fun to watch. Candy Crush, like many casual games, succeeds in part because of how easily it slips into the gaps of daily life. Few mark out time to play Candy Crush; it just happens, meaning that a thirty-minute block dedicated to the game stands at odds with how people typically engage with it.

Gamers (MTV Spain) – On the surface, Gamers made sense: Take the Jersey Shore formula, and apply it to a competitive League of Legends team. Execution, however, was lacking, and the series was poorly received by the League of Legends community. The team the producers chose, Vodafone, was not a tier one squad, but a second- or third-tier one playing in a less competitive, regional league. What’s more, the show didn’t have any standout personalities that might have held the audience’s attention despite the lack of starpower. Finally, many viewers felt that the show reinforced negative stereotypes about gamers. Gamers’ cool reception is a reminder that producers need to pay close attention to community norms and expectations, or else they run the risk of having their product be seen as inauthentic, no matter how well conceived it is.

H1Z1 Battle for the Crown (CW) – A one-off event that ran on the CW in Spring 2017, the H1Z1 Battle for the Crown gets right much of what Gamers and Candy Crush got so wrong. The show’s producers partnered with a number of endemic esports brands whose fan base was already familiar with the game. What’s more, the competitive portions of the show (i.e. the actual tournament) leaned on a game that’s easily legible and lends itself to real-time storytelling. What’s more, the show included a web series about one of the teams, an example of how digital and linear broadcasting can complement each other. All that, paired with the high quality production, was a recipe for success. Unfortunately, because the event was a one-off, H1Z1 Battle for the Crown’s gorgeous set didn’t see any more use. Likewise, by the time the show aired, H1Z1 had already lost much of its audience to competitors PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds and Fortnite, a reminder that the the long production schedules of television don’t always match up well with gaming trends.

The biggest lesson producers can take from these three shows successes and missteps is that bringing esports to television is meeting viewers where they live in order to add to what they already have. Esports fans know that their hobby has become a big business, and they’re wary of anyone who might be seen as “cashing in.”

Producing authentic esports content is hard, but possible. It requires research, and paying close attention to community expectations and norms. So if you're a producer interested in bringing esports to television, let's have a conversation about how Power Play can help you avoid others' past mistakes.

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