ELeague, the new Counterstrike: Global Offensive e-sports league run by Turner Sports and the talent agency WME-IMG, debuts on TBS tonight, with Luminosity going head to head with Cloud9. Except it also debuted on Tuesday, through on-line streaming, where e-sports tournaments have flourished, and where ELeague aired the first three days of this week’s four-team round robin tournament. This split broadcast schedule, with most of the weekly tournaments only airing online, and the finals airing on traditional television on Friday nights at 10 PM ET, reflects the central nature of ELeague: it’s old-school TV’s attempt to capitalize on a scene that has grown and thrived outside the traditional media world.
If you’re above a certain age, or don’t spend a lot of time online, e-sports probably still seem weird and futuristic to you. ELeague’s Atlanta-based set leans into that perception—it looks like TV shorthand for the future. It’s all sleek and silver, with screens everywhere, like it’s the bridge of the Enterprise. Machines intermittently spit out smoke at the front of the hallways the players enter through. Visiting ELeague’s studio might’ve felt like being a stowaway on a spaceship with a SportsCenter motif, if the humans in the room didn’t blow the illusion with their normal 21st century clothes.
TV executives might think e-sports are still the future, but is there anything more contemporary? E-sports “arrived” years ago, and is already a half-a-billion-dollars-a-year industry with millions of dedicated fans. In that sense it’s a no-brainer for Turner Sports to schedule it on Friday nights at TBS—if viewership is even on the small side of who would turn up on a Twitch stream for a comparable event, it’ll be a ratings success for a basic cable network on one of the slowest TV nights of the week. Networks are desperate for live events that resist time-shifting, and also heavily tout online engagement with viewers, and a successful e-sports program should provide both.
Turner Sports’ enthusiasm was clear at a recent press event in Atlanta. Craig Barry, the Executive Vice President and Chief Content Officer of Turner Sports, boasted about how the biggest online e-sports events pull larger audiences than most traditional sports on TV. He believes e-sports will one day be seen as an equal to older, more physical sports like basketball or baseball, and wants Turner to be a part of that process. “If it’s good for e-sports it’s good for us,” he told a group of reporters on the ELeague set.
Barry reiterated that authenticity is key when presenting e-sports on television.”You can’t force TV into e-sports. You just have to cover it,” he said. That means resisting the urge to position the teams so they’re facing each other, to interrupt play with commercial breaks, or to add new rules or conditions that might spice up the drama in the style of a game show but run counter to how Counterstrike is actually played. “We’re not trying to come in and pound our chest. We’re just trying to be authentic and create a product that we feel starts to push e-sports up to the next level. TBS is part of the legitimacy process to get e-sports to that kind of more traditional stick-and-ball level.”
The e-sports professionals affiliated with ELeague were also enthusiastic, although a bit more pragmatic, from players to announcers to controversial e-sports journalist Richard Lewis, who is the show’s host and one of ELeague’s founding organizers. They were excited about the opportunities the show presents—yes, primarily the money, but also the exposure and the potential to capture new fans. Their enthusiasm was certainly more qualified than that of Turner Sports, though. As color commentator Jason O’Toole, who played Counterstrike professionally for over a decade under the nickname Moses, told me, “There’s skepticism from all of us. We’re wondering how it’s going to do. Not necessarily that it’ll fail but wondering what are we going to get from this. What is it going to be like. It’s not like a scary skepticism, though, it’s a really excited skepticism.”
All of them, from announcers to players to league officials, admitted to trepidation when Turner first approached. There’s a track record of TV suits trying to make e-sports fit the traditional TV broadcast, and not trying to format the broadcast around the specific structure and rhythms of competitive gaming. Jordan “n0thing” Gilbert, a star player for the Cloud9 team, had first-hand experience with a previous failed attempt at televised e-sports; the network, DirectTV, changed how the game was played, which alienated both fans and players. Gilbert wanted to reassure viewers that this wasn’t happening with ELeague when he told me that it’s “the first time we’re seeing a mainstream TV network take the game for what it is and put it on TV.”
By all accounts Turner has been entirely accommodating, and won over trust early. Still, there’s a clear attitude among the e-sports crowd that Turner needs this more than the e-sports community does. The extra money and exposure is nice, but the professional Counterstrike: GO scene is already well-funded and popular. They might be excited about ELeague, but it’s not necessarily a game changer for them.
It could be for Turner Sports, though. The division has worked hard to outgrow its rep as the thoroughly Atlanta-focused home of Braves baseball, Hawks basketball and pro wrestling. They’ve spent extraordinary amounts of money to carry a wide spate of NBA and MLB games, including the playoffs, and share the NCAA’s March Madness with CBS. The days of well-intentioned but inessential curiosities like the Goodwill Games are long gone.
With ELeague, Turner Sports is both revamping its image and potentially introducing a new audience to one of the most exciting and vibrant young sports in the world today. And “young” is a key word here, as most older people simply don’t “get” e-sports yet. One reporter who looked to be in his 40s asked Barry if e-sports could be the next X-Games. Barry didn’t seem to think the comparison fit, perhaps realizing that “X-Games” is just middle-aged sports writer code for “something I don’t understand but that The Kids seem to like.” If enough of those “kids” tune in tonight, and throughout the six week first season, Turner and the e-sports world could both be looking at a brighter future.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. Find him on Twitter @grmartin.