I’ll argue with anyone the NCAA Tournament is the most entertaining post season in all of sports. The buzzer beaters, the occasional Cinderella teams, nothing can top the one-and-done format March Madness bring us every year. But what if you could take what college basketball has mastered and use it as an opportunity for your station?
Sure, many stations across the country did some form of a 68-team giveaway the Monday following Selection Sunday at a local restaurant or bar, but what about an outside the box idea or event that draws in new listeners while capturing the magic of the one-and-done format?
Not only did 101 ESPN in St. Louis find a unique way to grow its brand, it may have also cut down the nets for best original idea this year. On March 1st inside a local Dave and Busters, gamers from in and around the St. Louis area flooded in for an all-day eSports event hosted by 101 ESPN. Two 64-team brackets were created, one for Xbox One players and the other for PS4, as gamers on each device played FIFA 19 with an NCAA Tournament style bracket creating the matchups in each round.
The games were broadcast by 101 ESPN on Twitch, and each show host was live and on-location for the event, putting off a vibe and energy that was unique to any eSports event the city had seen before. With the popularity of eSports continuing to rapidly grow across the country, 101 ESPN program director Chris ‘Hoss’ Neupert saw an opportunity for his station to capitalize.
“I’m a geeky gamer from way back,” said Neupert. “I love video games and it’s the fabric of our station. We have video games in our offices and we play. For us it’s competition and a little bit of a break from reality. You hear a lot about the growth of eSports and it’s hard to ignore. Being a gamer, myself, I’ve enjoyed learning more about the space. I think the competition and entertainment surrounding these events appeals to sports fans. On a personal level, it’s been exciting to see it grow, but there’s still much more we have to learn going forward.”
Many show hosts take pride in being able to adapt to any on-air situation, but that becomes difficult when you have limited knowledge of the subject at hand. Though eSports is growing, it’s still a relative unknown aside from the people who haven’t immersed themselves in it. When trying to find hosts that are capable of hosting an eSports event, your regular show hosts, who may be unfamiliar with the medium, may not always be fit for the task.
To make sure 101 ESPN’s talent were speaking the right language, Neupert wanted the right combination hosting the event. One host was already inside his building, but to find a second, he took to Twitch. That led to finding a local gamer by the name of FOXE, who had a strong, local presence with gamers and was outgoing and entertaining on her stream.
Though she didn’t have any previous experiences hosting a radio station event, Neupert decided to give Foxe a shot, and came away impressed. Not only did he find someone suitable for the job, but she already had built a local following on Twitch which helped get the word out to other gamers.
A sports radio station hosting an eSports event is still uncommon, even if many in the format are now aware of the space gaining momentum. There’s a lot of curiosity of how to create and promote events that may not appeal to a radio station’s everyday audience. Neupert said that the targeted audience for the event were young millennial and gen z sports fans. He didn’t expect the older sports fan who’s grown up on the St. Louis Cardinals to show up for the event.
“In terms of promotion, we did a little bit of everything,” added Neupert. “We promoted the event on-air, on our eSports show, and on Facebook, Twitter and Twitch. We sprinkled it all over the place.”
He continued, “It was definitely a different audience. Much younger and diverse than we normally see at station events. Most of the crowd were in the 18-35 demo which was cool to see. St. Louis has a big Bosnian base, so we had a lot of Bosnian players, a lot of African American players, a lot of Caucasians, too. In addition to the gamers that were competing, they brought friends and family to watch. It was a good 9-hour day and people were hanging out the entire time.”
101 ESPN’s eSports event took place on a Friday, resulting in a number of people taking off work to be there, and spending the entire day inside the venue. That was uncharacteristic for Dave and Busters who told Neupert afterwards that the turnout helped them enjoy a great business day. The feeling all around was that the event surpassed everyone’s expectations, including attendees who wanted to know when the next gaming event was taking place.
All the credit for the event’s success goes to Neupert and his staff at 101 ESPN, because they took a chance to try something new, and explored different avenues to make sure it was a success. The station even arranged quality prizes for the winners, a grand prize of 1,000 dollars, 750 dollars for second place and 250 dollars for third.
But how did sales factor into the event? It generated great pub, and brought new people to the radio station, but since this was a new unproven concept, I was curious if making money off the event was a primary focus.
“Sales wasn’t the key focus for this event,” said Neupert. “It was about putting together a great product and entering a new untapped space. The idea was to set ourselves up for long-term success, not just produce a one-and-done. We needed to educate ourselves on air, as well as in sales about what these events are capable of, understanding that it’s not conventional. Moving forward, we now have one successful event under our belts and can take what we learned from it to create future opportunities for our sales team.”
What will be interesting to keep an eye on in the future is if the event produces a ratings lift for 101 ESPN with listeners 18-35. The increased exposure could also lead to more listening to Checkpoint XP, the nationally syndicated eSports program offered by Westwood One which 101 ESPN carries on Friday night from 10pm to midnight. But one thing is for sure: 101 ESPN will be increasing their activity on the eSports front.
“We’ll absolutely do another event in 2019, likely towards the end of the year,” said Neupert. “We would do more, but we have a new flagship deal with the St. Louis Blues and that’s a top priority. It’s very important for us to start next season sounding like we’ve been airing their games for years. Long term though we’d like to do more with eSports because it’s a space that is generating a lot of excitement and we see a lot of opportunities in it.”