Sun. Sep 23rd, 2018

Pay Attention to the ESports Revolution

Sports radio is full of people with unique and interesting stories of how they got to where they are. One of those interesting stories in Jon Lunceford. He currently hosts Jox Primetime on JOX 94.5 in Birmingham. 

Lunce was a professional gamer for a time before he launched his media career. That’s why we thought he was the perfect guy to write a little bit about the esports revolution. You may not pay attention to professional video gaming, but your kids certainly do. Is sports radio ready for the day when who Robert Kraft signs to play for the Patriots is less relevant in the pop culture landscape than who he signs to play for his esports team?

Professional gamers are everywhere. Sure, they have their own YouTube channels and Twitch streams, but Turner Sports is putting big events on television. Your tween sons are probably watching DisneyXD’s block of gaming-related shows every weeknight.

In his guest column for BSM, Jon Lunceford talks about his experience as a pro gamer, how the industry has caught the attention of some of the sports world’s most powerful names, and what sports radio can do to embrace esports in a way that isn’t jarring for our current listeners.

PAY ATTENTION TO THE ESPORTS REVOLUTION

It’s a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles, and Oklahoma City forward Paul George arrives at the newly built Banc of California Stadium.  Also in the building is Los Angeles Laker guard Josh Hart.  Could this be it?  Is Paul George taking his talents to the Lakers next season?

Don’t get your hopes up quite yet Laker fans.  George isn’t there to meet with Hart about potentially joining the franchise that some think he may end up with this season.  Instead, he is joining Pistons big man Andre Drummond, Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried plus UFC fighters Tyron Woodley and Demetrious Johnson along with more athletes and entertainers to play in the first ever Fortnite Celebrity Pro-AM at E3.

If you’re in sports media, and you haven’t heard about esports, it’s time you started paying attention, because the athletes, coaches and executives you already cover are, and they are putting their money and brands into the vastly growing world of professional video gaming.

If you don’t know who Faker, Ninja or Daigo are – don’t worry, you’re not alone.  But these are some of the biggest stars in the world thanks to their success in games like League of Legends, Fortnite and Street Fighter.

I know what you’re thinking…no one cares about video games and the nerds that play them. We have more important things to discuss each day on our radio programs.  I get it.  I work in a market where it’s Alabama and Auburn football all the time, even now in the middle of the summer when there is nothing going on with either of those schools.

However, at the end of the day, it doesn’t hurt to follow the money.

That’s what I did.  As a college football player over a decade ago, I unfortunately got injured and had to stop playing.  However, I found a new competitive outlet – esports.  At the time, it wasn’t near as big as it is now, but I found a way to keep my competitive juices flowing while earning free trips to Germany, China, South Korea and all over the United States. I also won a little money while I was at it.  

While college football or basketball may be the only reason you ever want to talk about collegiate sports, it might be worth keeping an eye on esports.  Scholarships are being handed out around the nation for the top esports players out of high school.  High schools themselves are getting in on the action with the already established High School Esports League and now the National Federation of High Schools has partnered with PlayVS to bring esports to a number of member associations this year.  While esports is very worldwide now, this brings it to us on the local level.

After graduation, there are many professional leagues that not only pay full time salaries to compete, but the prize money is growing with each competition and into the millions for many games.

Esports revenue is growing at an incredible rate – 41.3% year-over-year according to Newzoo, an esports data gathering firm.  Esports is expected to make approximately $1.5 billion in revenue in 2020 with over 300 million people watching esports around the world.  ESPN, NBC and Turner have already signed deals to carry various events on their networks.

So what does this mean for sports radio?

First, let’s look at TV trends.  We have all watched ESPN struggle over the last few years.  Whether it’s due to their layoffs or politically leaning programming, the Sports Leader is going downhill.  The NFL is a league that as a whole has seen a decrease in viewership over the last couple of years for multiple reasons.  While most reports will point to people not tuning in due to the protests or bad match-ups in primetime, many young viewers are just finding interest in something else.

According to a survey from Limelight Networks, men 18-25 are spending more time online watching video gaming and esports events on average (1.95 hours) than sports (1.67 hours), news (1.45 hours) or other TV programming (1.88 hours).

If we look at Nielsen’s Total Audience Report from 2017, we see that live TV viewing has gone down 16 minutes since 2015 while viewing content on a smartphone or tablet has gone up 1 hour and 41 minutes in those two years.  Radio has been a constant, sitting at the same amount of time listened each day over the years.  However, it went from the second most used medium to the third most used behind smartphones.

It’s all about understanding where people are, and how these future generations will consume media differently than most adults in our core demographic of 25-54 do now.  There doesn’t have to be a seismic shift into all of the sudden paying attention to esports and making it a part of our daily sports radio lives.  However, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

One of the major stories in sports media has been the lack of viewers for ESPN’s new early lineup including Get Up! and High Noon.  Both shows are struggling to build their brands and get viewers this summer before football season starts back up.  While I am sitting here reading an article about their numbers being under 200,000 viewers at certain times, I am also watching a Twitch.tv stream of Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, who is currently doing nothing but sitting in the lobby on Fortnite in front of 150,000 viewers.  I flip over, and watch a regular season game from the League of Legends Championship Series that currently has 165,000 viewers.  

While those numbers aren’t beating ESPN for standard daily viewership, there are multiple reasons why those esports numbers are more intriguing to a potential sponsor looking to spend their money in a more efficient way.  Not many organizations can show over 1 billion measurable views like the League of Legends Championship Series can, as they just hit that mark this summer.

It’s also curious when you look at the money and viewership involved with the biggest esports event each year, The International, and compare it to major events in traditional sports like The Masters.  Last year’s International saw five winners made $2.17 million each, more than this year’s Masters winner Patrick Reed made at $1.98 million. The International wasn’t quite as highly viewed as The Masters, but it is getting closer.  The International 2017 peaked at 10.9 million viewers while The Masters 2018 peaked at 16.8 million viewers.  The International 2018 is August 15-25 in Vancouver if you’re curious.

While I am on the younger side of sports radio, in my early 30’s and right in the middle of the Millennial generation, I understand that esports isn’t what I need to talk about daily on my radio show.  Most people out there would rather hear me discuss whether I think Tua Tagovailoa or Jalen Hurts should start for Alabama next season for the 50th time instead of talking about the Overwatch League playoffs.  But that doesn’t mean that no one wants to hear it.

Slowly we are starting to see gaming and esports products pop up.  Westwood One has Checkpoint Radio which stations can carry each week to discuss the latest in gaming.  Many radio personalities are starting their own podcasts to discuss topics like esports as well.

The best way we’ve found to discuss esports is by finding a way to tap into that small part of our listeners that does enjoy video games, whether they did as a child, or their children now play games.  When recapping weekend events a few weeks ago, I mentioned E3, and in doing so, was able to relate it to sports games we all have played at one point or another such as FIFA, Madden, NBA 2K and more.  It generated great discussion among listeners who wouldn’t have cared about discussing video games normally.

The most important thing with esports is to try and understand it.  Is it a sport?  As someone who has played college football and competed in esports professionally, I always say no despite understanding every argument that says it is.  But it still can have a place in sports.  

Former ESPN President John Skipper said that esports was not a sport in his mind and that he was only interested in doing “real sports” on the network.  Nevermind that the World Series of Poker is one of ESPN’s biggest attractions and isn’t even remotely close to a sport, nor is the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

I’m sure many of your kids are playing Fortnite non-stop, but the difference with video games is – there is always a next game.  Once the Fortnite fad dies down, there will be another game that your kids will be playing while professional athletes and celebrities jump on to promote it.  That allows esports to be so accessible to the general public and why watching it online has become so large.  

Of the eight personalities on our radio station, only one other person besides me has played sports on at least the collegiate level.  Yet video games are something that everyone can play no matter their age or experience.  It’s something that is easy to pick up and use to connect us with our friends, family, coworkers and even complete strangers.

It’s something that when we watch professionals play, they are literally playing the same game I am.  There is nothing different about the game I’m playing of League of Legends compared to the game that a professional is playing in front of a sold out crowd at the Staples Center or Madison Square Garden, and yes. That is happening. 

The accessibility is unparalleled and is why multiple professional team owners such as Robert Kraft, Stan Kroenke and more have bought into the Overwatch League or the League of Legends Championship Series.  It’s why across the world, we see celebrations in football, basketball, baseball and soccer that mimic dances found in Fortnite.  

It’s why Adam Silver and the NBA have bought in, creating the NBA 2K league.  Because while I may not ever be able to go out and play with LeBron James in the NBA, I can certainly pick up a copy of NBA 2K and play the same way the pros do.

When the entire sports world is buying into something, it might be worth it for sports radio to take a look at it.

Esports isn’t the norm right now, and it may take a long time before it is.  For now, we’ll wait and see if Paul George goes back to LA, but this time to play basketball instead of Fortnite.

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