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Overwatch, MLS and the Rapidly Expanding Esports Broadcast Market

While esports is far from replacing traditional sports in the United States, it’s still growing at a rapid pace that’s attracting enormous audiences. On Friday, Nasdaq cited a recent Statista study showing that esports had 162 million frequent viewers, with another 131 million occasional consumer tuning in worldwide. Those numbers are expected to rise to around 300 million or so on both ends of the spectrum by 2020.

With figures like that in mind, it’s no wonder that Turner’s seen esports as a content investment area — TBS has been broadcasting ELEAGUE contests since 2016, exploring the interesting intersection between established fan viewers and newcomers. Twitch, obviously, has been an enormous driving force for esports viewership, and made another strong move to boost audiences this week.

The popular Overwatch League will stream every contest on Twitch for the next two years, as announced on Tuesday. While those financial details haven’t been released, team owners have paid $20 million to participate this season — a pittance compared to expansion fees in traditional sports (the Vegas Golden Knights paid $500 million to enter the NHL for 2017-18), but that was also a one-time payment for entry.

Esports’ popularity has also given rise to traditional sports trying to cash in, especially as younger audiences are harder to attract for games. The NBA and NFL have already made major announcements sponsoring esports leagues (with NBA 2K and EA Sports’ Madden franchise, respectively). And now Major League Soccer has made a similar move with the FIFA World Cup coming this summer.

eMLS will have 19 initial clubs, out of the real-world 23 franchises. The lone holdouts from this first go-around include expansion Los Angeles FC, plus Atlanta United FC, DC United and Real Salt Lake.

With the United States men’s national team notably absent from this year’s actual World Cup (no comment from this USMNT fan…), the void for fans will be pretty noticeable. The event will still be held, obviously. But without the U.S. involved, the interest level — and lucrative investment for sponsors attracting American consumers — should dip considerably.

Having an additional outlet for content like this is a good step toward filling that void, even if on a much lesser scale. Clubs will be left to their own devices to determine the lone eMLS representative, which creates a compelling competition narrative for video content. Once the actual games begin, it’s also another opportunity to attract both existing MLS fans and esports fans alike.

While no broadcast partners have been announced yet, the eMLS could see similar pick-up to that of the NFL and NBA’s esports ventures. The NFL is using its own network, the CW and streaming so far (though more could be included later on). For the NBA, one would assume its own streaming platform (a partnership with Turner) and Twitch could house esports content. Twitch already broadcasts NBA and NFL programming, plus the NBA’s G League developmental league. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has also said publicly that one day, the league’s traditional product could look more like esports, too.

The more sports content, the better for major players in the streaming space as well. YouTube and Twitch are obvious homes for esports, and Turner’s shown an ability to attract audiences as well. But ESPN parent company Disney’s upcoming streaming service will likely bank some of its viability on sports, and particularly, esports content. ESPN is a broadcast partner for the NFL, NBA and MLS already. Growing those relationships to include esports would be a natural fit there and a way to grow the expected audience for its streaming venture.