Chicago White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito is on the mound, preparing to pitch to Tampa Bay Rays slugger Ji-Man Choi in the first inning of an April 23 baseball contest. Choi rips the first pitch from Giolito over the right field wall for a two-run home run, setting the table for the Rays’ 9-2 victory.
The scenario sounds like one from a typical Major League Baseball game. Except in this case, it took place on a computer screen rather than a baseball diamond. Giolito and Rays superstar Blake Snell were competing in a MLB The Show 20 Players League video game tournament, televised recently on ESPN2.
With all major pro sports events on hiatus for the foreseeable future due to the COVID-19 pandemic, networks such as ESPN, Fox Sports and NBCSN
have turned to esports to help fill the void created by the loss of live action. While the audience for a virtual baseball game will never rival the ratings for a real one, executives said that video game-driven content has served up a scheduling option for networks looking to fill a sizable void due to the loss of live sports.
“Depending on how these things are being presented, they can have a certain energy and excitement, and viewers are looking for that,” media consultant Bill Carroll said. “If this were normal times, this might be a different conversation, but in the current environment the sports networks are looking for every reasonable opportunity that they can pursue.”
Already in the Mix
While mostly featured on streaming sites like Twitch, esports programming is no stranger to linear television channels. As early as 2006, USA Network aired gameplay for such video games as Halo from esports company Major League Gaming. But for the most part, the genre is considered niche TV programming, although growing in overall popularity. A McKinsey & Co. report from last August identified some 21 million esports fans in the U.S., 10% of whom watch more than 20 hours of streaming esports programming per week.
“Esports has been out there for years, but because of live sports, there weren’t any opportunities to take more chances and see what people connected with,” Brad Zager, executive producer, executive VP and head of production and operations at Fox Sports, said. “There was no proof that esports would either do well or not so well. Now that live sports has disappeared, we have an opportunity to find out.”
Manny Anekal, an esports analyst and founder of esports website The Next Level, said the dearth of live sports programming has forced some sports networks to turn to the genre in an effort to satisfy fans who miss watching games. He counted more than 50 esports events covered by sports networks in the past 45 days.