The Disney / Overwatch League Deal Will be an Important Gauge of Mainstream Esports Appeal

by Hunter Sappington | Jul. 17, 2018

Esports is going to be aired on ESPN during prime time. Activision Blizzard, the publisher of Overwatch, has announced a deal with Disney that will see the Overwatch League playoffs be broadcast on ESPN, ESPN 3, Disney XD, and ABC. While other esports such as Heroes of the Storm have been broadcast on Disney XD and ESPN before, this agreement will see the first day of the Overwatch League finals broadcast at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN with later highlights and analysis of the finals airing on ABC. The deal also covers the Overwatch World Cup, which will take place in the fall, and season two of Overwatch League. This major announcement comes on the heels of another Disney esports deal that will see League of Legends esports be distributed through the ESPN+ streaming service.

While Overwatch League, by no means, is the first esport to come to broadcast and cable, Overwatch League on ESPN and Disney is going to be a great gauge for interest, viewership, and reactions to esports on pay TV. Many esports audiences are used to finding esports through online streaming sources such as Twitch and YouTube, and it will be interesting to see the TV ratings and the effect on Twitch viewership. It is likely that esports will reach a different audience through TV services than the niche gamer group that likes to be active in ongoing chat throughout the game. This has the potential to expand the audience beyond more niche distribution platforms such as Twitch.

This deal will inevitably spark discussions as to whether esports has “made it” in with a mainstream audience. The deal is likely less of an indicator of esports becoming mainstream and more of a barometer to test whether esports can cut it in terms of ratings alongside the MLB and NBA. If the Overwatch League gets a positive reaction, it will likely spur more deals in the future.

At the end of the day, though, esports currently is and will likely continue to appeal to a fairly niche audience. Consumers that do not play games like Overwatch will likely find esports difficult or confusing to watch. Today 10% of heads of U.S. broadband households say that they watch esports, but exactly how big esports will grow is unclear. There is certainly a large market of gamers (62% of U.S. broadband households play at least one hour per week), but there are questions as to whether esports can appeal beyond the hard core self-identified “gamer” audience.

Regardless of whether it can or not, TV ratings from the Overwatch League’s broadcast on Disney XD and ESPN should at least be a good indicator of where we are at today.

To learn more about how the esports industry works and the ways in which it is evolving, see Digital Natives: The Rise of Esports, and for more information about esports viewers and their opinions and habits, see 360 Deep Dive Sports vs. Esports: Audience, Spending, and Consumption.

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