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Q&A: ELEAGUE GM Christina Alejandre evaluates the first season

During the ELEAGUE semifinal and final weekend in Atlanta, Slingshot’s Vince Nairn and Joe Ragazzo has the chance to talk to ELEAGUE general manager Christina Alejandre about the first season of ELEAGUE, adapting esports to TV and what to make of recent issues going on within the scene.

Vince Nairn: We’re nearing the end of Season 1. How do you guys evaluate from the business standpoint of how this season has gone and what that means going forward?

Christina Alejandre: When we look back at the first season, one of the things that we’ve said from the beginning is that we want to remain as authentic as possible. A good measure of that is the engagement from the core community that is around ELEAGUE. And what we’re seeing is huge engagement from the community. Everyone is actively involved and wants to know what we’re doing right, what we’re doing wrong. They want to talk about what we’re doing right. They want to talk about what we’re doing wrong. When something happens in ELEAGUE, it makes that mainstream CS:GO news, people are talking about it. There’s not been one question about our authenticity. It’s authentic to esports itself, but it’s also authentic to Turner Sports and our level of production and the way they approach things. If you look at our broadcast, it’s not hardcore, traditional, we’re gonna treat this like a sport, whatever. It’s very Turner Sports. You can see it with our analysts and our casters, they’re poking fun at each other.

We’re putting funny graphics up We’re not taking ourselves too seriously because as part of being authentic to Turner Sports, right, it’s that chemistry we have with that broadcast. And part of that authenticity we have to esports is it’s the gameplay, the integrity around it, treating it with the attention it deserves.

VN: What were your expectations coming into it with regards to benchmarks for engagement and ratings and how it all comes together?

CA: Our expectations going into this season, this is a digital product first with a linear extension. Yes, it’s digital first, but a big thing for us is opening it up to that broader audience. We look at that, and we think we have been hugely successful. We have added 3.4 million viewers to TBS, and those are viewers who would normally have not gone to TBS if it wasn’t for ELEAGUE. So that number is huge. You have people posting on social media that “Now I can watch ELEAGUE with my dad” or “I can watch esports with my dad.” So making it open to that broader audience. And also, television to people who have heard of esports, they’re interested in esports. If you go to a Twitch channel to watch esports for the first time, you’re gonna get completely overwhelmed. You have the Twitch channel going, not only a mile a minute, but some of the things said in Twitch chat blow your mind, right? And then you have this broadcast and you’re trying to figure out how to watch it. Television provides a bit of a safer place to learn about esports and watch it, so we’re seeing that kind of halo effect, right? “I get TV. TV is a familiar platform to me, so I’m going to watch.” We also have great non-endemic sponsors. For people who have kind of heard about esports, they’re like “whoa, Arby’s is sponsoring this? I’m gonna tune in because I know the brand.” That’s kind of how we’re looking at the first season.

Joe Ragazzo: I’m interested in if there’s been much feedback from the sponsors so far and if they think they’re getting their money’s worth, things like that. Have those conversations happened yet?

CA: How many times have you ever seen an esports person on Twitter go like “Wow, that commercial was amazing.” You never hear that. But with Arby’s, they’re like “Wow.” Applauding on Twitter. People saying amazing things. Their whole approach going into this was, “We don’t want to be those dudes who were not invited to a party and then showed up.” They went all in, right? “We’re gonna integrate. We’re gonna show that we belong at the party.” The response has been fantastic from them. We have people from the front row wearing “We have the meats” t-shirts. I don’t want to speak for them, but they’ve just been an enthusiastic and great partner this whole time. Buffalo Wild Wings as well. The first two weeks, if you have hundred of franchises out there, it’s hard to get the word out…but they’re all in. Friday night’s ELEAGUE. How many times have you seen Buffalo Wild Wings get on Twitter on a Friday night? The partners, I think, are very happy.

VN: There’s obviously been this skins gambling scandal. Is that something that has prompted any reaction from ELEAGUE and Turner?

CA: Not really. It hasn’t really affected us, honestly. Any game or product, we’re aware of big news or controversy or even good news, so we’re aware of it. We keep an eye on the situation, but it hasn’t affected us drastically at all, so we really haven’t had to react to anything.

VN: Being in the time slot you’re in, it’s something networks don’t put shows there to break records or such. From that standpoint, has it worked to your advantage as a chance to just dip your toe in, so to speak?

CA: It’s not the most popular time slot, but it’s also enabled us to get a firm footing in that time slot. I joke, and maybe this is inappropriate, but I tweet “Hey, it’s Friday night. Time for ELEAGUE and chill.” We have sort of solidified that slot, right? People know to actually go watch esports. I’m glad nobody else has a foothold on that time slot because that enables us to get a foothold on that time slot.

JR: One thing when you watch traditional sports, they talk a lot about modifying the game and making the game competitive but also keeping it interesting. In ELEAGUE, how do you balance making sure the games are enjoyable while also keeping the competitive integrity Counter-Strike players are used to?

CA: We have no control over game development, so the good news is we work very closely with our partners, so they let us know if a new patch is coming, if different changes come, but we honestly have no say. So what we have to do is look at the game itself, look at the health of the community itself and say, “OK, is this actually going to translate to TV?” Counter-Strike lends itself perfectly. There are nuances, but at its very basic level, you understand it. We feel like a game like that translates really well. We just announced that we’re doing Overwatch. Overwatch is a first-person shooter. Again, basic concepts of the game, it’s very similar.

JR: Recently, in Germany, a network decided to take ELEAGUE off the broadcast. I think that was more of a cultural thing, given what happened in Munich, but in America we’re obviously sensitive to terrorism, and I’m just wondering if there has ever been pushback from the network or partners about “This is happening, maybe we don’t have it on TV this week?” Or maybe de-emphasize the idea of terrorists versus counter-terrorists? Has that ever come up from anyone involved?

CA: We’re definitely sensitive to the things going on. I would also say with the Germany thing, there are hundreds of millions of people joining esports globally right now, and they for the most part all do it peacefully. I think every one of our distributors and partners, including us, have to make the decision they feel is right for them. And whatever decision they make, we respect that.