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WME|IMG president of business affairs talks ELEAGUE, Year 2 expectations and esports on TV

Slingshot’s Vince Nairn had the chance to talk to Karen Brodkin, the president of business affairs for WME|IMG — which partners with Turner Sports for ELEAGUE — during the ELEAGUE Major.

Vince Nairn: From the WME|IMG perspective, how do you kind of evaluate what constitutes a success for ELEAGUE and the ELEAGUE Major?

kbheadshotKaren Brodkin: I can tell you for every project, the success modicum is different. How we evaluate success in the UFC is going to be very different than in tennis or fashion or golf. We are so diverse, you can’t sort of have one structure. I will tell you unequivocally, we feel like the first year of ELEAGUE was an amazing success. We had very practical expectations on revenue. We knew we had to grow this. The reason we love our Turner partnership is they are all about creating an infrastructure — building an amazing studio and stage — and spending the money you need to spend to make it look fantastic. We 100 percent believe we achieved that. But we could not be more pleased with the events we put on, the sponsors we brought in. We over-indexed where we thought we would be with non-endemic sponsorships. On the international front, we pushed every ELEAGUE event out to 80 countries on digital and broadcast and cable distributors, which is sort of unmatched for our other competitors. So the things we knew we could do and do well, both from the Turner and WME|IMG side, we overachieved where we thought we would be. And to be awarded a Major from Valve for the Counter-Strike event at the beginning of the year was beyond our expectations. We are thrilled so far with the event. We love the venue. The numbers have been spectacular. Our sponsors are thrilled. Everything we thought it would be, it hit on. So we’re committed. We’re gonna keep growing it. We’re gonna keep expanding it. There’s nothing we won’t look at. Our partnership with Turner is spectacular. We know what our core businesses are, and we collaborate and stay in our lanes when appropriate. We’re thrilled.

VN: How do your expectations and goals kind of change heading into Year 2 now?

KB: We wanna grow the numbers, there’s no question. We’d love to see if we could grow the TV numbers, but if you look, realistically in the world of sports entertainment, it’s not about TV anymore versus digital versus social. It’s the combination of the way you engage with your viewers and your fans. We’re not looking at any numbers in isolation. We’re always looking to grow the numbers. We always wanna grow the engagement. We wanna do more storytelling in Year 2. We want to work with games and publishers where we can build more stories, which is Counter-Strike and others. We want to look, I think, at a few more events. We want to put up a few, maybe shorter, couple-day events. Because we on the WME|IMG side, we think we’re the gold standard in terms of putting on events. There’s not a day of the year we aren’t putting on an event somewhere in the world (not necessarily related to esports). We know how to do this, and look we are a globally company. Both of us. Turner and WME|IMG. And we think the ELEAGUE brand will expand globally. We will put on events and tournaments around the world, and that’s what we look to do.

VN: What made WME|IMG want to go from just dipping your toe into the water of esports, I think mainly with representation, to partnering to make a league or event? What went into that shift?

KB: We got into esports as a company with sort of a representation role. Because at the core of WME, it’s of course a representation business. So we started on the representation side with the teams and players and brands. And then I think the idea, our initial conversations with Turner about building something where we could really produce amazing content, which is at the core — the president of IMG, he is at the core a producer. He’s a visionary in terms of content creation and distribution, and that is where Turner comes from, too. The alignment is just natural fit, and we really were bullish on the fact that we’re both storytellers and we could tell the story better than anyone else around this space. So the idea of getting into something where you’re pushing out content and you’re doing events, it really is part of the DNA of these two companies, so it was a very natural fit. And I think what makes us different is that we are, we’re building this not as very specific to any one game or one publisher. I think we have a really reasoned vision of being sort of more expansive.

VN: And one thing that’s been really interesting for ELEAGUE has been to reach non-endemic sponsors. How have y’all sort of the bridged the gap as far as that’s concerned?

KB: It helps with the non-endemics, quite a lot of them have an interest in the space. They just don’t know. It’s overwhelming to them. They don’t know how to layer in, what to do, where to buy, where the engagement is. When you take two companies like Turner and WME|IMG, who have relationships with these brands. Turner through the NBA and baseball and the NCAA Tournament, not to mention all their entertainment relationships. WME|IMG: Wimbledon, the British Open, our relationships with huge sports properties all over the world. Fashion Week. We are already in conversations with these brands. We know how to make something tangible for them. To find a lane and bring them in in a way that fits with their goals. That’s your obligation as a property, to listen to a brand, find out what they want to achieve and figure out a way to serve it. And we’re used to doing that. And I will tell you without any hesitation that any brand that came in to ELEAGUE in our inaugural year, we nailed it for them. The engagement. We hit the audience they wanted to hit. They got unbelievable engagement. Unbelievable integration. And that is going to grow in the next year. I have no hesitation saying that.

VN: Is it a different conversation that y’all have no than it was a year ago in terms of that?

KB: 100 percent, because you’re going in and you have no proof of concept. You’re sort of saying “Trust us because you know us.” Now we can show them numbers. We can show them engagement We can show them amazing video content. We can show them a Fox Theater, sold out full of a highly-engaged passionate fans that happen to be in a demographic that those brands really want to speak to. I can honestly tell you that ELEAGUE was my first experience coming to an esports event. I had seen it, watched it digitally and done my homework. But I had never physically been in the arena. The passion level for those fans is akin go like EPL. For an advertiser, whether it’s Arby’s or GEICO or hopefully new ones coming down the pipe. To be able to feel and touch that passion, that’s something that is so accessible. That’s a bullseye for them.

VN: You mention growing the numbers and it’s not just one medium but all of them. How does the TV factor into that as well? Because obviously this has been an experiment putting it on TV as it is. How does that match the expectations

KB: Even though we’re a partnership, I don’t want to speak for TBS. At the end of the day, it’s their platform, and they have their own sort of modicum of what numbers. I can tell you that Craig and I in partnership have been very inspired by how the numbers have grown. And I think the TV is a complement to everything else. To me, it’s groundbreaking that esports is on on a Friday night on a nationally distributed entertainment network. Two years ago, three years ago, I don’t think could have expected that. And with all due respect to the other TV distributors up to now, that’s not the same as a TBS live window. I got on the plane last night to come here, and I was on Delta, so I had live TV. I turned on the NBA game, and they’re talking about esports and ELEAGUE and the Counter-Strike Major in an Oklahoma City Thunder game on TNT. That type of engagement with even casual gaming fans who happen to be NBA fans, that’s electric. That’s what takes esports to the next level. You have your core fans, your core gamers. And then you bring in the more casual gamers? That’s when you get to the next level.

Cover photo courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE