Slingshot’s Derick Dirmaier caught up with ELEAGUE vice president and general manager Christina Alejandre during the Season 2 playoffs to talk about forays into TV, reaching casual fans and plans for Season 3.
Derick Dirmaier: This isn’t the first time broadcast television has tried to capitalize on competitive video gaming — MTV, DirecTV and the USA network all tried and largely failed in various ways nearly a decade ago. Obviously the professional gaming world has changed significantly, but what did TBS see in the current environment that made you think the time was right to put esports on tv again?
Christina Alejandre: I think if you look back at when DirecTV tried it, a lot of people involved will tell you that it was very very early. It was a little too early. The timing was off when they started it. I think that was one of the major hurdles that they had. In addition, they did, to their own admission, try to “TV-ivfy” esports. For us, by the time we decided to get into the space, esports was already fairly established and we didn’t want to “TV-ivfy” esports because we knew that would just not be authentic to the space. It would not be authentic to the game. It would seem out of place. It would be publicly rejected immediately. We didn’t put these artificial breaks in the middle of the game because we needed commercials or we needed advertisement. If you look at any of our productions, the natural breaks in the game are when we take commercial breaks. We also weren’t trying to reinvent anything, stayed true to the core, stayed authentic, and that was the key thing, I think, that led to us being successful.
DD: What about in terms of staffing. Were there any lessons you learned there?
CA: Turner Sports has a long and storied history of doing amazing production. Last night I was watching the filming of “Inside the NBA,” and you look at the desk, you look at the chemistry that the four hosts have at that desk. They are giving Charles (Barkley) at bunch of B.S. at the desk, making fun of each other. They’re having a good time, but they certainly know what they are talking about with basketball. So for us, our three core people at the desk –Thorin, Richard, Moses — they’ll all make fun of each other all the time, but they know what they are talking about as it relates to Counter-Strike. That’s something that’s very core to Turner Sports and the type of productions that we do.
Staffing up, we had subject matter experts come in that knew stuff about esports, but we also relied on the expertise of Turner Sports. When we’re in pre-production, a great example is when we built our studio. The people who built our Studio just won the Emmy for “Inside the NBA.” They came, and we had a bunch of bids come in and all these kind of fantastical designs, but we also had some esports people like myself and some others in the meeting, and so we were kind of able to blend the production expertise that Turner Sports had with the expertise on the esports side to make sure that something that they don’t normally have to think about for “Inside the NBA” set, which is tournament integrity, is something that we actually have for our set. If you go and look at our set, the way that the monitors are, the way that there are certain kinds of barriers so that teams can’t see each other and they can’t see the monitors, they way even the sound is pointed out towards the audience, it’s not surround sound in the whole studio. It really was a very collaborative effort to get the studio into the state that it was. And then even in pre-production we have our producer, who is very endemic to esports. He has done a lot of esports events, but we also had Emmy award winning producers and directors also working on the show and I think you can see by the final product that we were able to kind of blend both worlds seamlessly.
DD: What about the observer? Was that someone you brought in? How does someone get that job?
CA: I think a lot of the ways an observer starts, is they start small doing it on Twitch, observing games, talking about games. Some esports, sometimes the shoutcasters are also observing while doing it and I think people now as esports has evolved over the past couple of years have actually kind of seen the value of an observer because if you really think about it, if you think about it from outside esports, if you think about what the observer really is, they’re the game cameramen. They are the ones bringing you the action in the game. They are the ones getting those shots. That is a really really important role. So for us, we have dedicated observers that know Counter-Strike really well and know how to find the right action in the game so that when our shoutcasters are bringing you the action, it’s going to the right cameras and the right action versus, “Oh, we just noticed someone died because the UI just updated, but we have no idea what happened.” It takes a special skill. I could go in there and hit buttons, but I might not know where to catch that action.
DD: What has the reaction from the fans been like? Are they happy with the TV form?
CA: Yea, I think there was lot of, for esports, there was a lot of people that were really, really excited. The whole community was excited about it. But they had been there before and it did not succeed, so they were very worried about it. While everyone wanted us to succeed, they were all kind of waiting for us to fail because they are used to disappointment. The reception from the community has been great. We also do a very thorough job of what we call “listening” — checking social media constantly, listening and getting feedback. Sometimes they will tell us something is wrong with the broadcast and because — the beauty of Twitch is that because we can do that — I can go, “Someone on Twitter just said this,” and we can make adjustments as we see necessary. But people have been really, really excited and I think it goes back to the first question: We didn’t tv-ivfy, we didn’t bastardize the product and I think people were very receptive to that.
DD: What about people who don’t come from the hardcore fan base? Are you doing anything to attract those people?
CA: It starts with explaining to them what the heck is going on. We made very a conscious decision — for our first season, we had our Twitch broadcast all during the week and then we had our Friday night show on TBS. And if you look at the way Anders and Semmler in that first week were talking about Counter-Strike on the Twitch Stream versus how they were talking about it for the linear broadcast, we didn’t want to be condescending, but we didn’t want to not explain things in a little bit more detail or use terminology that might be easier for the layman to understand. It’s doing things like that, it’s creating graphics and videos that explain what’s going on and then its also a lot of word of mouth from people that are watching that bring other people in. I think a lot of people have been curious about esports. They hear about esports. They have no idea what to do. They have no idea where to begin, and TBS gives us the opportunity to provide a safe space for someone who is not endemic to esports to actually watch. Because you go on Twitch, Twitch chat’s going on, it gets a little crazy. TV is a familiar space. “I can sit down on a Friday night, and I can turn it on, and I can watch it, and I see familiar brands, familiar TBS, and so I’m going to sit down and I’m going to watch it because I’ve heard about esports and I’m very curious about it.”
We also have a hashtag (#eleaguedads), and we’re getting a lot of younger kids who are watching with their parents because this is the one bit of TV that they could probably both watch and get something out of. I was speaking at a conference and a guy asked me, he was like, “I just want to thank you,” he was probably in his mid 40s, and I (am thinking) my was my speech really good, and he was like, “Every Friday night for the first season of ELEAGUE, I stayed home with my son, my 16-year-old son, and we watched ELEAGUE every Friday night together. We’ve never stayed home on Friday nights and done anything together and now I actually get Counter-Strike and it’s really cool.” He works for an investment firm and they’re looking at investing and starting a team. That, to me, is a great story about how esports has been transcending. Not just the kids that are watching.
DD: From what I’ve seen, there is a kind of outsider-dom or counter-culture pride that a lot of the hardcore fans have. Are you worried about possibly alienating them as you attract new fans?
CA: We’ve treated ELEAGUE and we’ve treated Counter-Strike with a care and attention and a drive to be as authentic to the space as possible. And so we have these blue ribbon brands in like Snickers and Arby’s and Buffalo Wild Wings, but the brands are kind of going all in and embracing esports. What we’ve found is, like Arby’s for instance, if you look at what Arby’s did, they went all in. They weren’t like dipping their toe in; they went all in and they did custom Counter-Strike stuff and they really embraced the existing esports community and the existing esports community embraced them right back.
DD: Yea, I heard they chant “Arby’s.”
CA: They chant “Arby’s” in our studio. In the ELEAGUE arena.
DD: What do you think resonated? What did Arby’s do that was so successful?
CA: Their commercials that they play on TV, not just on Twitch — because the audience is used to commercials on Twitch being very esports focused — but on national television, they were running advertisements that were Counter-Strike specific. And so you have Ving Rhames’ voice going, “What’s that beeping sound? What is that? beep beep beep” and they like blow up a sandwich, and then they’re like “We’ve go the meats” and then “Don’t try this at home, it’s a waste of a sandwich.” They completely embraced Counter-Strike, and on national television it wasn’t just a commercial they played for online. And I think the audience was like, “Wait, they get me! And this is on TV. This is really cool.” I think it’s stuff like that that they did that really resonated with the audience.
DD: What does TV provide that streaming can’t?
CA: I think TV provides a broader exposure. TV is something that has been in everybody’s homes for a very, very, very long time. It happened before esports happened and before games happened. It’s a familiar place. Unless you are a video game player or a fan of esports, you’re not going to just stumble across Twitch. Whereas you will flip on your television and potentially see a commercial for ELEAGUE and it will pique your curiosity, and you’ll tune in or set your DVR and you’re good to go. I think that’s what it offers. It offers a larger platform.
For us, we are platform agnostic. If you look at our digital production versus our linear productions, there’s no difference between them. We don’t scrimp on Twitch productions. One time I remember in the first season, something happened and one of the people who was working on part of it was like, “Oh, well it’s Twitch,” and everyone in the room was like “No no no. It is not just Twitch.” We are platform agnostic, so you have to take yourself out of that mindset and treat it just like you would for television. So we have that ability to find people who aren’t endemic to the space and also reach out to the people who are endemic to the space to provide them a way to watch how they want, when they want.
DD: There are at least half a dozen popular esports. What made you go with Counter-Strike?
CA: Counter-Strike, at its core, is a super easy game to understand. You have two teams of five, it’s semi-realistic, you have them eliminate the other team, and then one team wins. If you look at MOBAs like League of Legends, or DOTA 2, there is no way to just sit and right at its core understand what is going on. So that was a big factor. Plus, it’s one of top esports in the world. Those two things combined made it almost a no-brainer to start with Counter-Strike.
DD: I have to ask given the current political climate — a game that features terrorists, guns, head shots, kills — are you worried that this might rub some people the wrong way and potentially pose a moral obstacle to bigger success?
CA: I think the audience understands that this is not real life. I think that the draw is, especially for audiences on TBS or even esports, it’s necessarily the underlying themes of the games being played. At its core it is a competition. We haven’t gotten a bunch of negative feedback because of the type of game we chose because I honestly think the overall driving interest is esports. It isn’t actually the game that’s played.
DD: What is the process of evaluating if ELEAGUE has succeeded? Obviously you have ratings and advertising dollars, but beyond that?
CA: It’s engagement of the existing community. At least for the first year. If you don’t have their engagement then any kind of trajectory we might have, it will not have a good foundation to be based off from. But if you ask 10 people here what the metrics are, they’ll give you 10 different answers. I know that’s kind of a non-answer answer. For me, it’s engagement. For me, it’s a level of quality. For me, it’s a level of authenticity to the space because I feel like as long as we have those three things, that will give us a really solid foundation to just grow. I want people to tune-in to ELEAGUE, not tune-in to ELEAGUE Counter-Strike because it’s Counter-Strike. I want them to say, “What’s the new season of ELEAGUE? What are they doing? What are the games they’re doing? Oh, it’s the ELEAGUE name. I have to tune-in.”
DD: Do you see people at a bar being like, “Oh, ELEAGUE is on!” For example, I was at a bar last night and a basketball game was on, Thursday night football was on. Do you see ELEAGUE entering that space?
CA: Well Buffalo Wild Wings is a sponsor of ours, so we see people going in and watching it. We’ll get random tweets of people who are at a bar and they’ll ask people to tune in to it. And the interesting thing is that people are kind of tuning into at bars or something and it’ll get attention when people are like, “What’s this? Esports?” And then they will start watching it and getting into it.
DD: Technology is a big part of gaming. Do you have any projections what esports broadcasting might look like five, 10 years from now?
CA: From a technology perspective, we are always trying to innovate and be thought leaders. I think we did a really cool thing with game command, which is a way that you can watch, almost like a mosaic. You can take player point of views, you can take the observer point of views, and you can basically — I think it’s over 15,000 different combinations — and you can make that your way to watch. So you can see all the action from whatever point of view you want.
I went to The International over the summer and the one really cool thing that they had, because I went and tried out the VR, is that you can put on the VR helmet, whatever it is, the VR thing, and it put you right in the middle of the game. It was a way to watch the game, and you literally had two champions running down on either side of you and duking it out, and you’re standing right in the middle of it. I think VR is going to have a very big role in how we watch and interact with esports.
DD: So are there plans for another season of ELEAGUE?
CA: There are definitely plans for another season next year and in the next couple of weeks and months we will give more details on that.
Cover photo by Turner Sports/ELEAGUE