Slingshot’s Vince Nairn had the chance to talk briefly to Craig Barry, executive vice president and chief content officer for Turner Sports, while at the ELEAGUE Major.
Vince Nairn: So how did you first get started in trying to immerse yourself in esports? I know a bit of your background, working more on the TV side of things and then becoming more of an idea and creative person for the last few years. How did you go about diving into this industry?
Craig Barry: So, I think we are at the core a content company, I guess a content distribution company. I had always seen what we do in a 360 degree view. Even though I oversee our more traditional stick and ball (sports), NBA on TNT, MLB, March Madness, etc., I was always looking at our other platforms. I was always looking at social, mobile. And in fairness, so was our entire company. So a pitch came for esports, actually from our partners at WME|IMG. They were like, “Have you guys looked at this yet?” So we went out into the space and started doing the due diligence. And what I saw was these gargantuan numbers of the Newzoo kind of sayings, global revenue and audience growth. When I got into the space and went to a few conferences and tournaments, I was like “This is a tiny little space in North America.” It’s fragmented, and everybody is watching their back. People call it the Wild West, I guess. I would call it unorganized and a land grab. Everybody trying to get theirs. And I came back and simply said, “Look, I think there’s something here.” I think there’s a native digital platform that we can tap into. I think that if we can create a better product, if we tell a richer narrative, and we help build and serve a community, then we can potentially stand out. Those three things, and we could potentially differentiate ourselves. And finally, staying authentic. And if it’s good for esports, it’s good for Turner. And I said (we should) be advised because nobody’s making money in this business except for the publisher. I don’t care what you see. So it’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint. If everyone is all in, I’m all in.
VN: Going into Year 2, how do your expectations or goals change? How do you kind of weigh growth in Year 2?
CB: I’m a content purist. So as important as numbers are, I still want to evolve the product. So I hear the word mainstream used a lot for esports, and it’s not. It’s niche. It’s a big, huge niche, but it’s a niche. And for me, when you use the word mainstream, you’re talking about a casual fan using a platform, turning it on and being connected to that content they’re watching. Not turning it on, and it being too frenetic for them. So I feel like the evolution of what we’re doing without losing any authenticity has to be consumable and digestible for a much larger audience. All platforms aren’t created equal, so maybe it stays where it is on the digital side on Twitch. Maybe broadcast changes. Maybe we look at different titles. Maybe different titles offer a different experience on TV than they do online. You can’t be afraid to experiment as long as we stay authentic to the core. As long as we don’t lose sight of that, as long as we try not to reinvent the wheel or do what’s most important to the core audience, then I think it’s kind of OK to evolve and experiment and see if we can create something. To me, there’s this huge population in the middle that’s really interested, but they don’t understand what’s going on. If you watch cricket, for example, you can only watch it for five minutes before going “I don’t know what the (heck) is going on. No matter how much I want to know, I know this is huge here. I want to understand it. I just don’t,” — until someone helps you kind of get to a place or steps in there and makes you understand it. And that’s kind of what I’m talking about. We need to be there so when someone is watching it, they’re like “Oh, I get it.” Maybe that’s simplifying it. And maybe that could be a different title, like a fighting game or something. Or something like FIFA or Madden. Maybe that could be like going to Valve and saying “Hey, maybe there’s a different way we can look at this.”
VN: Has it been difficult, whether it’s your mentality or other people within Turner, to realize a more holistic approach when it comes to your audience and reach? Digital + broadcast. Because it seems like that’s a struggle for a lot of people in traditional sports and entertainment.
CB: It’s not. That’s just what we do. We run NBA on TNT. We run NBA TV. We run NBA.com. We have PGA Championship, and we run PGA.com. We do March Madness. We run NCAA.com. This kind of push and pull from broadcast to digital platforms, and then we have our own social team, whose constantly extending the conversation day after day. This is such a comfortable place that’s multi-platform for us. That’s been the easy part, figuring out the translation to each. But like I said, we understand that all platforms aren’t created equally. So it’s making sure each experience is the right experience on each platform.
Cover photo courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE