ESPN Betting on eSports Experiencing Poker-Like Growth as Television Coverage Increases

May 13th, 2016 | by Brian Corlisse
eSports ESPN television poker ratings

eSports isn’t your little nephew’s version of video gaming, but a rapidly growing market that is attracting millions and fans, and in the process, television networks. (Image: Riot/esp.com)

eSports is a rapidly growing form of sports or, depending on who you ask, the action of watching someone else play video games for hours on end. Regardless of how it’s defined, eSports is an intriguing concept that brings multiplayer video game competitions together into a forum that is watched by thousands of fans.

Outsiders to eSports have long wondered why someone would want to watch someone else play video games. It’s a warranted question that might be answered through poker, as millions around the world regularly watch pros compete at the card game on television and through streaming services.

In a recent interview with Tech Insider’s Melia Robinson, ESPN VP of Programming John Lasker stated in years past audiences also wondered why the network was airing poker. “I’m hopeful we get to the point where people aren’t questioning why we’re covering an eSports event,” Lasker said.

ESPN aired the “Heroes of the Dorm” on ESPN2 last year, a collegiate tournament based on the “Heroes of the Storm” game, but ratings were disappointing.

Big Purses, Big Ratings

When fans around the globe realized an amateur player could potentially win the World Series of Poker Main Event (WSOP ME), the so-called “poker boom” was felt. Beginning in 2003, ratings for poker on television skyrocketed thanks to Chris Moneymaker’s seemingly unfathomable victory, as well as technological advancements like being able to show viewers a player’s hole cards.

The WSOP ME top-prize payout doubled in 2004 to $5 million, and two years later winner Jamie Gold took home $12 million. Total entrants for the $10,000 buy-in grew tenfold during the period.

The boom led to more eyes following the action on ESPN, and network executives are hoping the same will be experienced with eSports.

The pots are seemingly already there. Total prize pools for marquee games like “Halo” and “StarCraft” routinely surpass $1 million.

In addition, to live streaming online sites like Twitch and ESPN, The Big Ten Network aired a “League of Legends” competition between Ohio State and Michigan State last month. And Turner Broadcasting’s TBS will begin airing ELEAGUE tournaments based on “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” later this month.

Video Game Popularity

Traditional sports fans often make the case that poker isn’t an actual sport and therefore shouldn’t be on ESPN, even though many in the gambling community would argue against that perception. ESPN also apparently feels otherwise, as the sports network has only increased total coverage time for the World Series of Poker in recent years.

Poker remains an immensely popular game even though it hasn’t had a Moneymaker-like story to boast about in recent years.

According to Entertainment Software Association (ESA), 63 percent of American households are home to at least one person who plays video games at least three or more hours a week. If the research is accurate, that means about 78 million homes are playing video games.

Of the most active gamers, 45 percent told the ESA they following eSports on social media and 40 percent watch competitions on television.

That represents a robust demographic of potential eSports viewers, but television networks will need to stay tuned to learn if the video game masses will tune in.

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