Televised eSports is seen as a potential next frontier for networks, with ESPN and Turner already establishing a growing presence in the sector. Now, the NFL is reportedly entering the fray, as they’ll be covering Madden competitions in a partnership with EA Sports.
That’s according to John Ourand in the Sports Business Journal. According to his report, eSports is going to be a big presence in the coming months, across both the NFL Network and NFL.com:
The NFL’s consumer products division, headed up by Chris Halpin, still is the group heading up the league’s overall esports strategy, but now NFL Media is getting involved to help support the effort. “Madden” is at the center of that effort, with the NFL using two strategies around the game: live competitions and a traditional television series.
The NFL will cover four “Madden Majors” tournaments from December through April. It also will produce a half-hour weekly series called “MaddenAmerica,” which NFL executives describe as akin to the “No Reservations” show on Travel Channel, where host Anthony Bourdain travels around and interviews famous chefs.
This is a move for the future, as there are a few factors working against this venture turning into an overnight ratings bonanza. eSports remains in its infancy as a viable broadcast property, for one. And perhaps more notably, Madden itself is not generally a major eSports title. The game’s publisher, Electronic Arts, announced plans in June for the Madden tournaments being covered by this partnership, which will award $1 million in prize money. (EA is also moving forward with a major eSports push for FIFA as well.)
Though at first it might seem like Madden would be a natural fit for eSports, since it’s actually a sports game. Beyond that, it’s one of the biggest video game franchises ever, selling over 100 million copies since the inaugural edition came out in 1988. The NFL remains a juggernaut of live television. What’s not to like here?
More than you might realize at first, actually. eSports aren’t sports, no matter how easily your mom might be fooled into thinking the game of Madden you’re playing with your brother is actually a real NFL game. That’s not to diminish video games on the whole, or eSports in particular; it’s just to note the inherent difference in the audience. Back in June, SB Nation’s James Dator nicely illustrated why sports titles like Madden struggle to gain footing in the eSports world, despite cultural ubiquity. He brings up a few great points, including how console games struggle to attract top eSports competitors relative to PC games thanks to fewer sponsorship opportunities.
But his closing point on the audience is most relevant as the NFL begins this venture:
The core problem is making people care. Sports fans are not all esports fans, and, in fact, there’s a lot of cynicism from sports fans who bristle at the idea of gaming being sports. The majority of players who pick up a sports game do so for the simulation of the real thing, not to then compete online or watch people do it.
The issue is shrinking the Venn diagram one too many times. Esports draw in video game fans who like to watch competitive play. Sports as esports must draw in video games fans, who understand the rules of sports and like to watch competitive play.
That’s been the main dichotomy, and what led to the original culture shock of seeing eSports competitions on ESPN. It’s certainly competition, and worthy of an audience. But that doesn’t mean that the average sports fan is going to be interested in eSports. Nor does it mean that the average eSports fan is going to be interested in a sports game like Madden being televised; it’s a far cry from League of Legends, for example.
Still, that doesn’t mean the NFL’s investment here is going to end up in vain. In fact, they sound prepared for a long-haul approach, according to NFL Media executive producer Michael Mandt:
“We haven’t set high ratings expectations,” Mandt said. “We know it’s really new. It’s a long plan for us.”
The NFL Network actually televised their first Madden competition this past Saturday, with the next major tournament coming up in February, tied to the Super Bowl.