Inside Activision Blizzard’s plan to win TV budgets for esports

Game developer Activision Blizzard is chasing TV budgets by making it easier for advertisers to compare esports and traditional sports audience behavior.

The games developer is sharing viewing numbers for the last two regular seasons of its flagship esports event, the Overwatch League. Rather than use concurrent views to show the size of its audience like other players in the space, Activision Blizzard is using average minute audience, the metric broadcasters use to show the reach of their sports coverage during live broadcasts.

In a nutshell, Activision Blizzard takes the total minutes watched of an event and divides it by the length of the live broadcast to show the average number of viewers at any minute of Overwatch League. It’s based on the way Nielsen measures live TV and so should make it easier for buyers to compare the league directly to traditional sports on linear TV.

Once marketers make the comparison between online streams and linear broadcasts, the hope is they will move more money over to esports. That’s because esports’ viewership among the hard-to-reach 18- to 34-years-olds in the U.S. appears to be growing at a faster rate than the biggest traditional sports like basketball and hockey, according to Nielsen data cited by Activision Blizzard.

The latest regular season of college basketball in the U.S. was watched by 72,000 people on average in the 18-to-34-year-old bracket at any time, while the National Hockey League’s regular season had a slightly higher following in the same demographic at 74,000, according to Nielsen. Both sports were ahead of the Overwatch League’s regular season in the U.S., where 55,000 of them watched it on average at any given time it was on, per Nielsen. Despite trailing both basketball and hockey, Overwatch League is the fastest-growing league among 18- to 34-year-olds in the U.S, with an 11% increase on last year’s season viewership.

Those figures may not be as big as some of the others bandied about in esports, but that’s the point, said Kasra Jafroodi, strategy and analytics lead at Activision Blizzard. Often those numbers don’t allow advertisers to make an apples-to-apples comparison with their TV buys because the views are calculated in a different way, said Jafroodi.

“That’s how you get articles saying esports are bigger than the Super Bowl. Those businesses are using the number of views versus an average audience, he said.

Standardization of measurement is in its infancy throughout esports where different media owners measure their content in different ways and aren’t always clear about the methodology used. The challenge for advertisers then is knowing if those numbers have been inflated.

“What’s really needed in the space right now is a holistic evaluation framework that enables brands to make informed decisions about where, how and if they should invest in the vertical,” Christophe Jammet, director of social media and mobile at innovation consultancy DDG. “Not all brands, leagues and games are created equal; the audiences are distinct, as are their preferences and market needs.

The spread of advertisers across esports is bigger than ever. Earlier this year, Nike hired esports and gaming experts to manage its growing investments in the area, while Adidas made a big bet on a multiyear apparel deal with high-profile gamer Ninja last month. Kellogg’s is spending more of its sport-related budget on esports as Porsche bought a choose-your-own-adventure-style branded game on Twitch.

The influx of ad dollars into esports represents an opportunity for Activision Blizzard to diversify as a publisher. It has historically focused most of its energy-producing video games for consoles and PC. Sales of the developer’s biggest franchises are showing early signs of decline, which has squeezed 30% from its share price over the last 12 months. Its pivot toward ad-funded models puts less stress on sales figures to focus on the most profitable segment of the market. More than 300 million people play Activision Blizzard games every month, and spend around 50 minutes per day in its games, according to the developer. That sort of audience is potentially lucrative for a publisher like Activision Blizzard that can use esports and streaming platforms to maintain interest in its biggest games years after release.

Image courtesy of Activision Blizzard.

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