How Bleacher Report is using animation to differentiate its World Cup coverage

Bleacher Report is creating animated videos to join the conversations around the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar later this month – with a unique, satirical spin. The publisher will have a special episode of its popular animated series “The Champions,” as well as a new, shorter-format show called “Champions Chat” and quick skits to keep up with the games.

During the last World Cup tournament in 2018, Bleacher Report’s soccer vertical B/R Football didn’t have a YouTube channel. TikTok didn’t exist in its current form, and Instagram was still mainly a photo-sharing app. Content created around the last World Cup was focused on images.

So why is Bleacher Report turning to animation this time around? “We’re known for it,” said Lee Walker, senior director of B/R Football brand strategy. And social platforms are pushing video more than ever, with TikTok, Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts, he added. 

Animation content sees a 72% lift in cross-platform engagements (shares, likes and comments) per post compared to other B/R Football content, a Bleacher Report spokesperson said, citing internal figures. Animation content makes up eight of the 10 most engaged posts for B/R Football in 2022, they added.

It also sets B/R Football apart from all the “clutter” and “lots of content” that will surround the World Cup, said Brian Quarles, chief creative officer at sports marketing agency rEvolution.

However, none of the new animated content for the World Cup has a sponsor. It’s also expensive to produce. While Walker and the spokesperson declined to say how much it costs to create the animations, Walker said it is “more of our premium programming that we produce and with that comes a cost.” The cost is justified, in their view, because it has a “long shelf-life” and is their most popular content. Previous seasons of “The Champions” did have sponsors, including Playstation for season three and Hotels.com for season four.

Given the rise of streaming platforms since 2018, viewers will have more options to watch World Cup soccer matches, which kick off on Nov. 20. 56% of those surveyed in the U.S. by Insider Intelligence will watch the games via linear TV. NBCUniversal will air more than 2,000 hours of coverage of the World Cup across Telemundo, Universo, Peacock, TelemundoDeportes.com and Telemundo Deportes’ app, according to the broadcaster. The company is pacing to make more advertising revenue for this World Cup than it did for the 2018 games, Adweek reported.

B/R Football currently has 36 million cross-platform followers on social, and rakes in over 200 million video views per month, according to the company. B/R Football had over 1.75 billion video views and 1 billion engagements in 2022 so far, a spokesperson said.

Tubular Labs’ latest data shows B/R Football had 52.8 million views on TikTok, 35.8 million views on YouTube, 20.8 million views on Twitter and 13.2 million views on Facebook in September 2022. Viewers are mostly male and between the ages of 18 to 34 years old. Nearly a third of YouTube viewers are based in the U.S. B/R Football has 4.1 million followers on TikTok and 2.3 million subscribers on YouTube.

B/R Football’s most popular show, the animated series “The Champions,” will premiere a special World Cup episode called “The Champions of the World” at 12:00 p.m. ET on Nov. 18 on YouTube, the B/R app, Twitter and Instagram, with cut-downs shared on TikTok.

The show’s concept is UEFA Champions League players living in a mansion together. Episodes range from five to seven minutes, and parody what happened in real soccer matches and their respective narratives. Its sixth season averaged 15 million views per episode, according to the Bleacher Report spokesperson, with most of the viewership coming from YouTube.

The issue with “The Champions” is the time it takes to produce – usually about two to three months. But with all the news coming out of the World Cup tournament, the B/R Football team wanted to produce animated content in a shorter format with a quicker turnaround time to respond to World Cup matches.

It’ll have two avenues for this. The first one, called “Champions Chat,” will have five, two to three minute episodes, timed to follow each stage of the World Cup. The first episode will premiere on Dec. 2 at the end of the group stage.

B/R Football will also produce 60-second skits that can be created in about 15 hours.

“Champions Chat” is modeled after daytime TV talk shows, Walker said – think “The View.” It will allow the Bleacher Report team to “react much quicker to World Cup narratives that we can’t do in the full-length” show, he said. It’s recorded live-to-tape, and produced by the same U.S.-based, 15-person team behind “The Champions,” including eight animators, two writers, and three producers.

Soccer players’ characters in the show are “pre-animated,” so that they can be manipulated with webcam facial tracking to generate mouth movements matching the audio of the voice-overs, a bit like a puppet, Walker explained. 

The quick-turnaround skits — which don’t have voice-overs — will model B/R Football’s TikTok videos. One of those videos — a comedic spin on players preparing for the World Cup — has nearly 24 million views. The animation-style is a bit simpler than “The Champions,” and is done by an outsourced team (Walker declined to share who the team was, worried that they would get scooped up by “rivals.” But he did say they are not based in the U.S. and have a “time zone advantage” to turn around a video before people wake up in the States). About 20 skits will be produced over the course of the World Cup tournament.

“It’s a mad scramble when the game is going on to hit these social conversations and transfer it into this sort of quick-turn, 60-second animation skits,” Walker said.

The fact that the animations are parodies also means Bleacher Report doesn’t have to pay expensive rights to include famous athletes’ names.

“From our perspective, I think it’s important for brands to find a position to talk about the World Cup or participate in that conversation,” Walker said. “The content that a fan can engage with… it’s about the personalities. It’s being a little bit of a window into the caricatures of these players.”

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