It's in the game

Turner's e-sports league is set to debut in 2016

If you grew up watching TBS, Turner Sports used to mean the Braves, Dusty Rhodes, and those interminable Goodwill Games that interrupted your "Bewitched" reruns for days. Today it's best known as the home of the first two rounds of the Major League Baseball playoffs and for its top-notch coverage of the NBA and golf. Turner Sports is one of the biggest sports broadcasters in the world and works intimately with the biggest sports organizations, and now it's turning its focus from the court to the screen with a new e-sports league.

"As we constantly look to bring the next new exciting sport to the forefront, this is one that came out," Lenny Daniels, president of Turner Sports, tells Creative Loafing about the new venture.

Mainstream media often acts like e-sports are new or obscure, treating them like a weird, cult mystery for your weird, cloistered nephew. None of that is true. There's a massive international audience that streams various e-sports games every day, and if you're under a certain age there's a great chance you'd rather watch League of Legends games online than baseball or football games on TV. The biggest tournaments draw more online viewers than most sports pull on TV, and give out some of the largest prize pools of any professional sport — this year's International, the primary Dota 2 tournament, gave out more than $18 million to its players. E-sports have been thriving online for years, and networks like ESPN and Turner are still trying to catch up.

Together with the sports and talent management agency WME-IMG, Turner will produce a biannual series of gaming events that'll run for 10 weeks each season on TBS on Friday nights, with live coverage airing online throughout the week. The first season starts in 2016 and will focus on the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a team-based first-person shooter made by Valve. "It's easy to understand compared to some of the other games," Daniels says. "When you're talking about bringing this to a mainstream audience who may not have seen this before, you want to be able to explain it in as simple terms as you can, so that made a lot of sense." The production will take place at Turner's Techwood campus studios, and the company speaks big about turning Atlanta into the "East Coast epicenter for e-sports."

Some sports pundits and journalists don't understand the appeal of e-sports. Fox Sports host Colin Cowherd notoriously hates the very idea, often bloviating about e-sports on his radio show and criticizing sports networks for airing them. Daniels diplomatically says he respects those opinions, but strongly disagrees with them. "It is a legitimate sport," he says. "They are athletes. It's teamwork, it's passion; it's all of the things that make up sports. Just because it's a videogame doesn't make it any different than golf, or anything else, for that matter. We're going to show that these are real competitors really doing what it takes to win."

As much stock as Turner is putting into e-sports, the community of fans that has helped e-sports thrive online might not be easily won over to broadcast. "Generally the e-sports community still distrusts the major networks," says Andrew Groen, former Wired journalist and co-host of the podcast "E-sports Today". "When televised e-sports have been attempted in the past they've usually been done very poorly, and then the concept of e-sports was blamed when bad shows inevitably failed. In response the e-sports community had to support competitive gaming themselves for the past two decades, and now it's finally flourishing through online streaming networks. So I think the general reaction is 'Why do we need TV networks? We did it ourselves already.'"

Groen agrees that Counter-Strike was the right choice for Turner's league, though. "Most of the main e-sports are doing great and don't need a Turner, but there's one exception: Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and it's no coincidence that this is the main e-sport Turner is getting involved in for right now. This is an extremely popular e-sport that doesn't have a central governing body. Fans of that game are looking for someone to give them the league that Counter-Strike deserves, and Turner could win some loyalty and good will by doing right by those fans."

Existing e-sports fans might be wary, but part of Turner's goal is to reach potential fans who've never seen e-sports before. As Daniels explains, "there may be people that actually would like e-sports if they were exposed to it." He calls it "a viewership that may not be on Twitch," Amazon's streaming service that's the main home for e-sports. "We're just bringing a whole 'nother platform that allows us to tell stories in a way that they may not have been able to be told before."

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