NBC brings e-sports to Bay Area as entertainment landscape shifts
August 14, 2017
Updated: August 14, 2017 3:59pm
August 14, 2017
Updated: August 14, 2017 3:59pm
Jacob McDowell’s cowboy-hat-wearing purple car soared high into the air to punch a giant electronic ball into the net for the game-winning goal. Play-by-play announcer Caleb Simmons called the moment as if Stephen Curry had just nailed a big three pointer.
McDowell, 20, and teammate Emiliano Benny, 20, formed one of 16 two-member teams that qualified to compete for a $100,000 purse in the tournament’s grand final, which will be held in Santa Ana on Aug. 26-27. First place is worth $32,000.
NBC Sports officials aren’t expecting “Rocket League” to immediately attract huge viewership levels. Rather, the tournament represents the network’s acknowledgment that viewer habits are shifting rapidly away from traditional TV programming to online alternatives.
While just the last hour aired on NBC Sports Bay Area between games of a San Francisco Giants baseball doubleheader, the network streamed all four tournament hours online using its website, its mobile app and the Amazon-owned video game site Twitch. At one point, the telecast drew about 50,000 viewers on Twitch alone. (Numbers for TV viewership were not immediately available.)
“We are not caught up in how many will watch this on TV,” said Rob Simmelkjaer, a former ESPN executive who is now senior vice president of NBC Sports Ventures, a new business development and investment arm of NBC Sports. “For us, regular TV is part of the equation, (but) it’s not the main thrust of our distribution plan. We are playing just as much attention, if not more, to the audiences on Twitch and the NBC streaming apps.”
With the landscape of entertainment shifting — see Disney’s pullout last week from Netflix and its plans to build its own Internet streaming channels for shows, movies and sports — TV networks like ESPN and Turner are already tapping the popularity of video games to chase new audiences.
“I don’t think of us as a TV company,” Simmelkjaer said. “We’re a multimedia company. This is the way you’ve got to think about media in 2017.”
The first dedicated e-sports arena in the Bay Area is expected to open this year in Jack London Square, though the project has been delayed.
The full potential of e-sports was on display Saturday in Seattle’s KeyArena, which hosted the annual international championships of the online battle arena game “Dota 2.” That tournament offered a total purse of $24.8 million and drew about 4.7 million viewers across various online channels — far larger than the San Francisco event.
For its first foray into e-sports, NBC chose a relatively new but fast-rising game that bears some resemblance to a traditional sport than complicated battle games like “Dota 2.” The “Rocket League” competitors battle inside a virtual sports arena. The players are represented in the game by customizable computer-generated cars or trucks that can leap, flip, pivot, bounce and fly to navigate a large ball toward a soccer goal.
In about two years, the game has soared into the top 10 of most popular PC games in the U.S. and Europe, according to the industry research firm Newzoo. It has developed a loyal fan base of about 3.6 million monthly active players worldwide, said Joost van Dreunen, CEO and co-founder of the game industry research firm SuperData Research.
The game could be well suited as a spectator sport for a mainstream TV outlet like NBC Sports because it doesn’t involve a lot of complicated strategy that only players and serious fans understand, van Dreunen said.
“It’s more chill than some of the military shooters out there,” he said. “Out of left field comes this thing that looks more like a toy. It’s just got a vibe and it’s so much fun.”
One challenge for NBC Sports will be to translate “Rocket League” into a broadcast that will feel authentic to the game’s fervent fans online and still understandable to regular TV sports viewers who might be tuning in for the first time, said Stan Press, managing director of digital and gaming for the consulting firm Magid Advisors.
“The game is not easy,” Press said. “There is a learning curve.” But he said NBC was “taking some right steps” toward achieving both.
That includes devoting the same production attention to “Rocket League” as it does its traditional sports broadcasts. Sunday’s telecast was produced by a 25-member crew, roughly the same number as a Giants baseball broadcast.
Moreover, the network brought in several veteran crew members who have collectively produced thousands of baseball, basketball and hockey sportscasts in Philadelphia and Washington, said Michael Prindiville, NBC Sports Ventures senior manager.
McDowell, who flew in from Georgia to team with San Diego State student Benny to form the top-ranked team named SizzleUrCobb, said he’s already making a decent living playing “Rocket League.”
He hopes the NBC Sports exposure helps the game get bigger, although he still plans to continue some online college courses. “Even if it does last a while, there’s no way it’s going to last forever,” he said.
Concord’s Kevin Knocke, the event’s on-air host and a veteran e-sports announcer and producer, said he was heartened by NBC’s devoting its sports production experience to the e-sports industry.
“It’s a harbinger for things to come,” Knocke said.