With franchised leagues becoming an enduring part of the esports landscape in 2020, finding and securing deals for media and broadcast rights was a large part of the esports conversation. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to most live events in 2020, event and tournament organizers turned to online events ensuring broadcasts would continue.
For 2020, YouTube gained exclusive broadcast rights to Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty and Overwatch Leagues, which came with a deal that would see Google provide cloud services for Activision’s online game catalog. Sport One, known for its MMA content but starting to build an esports infrastructure, signed a deal that would create a Sport One esports channel on Facebook. Also notable was ESL and DreamHack’s deal with Blake Broadcasting to broadcast its esports tournaments in the US, Canada, and Asia, but excluding China.
According to Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern, Riot Games is in talks to sell its English-language media rights for League of Legends, one of the largest esports in the world and one of the few in 2020 able to quarantine its teams and run its World Championship in China.
Broadcast media rights have become a major part of revenue generation for major esports leagues as they look to create a sustainable ecosystem and revenue share model that will help teams receive some sort of return on their investment. Before Activision Blizzard’s franchise Overwatch League started, Twitch reportedly paid $90M USD to stream the first two seasons of the league.
Newzoo reports that media rights deals will grow from $100M to close to $400M in 2021 and is in fact the fastest stream of revenue in esports.
The question now becomes, will these numbers stand up in a world still dealing with COVID-19 or a post COVID-19 world? It’s a wager that leagues selling their media rights are hoping sponsors want to take.
If you know anything about the relationship between leagues, media rights, and sponsors, it’s that the one ingredient it takes to make everything work is viewers. Viewers are the key to sponsorship deals that bring in ad revenue and if the viewership isn’t there, neither is the sponsorship money.
Taking a look at a year in which COVID-19 killed the live event landscape, viewership for the online events has, surprisingly, gone up.
The Overwatch League Grand Finals saw a 38% year-over-year growth, with the digital AMA (average minute audience) only side rocketing up 87%. The 2020 finals was the most watched match in the history of the league.
The Call of Duty League broke all of its records as it eclipsed 330K viewers for its championship match, beating the record for individual match viewership that occurred from the previous weekend in a match between the Chicago Huntsmen and OpTic Gaming Los Angeles of 156K.
Electronic Arts got on the viewership train as it saw an AMA of 254K for its EA Sports FIFA 21 challenge with a watch time of over 1.02M hours.
It’s a fact that esports viewership numbers have risen since 2014, going from 204M viewers to roughly 454M in 2019. And while many were unsure about the effects COVID-19 would have on the industry, numbers continue to rise.
What these numbers tell us is that media rights deals will still be a powerful tool for leagues and tournament organizers with substantial audiences to generate revenue. With esports being a digitally native affair coupled with the fact that it is an entertainment product that is more than marginally insulated from the damaging effects COVID-19 has had on other entertainment properties such as traditional sports, media rights will still be a valuable commodity for which to procure revenue in 2021.