Photographer: Anna Bizon /Getty Images

Get the Guys: E-Sports Experiment Hits Prime Time, Complete With Wild Wingmen

  • Arby's, Credit Karma sign two-year deal with TBS's new ELEAGUE
  • Audience for competitive video gaming is 78 percent male

As a new professional video-gaming league makes its debut on prime-time TV, three companies -- Arby’s Restaurant Group Inc., Credit Karma Inc., and Buffalo Wild Wings Inc. -- have signed on as sponsors, eager to appeal to millions of young, male fans.

They will team up with the new, 24-team ELEAGUE, created by WME/IMG and Turner. Ten weeks of matches -- a six-week regular season followed by playoffs -- will be broadcast on Turner’s TBS and streamed live online starting May 24. Sony Pictures has also signed on as an advertiser.

Together, it represents the biggest experiment yet for traditional companies in the rapidly developing world of e-sports. Video game competitions have sold out NBA arenas and drawn tens of millions of viewers online, but no one knows whether their appeal will translate more broadly or to a television audience.

Networks and sponsors are willing to spend money to find out whether this is an effective way to reach guys, especially those who might not watch traditional sports. More than half of e-sports fans in the U.S. are between the ages of 18 and 34, and 78 percent are male, according to Nielsen. Most of the TV audience for Major League Baseball, in contrast, is older than 50.

“We want to reach these young men,” said Seth Ladetsky, senior vice president of ad sales at Turner, which has said it wants to lower the average age of its viewers.

Buffalo Wild Wings sees the sponsorship as an extension of its appeal to fans across sports, the company said in a statement. For Arby’s, it’s a natural evolution from a social-media campaign heavy on superheroes and anime. "We learned through connecting with our guests in social media that gaming resonates with them," said Arby’s Chief Marketing Officer Rob Lynch.

Ladetsky wouldn’t say how much the sponsorships cost. The two-year deals include promotion on TBS and digital platforms during the games. Meanwhile, TBS will air fewer commercials, cutting ad time from 10 minutes per hour to eight.

About a decade ago, a handful of cable networks broadcast competitive video game competitions but nothing stuck. As of now, almost all e-sports competitions take place online, on sites like Twitch or Major League Gaming.

Turner and WME/IMG formed their league around Valve Inc.’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, one of the most popular first-person shooter games on the market. A recent CS:GO tournament in Columbus, Ohio, sold out the arena there and drew 71 million viewers online.

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