Esports TV History and 2019's Top 10 Programs

TNL Take: Let’s take a step back into the esports time machine shall we (if you like philosophy and physics, a little primer on Fermi’s Paradox on time travel).

In September of 2015 - eons in esports time - Turner and WME/IMG announced the launch of ELEAGUE on TBS which would be the first network to commit to an esports programming strategy.

That was also a time when blowhard Colin Cowherd said “eSports is for booger-eaters”:

Sorry Colin, even back then esports was beating your show.

(Chart: The Next Level, Source: Nielsen)

(Chart: The Next Level, Source: Nielsen)

In July of 2016, ESPN’s networks programmed 18 hours of esports ESPN2 and ESPNU. (For some irony, let’s also not forget what ESPN President John Skipper said in 1994 “Sorry Twitch, eSports Not A Sport”)

Tracking esports TV viewership in 2016 was fairly easy as it was primarily ELEAGUE.

(Chart: The Next Level, Source: Nielsen)

(Chart: The Next Level, Source: Nielsen)

In July of 2017, was the biggest weekend for esports on TV: EVO on ESPN2, Super Smash Bros on ESPN2 and Candy Crush on CBS (OK, Candy Crush wasn’t an esport but was fun to include to poke fun at the trolls).

For a comparison of the massive spike from 2016 to 2017, DisneyXD alone had 63 esports programs:

(Chart: The Next Level, Source: Nielsen)

(Chart: The Next Level, Source: Nielsen)

These were 2017’s, Top 25 esports programs with The CW taking the top spot with the Madden Challenge:

(Chart: The Next Level, Source: Nielsen)

(Chart: The Next Level, Source: Nielsen)

Now that we’ve seen the massive growth, let’s now fast forward to today. Since 2016, esports has now been shown on:

  • ESPN

  • ESPN2

  • TBS

  • CBS

  • ABC

  • Fox Sports


  • DisneyXD

That’s not even counting OTT channels, Ginx TV in Europe and the upcoming launch of the VENN esports network which just raised $17M in funding.

Now that we’ve reviewed the past, let’s look at today. Here are the Top 10 esports TV programs for 2019 so far:

(Chart: The Next Level, Source: Nielsen)

(Chart: The Next Level, Source: Nielsen)

Here’s what stands out for me:

ELEAGUE/TBS: I’m pretty stunned with ELEAGUE’s performance. Remember, ELEAGUE is shown as what’s called the “graveyard shift” for TV - late night on Friday’s. Further, as a cable channel, it’s not even close to the amount of households that a broadcast network has. Yet a FIFA semi-finals - FIFA! - beat Overwatch League’s Stage 1 and Stage 2 playoffs on ABC. In addition, their Counter-Strike Lower Bracket tournament that aired at 12:35AM had the largest % of 18-49 viewers at 51%.

NINTENDO/CBS: This is also pretty amazing. The 3 esports programs that CBS aired were actually a re-broadcast of a tournament that happened in June at E3. Nintendo has performed well as we analyzed their ratings on DisneyXD, which makes sense for the younger demo of the channel. Are the same viewers that watched on digital watching the highlights again or are they new viewers? Potentially a mix of both but no conclusive evidence to show either way.

OVERWATCH LEAGUE/ABC: This one is the most disturbing. Considering the amount of money put into production and featured on a broadcast network weekend afternoons, the ratings should be higher. Is Overwatch too hard to watch? Did ABC not put enough marketing behind it? There could be a lot of reasons but I’ll save further analysis on an in-depth article on Overwatch League’s Season 2 viewership after the Finals this weekend.

“Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'“

-Bob Dylan

Madden Esports TV Viewership Drops

TNL Take: Without further ado, let's jump into the latest esports TV ratings.

Esports TV Ratings (Chart: The Next Level)

Esports TV Ratings (Chart: The Next Level)


TV programming is definitely challenging and even more so for esports. The Madden Bowl, the finals for 2018's Ultimate League, garnered only 128,000 total viewers which was about half that watched the Madden Club Championship in February and a far cry from the #1 program for 2017 with 670,000.

Why the drop in viewership?

There could be several factors for this. First, Madden Bowl went up against the NBA playoffs but didn't get the lead in benefit that ELEAGUE saw a few weeks earlier from the NCAA tournament. Second, while Saturday primetime is better than late Friday nights, the Madden Club Championship was on a Thursday night with little competition. Finally, there was plenty of Madden scheduled throughout Ultimate League's multi-month season starting with Twitch broadcasts on Tuesday's, DisneyXD on Thursday's and culminating in the Finals on ESPN2. Viewer fatigue may have played another factor as well.



ELEAGUE continued it's first reality show series with The Challenger: Street Fighter V and hit just under 200,000 viewers. This type of shoulder content has performed well for ELEAGUE and has made up a majority of their programming for this year. The May 5th edition aired at 2am and we'll see if the Stars Wars marathon provides any viewership lead in.

ELEAGUE Has Highest Rated Show With NCAA Lead In

TNL Take: Why is there a picture of the NCAA tournament? We'll get to that below.

Let's jump right in and look at the final esports TV ratings for Q1 2018:

2018 Q1 Esports TV Ratings (Chart: The Next Level)

2018 Q1 Esports TV Ratings (Chart: The Next Level)


This past week saw ELEAGUE surge into the #1 slot with 413,000 viewers for Episode 2 of their shoulder content "Tekken Team Takedown". When did the show air on the East Coast?  1:50AM.  

How did ELEAGUE see such great performance?

I posted the chart to Twitter and that brought forth the inevitable similar comments.

Well I slipped on a crucial datapoint - the NCAA tournament lead in programming - as mentioned by former The Next Level analyst Jordan Fragen. 

The late night game between Purdue and Texas Tech starting at 10PM garnered 2.7M people and the post game show at 12:40AM brought in 1.4M viewers; which equals 50% retention from show-to-show.

What's interesting is that from the Post Game Show to "Tekken Team Takedown" had a viewer retention rate of 30% - 1.4M viewers to 413K. The 413K viewers would have been the #1 rated ELEAGUE show for the past 2 years also beating last year's Street Fighter V Finals.

This is to take nothing away from the production value of the show or the rabid FGC community but a huge lead in definitely helps.

Was that Tekken/ELEAGUE fans staying up to watch it at that late slot (probably some) or was it a new audience coming in from the NCAA tournament (probably more so)?

If it was more likely the latter, this bodes well for future esports shoulder content on TV helping to find new viewership.

For those willing to experiment.



Unfortunately no data available for Madden's Ultimate League debut on Disney XD which started in February and runs through April.

There have been ~8 episodes that have aired and last year Disney XD aired 60+ esports episodes across a wide variety of content. Those 60+ shows generated an average of ~100,000 viewers per episode; so taking a rough guess, Madden Ultimate League is probably in the ballpark but would need definitive Nielsen data for confirmation.

2018 Esports TV Ratings

TNL Take: Last year saw a huge increase in esports programs on TV with well over 100 across numerous channels.

2017 Esports TV Ratings (Chart: The Next Level)

2017 Esports TV Ratings (Chart: The Next Level)

Let's take a look at what 2018 has delivered so far.

2018 Q1 Esports TV Ratings (Chart: The Next Level)

2018 Q1 Esports TV Ratings (Chart: The Next Level)


Madden continues its run as a very popular esport for TV. Considering that ESPN2's audience is already familiar with football makes sense as to why it performs so well. Even the Madden Club Championship winner Gos stated that Madden belongs on TV and with the ESPN/Disney deal, we will see more programs this year.



ELEAGUE's esports content programming outside of tournaments ranked high in 2017 and remains the same for 2018. The "Road to the Boston Major", a 5 part behind-the-scenes series on teams and their players, has performed well and higher than several programs last year. Episode 1 was against the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony and the remaining 3 episodes should garner 200K+ viewers.

While the ELEAGUE Major wasn't shown on TV, it absolutely killed it on Twitch, setting a new record for viewership on a single channel with 1.1M+ peak concurrents.



Australia's E-League (Photo: Twitter)

Australia's E-League (Photo: Twitter)

There was a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald that caught my eye stating that "FIFA 18 is proving more popular viewing than actual A-League matches; attracted a larger audience than the average ratings for the competition".

Did FIFA esports really beat its traditional counterpart?

Digging in a little deeper was the classic comparison of digital viewers vs. TV viewers, with Twitch grabbing 138,000 viewers compared with the average A-League audience of 119,000. However, assuming 100,000 average concurrent users for FIFA would still be impressive and in sight of A-League's audience.