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