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What broadcast sport can learn form eSports: Imagining a new experience for the digital age

So much of the world’s broadcast entertainment is still stuck in the old world, bound by geographical rights models which have restricted and fragmented how we consume entertainment. And the situation is only getting worse.

It should be no surprise that digital-first experiences like eSports (and video games in general), Netflix and the like have exploded. These more centralised models have been imagined from the ground up as ways to consume bulk entertainment in a more connected, digital age. But even these new mediums are coming up against the same old problems.

Everyone seems to be merely trying to replicate each other’s solutions in search of similar success to their more innovative counterparts who had the foresight to move to these models first. But surely we’d be better served if the powers that be were collaborating and partnering to bring the best product to the market? The reality is, they’d probably realise far greater success for having actually solved a problem instead of being just another broadcaster who’s made their own thing and made the problem worse.

Entertainment is a mess. In Australia this year we’ll have Netflix, Amazon Prime, Stan, SBS on demand, ABC iView, Foxtel, Foxtel Now, Tenplay, 9Now, KayoSports, Ovoplay, Optus Sport, BeIn Sports, Disney+, ESPN+, NBA league pass, UFC fight pass, NFL league pass, RugbyPass…”OK, OK STOP!!” I hear you scream. Shockingly, that’s not even all of them!

If you were signed up to all of these (which is the only way to have access to absolutely everything; every episode, every game – which admittedly no one person could reasonably consume all of anyway) you’d be spending several hundreds of dollars a month just to have access to all the stuff you want. And don’t think foxtel can save you, they’ve lost key content to be able to pose as a one-stop-shop. The situation is completely out of control. The big problem is that people generally can’t get everything they want from one place, or even pick and choose the pieces they want from these services. The result is enduring either sacrifices or exorbitant, disparate associated fees for the pleasure.

What ever happened to building the best experience for the customer?!

To put it into context, if you just wanted to watch the top competitions of southern hemisphere, northern hemisphere & international rugby and football, you can’t do it with any less than 3 separate subscriptions. We’re dealing with disparate platforms and experiences, not to mention an unreasonably costly portfolio of services.

In light of this dilemma, I’d like to indulge in imagining a world where all the best bits are in one place in the hope that someone listens … or gives me the money to find a way to sort this mess out 😉 (NB: I genuinely would really love to solve the hell out of this one). To do this, let’s take a look at eSports in contrast to ‘real world’ broadcast sport to highlight what the traditional broadcast world can learn from eSports to help shape what broadcast sport should be in 2019 with the technology we have at our disposal.

eSports has had incredible success in capturing an audience that was already online, already attached to devices and accounts which contained the target market and already enabled with a multitude of tools that have made gaming and online gaming the gargantuan entertainment medium that it is today. What I’m most curious about is why no one has learned from it and tried to apply some of this to live sports, where there’s a huge opportunity to disrupt a format that hasn’t really evolved in my lifetime outside of upgrades to broadcast fidelity and the ability to access (some) content on demand… provided you’re subscribed to the right things. Snore.

Today, digital products allow us to connect people, services and information in ways we’ve never been able to previously and therein lies the real opportunity for sport. It’s not just about bigger broadcast rights agreements, it has to be bigger than that. Watching TV was never social, now it can be. Playing video games on your couch alone at home was never social, now it can be. You never had the choice of what to watch when. Or what part of what you’re watching you’d like to focus on. Or what audio you’d like to listen to…and now you can. You could never freely chat or video chat with friends and family anywhere in the world during a game, but now you can. But these types of experiences are very few and far between. And in the case of live sports, the pieces simply haven’t been put together.

These are elements that eSports has absolutely nailed, even if it has suffered some fragmentation itself, with multiple broadcasting platforms already existing. In the world of video games I can play street basketball, as a digital version of myself (or fantasy self), with a group of my friends dotted all over the world and chat to them while it’s happening. I can also do that competitively if I want to.

What’s important here is that gaming is hugely community-based and always has been. Sports is community-based and always has been. Sports-Gaming….you guessed it, a huge community-based opportunity and a new frontier for entertainment. It’s the fusion of community, competition, social interaction and entertainment – a holy trinity of human motivation driving engagement.

I can switch on my platform of choice, already logged in, jump onto twitch or mixer, create a party with friends and watch all the action of an esports broadcast while chatting with my them about what’s going down – even play a video game simultaneously. It’s absolutely awesome and there’s no wonder why there’s already such an engaged and growing audience.

Bringing this into the ‘real’ world of sports, let’s paint a picture of what watching sport at home is today and what it could be with the tech available.

Allow me to set the scene…

This year, the sporting event I was raised to get the most excited for is happening, the Rugby World Cup. Hailing from South Africa, where rugby is borderline religion, the World Cup is the absolute zenith of the game and my most vivid early childhood memory is being in Ellis Park stadium (after being cunningly snuck in by my father and his mates) at the famous 1995 final when Nelson Mandela handed over the Webb-Ellis cup to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar. The world cup has a certain magic. 4 long years of anticipation culminate in the ultimate test; 7 gruelling weeks of consecutive test matches against the best of the best – it is all out war and we live for it! My family and I, along with millions of South Africans and millions of other rugby fans around the world will have our eyes nervously glued to this tournament in September and October of 2019.

But here’s the thing. In the case of my family, who are dispersed all over the world, we’ll all be experiencing it in isolation. Ok, so maybe it’s not SO grim, we’ll likely watch somewhere with friends wherever we are and we’ll surely survive. But in the case of watching on the TV at home, here’s what this looks like today: We tune into the game via whatever local broadcaster has the rights, messaging our observations and outrage at refereeing decisions via a Whatsapp group and listening to whatever audio the broadcaster whips up and maybe follow along with what the general public thinks via social media. What an absolute steaming heap of crap experience.

Here’s what it COULD be in 2019. Please note: None of this is Sci-Fi madness, it’s all tech that’s in existence, easily achievable and based on the key ingredients that’ve made eSports so easy and fun to engage with for people:

I log into a single platform via my TV/Apple tv/Xbox/PS4 or maybe even via my smartphone + Chromecast. Here, my family contacts, watching groups and social accounts are all connected when I login. It knows what I like and the most relevant live/upcoming content is front and centre.

It’s September 21, 2019 and the Springboks are playing arch rivals, the All Blacks, in the first match of the group phase of the World Cup. It’s a critical game which could pave the way for a better draw in the knockout phases and a potential path to glory (NB: I foolishly booked a flight on this day without realising, so this really is a hypothetical dream scenario).

I tune into the pre-game broadcast and connect my family group to it. A webcam connected to my tv switches on and I see little boxes pop up on the bottom on the screen with live webcam feeds of other members of my family, who are also watching the game on their couch together, as I am with my wife. We can see them, they can see us. We can hear them, they can hear us, we can chat. I can connect up my headphones if I like.

I can add a social feed to the screen which automatically sync’s up with the right hashtags for the game. I can amp up the crowd in the sound mix, even isolate the Springbok fan dominated section of the crowd, choose my commentary provider and mute/unmute whatever I like. I can even switch on live odds for the game and have a punt through my preferred provider at any point in the game, should the mood strike. We watch together, emotions on full display, discuss the drama as it unfolds and experience all the magic of the game, truly together.

Think of this in context of, say, the fans on Newcastle United, who are known for their incredibly passionate fan base (I might be slightly biased here). Being able to tap into audio of the home crowd while I’m in my living room, watch online with other magpies supporters, no matter where they are in the world, experiencing each game and the highs and lows of the premier league season as a community. Together. Live. Now there’s something that gets me excited about watching sport on TV again.

This is what sport is about. This is what live broadcast sport can be. This is what it SHOULD be. I can’t wait until something like this can be realised and all the ridiculous and greedy constructs for sports broadcasting rights are obliterated. A truly customisable, centralised, connected, modern platform for experiencing broadcast sport together is what we need, it’s what sport needs and it’s what consumers deserve to get for their hard-earned money. It’s a pipe dream, but I’m a dreamer, sue me.

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