EA Sports, the maker of popular video game franchises Madden and FIFA, believes it has successfully capitalized on a significant opportunity to grow the appeal of its esports properties during the coronavirus pandemic.
Without live games, television networks have brought more esports – including League of Legends, Rocket League, and NBA 2K – to television from Twitch and other digital platforms where competitions usually are streamed.
EA Sports has similarly introduced Madden and FIFA to much larger audiences since March, according to Todd Sitrin, senior vice president and general manager of EA’s competitive gaming division.
During the pandemic, EA has worked with media partners to create crossover events featuring professional gamers, celebrities, and athletes to capitalize on the fandom of the real-life sports its gaming titles simulate. This while also televising live and re-aired esports competitions for those audiences.
“The TV distribution opportunity increasing dramatically, along with celebrities and people being at home, represent tectonic shifts in the esports industry going mass market,” Sitrin said. “The games that we produce allow us to build an ecosystem around traditional sports because there is less barrier to entry for fans.”
Major esports have a history of appearing on television. Documentary-style shows featuring Madden and FIFA esports have also reached linear audiences in the past. But not at the rates currently seen with traditional sports leagues on pause.
According to EA, total broadcast hours for FIFA, Madden, and Apex Legends – the company’s other flagship esports property – grew by 250% in April on a year-over-year basis. Programming for the month, which was dominated by the developer’s sports titles, also eclipsed total air time for televised EA Sports content in all of 2019 by 30%.
Examples of recent EA esports programming on television include the FIFA 20 Stay and Play Cup and Madden 20 Celebrity Tournament. Both aired on ESPN’s linear channels. The network also televised the Madden NFL 20 Last Chance Qualifier on April 26 – a tournament for pro gamers looking to qualify for the Madden Bowl, the culminating competitive event for the game. Overall, Madden-related programming represents the most-televised esport on ESPN and ESPN2 between April 21 and May 21, according to the company.
“We’re posting numbers for viewership that are ahead of anything that we’ve ever done,” Sitrin said. “On the low side [of ratings], we’re up 30%. And on the other end, we’re up more than three times our normal output in some cases.”
EA does expect viewership numbers to drop once traditional sports and entertainment options resume. However, recent viewership results indicate that sports fans that otherwise would not have consumed esports programming are enjoying it, Stirin said. Broadcasters’ willingness to air more esports on television will also grow.
“We’re definitely in a moment in time of high viewership, and I do expect it to come down,” Sitrin said. “But it will come down to levels that are higher than what they were before.”