Updated with additional NBA2K League viewership metrics.
A recurring response to the absence of live sports by leagues during the coronavirus pandemic has seen organizations team up with media partners to put esports on television.
While early discussions for the likes of NASCAR, MLS, and the NBA centered around how to fill programming holes with established esports verticals, what ensued was a crossover effect: esports leagues and professional sports themselves were introduced to new audiences quarantined at home.
The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, featuring professional NASCAR drivers, averaged more than 1 million viewers over its seven weeks on Fox. NASCAR and Fox are now also credited with six of the seven most-watched esports related events in U.S. TV history.
The simulation racing broadcasts further enabled NASCAR to reach 1.7 million new fans who had not watched a professional race in 2020.
“It’s pretty incredible when you consider that we had the Daytona 500 in February,” Scott Warfield, managing director of gaming at NASCAR, said. “If you had told me in mid-March that we were going to average what we did, I would have asked you where I could sign up. It’s just not why we did it.”
NASCAR’s eNASCAR Coca Cola iRacing Series launched in 2010. In addition to streaming on Twitch, eNascar.com, Facebook, and YouTube, past races have also aired on NBCSN. The network will again air eNASCAR races this fall with pro gamers at the controls.
The Coca Cola iRacing Series and NASCAR’s console-based NASCAR Heat Pro League are off to strong starts this season, Warfield said. Both are expected to be the main beneficiaries of the now-concluded Pro Invitational Series with NASCAR fielding a lot more interest from brand and broadcast partners.
“You feel cheap saying this is an opportunity to leverage the momentum generated from the Pro Invitational Series because we wish we didn’t have it,” Warfield said. “We wish that this whole pandemic never came, and eNASCAR never had its 15 minutes of fame. But we can’t fix that. We’ll do our best to leverage it for the betterment of the whole sport.”
Asked about the future of eNASCAR on linear television, Warfield said talks are happening internally between NASCAR, Fox, NBC, and iRacing, but discussions are in the early stages. NASCAR’s return to action on May 17 drew 6.3 million viewers on Fox, according to analytics firm ShowBuzzDaily.
“I think we are trying to figure out what this looks like two, three, and five years from now,” he said. “There’s obviously something here in terms of what it can do for us as a sport.”
FOX additionally partnered with MLS to bring the eMLS Tournament Special to fans on April 19. The month-long tournament, which involved both MLS players and eMLS gamers, drew 34,000 viewers its first night on FS1. Matches were also broadcast in Canada through TSN.
“This was a true collaboration with Fox Sports. After just two meetings, we were aligned on the concept and execution plan,” Seth Bacon, senior vice president of media at MLS, said. “TSN similarly saw value in the programming and quickly cleared multiple programming windows for the tournament.”
Fox did not immediately return requests for comment.
The eMLS Tournament Special sponsored by Coca-Cola and PlayStation helped the league reach thousands of new fans. Roughly 75% of viewers across North America had not watched an MLS game this year, Bacon said.
The start of MLS’s 25th season marked the introduction of new franchises Nashville SC and David Beckham’s Inter Miami CF. MLS completed two weeks of fixtures before suspending games on March 12. The eMLS Tournament Special concluded on May 17.
“The results we saw, particularly in attracting a different audience, will be something we look at as we evaluate our media strategy in the future,” Bacon said. “With the highest percentage of the millennial audience of any major U.S. sport, MLS’s larger esports strategy has always been an authentic way to connect with current fans and reach new ones.”
Despite having established esports businesses, leagues have largely relied on pro on-field players to bring gaming to television sets. Star power has proven to be a decisive factor, as seen with the NBA’s efforts during the global pandemic.
The NBA and ESPN last month announced a players-only NBA 2K Players Tournament featuring stars such as Kevin Durant and Trae Young. Viewership for the event peaked at 387,000 during the Durant and Derrick Jones Jr. matchup on April 3, according to Nielsen data cited by The Washington Post. Viewership averaged 201,000 on ESPN for the tournament final on April 11 between Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.
ESPN is also broadcasting the third season of the NBA 2K League for the first time on linear television in the U.S. The first telecast on May 5 averaged 40,000 viewers. In comparison, the NBA 2K League averaged nearly 9,300 concurrent viewers during the first two weeks of the season on Twitch, which is up 102% compared to 2019. All nine NBA 2K League broadcasts on Twitch so far this season have garnered 41,000 on-demand views in total as of May 20.
Brendan Donohue, managing director of the NBA 2K League, called the broadcasting of NBA 2K League games on ESPN and Sportsnet in Canada “an incredible opportunity” during ESPN 2’s telecast of opening night of the NBA 2K League season.
“We’ve always thought of this as a global league, so to have the opportunity to bring more fans across the world our game and our league and show them what we are about, it can be a pretty transformational moment for the league,” he said on the telecast.
The NBA 2K League declined to be interviewed for this story.
ESPN said that it is pleased with the audience engagement and quality of programming offered by all the esports the network has brought to fans during the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to the NBA, the network has aired esports programming related to Formula 1 racing, Madden NFL 20, Rocket League, and League of Legends since sports went dark.
“We have seen in the past that sports video games can resonate with our audience and particularly well within the younger demo,” John Lasker, vice president of digital programming at ESPN, said. “We remain committed to serving this passionate and growing audience and consistent with our history of covering esports, we have and will continue to cover the category in the highest quality our fans have come to expect.”